Film music is a contingent necessity. As Hegel described an absolute necessity, and as Zizek interprets, it is a necessity in the form of contingency.1 It has been said that film music originally appeared largely to cover up the sound of the clanky machines which projected the earliest of the silent films.2 The solution for this traumatic intrusion of the real, this contingency to be dealt with, was itself, contingency. Numerous else besides playing a piano could have solved this problem and ultimately did.
Yet the accompaniment of film by music survived beyond the end of its means. The reason that film music survived and flourished, in that Cambrian explosion of diverse enjoyments in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was and is that it represents a flowering unfoldment3 of a deeper necessity, located in the way subjects process reality. In both its historical and immediate form, film music exhibits the properties of a vanishing mediator, a phenomenon which disappears necessarily from the field of its own effects.4 Historically, the accompaniment of film by music was a solution to the problem of clanky projectors, a problem which soon corrected itself, and the live piano player, or small orchestra with harmonium, disappeared from the film experience. What remains to this day is music wrought through virtually every film made. The vanishing mediator is a contingency through which rides a necessity. Yet for the necessity to flourish as such, the originary contingency must necessarily vanish.5
In a more immediate sense this phenomenon still holds. We watch the film and music blares from every speaker, yet it remains, in large, unnoticed in the way that a "normal" musical experience, such as might be had in a concert, is noticed and enjoyed. In a very necessary way, the film music becomes submerged, producing a field of effects, not the least of which is our enjoyable immersion in the movie. To remember back to the most enjoyable parts of the film rarely includes a similar remembrance of the music that accompanied them. Thus the film music often "disappears" from the effect (the memory) of the film/ film music complex.
As such, the phenomenon of film music represents the quintessential postmodern object.6 In Zizek's words, film music “is a chance object of this era of ‘sciences of the real’ which has a more abstract structure to be realized”; an object which has stayed hidden and really only ‘works’ while hidden, yet which “tugs for hermeneutic scrutiny even as it is riven through the most banal of popular art.”
The deeper reality of film music, the necessity which found body in its lucky accident, involves the way the film tries to evoke a sort of temporary and illusive "filmsubjectivity," which closely mimics our everyday subjectivity. To do this, the film must rely on tactics far beyond simply spinning a good yarn. The film experience must imitate in some way all three overlapping dimensions of subjective reality: the symbolic, the real and the imaginary. The method by which this is done involves very heavily the use of film music.
There seems no doubt that films and film music work well together. As has been said, film without music is "deadly."7 There are few films that do well without it (The Asphalt Jungle is a notable exception). There are also numerous examples of films which are ruined by their music. What I am trying to understand is that perfect fusion of diagetic "reality" with the traumatic intrusion of music from nowhere, seemingly from just outside the limits of the screen, the result of which as everyone will agree, is the experience of being "lost" in a film, to have a film "take you over." If one has not experienced this feeling, trust that millions have, as the affective experience of such films as "E.T." and "Gone With The Wind" and "King Kong" do attest. These films rely heavily upon their nearly ideal fusion of film and film music.
Movies represent a sense-system (of both meaning and sensorial phenomenon), like Morse-code and semaphore. What problematizes this analogy is the extent to which enjoyment is tied up in the film experience. We want to enjoy the film.
We desire the feelings represented on the screen. This is why I believe film to be comparable to the subjectivity of "everyday life." We live every day drowning in words, all invented without our consent, and other representations which are rarely our own. Yet through this mess we trudge, wrapping our personality with numerous of these arbitrary significations, all the while striving to enjoy.
Thus it is to the above mentioned overlapping dimensions of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real that we must return in order to understand just how film uses music to ensnare us in its delicious trap.
The Three: The symbolic, the imaginary, and the real (the SIR)
Before diving directly into the ways that film music helps produce approximations of these three domains comprising subjectivity, it might be a good idea to try to understand them.
The SIR are not discreet elements which work in concert or opposition or through any quickly described or apprehended way. They do not precede nor follow one another; they do none of them have any sort of "priority" or "primacy" over the other. They could be said to be three stones dropped simultaneously in a liquid, the interacting waves of each producing a node of negativity between them, the subject. Since we must start somewhere, let's begin with the real.
The real is not, as often characterized, all that "out there." It is not that which is indescribable, or undefinable, nor is it the "ideal" which can never be reached. The real is that which is symbolically unintegrateable to the subject. It is the domain of desire. The intertwined nature of the SIR is here nicely borne out, since The real can be defined as that set of potentially signifiable objects which resist, via the imaginary, signification and integration into the symbolic of the subject. The importance of this domain is manifest in the discourse of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis' main objective is the disintegration of the analysand's (the patient's) injurious imaginary relation to the symptom,8 via the integration of that real into the symbolic register.
The prime example of the real is trauma, such as that produced by childhood abuse, incest, or rape. Trauma is by definition that which is unintegrateable into the realm of signifiers. The real is that, the signification of which threatens to crumble the subject's "world." That which is held at bay so that the consistency of the subject may continue to adhere. Yet this unknowable thing is nonetheless still "there." Lacan was famous for saying that the real always returns. It jumps out at us via contingent, unforeseeable events both internal and external. It could be the infamous "freudian slip" or just some chance occurrence which pulls the traumatic event back out into the limelight.
In this light it becomes eminently conceivable how something which is not "present" such as trauma, can still very much make its effects known, can even be seen as a "cause" of the subject.
The symbolic is the realm of the differential. It is also the realm of Father and his Name, the realm of the Law. It can be perfunctorily equated with language and representation. Essential is the consideration of the alienating aspect of the symbolic. It is a concession to materiality of existence. An order into which the subject must enter in order to survive. Yet it is, at base, arbitrary. Perhaps it is this fact: the concession to an order the systemiticity of which is rooted in chance, which creates the dimension of alienation, "otherness" with which the symbolic is so often identified. To enter it is to leave the imaginary absolute of the mirror stage. It is to be distanced forever, not only from the world of objects, but from one's self, epitomized in the way pronouns are attached identically to all. "I" is a signifier, separate from the "real me" which was there prior to "symbolic" thought. How indeed can this sign, which is dispensed to all, "mean" me, an individual so drastically different from all those other "I"s out there?
This arbitrary factor is the crux of the symbolic. We must be able to attach arbitrary signs to novel experiences and objects in order to survive in the real world. If this were not the case, each individual would be impelled to pore over his/her own psychology to find "just the right" sound to name that four legged creature over there, or that thing over there growing out of the ground. The unfortunate result of this would be an eternal babelization of society. The cure for this dilemma would be to agree on a set of symbols which would necessarily appear to most as arbitrary.
In sum the symbolic "field" as it is sometimes called can also be readily described in relation to its two cohorts.
The symbolic is that differential and penultimately9 arbitrary system of signs and material "marks" which deny the real by way of the imaginary.
As mentioned, the imaginary is the regime of Absolute. It is the realm of Mother. The realm of Love. It is not as its name suggests, the realm of imagination. It has much more to do with the word "image" embedded within it. It could be described as the desiring, embodied vision of the subject. Within this sphere "eye" and "I" become one.
This absolute harkens back to the days when we were babies, who didn't know what we were, or what we weren't. Specifically, it recalls "the mirror stage," the moment when we all at some point set our selves adrift from the "oneness" of baby hood and tried to map that unity onto the differential nature of reality, onto objects and other subjects. Little sattelites of our self began to form around us like planets around a star, or like toys littered around a baby. The form of the imaginary is the binary relationship which is "known" as unity, where the other of the binary is not orbiting me (like a binary star system) but is "in me." This binary relationship is the subjective descendant of that first mirror shift into identifacatory schemes.
The imaginary, finally, can be described as that subjective aspect which occludes the real of the Other by way of a sight-based-binary appropriation of the symbolic.
The imaginary is that part of us that refuses to accept the intrusion of the signifier and strives to maintain pseudopodic alliances with subjects and objects, along lines of sight and through matters of the heart (Frederic Jameson). It searches for knowledge beyond signifiers, for the truest truth, which began to whittle away for all of us from the moment we first opened our eyes, and was whisked into darkness when first we spoke. There is the imaginary's specular nature. This arises as a way to accommodate both reality and the binaries that the imaginary creates. Frederick Jameson describes the imaginary:
"The imaginary may be...described as a peculiar spatial configuration, whose bodies primarily entertain relationships of inside/outside...which is then traversed and reorganized by that primordial rivalry and transitivistic [indistinguishing of subject-object] imagoes..."10 The little Lacan glossary that is blessedly included in his Ecrits defines imago as "the world, the register, the dimension of images, conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined." Bearing these definitions in mind, sight becomes a bridge linking something "out there," be it another person, an object, or even say, a movie, with that "in here."
In a nutshell, one need look no further than Santa Claus. When we are young, he is some sort of minor god, with a heavy parental flavor. He is the one who knows the truth about us, about our desires (the list), and when we are young, we love Santa, even though we've never met him. We've seen him though, untold times. If you asked me when I was six years old to make Sophie's Choice between my parents or Santa, I dread to think what my answer would have been. When we are young, we have an imaginary relationship with Santa.
Older, after discovering the fraudulent nature of Santa Claus, we take up a more symbolic realtionship with him. He is now an empty place, the signification of which can be accomplished just as readily by a drawn stick figure as by a flesh and blood human being.
This is when we delight in letting those younger dupes not yet in-the-know that Santa does not exist but that instead he means. He represents the spirit of Xmas or something like that.
And running behind it all is the real nature of Santa Claus: that he represents a sort of primordial psychoanalysis for the subject, who's imaginary relation to this Love God gets blown to hell in order that a common order of intersubjective relations and signifiers may more concretely hold sway. This is the form of transference in the psychanalytic session. The patient's passion for the analyst is the locus of the truth of the patient's desire. When the patient symbolizes this truth, the deceptive nature of the transference fades, leaving the signifier, the intersubjective crux, in its place.
The Symbolic of Film Music
While preparing for this paper I sent out numerous plaintive pleas to a particular Internet newsgroup called rec.music.movies. This group is populated by a variety of intense individuals, all who love film music in its own right. Some of the postings to this group are by members of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America (to my mind the real Illuminati -- pulling the strings from behind the scenes for years), as well as by individuals and groups which publish periodicals on film music. My question, which I posted twice, but which spurred responses for a few weeks, was: Why does film music exist? The response that I received again and again was along the lines of: "To emphasize/underline the important dramatic aspects of the film.". While I certainly believe this to be in large true, I also recognize that this answer only addresses one of the aforementioned Lacanian dimensions, the symbolic. This is not to undermine the importance of this category; all three must exist with the subject for the subject to exist.
Anything else would be less, or more, than human. But what are the mechanisms by which film music is allowed to underline, to emphasize?
Most of the codes of everyday music were set long before any of us were even born. We learned these codes, just as people in other countries and cultures learned their specific musical codes. In a sense we have formed our subjectivities around these codes just as we have around those of language and Other representations. Yet these codes are essentially arbitrary, as the universal disparities between tonal scales and musical motifs show us. If I were Japanese, I would respond to a markedly different tonal system, as well as to an utterly dissimilar music-emotion triggering formation from that which I tie into here in America.
Numerous musical codes have risen directly out of the fusion of movies and music. In the realm of the horror movie for instance, two musical codes have co-evolved most forcefully. The first of these is the stinger, a high pitched musical "cattle prod"11 which usually accompanies a harsh, sudden change in the narrative.
One only look no farther than the nearest John Carpenter film to find the stinger used effectively, if not unrelentingly. Whether the threat is from Michael Myers (walking calmly into view wearing his painted Kirk mask) or from Christine (as her headlights pierce the darkness), Carpenter's use of the stinger lets us know to be afraid. The startle of the stinger is not only "startling," but also symbolizes the fear and threat posed by the monster. The stinger is a direct representation of the action on the screen by the music. The action is scary = the music is scary.
The other horror music code which has emerged is what I call the sublime, and can also be found in every John Carpenter film. In Halloween (1978), Carpenter uses Laurie's Theme to evoke the chill of Halloween, as Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) walks home from school... the autumn leaves are blowing, children are playing in the distance, Michael is waiting behind the hedge. Laurie's Theme is not scary, it is haunting. Why? There is nothing intrinsic to the music which scares us; there is no discordance, no harshness. It is a minor piece, but if one listens to it out of context, it could easily represent a labor leader stoically taking the fifth instead of representing a psycopathic serial killer who cannot be stopped.
To grasp the efficacy of the sublime use of music in horror, consider Carpenter's most effective use of this technique, found in the film Christine (1983). Arnie's Love Theme evokes far more strange horror than does the previously described stinger, even though the music is tender, touching, the music of someone leafing through a picture album of lost loves, not of someone approaching a murderously possesed motor vehicle. This music does not at all directly represent the horror of Christine, but instead seems to say, "What this music represents is so horrible that representation is not even possible." Arnies Love Theme from Christine, like Tubular Bells 12 in Friedkin's The Exorcist (1972) represents this very unrepresentiblity. The effect is a "haunting" evocation of a realm unrepresentable. Namely, death.
Thus the symbolic dimension is gravely important to the film. It can change the film utterly. What would have happened to "2001" if Stanley Kubrick had not fallen in love with the pretracking of the classical pieces he slapped on the dailies, and had instead stayed with Alex North's original score? This is an example of the arbitrariness of the symbolic order.
The symbolic of film music works in direct and abstract ways, but as Lacan pointed out, it is not all. It is to those other dimensions of subjective experience we now turn .
The Real of Film Music
Film music exists as a traumatic element within the context of the film experience. As to the traumatic nature of film music, let me describe the way I see the film experience. We, the audience, watch a watcher (the camera/film/projector complex) watching the action in diagetic space. We listen to a listener (the microphone/audio tape/speaker complex) which listens to the action, again, in diagetic space. In a sense we experience through the screen to the action. Yet from the screen, only halfway between us and the diagetic realm of the action, emerges this most artificial element, the music, which would, if it were to be experienced in everyday life (exploding from everywhere at once yet from no apparent source and seemingly prescient of our every move), give us cause to very rightly suspect ourselves delusional. One might imagine that the intrusion of something like music would in fact ruin the very closure which it serves to suture. Obviously this is not the case.
Film music works very well against its own, inherently traumatic nature to help lull the viewer into a slumber of receptivity. This slumber is what I call the film-subjectivity--a sort of "fake" subjectivity into which one slips while watching the parts of a film which "take you over." Thus, in part, the film music represents a "cause" of this filmsubjectivity, just as trauma in real life is seen as a "cause" of the subject.
Why is this necessary? Because the symbolic field is, as has been said, not all. The experience of normal subjectivity which the film tries to engender in the viewer is unachievable by the signifying language of film itself. It requires more even than the language of film music to buoy up the lack in the film's symbolic.
Film music has a surplus dimension of a disturbance of the symbolic order of the film,13 it is "the object that cannot be swallowed, as it were, which remains stuck in the gullet of the signifier."14The cause that is film music works temporally in a very similar way to that of the real as traumatic cause of the subject. It does not work in sequential, linear fashion as might be found in the interactions of particles in Newtonian physics. Instead, it reaches the moment of causation "after the fact." The moments of the film experience, similar to the moments of real life, "blur by" much too quickly to be known as they happen. Like everyday life, film is an experience which can be known to the subject only in a retroactive way. The film experience is literally caused by this retroactive integration, moment by moment, of the prior moments of the film, yet the film music resists this integration, it is sublimated, unremembered. If I think back to any film in which I was "swept away" I do not recall the film music, no matter how well I recall the action. Yet the effects of the film music remain in its absence. The moment from which I think back, heavy with the submerged, unremembered music, is the moment of causation of the moment remembered.
It is interesting to note, that, as far as it appears, it is impossible to remain "lost" in the film if one is noticing the music (in the sense of, "hey, that's pretty music.") The music must disappear from the field of its own effects in order to work.
Thus the film experience is a symptom, enjoyable and overpowering, of this traumatic element, which, like trauma in real life, by definition must remain submerged in order for the subject to "get lost" in life, and not be forever perturbed by that unintegrateable thing which went before.
This to my mind goes a long way in explaining the paucity of theoretical interpretation of film music beyond what I consider to be its symbolic aspects. Its status as a "vanishing mediator" necessitates that it not be considered too "deeply" or it will stop working.15
The Imaginary of the Film Experience
Film music acts as the hook upon which a "safe" or "non-injurious" type of transference attaches. In the psychoanalytic session, or so the theorists demand, transference is inevitable as well necessary. The tale which we spin begins to exist partly in us, partly in the Other-analyst, paradoxically thereby entering the imaginary dimension of primordial oneness (the binary, analyst-me), the eternal displacement of which is the vacuum driven motor of the pulsion which is the subject.
But transference is necessary only in that it is something to be shown up, to be broken and exposed. When the analysand (the patient) begins to "grasp the personhood" of the analyst, the imaginary identification is exposed and the analysand sees his or her self as a subject. Only then is the analysand able to answer the question: "What does the Other want of you?",16 and admit of his/her intersubjective reality. Thus the psychoanalytic session is a place where an illusive reality is nurtured and then starved to death.
Movies have it a little easier than that. They are able and encouraged to maintain their illusion over their entirety. It is in fact what one expects to happen when one goes to a film. Yet, is this enough to insure that the illusion will take place? If, in fact, we subjects live and know via the Other, as combinations of "in here" and "out there," if identity is formed in the Other, then where is the Other in the film experience? Is it the person sitting next to you? Is it the people on the screen? No, it is the film music.
The film music plays the part of the Lacanian sujet suppose savoir. -- the subject who, like the analyst (and Santa), knows the truth of the truth. Yet film music paradoxically really does know what's going on. It knows when Freddy is going to jump out of a closet; it knows when any supposedly contingent event is about to transpire. The music infuses all that goes on on the screen with the knowledge of anOther.
The supposed subject of knowledge is instrumental to the mechanism of transferrance. Transference is described by Lacan in the Logic of Fantasy as the breakthrough to a knowledge lost in the forced choice of being (the subject either must "think" or must "be" and this choice is forced by the materiality of existence in the direction of "being," resulting in a submerged remainder, the unconscious). Thus this subject "possesses knowledge the loss of which is a condition of our very being." 17
The transference is the reality of the unconscious, its "truth." It exists on two axis: Love, linked to being, and Knowledge, linked to signifiers and repitition. The transference exists as a prime example of an intense "bridge" between subject and the subject as object, very likely a repitition of the very first of such relations, that with our parents. This is in fact the very mechanism which causes untold numbers of patients to fall in love with their analysts. The patient falls in Love with the Knowledge of the Other. To my mind it is the exploitation of this phenomenon on the part of unethical analysts which has resulted in the recent mass psychiatric phenomenon of "implanted memories."
Fortunately for the movies there is no such ethical quandry dogging their existence. Movies are a place where transference is encouraged, because the subjectivity being manipulated is not our own, or is only partially so. It is never intended to be shown up, or broken, for our intersubjective reality must be held at bay in the interest of the specular binary, movie-me. Now I do not mean to suggest that we as viewers transfer directly onto the music itself. I believe the film/film music couple to be so intertwined thanks to the various means described above, that we transfer in the direction of this knowing Other, onto the only object we can see, the film itself.
Thus the film experience seems to be a location wherein trauma occurs, is repressed, and where a sort of unhealthy intersubjective misrecognition is allowed to blossom. Yet unlike my encounters with Santa, and unlike the psychoanalytic session, this imaginary relation is a gem to be cherished, to be held as long as possible. Few films do this even once in their span. Only the "best" films, which, in large, historically exploit heavily the use of music, are able to catch me up in their trap. These processes hinge on the presence of background, unheard, and largely unrecognized phenomenon which happens to be music, but which would surely be taken up by some other process, say if there was no such thing as music, in order for the shadowy subjectivity of the film experience to emerge.
In a sense this film/film music complex produces an enjoyable neurosis (what neurosis isn't? you ask).
"The problem of the neurotic consists in a loss of the symbolic reference of the signifiers that make up the central points of the structure of his complex. Thus the neurotic may repress the signified of his symptom. This loss of the reference value of the symbol causes it to regress to the level of the imaginary in the absence of any mediation between self and idea." 18
This is precisely what happens in the phenomenon I am trying to understand: the music loses its "reference value" and thereby regresses to "the level of the imaginary," resulting in a "lack of mediation between self and idea," here referring to that which plays, like thoughts, across the screen.
1996 The University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
1 Zizek, Slavoj, The Metasteses of Enjoyment, New York: Verso, 1994. p.35-36.
2 Cavalcanti, Alberto, "Sound in Films" in Elizabeth Weis and John Belton, eds., Film Sound, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. p.100.
3 This is borrowed from the late David Bohm's theory of an implicate order in his discussions of Quantum reality. The implicate order is a more basic reality which "informs" our reality, which is to say, "unfolds" into that which we can detect (particles and fields).
4 Copjec, Joan,"Sex and the Euthenasia of Reason" in Joan Copjec, ed., Supposing the Subject, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. p.44 n18. Her wording.
5 Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, New York: Verso, 1991. p.205-209.
6 Zizek, Slavoj, "Alfred Hitchcock, or the Form and its Historical Mediation" in Slavoj Zizek, ed., Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hitchcock but Were Afraid to ask Lacan, New York: Verso, 1991. p.1-2.
7 Handzo, Stephen, "Glossary of Film Sound Technology" in Elizabeth Weis and John Belton, eds., Film Sound, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. p.410.
8 Actually a fourth subjective dimension which will not be given its due in this discussion, except to mention that the Symptom appears as a metaphor of the traumatic Real.
9 I say penultimately because according to Lacanian psychoanalysis there is at least one signifier, the Phallus, which is the very marker of differentiability itself. As John Mowitt has noted, the notion of an irreducible siginifier may itself be imaginary.
10 Jameson, Frederic, "The Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan" in The Ideologies of Theory, Volume 1, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. p.87.
11 From John Carpenter's liner notes to the Varese release of Halloween, in which he describes how he "saved the film with the music."
12 Jeffrey Dahmer's favorite song.
13 Zizek, Slavoj, The Metasteses of Enjoyment, New York: Verso, 1994. p.30.
14 Zizek, Slavoj, The Metasteses of Enjoyment, New York: Verso, 1994. p.33.
15 This brings up David Bohm's theories again. In the dimension of film music, as in that of quantum physics, the observer is part of the observed system, which is to say, essential to it in a way that procludes their theoretical separation. And, as with the observation of quantum phenomenon, the very act of "observing" film music similarly and irrevocably taints the data.
16 Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, p.119-129.
17 Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, New York: Verso, 1991. p.147-148.
18 Jameson, Frederic, "The Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan" in The Ideologies of Theory, Volume 1, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. p.83.