Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s

By Andersen, Leslie N. | Notes, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s


Andersen, Leslie N., Notes


Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s. By Annette Davison. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series.) [x, 221 p. ISBN: 0-75460-5825. $69.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

"[I]n their attempts to show how movies purportedly mystify spectators," argues Noël Carroll in Mystifying Movies: Fads & Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 2), "contemporary film theorists, in fact, mystify our understanding of cinema." Carroll's comments adequately describe the end result of Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s, a new title in Ashgate's Popular and Folk Music Series. The stated mission of the series is to present music "in cultural context, and may draw upon methodologies and theories developed in cultural studies, semiotics, poststructuralism, psychology and sociology." Davison's book is not primarily about film music but rather about how it can be construed in the context of film theory. The analysis of film scores as a musical form is not found here. Because of this, it rightly should be cataloged in PN 1995.7 (Motion pictures-Sound effects) instead of ML 2075 (Motion picture music-Analysis, appreciation, or Motion picture musicHistory and criticism).

A working knowledge of film theory is really needed to adequately understand this difficult text, something that most musicians are not likely to possess. Although Robynn Stilwell, quoted on the dust jacket of the book, states that "[the book] will be an excellent foundation for any student in the field" only those with a strong background in film theory will be served or, more precisely, a background mostly in yesteryear's film theory, rather than more recent alternative theories advanced in the past decade and a half, as found in Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, eds. [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996]).

Davison makes a distinction between classical Hollywood scoring practices, defined as "a set of structural conventions originally institutionalized as a set of filmmaking practices in the 1930s and 1940s" (p. 2) and non-Hollywood practices, described as "film soundtrack composition" or "alternative scoring," presumably to mean any music that does not adhere to the form of the "traditional" orchestral film score. Hence pre-existing music (not originally composed for the film), and sound effects used as music, or vice versa, fit this definition.

Terminology is a problem in this book. Davison describes this type of research early on as "film musicology" (p. 1 ) without a definition as to what this is. Is "film musicology" the musicology of film or the study of film music? Davison assumes that the reader understands what this term means without documenting its origin. "Sound track" is another word used copiously throughout the book without acknowledging that the word has more than one meaning. In cinema parlance, "sound track" refers to the part of the physical film that carries the sound recording. It can also mean the commercially-available recording of the music from a film. Davison assumes that the reader knows she is using the film theory definition of the word meaning all of the sound in a film.

Another assumption Davison makes concerns the distinction between the "dominant scoring practice of Hollywood films made between the mid-1930s and the early 1950s." (p. 1) and "the re-emergence of classical scoring in the mid-to-late 1970s." Although it is undeniably true that movies and moviemaking "changed" after the studio system was broken up in the late 1950s, it does not necessarily follow that "classical scoring" was simply abandoned until the 1970s. A cursory survey of the creative output of a number of film composers active during this period belies this, and instead shows that traditional scores continued to be the mainstay, written by the likes of John Addison, Elmer Bernstein, Georges Delerue, Hugo Friedhofer, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Bronislaw Kaper, Maurice Jarre, Ennio Morricone, Alfred Newman, Alex North, André Previn, Leonard Rosenman, Nino Rota, Miklos Rozsa, Masaru Satô, and Dimitri Tiomkin, to name just the more familiar names, as there were many others.

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