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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 53.1: Michael Slowik
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Reflections on "Diegetic Withdrawal and Other Worlds”

Michael Slowik, San Diego State University

My Cinema Journal article "Diegetic Withdrawal and Other Worlds” consists of portions of three different chapters of my book, titled After the Silents: Hollywood Film Music in the Early Sound Era, 1926-1934. This book, which will be published in 2014 by Columbia University Press, offers the first comprehensive account of U.S. film music in the early sound era. My article is a distillation of some of the most important findings presented in the book, and thus any reflection on the article is essentially a reflection on the book as well. Still, in what follows I will try to restrict my afterthoughts to issues pertaining to the article. In particular, I wish to touch upon the methodology behind the article, narratives about King Kong’s score that space has forced me to eliminate, and avenues for future research.

The idea for this project began to take shape in a series of Hollywood film sound courses that I took from 2007-2009 as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa. Taught by Rick Altman, these courses focused as much on ordinary and little-known films as they did on canonical films. Intriguingly, the more these courses delved into lesser-known films, the more the standard accounts of film sound history seemed to falter. In particular, I was struck by the fact that while King Kong generally receives primary credit for launching the sound film score, there were a number of prior films scores that had received little or no scholarly attention. Why were these films being neglected? How might accounts of early sound film history be different if these films were included? Exciting by the prospect of breaking significant ground, I wanted to write this untold story of film music history.

Through these classes, I adopted a premise that was central to the project: to adequately tell the story of early sound film music, only a systematic and comprehensive approach would suffice. Focusing on only the select pre-King Kong scores that I was currently aware of would risk falling into the same trap as those who have attributed the birth of sound film music to the well-known King Kong. Ultimately, I created a filmography by consulting every entry in the American Film Institute Catalog from 1926-1934, noting each instance where a music or song credit was provided, and then viewing every available film on my list. The resulting project was based on a viewing of 240 films. I reference only a small fraction of these films in my article, but I could not have reached the conclusions detailed in my article without this comprehensive approach, as it alerted me to numerous films that I would not have otherwise consulted and gave me a strong sense of general period practices. My resulting book and article, I hope, testify to the value of aiming for comprehensiveness in film histories. It can be tempting to treat films of high artistic merit as if they represented the whole of film production from a particular period. Yet doing so tends to distort the true situation, since "exceptional” films often constitute a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of the period’s output. By attending to "ordinary” films along with the better-known films from the period, a richer and more multifaceted account of an historical period can emerge.

Because my article focuses on King Kong’s debt to prior early sound film scores, certain narratives from After the Silents have necessarily been dropped from the essay. For instance, King Kong holds many other commonalities with earlier film scores, including its reliance on musical themes and its interest in representing "native” peoples with music. There are also a few notable ways in which King Kong separates itself from prior sound film music practices. Surprisingly, however, these methods are not ones commonly associated with the classical Hollywood film score. For example, in King Kong the music’s unusually loud volume and its frequent use of dissonant chords give it a musical saliency that exceeds many other early sound scores. Yet classical-era film music is more commonly said to be an "unheard” presence.[i] Similarly, the use of mickey-mousing—meaning the matching of precise image actions with music—is so extensive that it exceeds nearly every other Golden-Age film score. Ironically, the most innovative aspects of King Kong’s score did not find their way into subsequent classical Hollywood scores.

Though my article is specifically aimed at de-centering King Kong from the historical record, it does, I believe, suggest avenues for future research. For instance, my article describes "diegetic withdrawal” and the "other world” approach as it pertains to King Kong and its predecessors, but it would be fruitful to trace these strategies through the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s. As I indicate in the Conclusion of After the Silents, a cursory look at prominent films in these years suggests that diegetic withdrawal did not survive as a regular practice, probably due to filmmakers’ increasing comfort with purely nondiegetic music. However, the "other world” approach—in which music is particularly extensive for exotic settings or heightened internal states—seems to have remained in force through the rest of the 1930s and 1940s. Though the Golden Age featured nondiegetic music in a far broader range of films than the early sound era, Golden Age filmmakers still reserved many of their most extensive scores for films that focused on other worlds. Three major scores from 1935—The Bride of Frankenstein, The Informer, and Captain Blood—are plainly tied to other worlds, and the same can be said for later films like Lost Horizon (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), and The Song of Bernadette (1945). Admittedly, this is based on a selective viewing of films from this period. A comprehensive study of film music in the mid-1930s and 1940s is needed.

There is also much remaining work to be done on the early sound era in general. The transition to sound was a period of considerable aesthetic and cultural upheaval in the U.S., and productive work can be done on topics ranging from the fascination with accents, to shifting relationships between stars and audience, to broader film sound strategies in the period. Valuable resources like the Warner Bros. Archive Collection—a made-to-order DVD collection featuring a cornucopia of hard-to-see films (now also available as a streaming service)—should only encourage future scholarship on this period of film history. Hopefully the future will contain many new discoveries that will help us to more fully understand the fascinating and complex history of the early sound era.

[i] The canonical source here is Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

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