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Chapter 2: The Narrator

 We have seen in the previous chapter how the technique of leitmotif was borrowed from opera and adapted to film. But just how successful was this transition? Did the technique used so effectively in opera adapt well to this new medium? Adorno and Eisler(1951) digress:

Here [in cinema] the function of the leitmotif has been reduced to the level of a musical lackey, who announces his master with an important air even though the eminent personage is clearly recognizable to everyone. Re 16

Adorno and Eisler's views are echoed by Dan Hobgood(1999):

Oppositely, in the "leitmotif" tradition, motifs appear here, and motifs appear there...depending upon whom and/or what is happening on-screen. That, in general, is what the "leitmotif" composer does--tell the viewer what they are already seeing, rather than inform the viewer about that which it is that they cannot. Re 17

Justin London(2000) recognises that the “present indicative is the only tense/mood that a leitmotif can take". Re 18 but he also realises that “it is a very useful and powerful one in narrative-dramatic contexts”. London goes on to explain the various role a leitmotif can have in developing the narrative:

A leitmotif can... indicate the presence of someone/something that is otherwise obscure (out of the frame, hidden in the scene, in disguise, and so forth) ; and indicate the “psychological presence” of a character or idea. Re 19

Thus London concludes that “various functions are based upon the same referential capacity as a proper name”. Lipscombe and Tolchinsky reach similar conclusions in their findings:    

... we hear a leitmotif but do not see the associated character. The musical sound causes us to anticipate the arrival of referenced character, to understand that a visible character is thinking about the referenced character, or realize that the character is significant in relation to events occurring on screen. Re 20

These statements suggest that there is literally far more to leitmotif than meets the eye. It might be useful to break up Lipscomb and Tolchinsky's statement into sections, and seek some examples that support their findings

Lipscombe and Tolchinsky's first statement informs us that leitmotif ”causes us to anticipate the arrival of referenced character”. Perhaps the finest example of this can be heard in the film Jaws(1975). In Jaws we are constantly aware of the sharks presence through John Willams' use of an ostinato based leitmotif. This tells the audience in non-verbal terms that the sharks presence is eminent. An interesting event occurs later in the film. We see what appears to be the shark, yet there is no accompanying ostinato riff. A few minutes later we discover that it is not the real shark after all, but a couple of kids who are snorkelling with fake dorsal fins. It then becomes apparent that the absence of the music was an indication that there was no threat to begin with. Re 21 This makes clear that the absence of a theme or leitmotif can be just as telling to the audience as the theme itself.

The second statement that Lipscomb and Tolchinsky make is perhaps their most important: “to understand that a visible character is thinking about the referenced character”.Elmer Bernstein(1977) gives a fine example of this when referring to the film Laura(1944).

The mystique was supplied by the insistence of the haunting melody. He could not escape it. It was everywhere. It was there when he was in Laura's apartment. It was there when he turned on the record player. It was never absent from his thoughts. Re 22

The melody that Bernstein refers to is Laura's leitmotif. Detective McPherson who is investigating Laura's death falls in love with the dead girl after glancing at her portrait as he searches her house. The love McPherson feels for Laura is represented by Laura's theme. Wherever McPherson goes thereafter, he is accompanied by the same haunting melody Re 23  

Surely this example proves that not only is leitmotif far more than a simple denotative device to indicate the obvious, but further more it is a vital contributing factor towards the narration of the film.

Imagine you are reading a fictitious book. The narrator can describe visual/physical objects such as a tree or a person etc. but it can also tell you the thoughts, feelings and emotions related to specific characters, or the emotional relationship between two or more people. When a book is converted to the big screen, the visual/physical objects are all to plain for the eye to see. If leitmotif was used here to represent a character or location then its use would be to simply denote the obvious, thus supporting Adorno and Eisler argument.

But it is very often the case that leitmotif does much more than act as a “musical lackey”, In fact, it can often tell us a great many things in relation to a characters thoughts, feelings and emotions that the visual elements can't. As Kathryn Kalinak(1992) explains “image is ultimately limited in its ability to convey emotion“. Re 24 Furthermore through changes in harmonization, rhythm and timbre we can interpret whether character A is thinking of character B in an affectionate or disaffection manner.  

Of course, the referenced leitmotif doesn't have to be a link between two characters. In fact, one of cinema's most famous leitmotifs is one in which the protagonist's thoughts are repeatedly drawn to a certain location. Here I am referring to Tara's theme from Gone With the Wind.  

Finally, we look into Lipscombe and Tolchinsky's last statement. Here they infer that leitmotif can help us “realize that the character is significant in relation to events occurring on screen.”. In the film Ben-Hur(1959), the theme for Christ had previously been established when Christ gave Judah Ben-Hur some water as Judah made his way to the galleys for punishment. Towards the end of the film we witness the death of Christ. Shortly after this historic event, Ben-Hur's mother and sister are both sheltering in a cave from the rain. Previous to this scene they had both been lepers. But now it is evident that they have both been healed of their symptoms So who is responsible for this miraculous act? Christ's theme is played and leaves us in no doubt as to who it is.

From the above few examples, we start to become aware of all the possible uses leitmotif can offer, to link and unify large parts of the narrative, that neither the image nor the dialogue is able to. Re 25