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Chapter 3 - Limitations in Film

 In the previous chapter, we have looked into how leitmotif can be used to fill in the gaps of the narrative that the image and dialogue leave behind. In this chapter, I will be looking into the practical issues of using this technique in film, the problems it causes and how film composers have modified this technique to better suit the film medium  

I shall begin with another statement from Adorno and Eisler:  

The effective technique of the past [leitmotif] thus becomes a mere duplication, ineffective and uneconomical. At the same time, since it cannot be developed to its full musical significance in the motion picture, its use leads to extreme poverty of composition. Re 26

Here Adorno and Eisler compare the use of leitmotif in film to that used in Wagnerian opera. In his article Star Wars, Music and Myth James Buhler(2000) expands on Adorno and Eisler's statement:

Where film simply takes the signifying function of the leitmotif at face value, severing its link to myth as it were, Wagner uses the leitmotif to put signification, the language like character of music, into play. In other words, Wagner's leitmotifs both signify and resist signifying. Re 27

The point Buhler makes is that opera is governed by the sequence in which the music has a “large musical canvas". Re 28 in which to develop its leitmotif. Restrictive film cues mean that the role of the leitmotif is often reduced to a mere signifier. Kurt London(1936) echo's these concerns: .  

The film, unlike the music drama with its slow development, advances by leaps and bounds, and owing to the short duration of its individual scenes, would not allow the themes any clear growth. Re 29

Although leitmotifs cannot be developed to the same proportions as they are in the Wagnerian opera, there are certain developments that can be made keeping the cue restrictions in mind. Shortening or lengthening the leitmotif is one such example.  

Shortening, often involves extracting a particular segment of the theme, often this segment is the first few notes of the full theme. It is also possible to shorten a theme to fit its cue by adjusting the tempo to a certain degree. Adversely, lengthening the theme involves either slowing the tempo down or adding a few extra bars of variation to the theme. Royal S Brown(1995) gives three reasons why he feels a short motif has advantaqes over a longer more melodic line:  

1.      “The short phrase is easier to follow for audiences who listen with only half an ear” Re 30

2.      The short phrase also serves as a more manipulable building block better suited than a developed theme to the rapidly changing nature of the cinema and its edited flow of images. Re 31

3.      To summarize Browns last point, he infers that melody “has little trouble finding a niche for itself in the conscious mind”. Concluding that vertical movement as opposed to horizontal movements is “particularly inherent in its harmonic and instrumental properties” Re 32

Bernard Herrman was particularly interested in the harmonic and instrumental properties that Brown mentions. E. Todd Fiegel's(2003) analysis of Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951) goes as far as to say that “it is the orchestration that serves the leitmotivic function.” Re 33

Examples of themes being shortened to fit various cues can be heard in the opening sequence of The Empire Strikes Back(1980). We witness a battle between the rebels and the imperial forces on the ice moon Hoth. During this battle sequence, there is not enough time to play Luke's theme/Rebel Alliance theme in its full context. Here, dramatic underscore is required to enhance the action. Instead what we hear are segments of Luke's theme appearing at relevant intervals during the action. Re 34  

John Barry's music for the James Bond films are perhaps the best examples of the method of effectively shortening the main theme. We hear Bond's famous theme in its entirety quite rarely, we are far more accustomed to the shortened four note version of the theme we hear after Bond has formally introduced himself.

Another obvious example of using the shortened leitmotif is in William's music for Jaws. Here the sharks leitmotif can be heard in its full glory in the opening credits and also played at various lengths during the course of the film. The genius of this motif is that it is a 2 note ostinato pattern. As the motif is only two notes long, it is much easier to edit the motif to the various cues.  

Once the leitmotif has made reference to the desired object, character, emotion etc., segments of the main theme can then be used and further developed by changing timbre, rhythm, and harmony accordingly . Bernard Hermann, although often eschewing the use of the long drawn out melodious leitmotif, often used very short, un-melodic phrases as a form of leitmotif, these phrases were often easily manipulated to fit in with the relevant cues and were also easily harmonised due to the ambiguity of their nature. In reference to Hermann's use of shortened motifs William H Rosar(2003) states the following:

Herrmann eschewed the use of long melodic ideas in his dramatic scoring, preferring the more succinct short phrase, which he felt could be transformed more effectively throughout a score... a thematic idea was used not merely for static identification of character, but for psychological enrichment of it. Re 35

It is often more difficult to develop the longer, more melodic leitmotif as cue lengths often disallow this to happen. However this is not true in every case. Often, motifs that relate to emotions can be developed far easier than motifs related to physical objects. This is because emotion is not portrayed visually but psychologically as discussed in the previous chapter, thus emotional motifs need not always have a fixed relation to the often harsh visual cues that film imposes.  

Using another example from The Empire Strikes Back; during the sequence on the planet Hoth, Han is teasing Leia about her affections for him. Although Leia denies these affections for Han, we hear Han and Leia's love theme, this indicates that she is repressing her true feelings for him. At this stage, the theme has just been introduced and consequently is rather undeveloped. Later in the film, as Han is carbon frozen ready to be delivered to Jabba the Hutt, the theme is played in its full orchestral glory, this represents the now unsuppressed feelings that Leia and Han have for each other. The love theme is reprised in its full glory once again towards the end of the film when Han's fate is looking at its most ominous.  

Occasionally, composers have had the good fortune to be able to develop their themes and leitmotif at free will, this occurs when the director decides to edit the scenes around the music. An example of this can be heard in the closing sequence of E.T.(1982) Max Steiner also had the good fortune to have free will to develop his themes for the film The Informer.

When film composers are given this freedom they can develop their leitmotifs in a similar way to the leitmotif's used in opera. John Williams comments on his music for E.T. “At the end, it's kind of a full-blown sort of operatic aria when E.T goes away”.  Re 36

There are certain cases where leitmotif in any form would seem inappropriate. For example in Die Hard(1988) we are exposed to many short and snappy cues where the use of leitmotifs, even in their shortened form could negatively effect the flow of film. In many action films, a more dramatic style of underscoring is often used to heighten the audiences sense of danger and excitement. Film Composer Graeme Revell(2004) supports this argument.

The requirements these days are much more energy, pulse, dynamics in most films, tension, those kind of things, more visceral rather than character. Re 37  

Many leitmotifs used in film have no need of being developed further. William Darby and Jack Du Bois(1990) give an example of undeveloped themes when talking about The Golden Voyage of Sinbad(1974):

Two Principle themes dominate in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad but there is much action music of no particular thematic profile.. two main themes which appear more or less on cue throughout and, together with the less used Mariana theme, are not varied or developed in any significant way, perhaps in keeping with a film devoid of serious dramatic development. Re 38