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Now that the salt has finally settled to the bottom of the 2012 movie season popcorn tub, it’s time to pick through the recalcitrant kernels and send them back to the molars for last rites. Today I’m rolling around two of them in my mouth: Oscar winner for best picture, Argo and its comrade in imperial revisionism, Zero Dark Thirty. Both movies attempt a recasting of America’s failed foreign adventures, first during the Iranian hostage crisis of the Carter presidency and more recently in the endless War Terror. What I hear when I bring my jaws down on these duds is the final pathetic peep of the soundtrack, a last yelp that reveals the truth behind the films’ lies.
The scores of both movies were concocted by the massively prolific French film composer, Alexandre Desplat. Born in 1961, Desplat churns out his product at an astonishing rate: over two decades of film work he has more than a hundred credits to his name, mostly in France, but dozens as well in English language productions. Nominated for five Academy awards over his career to date, Desplat cranked out six feature film scores in 2012 alone. The range of topics and settings is broad indeed: last year’s offerings extend from runaway kids on a Maine Island (Moonrise Kingdom) to the black site interrogation centers of Afghanistan (Zero Dark Thirty). Desplat reached his widest audience, both in terms of age and sales, with the crowning Harry Potter sequel, composing the music for both interminable installments of the Deathly Hallows of 2010 and 2011. Try as he might to conjure musically the fateful clash of good and evil in those movies, Desplat’s scores evoked little sense of threat or wonder. The driving minor strings and portentous horn lines were mesmeric rather than menacing, rather like Carl Orff trying his best to fight off the effects of an inadvertently swallowed sleeping pill.
Desplat’s tepid musical potions in these fantasy films parallel his contributions to the political fantasies of The Queen (2006) and The King’s Speech (2010); both scores were nominated for Oscars, recognition of Desplat’s crucial musical role in the kind of revisionism he has more recently deployed on behalf of American foreign policy. The Queen recounted how the English monarchy was saved when unctuous Prime Minister Tony Blair convinced the standoffish Elizabeth II to return to London and reach out to her subjects mourning the death of Princess Diana. In so doing, the Queen herself became beloved. In the service of this royalist salvage job, Desplat launched brass fanfares reminiscent of last-gasp Imperialist composer William Walton, throwing in some feminizing harp glissandi and even a few harpsichord snatches in reference to the namesake monarch Elizabeth I.
Desplat’s score for the King’s Speech attempted another bailout for an earlier generation of the House of Windsor—the stuttering George VI ascending to the throne after the abdication of his brother Edward VIII, who had taken up with the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. The King’s Speech presented George VI, in the dashing person of Colin Firth, as a man of peevish resolve, fighting both personal demons and Hitler’s Germany. For this second panel of the Windsor diptych, Desplat reoriented his musical compass in the direction of Elgarian pomp and circumstance. There were many reverent moments of low strings in harmless counterpoint as well as other predictable constructions meant to buttress the sanctity of the monarchy. Ironically, the German Beethoven was drafted into soundtrack duty to do the heavy moral lifting required to transform blubbering Bertie into wartime King. Beethoven’s resolute Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony and the prayerful serenity of the second movement of the Emperor Concerto provided the necessary backbone to Desplat’s slouching pseudo-regalisms. That a Frenchman should have been enlisted for such services probably shows that patriotic pastiche can be best managed by a foreign observer. An English composer inculcated with imperial values from his earliest choirboy days would probably have been less capable of applying the proper bandages to the ailing historical bodies of England’s most recent King and Queen. This pair of early 21st-century films recast the 20th-century as one of triumph for the forlorn Windsors. In spite of the disqualifying fact that he is French, Desplat should be knighted for his service to the crown.
And throw in a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama while we’re at it, because Argo and Zero Dark Thirty try their best to snatch victory from the disastrous and discredited American policies in the Middle East. Argo is a monument to American self-love and self-delusion. Reaching a level of chutzpah breathtaking even for Hollywood, the movie biz gives itself credit for the successful mission to free a handful of hostages that had fled the U. S. Embassy while it was being stormed. No wonder the thing got the Academy Award. A has-been producer (Alan Arkin) teams up with a dogged CIA agent (Ben Affleck) to spirit the Americans out of the country disguised as members of a Canadian sci-fi movie team scouting locations in Tehran. The real story on which Argo is based is put through the Hollywood dream machine and cartoonishly climaxes in a full-on jeeps-chase-jet scene—or do I mean Indians galloping after the remnants of the 7th Cavalry?
Rather than basking in the lush interiors of royal castles, Desplat’s music for Argo shuttles between Hollywood, CIA headquarters in Langley, and Revolutionary Tehran. As travelogue the soundtrack is unreconstructed Orientalism. One blanches at Desplat’s appalling evocation of “the East.” The main theme for the movie, meant to evoke the white hero heading off into the seraglio of the Canadian embassy in Tehran to free the American operatives, is given to a throaty flute serpentining through a mysterious melody given extra reverb as if echoing against forbidding Muslim walls. That hoary musical cliché of the Eastern Other, the augmented second—think the opening lick of Hava Nagila—is as ubiquitous as it is appalling. Argo’s sonic world is exotic and threatening: evil lurks in the snake charmer’s basket, and his shawm might as well be an AK-47 in the way it signifies Islamic terror. Follow Desplat with Affleck into the Blue Mosque in Istanbul for an espionage encounter and listen to the vocalizing Middle Eastern female voice entwined with a sinuous flute, and you might as well be gazing at Delacroix’s Women of Algiers or dancing with Bizet’s gypsies in Carmen. The French have long had a particular talent for caricaturing the peoples of their former colonies and beyond: one-size fits all for Orientalists of their persuasion.
This blatant Orientalizing is if anything even more oppressive in Zero Dark Thirty, if only because the film itself often adopts a kind of faux-documentary style that in turn suggests ethnographically correct musical scoring. But time and again, from brutal Afghan torture dungeons to shots of minarets in Islamabad, plaintive shawms and ethereal digitized voices mingle with the call to prayer to suggest a backward land and its people, unknowable and unknowing. Occasionally the action of the film is spurred on by a bass ostinato reminiscent of Ellington’s Caravan, but with malicious intent, as if the theme of Jaws had been reworked for a killer Camel. The exotic intervals and constant waffling between major and minor modes so characteristic of Western-style Orientalism speaks in the film to the danger and duplicity of both Al Qaeda and the post-9/11 world more generally. When the CIA bin Laden hunters are finally hot on the trail of the arch-villain himself the tom-toms begin to beat—the exoticism of John Ford’s Monument Valley transplanted to Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow’s Pakistan. From Arizona to Afghanistan, the brown-skinned Others are as interchangeable as their music.
The conclusion to be drawn from the Argo and Zero Dark Thirty soundtracks is that the American regime and its imperial filmmakers have as cliché-ridden and false a conception of the Middle East as does Desplat’s music. Only such overweening ignorance could claim victory in defeat and actually believe it to be real.