FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Usual Composer Suspects

There was a moment in this year’s Academy Awards “ceremony” where, for the benefit of those alleged millions of worldwide viewers, the camera descended vertically from stage-level at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood to the floor below, drawing down from the tawdry stage sets, past host’s patent leather shoes, and through the floorboards to the hidden world below …

The movement thrums with portent: What lurid secret is the camera about to excavate? What deeds will be exposed to the voyeuristic light of motion pictures? Who and what is down there in the dark?

In the movies Hollywood has churned out for a century now, the cinematographic syntax (cinetax?) has conditioned the viewer to anticipate menace in those soon-to-be-revealed depths:  a lurking assassin; a body already dead or a murder underway; an adulterous affair in progress; a lapdog trapped in the joists; a ticking time-bomb; or all of the above.

At the Kodak Theatre on Sunday evening we arrived not at an illicit romance in progress or a deranged killer sawing up corpses, but at a fleeting shot of the Academy Awards orchestra in the midst of a Romantic riff sawing at their violins. These are hardly goose-bump raising images, at least not for most, but secrets nonetheless.

Until a couple of years ago the Awards’ orchestra was “live” only in a chronological sense:  the band bunkered down a mile east along Hollywood Boulevard in a studio in the Capitol Records Building.  The program would spare a few seconds of its four hours to broadcast a shot of the musicians incarcerated off-site. This was presumably a concession to the union, confirmation—if any of Hollywood’s false-flag magic can be trusted—that the accompaniment wasn’t being provided by a pre-recorded digital file filtering down from the Cloud, or by inmates of a conservatory workfarm in the People’s Republic of China or, worse, by a gaggle of twelve-year olds in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema after-school music program.

It turned out that there were real musicians under there, and that they are mostly women! These female musical forces aren’t exactly legion when you compare their numbers with those of the Vienna Philharmonic. And that celebrated orchestra plays on the stage of the gleaming nineteenth neo-classical temple that is the famed Musik Verein, not jammed into the nearest hole. Then again, the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t admit women into their ranks until 1997. (And we’re now shocked by the acceptance of far-right ministers into Austria’s government?) Halfway through Awards night the camera assured us that the orchestral violin-playing women of Hollywood are busy, or at least five of them are. We could also see that they labor under the direction, not of a man, but of man, Harold Wheeler, the stalwart Hollywood maestro who happens to be African-American. If there are identity quotas in the Academy Award’s pit, then they are being met even if one floor down. These orchestral women are indeed working—and working together!

Above boards the numbers tell a different story. Women have garnered a number of nominations and even several wins for Best Song, though one could argue that this recognition stems from their long-sanctioned role (sanctioned by males, that is) as entertainers: they have bodies that can be ogled, but for centuries have been held to lack the mental capacity for writing “serious” music. It’s one of the oldest and stalest tropes of music history and criticism: song needs a body, composition a mind. Evidence for this interpretation of female success might be adduced in the form of Lady Gaga’s nomination for “Til It Happens To You”—written for the documentary about campus rape, The Hunting Ground.

Confirmation of this enduring prejudice can be seen in the fact that only two women have ever received the Oscar for Best Soundtrack—the more prestigious award that has often gone to those composers coming geographically and/or aesthetically out of the European tradition of Wagner: Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Bernard Hermann, John Williams, among others. Since the category of best original score was introduced in 1935 only five women have been nominated, the two female winners confined to adjacent years:  Rachel Portman for the Regency drawing room pastiche of Emma in 1996, and Anne Dudley for her ironic, post-industrial jazz-funk score for The Full Monty in 1997.

This year the slate of best composers was made up of the usual suspects, all of them male: Carter Burwell, John Williams, Jonny Greenwood, Alexandre Desplat, and Hans Zimmer.  Whatever you call the Oscars— inside job or one big ad for the movie industry that suckers like me somehow think worth watching—it’s the men who are taking home the statuette (that’s male, too, even though, as host Jimmy Kimmel pointed out in his opening monologue he’s got no penis). With that little golden man come the big bucks.

The inexorable Alexandre Desplat took home the laurels for the score of The Shape of Water, a thin and pseudo sci-fi, theremin and glass-harmonica backed, bit of whimsy. He started his speech with a shout-out to his mother: unseen back in France one presumes. She’s ninety years old, Desplat informed us, that is, the same age as the Academy Awards themselves. Where would a great musical mind be without a doting mother or wife?  Desplat then condescended to thank director Giullermo del Torro for allowing his “music to become the voice of the characters.” Only in Hollywood do a few richly-rewarded notes entitle a film composer to such grandiosity; only here do whistle and hoot, a scrim of strings and eighth-note melody, lay bare the deepest truths of humanity.

Even if Zimmer was a bridesmaid for the ninth time (he’s won only once, and way back when for the Lion King), the ubiquitous German, whose Dunkirk score garnered him his tenth nomination, was himself the star of a slick Walmart ad, which, improbably, finds him suffering from block in his home studio. The fabulously prolific German can only manage to plunk out on his electronic keyboard a fragment of a naïve melody he’s composing for a scene screening on the monitor in front of him: it’s a shot up the skirt of a woman on a bicycle riding towards the camera.  (Is this a hidden critique of male hegemony and Weinsteinian lechery by the successful and respected Hollywood director Nancy Meyers, sneaked past the prudes and opportunists at Walmart? One doubts it.) Uncharacteristically Zimmer just can’t close the deal on this thumb-sucking tune as his producer and the ethnically diverse quartet of session musicians pace and slump in the hallway outside. A Walmart box miraculously arrives, like Manna from the heavenly distribution center. The Indian sage percussionist with the requisite long, gray beard and homespun headgear starts doing a tabla routine on its resonant body as he delivers it to Zimmer in his studio. The other musicians follow, and this influx of colorful humanity jostles the composer into completing his melody as all join in. They’re all male except for, that’s right, the violinist, who takes up a position at the back of the proceedings: the men, as usual front and center.

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Glenn Sacks
Teachers Strike Dispatch #8: New Independent Study Confirms LAUSD Has the Money to Meet UTLA’s Demands
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail