‘Schubertizing the Movies’ (2002)

NY Times
Schubertizing the Movies
Published: June 30, 2002

IT is to be a summer of synergy, we are told, between the promotion of movies and the marketing of merchandise. Product commercials will push films, and films will trumpet brand names.

You may have already seen the latest television commercial for Lexus. Or is it for “Minority Report,” the hot new futuristic film starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg? “Minority Report,” as it happens, raises another question, not unrelated. Might there be some role for classical music in all of this mutual back-scratching?
Quaint notion. Not that films or, for that matter, car commercials are allergic to classical music. Quite the contrary. But its appointed role nowadays, it seems, is simply to be used, if not abused.

John Williams’s evocative, thoroughly modern score for “Minority Report,” spare, dark and moody, is interlaced with striking snippets of masterworks: the big second theme from Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, which was admitted into mainstream culture so long ago, it’s now dated even as a pop item; an organ arrangement of the Bach chorale known to classical and crossover audiences alike as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” from Cantata No. 147; the lopsided Waltz in 5/4 from Tchaikovsky’s ”Pathétique” Symphony; and the Minuet from a Haydn string quartet (Op. 64, No. 1)
Even by the cautious standards of modern-day classical programming, these examples from the 18th and 19th centuries are a staid lot. They seem especially odd in the context of a glossy action film set in 2054, with a score to suit.

“You feel it more than you hear it,” Mr. Spielberg says of Mr. Williams’s music in notes about the production. He calls it Mr. Williams’s “first black-and-white score . . . more experimental.” But the ear clings to the strains of Bach, Haydn, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, even though the average filmgoer may not recognize them or know that they are classical music.

Why are they here at all? To support Mr. Spielberg’s ”black and white” conceit by dint of their very antiquity? For sheer novelty value, to tickle jaded ears? To add ironic warmth to the cool, cruel climate of a society in which a high-tech precrime police division discovers and arrests potential murderers before they can act? To evoke time-honored humanistic values of the kind that ultimately prevail over authoritarian tendencies in the film, if not in the Philip K. Dick story on which it is based? Or, perversely, are they intended to abrade contemporary sensibilities in the same way that classical music is used at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Pennsylvania Station, to repel vagrants by driving them to distraction?

“I don’t have the answers,” Mr. Williams said in a recent interview. He went on to explain that in keeping with standard Hollywood practice, he had no hand in selecting most of the “source music,” as such extraneous pieces are called, whether pop or classical. To anyone not immersed in film lore, this must come as an astounding revelation in itself: that even so canny and consummate a master of his craft as Mr. Williams is not consulted in the choice of music that will butt against his.

Mr. Williams did choose the Haydn, he added, to give the sense of a radio playing in the greenhouse of the dowdy Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith), the scientist whose work gave rise to the precrime unit. “It seemed to me to be the kind of thing a woman like this would play on the radio,” he said. (By what can only be coincidence, another Haydn string quartet, the “Chase,” reportedly figures in the new Adam Sandler-Winona Ryder comedy “Mr. Deeds,” directed by Steven Brill, with music by Teddy Castellucci.)

For the rest, Mr. Williams could only speculate as to the rationale. The working script, he said, depicted the Cruise character, Chief John Anderton, as someone who liked to listen to classical music and to work to it. (The script mentioned Strauss, he added, without specifying Richard, Johann or any other.) And it is true that the Schubert appears, twice, as Anderton is deeply involved in case analyses, “scrubbing” holographic images projected by his gloves with gestures vaguely resembling a conductor’s.

The Bach is also woven into the plot, supposedly played by the jailer, Gideon (Tim Blake Nelson), on the organ of the mausoleumlike prison. The Tchaikovsky? Who knows? “They are some writer’s conception of what this character might have listened to,” Mr. Williams said of the various pieces. And ultimately, the choice must have been Mr. Spielberg’s.

For whatever reasons they’re there, those worthy composers do their bit, as so often, without complaint. But what, in a synergistic world, is in it for them and for the field they represent? Common wisdom nowadays says that classical music, starved for young listeners and new audiences, should be grateful for whatever bone popular culture sees fit to toss its way. This is the constant refrain of marketers of cheesy crossover records and stadium concerts: maybe classical music can sneak in under the radar, subtly inject itself and infect the listener. Someone hearing one of these pieces (more typically, part of one of these pieces) for the first time may be grabbed and moved to explore the original work complete, and eventually others, too.

If so, the uninitiated have their work cut out for them in “Minority Report.” Near the top of the closing credits, again in time-honored Hollywood fashion, a single line seems almost intended to discourage further curiosity: “Music by John Williams.” Anyone who suspects that there may be more to the matter — after all, there are familiar pop tunes as well — will have to linger another seven minutes, and this after a film running some two and a quarter hours. Finally, after a blur of credits, including “Commercials” (Revo Sunglass Model, AMEX Polynesian Woman, Guinness Man), comes “Songs,” and the musical excerpts are identified, as patrons for the next showing jostle for seats that had been vacated long minutes before.

Even this is better than the situation with television commercials, where classical music is appropriated (and often butchered in the editing) without any acknowledgment at all. The countless pieces now or recently in use include Bach’s Lute Prelude in C minor, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and “Moonlight” Sonata, Copland’s “Rodeo,” Delibes’s “Lakmé,” Grieg’s “Holberg” Suite, Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals,” Satie’s “Gymnopédie” No. 1, Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Tchaikovsky’s “1812,” Vivaldi’s “Summer” and “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s “Walküre.” They represent beef, a mouthwash, sporting goods, lumber, a car, an airline, a credit card, a bank and any number of other products or enterprises.

None of these practices are anything new; every time many of us hear Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, the Lone Ranger rides again. They can obviously do no economic harm to long-dead composers. But for good or ill, they attach new meanings to works. Mahler’s Adagietto and Barber’s Adagio were both conceived with romantic connotations. But since Luchino Visconti’s film “Death in Venice” (1971), the Mahler has evoked last things; and since Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” (1986), the Barber has summoned the melancholy and horrors of the Vietnam War. Richard Strauss’s contemplative “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” or its first minute and a half (who knows the other 32 minutes?), permanently moved from the mountaintop to outer space in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Such appropriations, when they demean or trivialize the music, can erode a composer’s public standing. A prime current example is a television commercial that replaces Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth with the numbing text “Movies, movies, movies, movies, movies, movies, moooo-vies.” At any rate, it is all a little shameless and not a little curious in a culture that otherwise pays classical music scant heed or respect.
Nor, I suspect, is there any significant payoff here for classical music. It may be that hearing a stray lick of Schubert in an anomalous setting like “Minority Report” will steer an unwary X Games enthusiast toward classical music; it is, after all, a great lick.

But that possibility runs counter to my own experience as a latecomer to serious music. Having often heard the odd melody without giving it much thought, I was grabbed by classical music only in my 20’s, when I actively listened to choice examples in a college seminar. Suddenly, after hearing the likes of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” I had no choice but to give them full attention, so compellingly gritty and visceral was the experience. From there, it was full immersion. I soaked up everything available, which was considerable at a time when classical radio stations and record companies still took their self-appointed missions seriously.

The idea that the target audience for “Minority Report” — males, if television reports are to be believed, and younger ones, it seems to this older one — will buy into Schubert and the rest on the spot seems dubious. The ubiquitous Bank of America commercial using the Satie “Gymnopédie” in a romantic setting with a sardonic twist is something else again. But it won’t help any neophyte who doesn’t know or can’t find out what the music is.

In any event, classical music owes popular culture no great debt of gratitude, and American culture owes classical music more. Is it too much to ask the makers of television commercials to identify the music, at least in fine print. Certainly, there is every reason to expect a medium with its own pretensions to art, like film, to treat the musical art with respect and to give prominent credit, above and beyond the legalities, where it is due.

As for attracting younger listeners, you may stand a better chance with a more direct assault. Somehow stir their innards. Do some real head-banging. Coax them into a room with a good recording of “The Rite of Spring,” Varèse’s “Ionisation” or Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” and pump up the volume.