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Sunset Blvd Analysis - Matt · PDF fileMatthew Steckler Film Music History Prof. Sadoff...

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  • Matthew Steckler Film Music History

    Prof. Sadoff 10.15.08

    An Eclectic Methodological Analysis of: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

    Director: Billy Wilder Composer: Franz Waxman Overview As it would happen, the classical era of Hollywood culminated in a film that looked back on the industry with a scathingly critical eye. Sunset Boulevard in 1950 had to its motivational advantage a cast of mostly jaded Hollywood casualties, and a director and composer who were self-referentially outsiders. Its theme opportunism and its consequences explores the corrupt side of Hollywood and the exploitation of its greatest resource: people. Billy Wilders vision was catching in the current age we are overburdened with films that take a sharp bite at Hollywood, but none so revealing as Sunset Boulevard, which as its centerpiece chronicles the failed comeback of silent era star Norma Desmond. Escape from death being a prominent undercurrent for many of the films characters, Normas mythically delusional world begets fatal results. Therefore, a creative and well- crafted sense of emotional urgency had to be conveyed through music, and by his efforts Franz Waxman garnered the first of his two consecutive Oscars for Best Score. Waxman had already established a reputation for musical versatility 15 years prior with his music for Bride of Frankenstein (an early example of an orchestral score), so it was not surprising that he used an eclectic approach to scoring Sunset Boulevard. By his sons account, Waxman went to spotting sessions for the film with an open mind, deciding foremost what moods, textures and orchestrations might take place, even before any themes were to be written (he also decided with Billy Wilder, with whom he worked directly - which scenes would have music and which would not). Most of the music had to be timed to fit the demands of the narrative, as Wilders script was very detailed and unyielding, both in dialogue and, oddly, the camerawork. There are some critics, noted by Roy Prendergast in Film Music: A Neglected Art, who even felt that the highly charged atmosphere of dialogue and camerawork in this film rendered music unnecessary, but I would have to disagree. In Waxmans very capable hands, this extensive score has as its strength a propensity for genre- jumping and economy of thematic means that by films end leaves a through-composed imprint on the listeners psyche, almost suggesting emotionally that Sunset Boulevard is an opera for modern times, but with clever hipsterisms. Syntax Waxman liberally chose themes that could be easily manipulated if they were leitmotifs, or simply truncated where convenient if they were lengthy in their full form. The opening sequence, which has been much talked about in film criticism, could be perceived sonically as nearly one unified thematic event, a chase scene before we realize whos being chased. Indeed, its music is a vast resource whose independent motifs Waxman reaches for again and again later in the film. That said, the sequences point of view is that of the narrator, the already dead Joe Gillis, and the first two cells in Fig. 1 contain

  • Matthew Steckler Film Music History

    Prof. Sadoff 10.15.08

    music that are variants of Joes own theme, to come later. In the first cell (Paramount credit), we have a minor triad melody spelled 1-5-b3-8 (in Joes theme, it will play 1-b3-5). In the second cell (Title credit) the motif foreshadows a meaning of Joe in crisis, because in the next instance it appears (10:17) Joe, an out of work Hollywood screenwriter, has just been shunned an advance by his literary agent. The next 2 cells in the sequence relate to Joe as well, from a winding chromatic melody that will reappear next when Joe is chased by bill collectors for his car (11:03), to a one-tone syncopated rhythm that closely resembles the sound of a typewriter. It is only in cell 5 that we are introduced to another character via Norma Desmonds theme, which is really a two-bar leitmotif written in the exotic Phrygian mode. Finally, through the use of tonally transitional material and surprise hits (cell 6) the sequence is able to shift to underscore, and Joes voice takes over as the narrator. This final part of the sequence continues right up until we see the iconic image of Joe face down in the pool (Fig. 2), and it is at this point that we first hear a fragment of a Joe theme in its originally intended state.

    Some attention should be given to comparing the themes for Joe and Norma. Joes theme in its fullest state (Fig. 2 cell 2) is eight-bars in length, swinging hipster in feel, mostly arpeggiated around an ascending minor seventh chord. Normas theme by contrast is two-bars in length, more exotic sounding, moving stepwise in a modal fashion and ending on a descent to the 5. These contrasts have enormous implications for later throughout the film. It is Joes theme that has the best ability to metamorphose, through devices such as transposition, fragmentation, intervallic expansion and contraction, and rhythmic variation. While Normas theme transposes

    D minor triad 00:00:02 Chase/Joe crisis 00:00:14 Winding Chase 00:00:24 Chase typewriter - 00:00:47

    Fig. 1 Opening Sequence Chase Norma+typewriter - 00:00:50 Chase transition 00:01:23

  • Matthew Steckler Film Music History

    Prof. Sadoff 10.15.08

    often and is cleverly extended to create longer melodies, its incipient state is usually preserved in an easily recognized fashion with each re-statement. That said, the two are often ingeniously woven together to chronicle their relationship, and when Betty Schaffers role increases in the second half of the film, her theme (Fig. 4) becomes as much a part of the intertwining musical fabric as anyones. Sound-in-Filmic Time The opening credit sequence introduces the camerawork moving in real-time, its careful survey of a relatively small frame of view being almost hyper-real. Should a great deal of action have been the norm too early, it would not have allowed the crucial chase sound material to embed itself into the viewers memory. We see from the outset a principled marriage of motif to important credit (company, title, main characters, writers, other staff), and at the same time are drawn in instantly to the image of a sidewalk curb that gradually pans to an open stretch of roadway, registering it in our brain for future significance. This is because the accompanying music renders it a sense of urgency that is hyper-real when compared to any other street close-up. [As in Fig. 1]

    00:00:02 [Cell 1: Paramount credit fades in opening 4 note motif spells D minor as 1-5-b3-8] - 00:00:05 [camera follows downward slowly from sidewalk to curb, the departure from a still state to one in motion syncs with 16ths on D played vigorously in the strings] - 00:00:08 [camera still has not reached its first destination but the words Sunset Blvd. come into the frame as three chromatic spikes strike in the brass (see addeundum: Sunset Blvd Thematic Material, bar 5)]

    00:00:14 [Cell 2: Camera fixates on Sunset Blvd painted onto the curb as the first linear melodic fragment occurs: Joes second theme where he is in crisis]

    - 00:00:16 [Camera departs from still state and moves a touch more rapidly toward the road as the final chord in Joes crisis theme punctuates with a sforzando-crescendo and subsequent spike] - 00:00:22 [Main character credit fades in as string 16th undercurrent continues]

    dissolve-> Fig. 2 How We Got Here Joe speaks from the dead 02:22 Joe recounts from the beginning - 02:52

  • Matthew Steckler Film Music History

    Prof. Sadoff 10.15.08

    00:00:24 [Cell 3: Winding chromatic theme over D stated with main character credit in view: an example of pyramid sound building that is orchestrated according to registral characteristics; first with bass clarinet + bassoon; also, the camera has repositioned to a fully backwards retreat on the roadway close-up, from its previously slanted retreat]

    - 00:00:30 [horns are added to pyramid scheme; secondary characters introduced] - 00:00:30 [above horn theme rhythmic quarters on D punctuated by high winds] - 00:00:35 [trumpets added to the pyramid scheme; tertiary characters introduced]

    00:00:43 [Cell 4: Winding chromatic theme winds downward using principally F minor/D as a brief transitional tonal segue while the writer credit is introduced]

    - 00:00:47 [brash timpani syncopated solo figure the typewriter theme - occurs in tandem with writer credit]

    00:00:50 [Cell 5: Normas theme stated by celli in tandem with opening of staff credits; backwards close-up roadway retreat continues; virtuosic piano arpeggiated accompaniment suggests heightened motion, even though the camera hasnt picked up the pace]

    - 00:00:54 [trombones echo the typewriter theme on a single F] - 00:00:58 [1st shift in bass ostinato up to an Eb (bar 32 addendum)] - 00:01:01 [Normas theme restated up a minor 3rd in F phrygian, but trombone

    echo continues to be on F as well (bar 36)] - 00:01:13 [music score credit fades as a consequent phrase to Normas thematic

    antecedent is stated in the celli (bar 40); bass suggests C melodic minor] - 00:01:20 [during director credit a final, quieter pre-transitional variant of the

    typewriter uttered in clarinets] 00:01:23 [Cell 6: Camera pulls out of close-up and the roadways full length is revealed; an A minor 6 transitional brass chord sforzando-crescendos into a heavy low F hit]

    - 00:01:28 [Low F strikes in tandem with the first diegetic sound in the film, a siren]

    - 00:01:30 [Joe the narrator enters, music fades to underscore status] 00:02:

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