I made a remix!, or The Wire Gets Vertigo-ed
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
January 18, 2012 – 05:50
Recently there has been a debate raging within the film world around The Artist‘s appropriation of Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo (which itself appropriates Wagner), and Kim Novak’s poorly-worded attack on this act of cultural borrowing. The best response is to borrow more, as exemplified by Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s video remix contest at Press Play – the goal is to explore how Hermann’s highly emotional score changes the meanings of other film sequences through an act of remix.
I’ve enjoyed browsing the results, which range from examples that reinforce a film’s inherent melodrama, as in the climax of Toy Story 3, to unusual juxtapositions that add emotional heft where it never existed, perfectly exemplified by Jeanne Dielman peeling potatoes, to goofy tonal redefinitions like the credit sequence to The Jetsons. One of my favorites is this brief scene from Mean Girls, where the music both undercuts and reinforces the scene’s actions. As of this writing, there are 65 entries, with the contest closing on Friday – so if you’re inspired, get remixing!
I was convinced by Catherine Grant, who runs the essential Film Studies for Free site, to join the fray. Catherine posted about the pedagogical & scholarly uses of such mashup projects to really understand a film sequence, and contributed her own entry to the project. In browsing the entries to come up with my own submission, I noticed that nobody had contributed a scene from a television show – while the rules specify “a film,” I assume they’ll be open to a television program (which was, of course, shot on film).
I chose The Wire, not only because I know it well and love it so, but also because the series followed strict rules about its use of music: with only three brief exceptions, non-diegetic music never appears in the show until the final montage of each season. There is no score, as scenes are produced to feel as authentic and naturalistic as possible, with dialogue and performances serving providing most of the emotional triggers. So adding a highly emotional (some might even call it manipulative) piece of music to a scene is a drastic transformation. And to serve as this experiment’s subject, I chose one of the show’s most emotionally affecting scenes to get Vertigo-ed:
If you want to contrast, here’s the original unscored version:
What do we learn from this experiment? For me, the score certainly reinforces the emotional breakthrough Bubbles delivers in this scene, but it feels cheaper. One of the pleasures of The Wire is its comfort with silence – many of the show’s most memorable moments contain few sounds – and the lack of music allows the vernacular poetry of The Wire‘s language to shine through more fully. This sequence is in many ways the emotional climax of the entire 60 hour series, as we have followed Bubbles through many ups and downs – just as he has earned his sobriety chip, we have earned the emotional release of his testimonial. The score sweetens this to the point of overdose, making the emotions feel less earned.
Of course, I’ve seen this scene many times, so any changes are bound to feel artificial to me. I’m curious what people less immersed in The Wire might think of these dual versions – what do you think?