Most people have been pretty happy about The Avengers. The American Federation of Musicians, however, has a bone to pick with Marvel. Last week the musicians’ union was picketing outside of Disney offices to protest Marvel’s decision to record the film’s score in Europe in order to avoid paying union musicians. If it was an artistic choice, then I could understand, but doing it to save a buck on the third highest-grossing film of all time? Shameful, Marvel. At least these American musicians can take solace in the fact that they didn’t miss out on playing a great film score. But they also were unable to record the accompaniment to one of the film’s strongest scenes that skillfully combined preexisting art music with shocking violence, giving the viewer insight into the film’s villain and placing it into an emerging cinematic tradition.
The Avengers is all-around a pretty great movie, and I loved it. I won’t spend too much time explaining why because there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen it already. The film was released in the U.S. a month ago, and it continues to break box-office records worldwide. As you can imagine, this has all made one squeaky-voiced mouse very happy. There’s a review up at Schlockmania that provides a good summary of what Joss Whedon got so right with this film.
Not everything works, however. The most glaring problem to my ears was the lack of a great score. None of the Marvel films have given us great superhero themes. John Williams’ Superman theme was great and is now inseparable from the iconic character (I really hope we hear it again next year in Man of Steel). Danny Elfman also gave us a catchy Batman theme to accompany Tim Burton’s take on the character in 1989 that outlasted the movie series it was created for, living on in Batman: The Animated Series and other DC Universe animated shows. It would have been great if when the Avengers was released, we already knew musically what Iron Man sounded like, if we already associated certain leitmotifs with Thor and the Hulk. It would have been wondrous if when we saw these characters first come together on screen, we could really listen to them come together as well. Joss Whedon described the score as “like Alan Silvestri kickin’ it up with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road,” “very old fashioned,” and “character specific.” But he’s lying. It’s modern boilerplate blockbuster scoring, which makes it really boring and forgettable. Marvel may have realized this, and still wanting to sell some CDs they decided to release Avengers Assemble: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture. It includes some of your favorite bands like Papa Roach, Bush, Buckcherry, and Soundgarden (aren’t you glad they got back together for this)! Just like how Nick Fury assembled the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to save our planet, Hollywood Records assembled What They Remember From the Nineties to create an album no one really wanted.
It was in the midst of this movie music wasteland that my favorite scene in the film was sounded by a string quartet. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is Thor’s brother and the Asgardian God of Mischief, has arrived in Stuttgart, Germany, for reasons the viewer is not fully aware of. This is the first time we see Loki in human garb, and Hiddleston makes that suit look good. As he descends the elaborate staircase with his cane, we hear the first movement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D. 804, Op. 29. We see that Loki is crashing a formal museum party as the German attendees are all in tuxedos and gowns as they listen to a speaker. With the strike of his cane, Loki’s violent attack begins, the music swells, and much to Loki’s delight, chaos erupts.
This piece, written in 1824 and the only string quartet by the composer published in his lifetime, is sometimes called the Rosamunde Quartet because the second movement’s theme comes from a failed stage play titled Rosamunde for which Schubert wrote the incidental music. To film this scene in Cleveland, Joss Whedon brought in Toledo Symphony violinist Merwin Siu, violists Jennifer Burns (who plays violin in the movie) and Tim Zeithamel, and cellist Renee Goubeaux. So some American musicians did actually get some work in this movie! Instead of just sitting around during filming, they were asked to play the first movement of the piece so Hiddleston could time his cane strike just right. They were on set for fifteen hours and helped contribute to the most musically powerful scene in the movie (Alas, their actual performance was replaced in post-production scoring by non-union European musicians).
After first hearing Hiddleston would return as Loki to play the Avengers’ main antagonist in the film, I was disappointed. He had just appeared last summer as the villain in Thor, and even with an alien army, I feared he wouldn’t be menacing enough to necessitate bringing these heroes together. Then with this scene, the viewer realizes that Loki is crazy or as Bruce Banner puts it, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats.” When Dr. Heinrich Schafer’s eye comes out, Loki’s eyes light up because he sees how killing one insignificant human can create so much mischief. Sure, Loki kind of has a plan, but in the end he’s basically throwing an intergalactic temper-tantrum and making as much trouble as he can.
This scene also works because it falls into a cinematic tradition of accompanying scenes of extreme violence with pre-existing Western art music. The most prominent example of using music in this way is in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Like in the book on which it was based, the film’s protagonist and anti-hero, Alex, loves Western art music and violence. In the film, the music of Beethoven, particularly the Ninth Symphony, is featured as music Alex (initially) enjoys and the audience experiences as an accompaniment to Alex’s violence.
The use of music in this way is very striking. People are familiar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Film-goers knew it before they entered the cinema, so when they listen to it with Alex, everything in the film becomes a little more real. When we hear Beethoven during A Clockwork Orange, it is usually diegetic meaning that both the viewer watching the movie and the character within the movie are hearing the same thing. This further forces the viewer to identify with the character on some level.
Loki has some commonalities with another charismatic cinematic and literary villain, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is an extremely intelligent, cunning, and sophisticated character. In the twentieth century we started calling Western art music things like “Western art music” and associating it with ideas of sophistication and high culture. To truly appreciate the beauty of this music, we have been told, we need formal training. When we see Hannibal Lecter in his cell after being transferred to the Memphis holding facility, we hear that he is listening to the Aria from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This viewer understands him to be a sophisticated individual who appreciates art and beauty.
He then proceeds to murder two guards and take off one’s face, all while listening to Bach. While Lecter violently beats one of the guards, however, the Goldberg Variations are overpowered by the film’s non-diegetic music to accentuate the horror of what is happening. We still know, however, that Lecter is doing all of this while listening to Bach. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk analyzed this piece with a Lecter-like mindset, but he says this use of the music is exploitative. He argues:
Classical music is rarely used in cinema to express the “actual emotion” implied by the work in question. (The Aria is meditative, elegant, plaintive, tender, and not particularly bloodthirsty.) Cunning, evil directors almost always use classical music as an ironic foil, a tool for dissociation. This perpetuates a stereotype: Classical music is unnatural. It is not the music for normal events; it’s for massacres and deceptions of the soul.
I disagree with this assessment in these cases. It’s not just about irony and dissociation. Using art music in these violent scenes gives us a glimpse into the madness of the character on screen. For characters like Hannibal Lecter and Alex DeLarge, killing is elegant, plaintive, and tender. They find beauty in it. And when Loki sees how much chaos he creates with violence, he finds beauty in it too. This is accentuated by the musical transition during Loki’s attack when the string quartet becomes fully orchestrated. No longer purely diegetic music, we are now in Loki’s head.
When watching a film, music makes us more emotionally vulnerable and allows the filmmaker to shock us in ways they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It seems that when people talk about art music today, they speak in terms of beauty. Most of us do not find beauty in violent eye-gouging, dismemberment, and murder, but these scenes make us consider those who do. Recognizing that mind-set through music and film can be quite scary, and good directors are able to take advantage of that.
There are many other examples of Western art music being used to accompany cinematic violence. A few that quickly come to mind are Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, and Italian opera arias in every mafia movie ever. Sometimes this juxtaposition is used for the purpose I’ve described here. Other times there are purely ironic purposes. Sometimes it’s diegetic, sometimes it isn’t. Either way, film directors will continue using this technique for some time. I just hope that the next time Marvel uses it, they also have an iconic score and decide to pay hard-working musicians a wage they deserve.