Thursday, 28 June 2007


By Fatmir Terziu
Music can enhance and contradict the meanings of the image. It can be said that music has huge power and often the audience is unaware of the effect it has on them. Frith (1996:135) called music a "tool for communication". The music establishes mood, point of view and tone. It can mirror the action or play counterpoint to the action. As Jean Mitry (2000:250) said "any piece of music used in conjunction with any image acts in counterpoint: sound against vision". This essay aims to analyse how music can enhance or contradict the meanings of the image and to discuss the ideas of Simon Frith, using Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973).
Music develops Mean Streets in vivid ways. It directs the viewer's attention to what it needs it to feel. As Frith (1996:118) says, "music is designed to tell the audience how to feeland what the characters in the film are feeling", with which argument Prendergast (2003:216) agreed, writing that "music can be used to underline or create psychological refinements - the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation". Music enhances similar situation in a scene when, Charlie's best friend Johnny Boy is volatile, immature and gets Charlie in more trouble than he needs. In order for a cue to start and end at precise moment, or to aid placing of a specific musical effect, for example when Johnny Boy walks through the door, bathed in the bloody red light of the bar, shot in slow motion and accompanied by the Rolling Stones Jumping Jack Flash. It was scored with pop music as an interesting counterpoint to violence. The film plays on the genre of the musical, trying to unite the characters through the utopian energy of pop music. These events were carefully crafted.
Music plays on the Mean Street viewers' emotions and can influence how a viewer perceives the visual image that goes with it. It let the viewers feel the rhythm that the characters Charlie and Johnny have inside themselves. For instance, Johnny Boy in a subjective fantasy when imagines himself seducing his fantasy girl rather than just dreaming about her. As Simon Frith (1996:116) puts it, "music is taken to signify feeling". Likewise Phillips (2005:186) said, "the music is used to support mood". For example in the restaurant when Charlie is shouting and his uncle asks him for money, the film juxtaposes visual images with spoken words, using music to reinforce what Charlie's uncle says. Later, music brings surprising meanings in a sequence where Charlie races off in pursuit of Johnny Boy while leaving the epileptic Teresa suffering on the staircase and in the hands of a neighbour.
Music brings something more, something that audience does not express only by images and words in Mean Streets. In sequences when Italian speakers lead by Charlie's uncle in a restaurant or when Johnny Boy comes in the restaurant accompanied by two ladies the images and music provides their "shape" as Frith (1996:112) argues that "the systematic use of certain sorts of music in films can change the meaning of that music". Furthermore Maltby (2003:431) explained that "the use of non-diegetic background music, smoothes over the potential rupture between two discontinuous images". What is so unequivocally brilliant about these sequences is that Charlie and Johnny Boy never has to tell us as much. The music let the viewers feel the rhythm that the characters Charlie and Johnny have inside themselves.
Music in this film has double functions, as Frith (1996:120) said, "film music has taught us how to see, and while film images have taught us how to hear". It can be explained clearly further by the point made by Frith (1996:120) "this is the use of music to tell us where we are; to reveal as economically as possible the basic social and cultural facts of the images we're seeing; place and time, social setting"- which led Mitry (2000:267) to conclude that "music is to create a context whereby one is not sure whether one is hearing the images or seeing the music". Basically from this point the viewers in Mean Street understand that Charlie is an inhabitant of New York's little Italy who is raggedly progressing toward manhood and knows similarity of Johnny Boy, which is the symbol of uncertainty that, like the streets, threatens the picture's world with kinetic violence.
What makes this film extraordinarily affective is the great relationship between the music and the image. There is a kind of inherent musicality to the way moving images work when they are put together. As Prendergast (2003:217) said "music can tie together a visual medium that is, by its very nature, continually in danger of falling apart". The argument is between contradictory atmospheres; for example when Charlie and Johnny hide out in a cemetery or lyricism where the scene is emotionally or physically violent, for example when Charlie and Johnny have a fistfight in the restaurant. As Frith (2004:188) pointed out "music has always been an indispensable element in motion picture presentations". This can be seen in one particular sequence in which Charlie and Johnny Boy stay out all night and sleep in the same bed together. Charlie gets out of bed and goes to the window, where he sees Theresa dressing or in the scene when Charlie and Theresa making love in a hotel room.
Music thinks in relationship to mood and character identification. And it subtly alludes in contradiction or creates a sonic space in this film, creating another larger meaning of interpretation, forcing the spectator or audience to think and feel between the images and its content creating that third meaning. Bruce Horner (1999:179) explained that "popular music's connection to images are varied and flexible as much as they a fixed in and by collective awareness". In fact, Frith (1996:117) goes on to argue that "every scene, situation, character, action, emotion, every nationality had to be expressed in music". In this film music reflects the tension between traditional Italian life styles (the Feast music) and contemporary New York (Be My Baby' is a kind of theme aspects of the film).
Essentially music helped in lightning and reflection of the image culture Mean Streets emerges from. Equally, Johnny's voiceover, which conventionally would be analytical and explanatory, fails to penetrate Charlie's psychology and explain his action, but music brings to attention the fact that they are interesting characters by evoking the atmosphere in different situations, as Prendergast (2003:217) explained "music can serve as kind of neutral background filler". Similarly Frith (1996:115) argues that, "the place' of music in film is usually defined functionally". This film maintains intermixed with rock and pop music, enhancing it with more orchestral colour, by adding rhythm and pulse to the music. Yet while examples of musical allusion crop up in films such as Mean Streets.
The decision to start music at the top of a scene or within a scene is always based on the details of that particular sequence and situations, as Prendergast (2003:250) said "music begun on a bit of action by characters". Similarly Frith (1996:251) argues that "music may, indeed, be used in functional terms, but that does not account for the undeniable ways in which it moves us". The scenes of visual excitement in this film (the bar entrances of Charlie and then Johnny Boy the pool fight, Charlie's drunk scene, Johnny Boy's run through city) make heavy use of non-diegetic music. The utopian unity of the musical ultimately fails to unite the characters in this regard point.
In the last sequence of this film the music was following and denoting the drama on screen rather than exploring and analysing the characters. Peter Kivy (2002:26) said "listeners are in complete disagreement in any given case about what emotive term or description correctly characterises the music". As Frith (1996:112) explained "both sound and image are necessary for meaning making because they have different roles: the music gives us vague' emotions; the images provide us with the occasion for these feelings, their cause and thus their specific shape". Although given a decent theme, the score soon disintegrates to underscoring and atmospheric music and becomes tiring. With heroic and dramatic material, Mean Streets creates two musically contrasting worlds that complement each other and emphasise the drama on screen.
To sum up, the music enhanced and contradicted the meanings of the image in Mean Street. I have clearly analysed this film as an example to discuss with reference the ideas of Simon Frith. I have pointed out that the mood of the music either opposes or emphasizes the visual images that accompany it. Further I have tried to examine the film in detail especially the role of the music. It can be said that music plays a great part in the meaning of a film. In my view the role of music in Mean Street related to the ideas of Simon Frith should not be described simply as an simple element of filmmaking, but as a must have.

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Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

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