Monday, July 18, 2011

American Beauty: Marimbas, Time Dilation, and the Who

First of all, yes, this is moving backwards in the alphabet. That's because I acquired this CD since I took the blog on hiatus last September (thanks to the super-cool MaryAnn Johanson of FlickFilosopher for selling me a stack of used soundtrack CDs), and I'm backtracking to include it -- I couldn't very well skip this critical contribution to film scoring history.

My first exposure to American Beauty was its brilliantly crafted trailer, which I recall seeing in a movie theatre sometime during the summer of 1999. With its mantra of "look closer," glimpses of its prickly sense of humor, and the combination of fantastical and disturbing imagery, it stuck with me long past the memory of the actual movie I saw that day. I wanted to see this film immediately, because it didn't look quite like anything I'd seen before. And the sound helped, too -- arguably its most memorable aspect was its use of the Who song Baba O'Riley (a.k.a. the "Teenage Wasteland" song) in its second half:

If you don't remember it, you'll just have to trust me that this was an inspired choice for the time. Twelve years later, "Baba O'Riley" has been depressingly overexposed -- still due in large part to the influence of this very trailer, I think. Just as Quentin Tarantino's films were responsible for the re-insertion of several semi-obscure classic tunes into our pop culture*, the echoes of "Baba O'Riley"'s epic rock sound from this trailer continue to bounce through our commercial unconscious to the point of exhaustion. It's been used in everything from car commercials to the "theme music" for one of the innumerable CSI spinoffs, all of which have despicably co-opted and eviscerated classics by The Who, presumably to avoid having to pay a composer to write an original theme.

They're All Wasted

American Beauty came around at a time when raging against the machine had infected the American zeitgeist, at least at the movies. 1999 was also the year of Fight Club, The Matrix, and Office Space. Lester Burnham, the Narrator of Fight Club, Neo, and Peter Gibbons are all variations on the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for the Clinton years. The homogeneous, fluorescent-lit cubicle mazes in which they waste their daylight hours could all practically be the same company, and each character, to varying degrees, ends up questioning the acquisition of brand-name stuff as an end in itself before achieving his liberation from the rat race. (Okay, maybe not Neo; he just ends up discovering that everything's free to begin with in a make-believe world, so bring on the Oakleys and pass the ammo.)

A couple of years later, of course, everything changed in America and our attention turned outward again, perhaps a direction where we're more comfortable looking in the first place. But for a while, before the tech bubble burst and the towers fell, there was a brief flame of introspection, wondering what all the irrational exuberance was about if it wasn't making us happier.

Out Here in the Fields

Into this introspective American mental space came Thomas Newman, with a score so unorthodox and so curiously appropriate for American Beauty that it came to infect the pop culture collective unconscious for a while, too. From the first track, "Dead Already," Newman's unusual instrumentation and endless loops set a scene that isn't quite fully serious but seems truly uneasy. The deceptively cheerful marimbas that open the film are soon joined by a jangling chorus of electric bass, detuned mandolin, electronic effects, ethnic drums, and piano that loop back on themselves constantly. Newman apparently built his score consciously on this notion of looping phrases. The effect both reinforces the seeming stasis of Lester's ordinary suburban home, and creates an anxious tension between incongruous sonic textures.

And like "Baba O'Riley," this unexpected sound rose to popularity in commercial music for some time. The AB score itself was used in trailers and similar sounds were heard in everything from car commercials to TV documentaries. (Commercially available sound loops for generating music on the fly are still chock full of jaunty marimba phrases.) Thomas Newman himself adapted and refined this style in many of his subsequent scores. In some ways it has become his signature now, as in the delighftul end credits sequence of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Let's Get Together Before we Get Much Older

In the case of Lester's fantasy scenes about Angela, Newman's looping score literally expands time, as real life opens into Lester's theatrically erotic dreams. Rattling percussion, chimes, and distorted low-end electronics draw out his moments of unrealized anticipation into a time-dilated fugue state, before he's jarred back into prosaic real time once more -- in this case by the clunky diegetic pep band playing "On Broadway."

Meanwhile, Newman reserves a much more heartfelt sound for the younger protagonists of the film, especially Wes Bentely's Ricky. Ricky's expansion of time is a different and purer sort than Lester's -- he chooses to pause to appreciate beautiful moments in time, as with the famous videotape of the plastic bag floating in the wind. I think it's actually these moments that reveal the fragile emotional core of the whole film, and of Newman's whole score. Newman has a magical ability to create impossible yearning with a piano and quiet strings, as he's done before and since American Beauty, especially in The Shawshank Redemption. In both cases, the piano is reserved for a character who is simply too gentle for his brutal surroundings -- it's the sound of his own heart breaking, inaudible to anyone who isn't listening.

I Don't Need to Be Forgiven

Where American Beauty diverges from the other 1999 movies I mentioned is in carrying Lester's anomie and isolation into his home life. He's the only one of these now iconic characters who has a family at home and therefore the most to lose from his escape from confining cubicles and consumerist conformity -- and perhaps tellingly, he's the one who does lose the most. That separates American Beauty from the male empowerment fantasies that each of those other films represents, and places it into the realm of tragedy. Lester ultimately has more in common with Willy Loman than with Neo. Perhaps that means AB is the only one of these films that really gets it right -- upending your own life and bucking the establishment is not something you can usually get away with unless you're in a fantasy land. That's depressing, but true.

Oddly enough, the music of American Beauty landed somewhere in that territory, too. By defiantly using the music of the Who in the trailer and deploying Thomas Newman's aggressively weird, surprisingly beautiful music, American Beauty won accolades, including a Grammy for the score album, and found its way into all sorts of lesser commercial incarnations as a generically whimsical musical sound. As such, it doesn't sound quite as fresh these days upon repeat listening, or repeat viewing. Even the movie has suffered from some critical backlash in recent years after receiving almost universal praise upon its release. But if you can jettison all that baggage and look with the open heart that Ricky embodies in the film, you can still hear, and feel, the music imploring you to look closer.

*QT's influence is sometimes just frighteningly tenacious. I even heard a string quartet rendition of Dick Dale's "Misirlou" as bumper music on NPR's Morning Edition last week. It's been 17 years since Pulp Fiction re-popularized that tune.

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