Over the past several years, a new word has entered the film music lexicon threatening the functional traditions the craft of scoring was built upon. This indiscriminate battle cry was practically nonexistent during the first hundred years of film music. Today, it’s a word carrying a vulgar weight amongst filmmakers and audiences alike.
This is the new evil feared amongst the collective patrons of the film industry, the scarlet letter nobody wants to see branded, and the dreaded angel-of-death for all film scores of worth. At the mere hint of it, filmmakers raise their crossed-fingered hands as if warding off the demon seed of Satan himself.
It has left me flummoxed, perplexed, and downright nonplussed.
What is this new “four-letter-word?”
A quick Google search yields the following quotes…
- “They don’t need manipulative music to express their emotions.”
- “He’s said that older film music is manipulative, like a commercial, with the music telling you how to feel, like propaganda…”
- “The movie is shamelessly manipulative from start to finish…”
Not only is manipulation or manipulative music something that should not be feared, on the contrary, it should be embraced! Why?
For starters, it is the very essence surrounding the function of film music. Telling a story through the use of moving images is an awkward and obstacle-ridden medium. The great challenge which lies in expressing a narrative through film is that the storytellers can not be content with mere observation of their work. As an audience you can’t simply sit in a theater and observe a film. That’s not good enough. That’s not why we love movies. It’s not enough to merely observe the film, we have to experience it! We have to live it. We have to feel everything the characters are feeling even though it may be unrealistic for an audience to relate to them. We have to invest our emotional fortitude into their triumphs and equally empathize with their tribulations. This is essential and none of it achieved without careful and prescribed manipulation.
That’s the very nature of cinema. To ask of your audience a degree of personal investment attained through artificial means. This is called manipulation.
When you’re watching THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1995), are you naturally going to relate to hardened criminals sentenced to a lifetime of captivity for their evil crimes? The average moviegoer will not have the faculties to come close to comprehending this experience. Yet, Thomas Newman‘s exquisite score manipulates and guides our emotional stream of unconsciousness in a way that would not be possible without it. When those convicts drink their beer on the “second-to-last day on the job” feeling like “lords of all creation,” we can relate on such an infinitely profound level of intimacy.
Thank you, Mr. Newman for manipulating me.
When you’re watching E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), are you naturally going to feel Elliot’s profound love for a gangly alien being to the point where your own heart breaks when he’s forced to tell him goodbye. This will not happen without John Williams‘ vehemently powerful score commanding you to do so.
Thank you, Mr. Williams for manipulating me.
When you’re watching GLORY (1986), are you naturally going to feel the overwhelming sense of pride and honor each soldier of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry feels when they storm Fort Wagner? James Horner‘s devinely inspired score manipulates us into feeling such things whereas otherwise we’d be left abandoned to feel far more natural emotions in these situations like fear, anxiety, or sympathy.
Thank you, Mr. Horner for manipulating me.
Granted music is not the only form of manipulation found in cinema. It is the sole job of every contributor to a film, be it costume designer, cinematographer, writer, director, effects artist, make-up artist, sound designer, etc. to craft their magic for the sole purpose of audience manipulation.
This is why I love movies so much. The good ones literally command me to dream, to feel, to aspire, and to inspire. Such unscrupulous control stems from effective music ranging from the explosively robust, to the subtlety fragile.
Opponents of this decree sometimes declare that it’s okay to be manipulated as long as you don’t know you’re being manipulated. Really? Then why go to movies? If you enjoy a movie, you’re being manipulated.
Perhaps when people use the term “manipulative” in a negative context they really mean “inappropriate?” Maybe. That makes far more sense. Inappropriate music or non-functional music can certainly destroy any intimacy built within the cinematic experience. This knowledge is nearly as old as film music itself. I don’t believe, however, that’s the intention behind the use of the word.
The truth is good scores are manipulative scores and good films are manipulative films. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Manipulate me, please!