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Wednesday 12 November 2003

Movie Music Paper

Celeste Hutchins
Movie Paper

The only thing cohesive about the movie Laura is that there are only two musical themes in it. The other, narrative themes are much less clear. Lydecker, as Kathryn Kalinak points out in her article, is clearly meant to be read as gay. This is most clear in the opening scene, which, Kalinak notes, had a different director than most of the rest of the film. He also plays what The Celluloid Closet called "the sissy" in the scene where he finds out the Laura is not dead, when he passes out. After Lydecker regains consciousness, Carpenter insults Lydecker for his lack of masculinity. In his most forceful and perhaps wittiest lines, Carpenter suggests that Lydecker should get back "on all fours." He might as well called him a fag.

If Lydecker is supposed to be gay, then what is his relationship with Laura supposed to be? As Kalinak points out, Lydecker's characterization, like everything else in the movie was disputed by the committee that assembled the film. The entire movie is just as confused and unclear as Lydecker's motivations and sexuality. The plot has holes in it. The characters never stop to ask important questions (Why isn't Laura surprised that her fiance is not shocked by her reappearance?). The characters themselves are half formed and waver between different archetypes and stereotypes. The only consistent character in the film is the overwhelmingly stereotypical Betsy.

Given this mess of inconsistency, poor writing, and ambiguous plot, it's no surprise that Raskin chose to limit the musical material. The music is the glue holding the disparate visions together as a semi-cohesive whole. Having additional themes might have simply highlighted the fragmentary nature of the narrative. Instead, by having one main theme repeating over and over, Raskin creates connections between scenes and reinforces his vision to Laura's character. Ultimately, Raskin's vision of Laura is the prevailing one, both because it's repetition gives it more time "on screen" than the actress gets and because of it's lack of ambiguity. Laura's character was clearly not resolved by the time the movie was assembled and so in the final version, if judged by non-musical cues alone, she has no real character. Is she virtuous? Is she a victim? Does she deserve her fate? Is she a "good guy" or a "bad guy?" The visual images and the dialog present no clear answer to these questions. She is just a bystander in her own story.

The music, however, changes that. The main theme is clearly and obviously connected to her. Carpenter describes the theme as "not exactly classical, but sweet." This characterization of the theme also accurately describes Laura's character. In the end, she is sympathetic: an innocent victim of bad circumstances who deserves something better. This is entirely a result of the music.

Kalinak describes the secondary, darker theme as being connected to Lydecker. This is much less obvious than the main theme's attachment to Laura. Kalinak notes that the theme often appear where Lydecker does not. She claims this foreshadows Lydecker's guilt. The connection between the second theme and Lydecker was not obvious to me when I was watching the movie. I noted that there was a second, darker theme attached to foreboding events. As a modern viewer, it seemed as if the second theme is sometimes placed with Lydecker to foreshadow his guilt. In other words, I felt that the theme did not belong to an individual, but to a mood.

Attaching a dark mood to Lydecker, also, may not soley be intended to signify his guilt, but also his possible homosexuality. Kalinak notes that unusual instrumentation was used around Lydecker. She also notes that theme heard in Lydecker's apartment is "heard in a predominantly woodwind ensemble." (p 171) This woodwind ensemble may have been used to highlight his sexuality. Kalinak writes, "Certain stereotypes evolved as a shorthand for sexual experience . . .. [T]hese conventions included brass and woodwind instrumentation, unusual harmonies and bluesy rhythms." (p 166) Here she is discussing sexual experience for women. It must also carry weight when these conventions are attached to male character. She goes on to state, "The classical score frequently encoded otherness through the common denominator of jazz. For white audiences of the era, jazz represented the urban, the sexual and the decadent . . .. [T]he classical score used jazz as a musical trope for otherness, whether sexual or racial." (p 167) While the scoring in Lydecker's apartment is not, jazz, it does use woodwinds. Also, the second theme, which may have been attached to him, has unusual harmonies. Clearly his scoring is intended to convey sexual otherness. Woodwinds, while not jazzy in this case, were associated with jazz. Homosexuality was associated with decadence. Thus the music in the apartment theme, in addition to the staging, the dialog and the blocking, also highlights Lydecker's queerness.

The opening scene makes him overwhelmingly gay (as overwhelmingly gay as one could be during the era of movie codes). What then is his attachment to Laura? What is his motivation for killing her? In asking these questions, I am making the assumption that audiences of the time would have been unfamiliar with the idea of bisexuality. If it is the case, and Lydecker is gay, then what does this mean for Laura's character? The implication seems to be that she was sleeping with him. But if he's gay, then obviously, she wasn't. Raskin's concept of Laura was of a good guy and not a "whore," as Preminger characterized her. ( Kalinak p 167) Raskin's participation in the queering of Lydecker adds credence to his vision of Laura as innocent. If Lydecker is gay, then Laura is not sleeping with him and thus perhaps is not sleeping with her other suitors and thus may be a virgin with bad luck. She thus can be "not exactly classical, but sweet" and live happily ever after. Lydecker's motivations are then utterly unclear, but he does die at the end, which is very often the fate of gay characters in older movies. The audience can then go home happy, knowing the manliest man got the girl. The girl is innocent and will live happily ever after without the homo, who got killed. Manliness, honesty (Laura is the only suspect in the movie who doesn't lie constantly), heterosexuality, and virginity thus triumph. The movie ends with a reminder to buy war bonds. With our values, how can we lose?

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