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Music in film: Emotional manipulation or enhancement?

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To add a little to Takoma's response (which Takoma may or may not agree with),

A positive manipulation is one that I don't really notice or that I don't mind when I do notice it (i.e., it feels fitting).

A negative manipulation is one that I do notice, but because it is clumsy, overt, cliched. It is either a played out magic trick (the woman sawed in half) or a good trick performed poorly or bad (new) trick a trick that pleads with me to do too much work to make it work.

Can a good movie have negative manipulations? Sure. An otherwise good movie can have moments that we groan at (e.g., an all too obvious "save the cat" moment, cliche daddy-mommy issues to stimulate conflict, deus ex machinas, villains explaining they're evil plots in excruciating detail). A better movie, however, will not have these features.



So by "positive manipulation" I mean that (in my opinion, of course) we as the audience have a contract of sorts with the artists who create the art that we consume. We agree to suspend our disbelief--to whatever extent necessary in terms of the story--and the person/people creating the content are essentially curating/orchestrating our experience.

A movie like Hush is probably an easy way to explain this. I know that the movie is about a home invasion. So I go into the film knowing that I will feel stressed/anxious/fearful/angry/upset at different times. But I also know the genre within which the director is working, and specifically I know the "vibe" that I get off of Mike Flanagan. So I am not expecting graphic sexual violence. I am not expecting to see something outlandishly gruesome or upsetting like a child being killed or graphic animal violence. This is positive manipulation because I am experiencing a range of emotions, but I am doing so intentionally and I am trusting to the director to take me on that journey in a way that ultimately I will feel positively about.

This isn't to say that a film can't or shouldn't be surprising. I think that many great movies are able to create shocks to our system that still operate "within bounds" of what we got ourselves into.

So just as when you watch a really good magician you know that they are fooling you, it can still be a positive experience because you are meeting each other halfway. You know it is fake, but you are still capable of being surprised and delighted or even being moved.

When I watch a movie, I am agreeing to let a stranger take me on an emotional journey. Sometimes that journey is really predictable (ie many romantic comedies simply involve watching how the two leads fall in love and rarely end, for example, with them not together). Sometimes as a viewer my parameters are more open, like when I put on a film with no idea of whether the ending will be happy or sad or if the main character will even survive. Music, like any of the other technical elements of a film, is part of how the film guides me along my emotions. And when a score is really well done (whether it is blaring horns or something incredibly subtle), it adds to the emotional push of the film.
Thanks Takoma, you explain things very well and thoroughly...I like how you explained the emotions Hush would cause in you
"So I go into the film knowing that I will feel stressed/anxious/fearful/angry/upset at different times."
I've not see Hush but I couldn't watch it as it would most likely produce those same emotions in me...and I can't set through a movie that makes me feel fearful, stressed and anxious.



To add a little to Takoma's response (which Takoma may or may not agree with),

A positive manipulation is one that I don't really notice or that I don't mind when I do notice it (i.e., it feels fitting).

A negative manipulation is one that I do notice, but because it is clumsy, overt, cliched. It is either a played out magic trick (the woman sawed in half) or a good trick performed poorly or bad (new) trick a trick that pleads with me to do too much work to make it work.

Can a good movie have negative manipulations? Sure. An otherwise good movie can have moments that we groan at (e.g., an all too obvious "save the cat" moment, cliche daddy-mommy issues to stimulate conflict, deus ex machinas, villains explaining they're evil plots in excruciating detail). A better movie, however, will not have these features.
Depends on the film, but for me 'cliched moments' can be like comfort food....However in other films it can seem like lazy film making. One example where cliched moments seemed like lazy film making (to me) was Tom Hanks' new film Greyhound. That movie seemed like 'content' created by studio heads who predicted which actions scenes and dramatic moments would appeal to the target audience.



Thanks Takoma, you explain things very well and thoroughly...I like how you explained the emotions Hush would cause in you I've not see Hush but I couldn't watch it as it would most likely produce those same emotions in me...and I can't set through a movie that makes me feel fearful, stressed and anxious.
Right. It's kind of like going to an amusement park. I could not get on a ride in which I would be really high in the air. Despite knowing that it's a "controlled danger", those emotions would not ultimately be positive for me. (Yes, I'm a Teacups kind of lady).

Fear and anxiety (and other "bad" feelings) in the right doses and in the right context can be cathartic or exhilarating. When a film takes us through those emotions or others (and sometimes pushing us a little past our comfort zone) in a way that feels organic, I think that is the mark of a good film.

When a movie has elements that are jarring or that don't feel as if they flow naturally from the narrative, that's when it begins to feel like negative manipulation. (And the "natural flow" of a film can really vary depending on who is making it. Mandy and Rome Open City both have really compelling narratives, but they progress in very different ways.)



Registered User
Depends on the film, but for me 'cliched moments' can be like comfort food....
That's true. Old tricks get to be old tricks, because they work. An old trick, done well, can be quite welcome. Context counts. Was it fitting to the moment?

That stated, if a manipulation stands proud in an unwelcome fashion, there is a good chance that one will see that that attempt was cliched in some fashion--one too many lazy trips to the well.



"The Phantom Carriage is an excellently scored silent film."

I have to ask the obvious question, whether there was a composed score performed in a theater or whether the music was written after the advent of sound as a later addition.



Like a lot of things in film, in this case music, the difference between music that just gimmicky ornamentation and music that really integrates with the movie, is a continuum. All other aspects, acting, script, imagery, etc are also on a scale too. It's interesting sometimes to see old 1930's movies, since, in many cases, the composer just didn't seem to get it. The music isn't much other than something that sounds like someone left a radio turned to a random station on the set.



The irony is that the question arose when we state it as something that aligned but somehow has a negative connotation.
An intended attempt (or, as enhancement) to draw or dictate the audience's emotion via sensory experience sound complicated though.

the negative connotation in the question i believe has to do with the word choice "manipulate, manipulation", because that generally has some sort of sinister quality to it...Like, there are tons of movies about some "evil" manipulative scheme. I just saw one on Netflix called "Cadaver" that involved some sort of an evil scheme.



Overall, as Tokoma11 points out, we specifically go to the movies to get manipulated. The question wasn't really asked in terms of moral overtones but more or less just from a film critic's perspective, as if the music in a movie can be masking shoddy art work or something. Sometimes if someone is doing that, the movie feels contrived and stupid.


I think looking at a movie from the perspective "how am i manipulating the audience?" actually brings a whole other aspect to it. However, the film makers and script writers cannot really know the answer to this. Some like to blame the video games and movies for the mass shootings but this is always an over-simplification. I guess in general I blame movies for the expectations that people have: the need for that "hero" or the "good ending" or some trash like that...but I guess I'm going on a tangent.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
It is and it isn't. There are good manipulations and bad manipulations. We wanted to be lied to, we know it is all fake, but we also want to be told an honest lie. We want something that resonates with our understanding of the world and feels fitting when we think about it.

EX: JJ Abrams continually trying to outrun plot holes with action is a bad manipulation.

EX: Every reality show I can think of uses the cheap trick of tinkly piano music in an attempt to make viewers feel sad for "Contestant X." These moments are rarely earned and feel cheap even though they must work for a large portion of the audience (or why would they keep doing it)?



No argument here. Good music can make a movie. Bad music can ruin one. Music used as a spackle to cover up bad writing is bad manipulation, but there are many bad manipulations that don't involve music.
Oh yes for sure, I agree there are good manipulations and bad. But it seems to me that most movies, the direction intentionally drives the audience to feel a certain way, rather than leave everything even handed for the audience to draw their own conclusions from?



Registered User
Oh yes for sure, I agree there are good manipulations and bad. But it seems to me that most movies, the direction intentionally drives the audience to feel a certain way, rather than leave everything even handed for the audience to draw their own conclusions from?
And that is a clue for when to sometimes leave the music out. If we know that the music "tells us how to feel" (the tone of the scene), dropping out the music can be confusing and disorienting. Cutting out the music in a tense scene can heighten tension because the "footprints in the sand" (the music -- assuring you of where you're at and what is happening) disappear (abandons you -- leaving you in a scene that isn't promising you what is going to happen next, putting your expectations in jeopardy). It's the filmmaker saying, "I am not playing nice with you here. I am not telling you what is next. You're on you're own here, kid."

Personally, I think that the more you can pull back the music the better. Always try cutting something out of a scene instead of jamming more crap into it.



I just saw "there will be blood", and i think the way the music was used was pretty genius. This is a movie that doesn't spare the audience from intensity and craziness. They have this jarring horror music right at the beginning when that one oil-excavator gets hit with the wood beam at the bottom of the well. The producer/whatever is saying: "Okay folks, this movie is ****ing violent, get the hell out of the theater if you're not ready for this!"


And of course: hardly anybody does, cuz it's a great movie!



Oh yes for sure, I agree there are good manipulations and bad. But it seems to me that most movies, the direction intentionally drives the audience to feel a certain way, rather than leave everything even handed for the audience to draw their own conclusions from?
Honestly, I do want the director or whoever does this to use the music to tell me how to feel. It is emotional manipulation, but so is the rest of the story. The whole idea of having a movie is to relay a story. Novels are good with words but need a lot of them to tell a story. Movies, being compact, skip a lot of verbal development and go right to the feeling of the scene in something like real time, something a novel can't do. It's interesting that, in the silent era, before there was any speech or sound, there were theater orchestras or musicians, doing something very similar.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
Those are good points. Another thing is some movies the music is carefully decided to be in the background only, if that makes sense and doesn't do much to stand out as much, like a movie like Blade Runner.

But a movie like Bad Boys or Manhunter, the music is in the foreground and in your face pretty much, and standing out, if that makes sense?



Those are good points. Another thing is some movies the music is carefully decided to be in the background only, if that makes sense and doesn't do much to stand out as much, like a movie like Blade Runner.

But a movie like Bad Boys or Manhunter, the music is in the foreground and in your face pretty much, and standing out, if that makes sense?
I would say the score in Blade Runner stands out, but in a very good way. Amazing score and a huge part of the movie!

I just watched a movie from 1944 last night and I never heard even one note of the score. Yet there was a score. I just looked it up and there's a credit for Music by Michel Michelet



The trick is not minding
I always seem to remember end themes much more often then I do during the movie. Platoon, even though that was recurring throughout, Heat, The Untouchables, Gangs of New York, for example.

I just watched Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and enjoyed its score, almost like something out of a spaghetti western.



It brings me to the question about movies that are not designated musicals exactly, but where there's a song that's very conspicuous and completely wrapped into the plot. My favorite examples of this are two old ones.

In Casablanca, who can imagine Rick's Cafe and not think of Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By, playing the piano. The song was already old though not terribly famous when the movie was made, but joined the immortals when Ilsa walked into Rick's and asked Sam to play the song. The orchestral background kicks in and we realize just how traumatized the hard-core Rick is by his lost romance.

And...another old one, several of the songs from The Wizard of Oz, most notably, Dorothy singing Over the Rainbow when things start to go wrong, Almira Gulch takes Toto and then the tornado takes Dorothy off to Oz. In the song, Dorothy sings about being somewhere else and then finds herself somewhere else.

I would contend that, in most movies, the LESS you recall the music, the more successful it is, except when it's an important plot element that advances the story.



Registered User
Those are good points. Another thing is some movies the music is carefully decided to be in the background only, if that makes sense and doesn't do much to stand out as much, like a movie like Blade Runner.

But a movie like Bad Boys or Manhunter, the music is in the foreground and in your face pretty much, and standing out, if that makes sense?

Michael Mann movies are pretty classic for fusing music with scene and this really defined the style of Miami Vice.



Michael Mann movies are pretty classic for fusing music with scene and this really defined the style of Miami Vice.
Definitely. I don't think I could recall a single melody from Miami Vice an hour after the show, but it was crafted to be as much of a part of the scene as a palm tree. Cars, music, flower print shirts and baggy pants, expensive cars, Miami, were all part of the look and feel of the show. I'm pretty sure that a different musical soundtrack would have seemed as weird as putting Crocket and Tubbs in Dragnet-style suits.

The thing about movies is that things have to move fast so you can finish up in a couple hours. Music that sets a mood or all of a sudden becomes ominous is part of how you pivot a plot line much faster than a lot of verbage. Music goes right to the emotions, passing verbalisms in an instant.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
How come a lot of other filmmakers do not want to make the music as prevelant and in your face compared to how Michael Mann wants to?



Different style, intent, content and intention. A movie about a composer would seem to need a lot of music to indicate what was rattling around in the composer's mind while he did trivial things. When Miami Vice was a big thing, I recall sarcastic commentators referring to it is MTV cops, back when the whole music video thing was still fresh. Music with images is just a bit along the scale from images with music.