This is my contribution to Damian Arlyn’s Film Music Blog-a-Thon at Windmills of My Mind. ___________________________________________________________
A catchy negative term can do a lot of damage. As far as film criticism is concerned, just consider the massive abuse of a phrase like “style over substance“, a knee-jerk “yeah, right” to instantly smother a filmmaker’s poetic license, or the buzzword of the moment: “torture porn.” In more or less the same category falls the catchphrase Mickey Mousing.
Mickey Mousing is the standard description for film music that directly mimics the action onscreen. You know, just like the old Disney shorts: Goofy falls flat on his face–TOOT!–a tuba honks. A classic example is the ending of the original King Kong, in which the music is crescendoed in such a way as to suit Kong’s motions in climbing the Empire State Building.
In criticial and educational circles, Mickey Mousing is often looked down upon. The general consensus is that it’s lazy, cheap and old-fashioned for a soundtrack to ape the visuals. And yet many Hollywood maestros frequently make use of the technique: Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice, The Simpsons), Hans Zimmer (Spirit, Pirates of the Caribbean) and the late Jerry Goldsmith (Gremlins, Total Recall).
The opposite of Mickey Mousing takes place when a piece of music complements the images to establish a general mood or theme. This is usually called underscoring. Contemporary underscorers are Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Solaris), Michael Nyman (The Piano, Gattaca), Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Little Children), Alexandre Desplat (Birth, Syriana) and Philip Glass (Candyman, The Hours). These guys rarely emphasize what’s already on the screen, and needless to say, I appreciate their work as much as the next cinephile.
The king of Mickey Mousing?
With no one questioning the merits of underscoring, why exactly deserves Mickey Mousing such a bad rap? What seems to bug people the most is that it wears its intentions on its sleeve. Mickey Mousing tells the audience explicitly what to look for, how to empathize, and when to laugh, cry or shiver. It takes the frontal assault, whereas most critical minds prefer a soundtrack to blend into the background and leave room for personal reflection. Frankly, some of us don’t like to be blatantly manipulated.
Even respectable directors like Sidney Lumet (in his excellent book Making Movies) and John Carpenter (in his director’s commentary on the Prince of Darkness DVD) have openly expressed their disdain for Mickey Mousing. The latter jokingly crowned John Williams the king of Mickey Mousing. In the same breath, Carpenter claimed that Bernard Hermann was the quintessential underscore composer, with Vertigo being an honorable example.
Fair enough. A bombastic music cue like The Imperial March (you know the one: “TAAA! TAAA! TAAA! TAA-TADAA! TAA-TADAA!”) leaves little room for ambiguity. It practically screams out to the audience: Beware! Something Sinister, Totalitarian and Oppressive has entered the room! And honestly, isn’t that exactly what makes the tune so irresistable to begin with? When a hard-breathing Darth Vader is about to wipe Rebellion ass, do we expect anything less than military drums and pumping brass? Of course not! A gentle woodwinds motif just wouldn’t cut it…
By the same token, what’s not to love about Hans Zimmer in prime fighting shape, or a rousing Danny Elfman score? And before you start to think that Mickey Mousing doesn’t leave room for subtlety: Take another look at the prom scene in Carrie, in which Pino Donaggio‘s music Mickey-Mouses in perfect harmony with Brian De Palma’s visual orchestrations to bring you to the edge of your seat in anticipation for the bucket of blood to fall.
In fact, I’d even argue that Vertigo‘s soundtrack, which Carpenter embraces as a full-blooded piece of underscoring, incorporates quite a bit of Mickey Mousing. There’s no doubt that Herrmann’s haunting score is layered and full of conflicting emotions, but it sounds fittingly lyrical when Scottie and Madeleine share a passionate kiss, and appropriately disturbing when Scottie’s fear of heights comes into play. And wasn’t it Hermann who wrote Mickey Mousing history by syncing shrieking strings to the fatal stabs of a killer’s knife in the world’s most famous shower scene? When a composer drums up a frenetic, percussive score to support a thrilling car chase, or lays an elegiac theme over a melancholic tableau, his or her technique isn’t that far removed from Mickey Mousing. The music still follows and punctuates the visuals–only the beats are longer.
Sometimes film music is supposed to take a back seat or provide its own commentary on what happens in the picture. Sometimes film music needs to work in tandem with the visuals to help the viewer relate with the characters or a given situation. Both approaches are legitimate. You can spend the rest of your life arguing wether Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo) or Scott Bradley (Tom & Jerry) wrote the superior soundtrack, and I’ll say: Isn’t it great that we don’t have to make these either/or choices? We can have both to enjoy!
“Our minds may focus on what there is to see, how we experience the view is often heard.”
Sound as Vision: Riding The Blind Giant