You like crazy drums?

Phil Ford

I’ve been meaning to write about The Big Combo for a while. The Big Combo is a 1954 film noir that’s now considered a small classic. But when it was made, few would have thought to consider it as anything other than a cheap, nasty, disposable B-picture for drunks to sleep through at the bottom end of a double-feature. Viewers nowadays are more likely to be struck by its expressionistic high-contrast lighting — The Big Combo is the apotheosis of film noir’s characteristic visual style. The man who did more than anyone to cement that style was John Alton, The Big Combo‘s cinematographer. (This site has a wonderful collection of Alton’s high-contrast noir images.) Alton called it “mystery lighting,” and it pervades this scene from The Big Combo, where the henchmen of the big boss, Mr. Brown, have kidnapped the hero, Lt. Diamond, and try some “enhanced interrogation techniques” on him. Mr. Brown shows up, though, and shows these amateurs some real technique, with a radio and a hearing aid:

I showed this film in the course on cold war American music that I did a couple of years ago at the University of Texas. I like to use The Big Combo, not for its musical underscore so much as for its use of diegetic music — notably its use of Chopin’s C sharp minor scherzo as the leitmotif of Alicia, a classical pianist who has fallen into the noir sewer and has become Mr. Brown’s gun moll. This particular scherzo is famous for its Jekyll/Hyde dualistic character — the demonic octave passages in C sharp minor bluntly juxtaposed to angelic chorales (with tinkly cascading figures) in the enharmonic major, D flat — and its repeated appearance in this film (at a concert, on the phonograph) says something about Alicia’s character.

And then, of course, there’s the use of merry dance-band jazz as a torture device. Noir excels at this sort of thing: the calculated desecration of an emotion, or, rather, desecration of the conventional icon or sign of that emotion. One classic example of this is the opening image from David Lynch’s neo-noir Blue Velvet, where the camera pans across blue sky, white picket fence, red roses — a great icon of suburban contentment — and we then see the man watering the roses struck down with a heart attack, with the camera sinking down into the dirt beneath the lawn to reveal the seething insect life beneath. Noir always wants to show us what lies beneath. Its technique is (a) to show us something that is not only cheery or wholesome but that also registers on our nervous system as an emblem or sign of cheeriness, and (b) to place that thing in a situation where its emotion is emptied out and what is left is the husk of the sign: the conventional sign is revealed as just that, a convention, a dead letter, the empty mask of a vanished emotion that mocks our sentimentality. You like crazy drums, Lieutenant? Have a good time. Noir makes the sinister out of the sweet, and tells us it was always sinister—only now you see it.

I was thinking about this when I read Suzanne Cusick’s recent article on music as an implement of torture. Writes Cusick:

As press reports conflating music’s use on the battlefield with its use in interrogations proliferated, I began desultory research on a phenomenon of the current “global war on terror” that particularly wounds me as a musician — wounds me in that part of my sensibility that remains residually invested in the notion that music is beautiful, even transcendent — is a practice whose contemplation would always lead me to contemplation of bodies and pleasures. Not bodies in pain.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? If music is what lets us feel and express love, then let it serve hate; if it soothes our sore bodies and nerves, then let it hurt; if it lets us feel the humanity of our fellow creatures, and lets us experience our own humanity, then let it dehumanize, brutalize, and degrade. And — this is the important part, the part that the apologists for torture affect not to understand — this is a lesson that the state wishes all of us to learn, not only those it tortures. Torture is a pedagogical principle: it teaches us that what we thought was beautiful, or transcendent, or sacred, is in fact as foul as anything else. One of Charles Manson’s “family” told John Gilmore that Manson had planned to kill celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor because “that’s how you put the fear into people—you butcher what they dream of being. These are all the gilded replicas of fame and happiness, and when you smash them you can go right into the heart of the dark.” And this was a philosophy Manson learned in prison: “like a dog that’s been whipped and chained and learned only the whip and the chain, there wasn’t even a yearning to be free. There was only the whip and the chain.”* The state that tortures wants to bring its people to this same condition; like Manson, it wants to teach us that there is nothing but the whip and the chain. If there is no transcendence, in music or anything else, there is nothing left to hope for, nothing to aspire to beyond the whip and the chain, and then whip and chain will become our aspiration; we will have learned our civic lesson, and we, too, will bend to the will of the torturers.

This is why it matters when music becomes an instrument of torture. When the Society of Ethnomusicology published a statement against torture, the response in the right-wing commentariat was, predictably, dismissive: who cares that we made some guy listen to rap against his will? My upstairs neighbor does that to me every day! And: who cares what a bunch of ethnomusicologists think? Even if you oppose torture, you might think that music, compared to waterboarding and cold cells, is a minor concern. But I don’t think it is. This is why I respectfully suggest that my own scholarly association, the American Musicological Society, draft its own statement against torture. Granted, this would be a symbolic gesture, but what I’ve been arguing here is that torture itself is in part a symbolic gesture. If the torturers want to put the fear into us by smashing our icons, we can only resist by insisting that what we love is not yet theirs to destroy. [UPDATE: I changed my mind about this — see my follow-up post here.]

*These quotes are from Laid Bare, John Gilmore’s memoir of Hollywood low life.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Cold War, Film, Music and Torture, Politics, Pop Aesthetics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to You like crazy drums?

  1. Ryan Dohoney says:

    Just last week I was thinking last week about the issues raised by Prof. Cusick’s article, very much along your lines, Phil. I was briefly feeling frustrated with (what I felt oh-so-briefly was) the over-emphasis on music as pleasure, as an apriori force for good. I appreciated Cusick’s epiphany – that music is a morally neutral force, it’s a human practice whose ends are bound to the morals and ideas of the practitioners.
    As a means of getting to the heart of these issues, I’ll be teaching “Music as Torture” together with Marion Guck’s “Music Loving, or the Relationship with the Piece” to my students this fall.
    On the noir tip: Michael Leja’s book “Reframing Abstract Expressionism” has a great reading of Pollock & Co. through film Noir. Highly recommended. Also, an early chapter of Robert Corber’s “Homosexuality in Cold War America” has great things to say about of Preminger’s “Laura.”

  2. Phil, per our conversation the other day–William Bendix in THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946)as Buzz, the shell-shocked WWII vet with a steel plate in his head who’s driven crazy by modern-sounding jazz (“Stop playin’ that monkey music!” is his repeated, violence-implicit response). Buzz was originally supposed to be the killer, but the U.S. Navy objected and succeeded in forcing Raymond Chandler to do a rewrite.
    Also, for crazy drums, the sequence in PHANTOM LADY (1944, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel) with Elisha Cook Jr. as the manic percussionist in question, working up quite a sweat.

  3. Chris says:

    There is another good piece on the torture subject in the December 7th, 2005 issue of The Nation. It includes interviews with victims of these techniques and gives an idea about the lasting effects. It also makes some pointed observations about the response of musicians and listeners (read: oftentimes callous and ignorant)
    It also reminds us that while the use of loud recorded music or other sound is a relatively recent development, music has had its uses in warfare almost as long as either has existed, including attempts to frighten enemies on the battlefield. These issues are part and parcel of the inherent political dimension of music. It is a dimension that requires more attention from practitioners in all areas of musical endeavor.

  4. great ideas being thrown around here. makes me think immediately of j.l. austin’s ground-breaking work on the performative aspect of language. “how to do things with words” (later, cf. joan retallack’s title of the same name) could easily be re-read/written “how to do things with music.” how often we forget that just as the communicative function of language overpowers and bypasses its performative function, music’s status as vehicle for enjoyment, the
    ur-jouissance (the first source of pleasure? debatable…but a beautiful notion regardless, early hominid pounding on wood and howling) has just as long overshadowed its political dimension. which has produced the very political musics of any sort of avant-noise group or thrash or hardcore band.
    we’ve long been subjecting our mothers and fathers to the torture of our music. the horror!
    oh, phil, if you have a minute, stop by my new site. if you like what you read/see/hear, could you add me to your blogroll? that would be rad.

  5. Souljerky says:

    Torture And The Sacred

    On the use of music in terrorism: “Torture is a pedagogical principle: it teaches us that what we thought was beautiful, or transcendent, or sacred, is in fact as foul as anything else.” Link. -[SA]…

  6. Bob Judd says:

    Sorry — coming to this way late.
    Why would an AMS statement contra torture be more immediately important than a statement against some other unmitigated evil? Is it simply the use of music as described by Suzanne Cusick in her “Music as Torture” paper?
    My personal view is “nice, but meaningless.” It’s things like this that align us with that grating definition, “academic” = of no significance (as in “the outcome of the game is academic–the Yanks have sewn up the pennant already.”) It’s so easy to affirm self-righteously a resolution against torture (who’d argue with the sentiment?). Easy to write the email to the congressperson in a similar vein. I wrote a letter [personal, not as AMS administrator] to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) years ago (a real paper letter, mind you, not just an email) complaining about the Gonzales nomination vis a vis the torture issue. Sen. Santorum replied courteously and vacuously.
    Perhaps I should’ve done something a bit harder: hit the street w/ a protest sign or something. I’m old enough to remember large Viet Nam protests — and am quite amazed that campuses have produced such tame (if any) protests today in the face of such issues as torture. Seems to me a bunch of people are going to have to do a lot more than pass resolutions and send emails if we want to be taken seriously. We’re academics; we’re academic, to most pols.
    BTW: Suzanne is coming to the AMS board of directors this fall, so it may well be that the issue is brought forward.
    Bob Judd

  7. Phil Ford says:

    Bob —
    You should read the rest of Jonathan’s and my exchange on torture, which basically ended up making the same points made as here. I don’t really disagree with you, to be honest, at least about the tendency of academic affirmations for or against this and that to become so much moral extortion and hot air. (See the “Fluffy Puppies” post.) I don’t know what I was thinking.
    Well, no, I guess I do. I don’t see how taking to the streets is any more “real” or less symbolic than sitting around and passing resolutions. Yelling through a bullhorn is just another symbol, and a rather tired and ritualized one at that. I guess, if you’re an optimist, that means that you might as well sit around and pass resolutions. More realistically, it means there’s nothing much anyone can do. This administration is gonna do what it’s gonna do and nothing we or anyone else says is going to make a lick of difference. But I can write about it, at least. Maybe that’s useless, too, but it’s what I’ve got, y’know?

  8. Just a thought. I grew up in the punk and industrial music scene in LA during the early ’80s. We liked to torture ourselves with loud, dissonant and angry music. We found pleasure in the outward expression of our inner rage. I still don’t totally understand why we loved noise– and when I say noise, I really mean it– but there were moments like being in an abandoned factory listening to a band called Debt of Nature with Black Flag’s PA system cranked so loud the low frequency feedback was literally shaking the building’s foundations and our bodies with it. It was like a guitar induced earthquake. The encore featured Sonic Youth, who being challenged by the previous band’s elevated pitch of clattering hell, screeched even louder with screwdrivers sawing strings, jamming electromagnetic dissonance, circulating and iterating in the air. We loved every ohm of it.
    To this day I don’t fully understand what we were doing. But ugly music can be beautiful too.

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