Among bad signs, this is a good one: you are sitting there watching a movie and you suddenly start feeling like Teddy Adorno.
Adorno, after all, was, at least as a writer, the very embodiment of melancholy. He could easily have been incorporated as some opposite to Joker in the Batman universe – call him Melancho. Melancho, the criminal mastermind who leaves a trail of tears at the crime site.
Last night, I had a Melancho moment. We were watching a good film: Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Mo. We’d been waiting to see this film. The babysitter was in place. The Bastille moviehouse boasted a screen two times the usual MK2 one. Great.
And it was much as I’d read about, and admirable. Frances McDormand was unyielding, and Woody Harelson was charming. But I gradually became aware of a severe mismatch between the nightvision of the world in the film, its dark and daft humor, and the musical score. Not the country songs, which of course Hollywood has to add if there is a rural setting (which is like a caption: rural setting). No, it was the stringwork that began to get to me. The musical score, it struck me, was operating as a sort of psychotic super-ego, making sure that one “got” every sequence.
Take, for instance [Spoilers ahead] the suicide of Sheriff Willoughby. It was hard to watch this sequence, but it was not incomprehensible. Rather, I understood it as one understands a narrative – I understood it via some synthesis of sympathy and intellect.
As, I assume, we all understand such things. But in the immediate aftermath, what does the film do? It starts to swell with a string section. The stringwork was a way of “explaining” to me that life was awfully sad. Of course, in a ruse that tells you the superego’s been here, the explanation really serves as a denial. The strings take away the shock. The underlining takes away the rawness. Life isn’t so sad after all when you have a string section tastefully following you around.
Adorno, of course, understood this as the chief mission of the cultural industry.
And maybe the music was, in fact, essential to the deal.
Every film is a deal. In this case, the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, eveloped a reputation as a sort of Irish Sam Peckinpah of the theater with plays that were as bloody as those of Seneca. This is a reputation that gets you articles in chic glossies. And attracts the attention of the next big thing crowd in the movie industry. But that very invitation then has to be digested by the investors. They have to contemplate whether the chic glossy audience can be translated into a profit margin that will make everybody whole.
My feeling is that the string section really wasn’t for me to feel sad about the sheriff, but rather it was for the investors, it was to make sure that they didn’t feel too sad about me feeling sad about the sheriff. Because if it was too much of a bummer, I’d desert the profit margin, we’d all desert the profit margin, and … there wouldn’t be a profit margin!
This is of course what commercial films do. Sometimes there’s a genius in the system, but that genius is always going to have to go through a lot of investor fat. When this is discussed, at all, it is usually discussed in terms of audiences. What “audiences” like. This conveniently deflects the discussion from what investors like. It is, as always, the subrosa class warfare text in pop culture. In fact, audiences don’t, actually, exist like some immobile Platonic form, the form of Babbits, throwing popcorn at the tragic sense of life and applauding fart jokes. Rather, this audience is a product of the cultural industry, as surely as epidemic diabetes is a product of the corn oil industry.
It made me feel like Melancho.
Good flick, otherwise.