In the corners of my mind

The weekend’s non-required reading was Daniel Goldmark’s Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon. Goldmark does some breakdown of compositional practice in the Golden Age of Hollywood animation, but the focus is mostly on cultural studies: what the way that music was used in cartoons tells us about how various types of music were viewed and referenced at the time. It’s a fun, fun book, although you get the feeling that Goldmark has simplified his analysis somewhat in order not to scare off a non-specialist audience. You’re a college professor—go ahead and write that tome! Still, a welcome addition to a library category that remains scandalously small.

Goldmark, inevitably, spends a chapter analyzing the Chuck Jones-directed Bugs Bunny Wagner parody “What’s Opera, Doc?”. If you’re one of the four people who have never seen the cartoon, you can watch it here. (For my money, “Rabbit of Seville” is funnier. But I digress.) “What’s Opera, Doc?” has become such a staple that it’s taken on a life of it’s own, beyond parody—as I was reading, I realized that uses of “Ride of the Valkyries” in TV or advertising over the past couple decades or so are probably referring just as much to the cartoon as to the original opera. In other words, it’s taking advantage not of our collective knowledge of Die Walküre, but of our collective knowledge of Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the wabbit.”

That’s a fairly odd state of affairs, even given the way popular culture appropriates anything it can get its hands on. You can compare another warhorse, the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. The “Ode” has made its way through pop culture, probably most famously in the Bruce Willis Die Hard franchise. (A grungy guitar version turns up in the trailer to last year’s Live Free or Die Hard.) Yet the piece remains stubbornly fixed in its Ninth-Symphony context.

Over Christmas (hence, you may have missed it), the Slovenian philosopher/iconoclast Slavoj Žižek made a surprise visit to the New York Times, ruminating on the European Union’s adoption of the “Ode to Joy” as their anthem, in light of his own idiosyncratic hearing of the original. Jonathan at “Dial ‘M'” didn’t think much of the article—me, I rather enjoyed it. But regardless of whether you buy Žižek’s argument or not, the point is, his intellectual strategy was dead-on. The EU chose the Beethoven for their anthem precisely because they wanted to appropriate the perceived qualities of the original: a paean to freedom and brotherhood. Žižek, looking to poke mischievous holes in the EU’s self-image, knew that muddling the original context of the “Ode” would be the best way to undermine the EU’s use of it. Goldmark, on the other hand, barely mentions the original context of the Wagner selections in “What’s Opera, Doc?”—he correctly points out that the cartoon instead follows a generic operatic narrative for which Wagner’s music serves merely as a signal. The music has become so shorn of its original context that even someone who has no knowledge of the Ring responds to it in a semiotically particular way. (Here’s another way to think about it: if the late Karlheinz Stockhausen had created Hymnen, his electronic national-anthem kaleidoscope, in the past five years rather than the late 60s, he would have been faced with the decision whether to include the EU anthem or not: a recognizable bit of the “Ode to Joy” would almost certainly be heard as a comment on Beethoven’s Ninth rather than the EU, or nationalism in general.)

Why is this? I don’t know. It could be that more people have experienced the Beethoven in its original context—performances of the Ninth are certainly more common, and readily accessible, than performances of the Ring. It could be that more people have actually sung the Beethoven, probably in the form of Henry Van Dyke’s hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”—perhaps that’s fixed the “Ode” as a specifically musical experience instead of a more generically “cultural” one. It could be a sign of the success that propagandists had in associating Wagner with the Nazis in World War II—and, in turn, disassociating it from the actual operas. (Goldmark points out that much of the imagery of “What’s Opera, Doc?” is foreshadowed in a WWII-era anti-Nazi Bugs Bunny short, “Herr Meets Hare”—although the music in that one was, curiously, Strauss waltzes.) It could be the more stylized (read: more easily parodied) aspects of opera vs. concert music. Or it could, after all, just be one of those quirks of history—I actually gravitate towards this one, since the idea of a piece of music having a biography as wayward and rich as a person appeals to me.

Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned the most famous post-Bugs use of Wagner, the helicopter assault in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (the “Ride” begins around the 3:20 mark).

This is an absolutely fascinating use of the music because the movie gets to have it both ways. No doubt Coppola and his screenwriter, John Milius, were fully aware of the plot of Die Walküre, the ingenious portrayal of the helicopter gunships as modernized, mechanized Valkyries—the music both romanticizes combat and wryly points out the absurdity of ancient notions of chivalry in a war where the killing is almost industrialized. But Coppola also gets the benefit of the general, vague familiarity with the piece, giving the scene an almost banal overtone that works in counterpoint with the intense violence.

The most intriguing detail of the use of the music is that it’s diagetic, that is, it actually exists within the movie. We hear the “Ride” because the soldiers are hearing it: Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) explains its presence, gives the “psyops” order, and we see the reel-to-reel tape begin to play. It’s a way to massage the surrealism of the soundtrack, and I think it’s very subtly aided by the shared 20th-century music-appreciation-via-cartoon that “What’s Opera, Doc?” epitomizes. The film’s creators may have familiarized themselves with the mythology of the Ring, but the surfing Army lifer Col. Kilgore? He probably learned it from Bugs Bunny.

Leave a Reply