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Sounds Like Helicopters

Sounds Like Helicopters
By Matthew Lau
SUNY Press, 154 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Film buffs take note!

English professor Matthew Lau has written a book on the uses of classical music in modernist cinema. With Sounds Like Helicopters we have a fascinating academic treatise on how classical music adds layers of meaning upon many of the most important films of the twentieth century.

What’s nice about Sounds Like Helicopters is Lau’s comprehensive research combined with his use of film theory, which is grounded in the works of postmodernist thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. He offers up the unexpected as well as the expected. Of course, Wagner appears front and center in this work as a kind of mystical anti-hero: brilliant, but tainted by his appropriation by the Nazis. He makes a big impression in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. An even bigger one in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Is this an ironic reference to Griffith’s notorious film? A subversive dig at the Vietnam War? Or did screenwriter John Milius simply think that Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” would sound cool with helicopters in the background?

As would be expected, Lau spills a great deal of ink on Stanley Kubrick. We’re treated to an in-depth study of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In particular, Lau focuses on Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, Johann Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” waltz, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” and discusses whether such selections accentuate the “coldness” of Kubrick’s films. Also at stake is how such music complements or undermines Kubrick’s views on history and human evolution.

Lau calls attention to the contradiction inherent in Kubrick’s use of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in A Clockwork Orange. This contradiction reaches a crescendo during the famous “Ludovico treatment” scene in which our protagonist Alex is forced to watch atrocities onscreen while listening to Beethoven. This scene leads Lau to segue to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou, which also features a grotesque treatment of a person’s eye. Un Chien Andalou makes excellent use of Wagner as well, in particular, Isolde’s “Transfiguration” from Tristan und Isolde.

Lau covers a good part of the career of Buñuel who in fact “raided the classics” for his films. Buñuel found use for Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave,” Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and, perhaps most famously, Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus in Buñuel’s brilliant comeback film Viridiana. For Lau, the Handel classic provides an ironic counterpoint to Viridiana’s sense of charity in the famous beggar’s banquet scene, which is in itself an ironic take on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Matthew Lau demonstrates quite clearly that many of the most notable films of the twentieth century would not have been as memorable without classical music.

This book review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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