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Howard Shore: Giving Darkness Elegance

by Jason Comerford

One of the things I like most about Howard Shore's music is its utter, complete emotional control. His music isn't cold or distant, but simultaneously it retains consciousness of exactly what it needs to be doing. Even his lesser works, for comedies such as The Truth About Cats and Dogs or Striptease (not really a comedy, because it wasn't funny, but bear with me), are unobtrusive but no less effective, because he has a sense for the ebb and flow of the emotions of the film that many composers can't (or don't) grasp.

What Shore is most recognized for (that is to say, what I kind of music I immediately identify him with) is the brooding, elegantly dark music that bolsters films like Se7en and The Game. This is not to say that gloomy dramas are his forte; his delightful scores to Nobody's Fool and Mrs. Doubtfire reveal a striking versatility that doesn't sacrifice his overall voice. But his music for Se7en, The Game, and another film, James Mangold's Cop Land, are what Shore exceeds at.

Shore's first collaboration with David Fincher was the strikingly directed serial-killer thriller Se7en in 1995. Regardless of the inconsistencies in characterization (Brad Pitt's detective is particularly obnoxious), the film's effect was due largely to the music contributed by Shore, a queasy combination of gravity and anxiety. Their second film together, The Game, is more of a tricky balancing act than Se7en, based largely upon the film's Byzantine plotting. (SPOILERS!: I will discuss the film's outcome. So don't email me because you're mad that I gave away the ending.)

The film concerns rich, cold investment banker Nicholas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) who on his 48th birthday is given a present by his delinquent brother Conrad (Sean Penn). The present: a game, organized by a shadowy company called Consumer Recreation Services. From then on, playing the game seems to become a matter of life and death. Or does it? The idea of playing with perceptions of reality is a gold mine, which makes the film's failure more disappointing.

For a film composer, it's a wonderful ground to plant ideas about the trickiness of thematics and orchestrations. Shore is up to the challenge, and delivers some truly ingenious ideas. My personal favorite concerns the backbone of the score itself. The main titles are introduced with a soft, solo-piano theme that gradually changes tone with the unfolding of the credits (a hallucinatory sequence that uses old home-movies to explain the suicide of Van Orten's father). The piano theme can be taken, as I see it, two ways: first, as a representation of Nicholas' slowly fraying grip on reality. Another way to look at it is to equate it with Nicholas' relationship with his miscreant brother.

When watching the film, I noted that the piano was used whenever Nicholas was given some sort of cryptic clue to the developments of the mysterious "game," suggesting very cleverly his mindset as the game progressed. Also I noticed that as the game became (seemingly) more and more deadly, the piano was used less and less, signifying both Nicholas' gradual immersion in the nightmare world of the game and his distance from his brother, who apparently knows about how it all works. At the film's outset, when it's revealed that the game is indeed a carefully planned and executed scenario, the piano returns in full, symbolizing Nicholas' return to "the normal world."

The letdown of the ending, that it was all make-believe after all, in no small way effects the score, because ultimately the return of the piano seems too much like a step towards overkill. But the previous 120 minutes of film, and the synthesis of music to it, are more than enough to make the experience satisfying. One particularly clever moment in the music occurs roughly midway though the film, when Nicholas ventures into a hotel room that turns out to be crawling with bogus-but-damning evidence of wrong-doings. When Nicholas halts outside the door before entering, Shore ratchets up the string section of his orchestra in a devilishly witty ode to Herrmann ("Room 277" on the soundtrack), which had me laughing at the pure, delightful deviousness of the moment.

Shore's gambit for The Game, much as it was for Se7en, incorporates a lot of low, urgent chords for strings, the aforementioned piano, and, in addition, the very same unsettling Synclavier effect that he conjured up for the Se7en score. (You know, the one that sounds like squeaky brakes.) For Cop Land, James Mangold's over-ambitious "Eastern Western," Shore leans more towards the synthesizers, as well as using bagpipes.

It struck me while listening to Cop Land on disc that Shore doesn't use exotic instruments, such as the bagpipes for Cop Land and the Irish-sounding flute for Nobody's Fool (sorry, I don't know instruments that well), to assign a score a specific ethnicity. Rather, he's going for the actual sound of the instrument for a purely visceral effect. The harshness of the bagpipes is a good fit for Cop Land, even though I find the score fairly overwrought for the film.

Shore uses less orchestra for Cop Land and more synths. In essence, the score consists of a handful of droning, portent-filled cues that did too little for the film by trying too much. I felt that the film, while admirably played by a dream-team cast (including Sylvester Stallone, whose nicely modulated performance was a pleasant surprise), was poorly paced and unsatisfying; it had plenty of potential, but in the end it fell far short of what it could have become. Mangold, it seems, simply had Shore go into overdrive for the music in an effort to provide the film with its missing energy.

Granted, there is a good bit about Cop Land's music that is good. I liked the score's idea of a theme (more of a Herrmannesque repeating phrase--Shore seems to be a logical stylistic descendent of Herrmann), which was a synth-based, alternating two-note theme which generally seemed to stand for the repressed nobility of the Stallone character. And I also enjoyed the usage of marital drums as a dramatic emphasis throughout; it kept you reminded of what the corrupt characters were ostensibly supposed to uphold, and therefore emphasized their essential hypocrisy.

However I felt that the music boomed with too much self-satisfying emotional foreshadowing that it drowned out some of the better ideas in the film. It would be one thing if the music stayed on one particular gait, but instead it apes the sloppy pacing of the film and doesn't help to tie it all together. The orchestral effects, combined with those of the Synclavier, sought to bring the film too much levity; it overemphasized a deeper, darker root of evil that Mangold's film merely hinted at.

Despite this, Shore's undeniable sense for the undercurrents in a film remain practically unparalleled. Coming up from him: the next film from David Cronenberg. Deep, dark psychological complexes, wicked-nasty humor, and, of course, the usual sick Cronenberg fetishes! The music should be wonderful; I can't wait.

Jason Comerford can be reached at

Note from Lukas: We will have a great new interview with Howard Shore in the next FSM, Vol. 2 No 8, now in production. It was conducted by Doug Adams and focuses on The Game and Cop Land; Howard is incredibly articulate when discussing his music.

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