The Creepy 13th-Century Melody That Shows Up in Movies Again & Again: An Introduction to “Dies Irae”

The number of iconic scenes in cinema history can and do fill textbooks hundreds of pages long. Doubtless most of us have seen enough of these scenes to know the basic grammar of feature film, and to recognize the hundreds of references in movies and TV to classic cuts and compositions from Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Kurosawa.

Visual and narrative allusions might leap out at us, but music tends to work in subtler ways, prompting emotional responses without engaging the parts of our brain that make comparisons. Case in point, the videos here from Vox and Berklee College of Music professor Alex Ludwig demonstrate the widespread use of a musical motif of four notes from the “Dies Irae,” or “day of wrath,” a 13th century Gregorian requiem, or Catholic mass traditionally sung at funerals.

Of course, we know these notes from the iconic, oft-parodied Amadeus scene of Mozart composing the “Dies Irae” movement of his Requiem in his sickbed, as ultimate frenemy Salieri furiously transcribes. Once you hear the magisterially ominous sequence of notes, you might immediately think of Wendy Carlos’ themes for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. But did you notice these four notes in Disney’s The Lion King, Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, or It’s a Wonderful Life?

What about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Home Alone? Both Vox and Ludwig show how the “dies irae” theme appears over and over, cueing us to peril or tragedy ahead, orienting us to the terror and unease we see onscreen. For almost 800 years, these four notes have signified all of the above for Catholic Europe, as well as, Vox notes, soundtracking the supposed future day when “God will judge the living and the dead and send them to heaven or hell.”

The “dies irae” has permeated narrative cinema for almost as long as film has existed. The oldest example in Ludwig’s compilation comes from a 1927 score written by Gottfried Huppertz for Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis. Ludwig also brings his musicological expertise to bear in Vox’s exploration of “dies irae” references. He sums up the net effect as creating a “sense of dread,” bestowed upon modernity by hundreds of years of Christian theology as expressed in music.

Film composers were only the latest to pick up the cultural thread of fear and threat in "Dies Irae." Their work stands on the shoulders of Mozart and later composers like Hector Berlioz, who lifted the melody in his 1830 Symphonie fantastique to tell a story of obsessive love and murder, and a nightmare of a witch’s sabbath. Later came Franz Liszt’s 1849 Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) and Giuseppe Verdi’s 1874 Messa da Requiem, a very recognizable piece of music that has made its appearance in no small number of movies, TV shows, commercials, and temp scores.

Vox and Ludwig show the “dies irae” phenomenon in film to be a slow cultural evolution from the ornate, sacred pomp of medieval Catholic rites to the ornate, secular pomp of Hollywood film production, by way of classical composers who seized on the theme’s “sense of dread” but remained at least ambivalent about happy endings on the day of wrath.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Sergio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghetti Westerns, Creating a Perfect Harmony of Sound & Image

Nearly everyone who's heard music has also received intense feelings from music. "We know that music activates parts of the brain that regulate emotion, that it can help us concentrate, trigger memories, make us want to dance," says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his latest video essay. "Music fits so well with the patterns of thought, it's almost as if that lyrical quality is latent in life, or reality, or both. In film, no one understood this better than Sergio Leone, the Italian director of operatic spaghetti Westerns." And though you may not have seen any spaghetti Westerns yourself — even Leone's Clint Eastwood-starring trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — you've surely heard their music.

The fame of the spaghetti Western score owes mostly to composer Ennio Morricone, whose collaboration with Leone "is arguably the most successful in all of cinema," thanks to "the deep respect Leone had for Morricone's work, but also his general feeling for how music should function in film." Unlike most filmmakers, who then, as now, commissioned a picture's score only after they completed the shooting, and sometimes even the editing, Leone would get Morricone's music first, "then design shots around those compositions.

The music, for Leone, really was a kind of script." Using scenes from Once Upon a Time in the West, Puschak shows that music was also an actor, in the sense that Leone brought it to the set so his human actors could react to it during the shoot. Often the music we hear in the background is also what the actors were hearing in the background, and what Leone used to orchestrate their actions and expressions.

Puschak calls the result "a perfect harmony of sound and image," whether the visual element may be a soaring crane shot or the kind of extended close-up he favored of a human face. Among living filmmakers, the spaghetti Western-loving Quentin Tarantino has most clearly followed in Leone's footsteps, to the point that he incorporated Morricone's music in several films before commissioning an original score from the composer for his own western The Hateful Eight. He goes in no more than Leone did for the "temp score," the standard Hollywood practice of filling the soundtrack of a movie in production with existing music and then asking a composer to write replacement music that sounds like it — a major cause of all the bland film scores we hear today. To go back to Once Upon a Time in the West, or any other of Leone's Westerns, is to understand once again what role music in film can really play.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig Taking Batting Practice in Strikingly Restored Footage (1931)

How would Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other famous ballplayers of bygone eras fare if put on the diamond today? Variations on that question tend to come up in conversation among enthusiasts of baseball and its history, and different people bring different kinds of evidence to bear in search of an answer: statistics, eyewitness accounts, analogies between particular historical players and current ones. But the fact remains that none of us have ever actually seen the likes of Ruth, who played his last professional game in 1935, and Gehrig, who did so in 1939, in their prime. But now we can at least get a little closer by watching the film clip above, which shows both of the titanic Yankees at batting practice on April 11, 1931.

What's more, it shows them moving at real-life speed. "Fox Movietone sound cameras made slow-motion captures of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at batting practice during an exhibition practice in Brooklyn, New York," writes uploader Guy Jones (whose other baseball videos include Ruth hitting a home run on opening day the same year and Ruth's last appearance at bat a decade later). "With modern technology, we can witness this footage adjusted to a normal speed which results in a very high framerate."

In other words, the film shows Ruth and Gehrig not just moving in the very same way they did in real life, but captured with a smoothness uncommon in newsreel footage from the 1930s. For comparison, Jones includes at the end of the video "more footage of the practice (shot at typical fps) and the original un-edited slow-mo captures."

Unfortunately, what this film reveals doesn't impress observers of modern baseball. "Ruth and Gehrig in no way look like a modern ballplayer," writes The Big Lead's Kyle Koster. "Ruth is off-balance, falling into his swing. Gehrig routinely lifts his back foot off the ground. Again, it’s batting practice so the competitive juices weren’t flowing. But even by that standard, the whole exercise looks sloppy and inefficient." Cut4's Jake Mintz gets harsher, as well as more technical: "Tell me Ruth's cockamamie swing mechanics would enable him to hit a 98-mph heater." As for the Iron Horse, his "hack is a little better," but still "absurdly low" by today's standards. It goes to show, Mintz writes, that "these two legends, while undeniably transcendent in their time, would be good Double-A hitters at best if they played today." We evolve, our technologies evolve, and so, it seems, do the games we play.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Monty Python’s Eric Idle Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters

When I first saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus, late at night on PBS and in degraded VHS videos borrowed from friends, I assumed the show’s concepts must have come out of bonkers improv sessions. But the troupe’s many statements since the show’s end, in the form of books, documentaries, interviews, etc., have told us in no uncertain terms that Monty Python’s creators always put writing first. “I’m not an actor at all,” says Eric Idle in the GQ video above. “I’m really a writer who just acts occasionally.”

Likewise, in the PBS series Monty Python’s Personal Best, Idle discusses the joy of writing for the show—and compares creating Monty Python to fishing, of all things: “You go to the riverbank every day, you don’t know what you’re going to catch.” This idyllic scene may be the last thing you’d associate with the Pythons, though you may recall their take on fishing in the second season sketch “Fish License,” in which John Cleese’s character, Eric, tries to buy a license for his pet halibut, Eric.

Idle’s protestations notwithstanding, none of the show’s writing would have worked as well as it did onscreen without the considerable acting talents of all five performers. (Idle modestly ascribes his own ability to being “lifted up” by the others.) Above, he talks about the most iconic characters he embodied on the show, beginning with the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?” guy: a character, we learn, based on Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band crossed with a regular from Idle’s local pub named Monty, from whom the troupe took their first name.

We also learn that the character was so popular in the States that “Elvis called everybody ‘squire’ because of that f*cking sketch!” Presley's’ penchant for doing Monty Python material while in bed with his girlfriend (“if only there was footage”) is but one of the many fascinating anecdotes Idle casually tosses off in his commentary on characters like the Australian Bruces, who went on to sing “The Philosopher’s Song”; Mr. Smoketoomuch, who delivers a ten-minute monologue written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman; and Idle’s characters in the non-Python mocumentary All You Need Is Cash, which he created and co-wrote, about a parody Beatles band called The Rutles.

Idle is steadfast in his description of himself as a competent “caricaturist,” and not a “comic actor.” But his song and dance routines, sly subtle wit and broad gestures, and forever funny turn as cowardly Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail should leave his fans with little doubt about his skill in front of the camera.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Short 1967 Film That Imagines How We’d Live in 1999: Online Learning, Electronic Shopping, Flat Screen TVs & Much More

Nobody uses the word computerized anymore. Its disappearance owes not to the end of computerization itself, but to the process' near-completeness. Now that we all walk around with computers in our pockets (see also the fate of the word portable), we expect every aspect of life to involve computers in one way or another. But in 1967, the very idea of computers got people dreaming of the far-flung future, not least because most of them had never been near one, let alone brought one into their home. But for the Shore family, each and every phase of the day involves a computer: their "central home computer, which is secretary, librarian, banker, teacher, medical technician, bridge partner, and all-around servant in this house of tomorrow."

Tomorrow, in this case, means the year 1999. Today is 1967, when Philco-Ford (the car company having purchased the bankrupt radio and television manufacturer six years before) didn't just design and build this speculative "house of tomorrow," which made its debut on a television broadcast with Walter Cronkite, but produced a short film to show how the family of tomorrow would live in it. Year 1999 AD traces a day in the life of the Shores: astrophysicist Michael, who commutes to a distant laboratory to work on Mars colonization; "part-time homemaker" Karen, who spends the rest of the time at the pottery wheel; and eight-year-old James, who attends school only two mornings a week but gets the rest of his education in the home "learning center."

There James watches footage of the moon landing, plausible enough material for a history lesson in 1999 until you remember that the actual landing didn't happen until 1969, two years after this film was made. The flat screens on which he and his parents perform their daily tasks (a technology that would also surface in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the following year) might also look strikingly familiar to we denizens of the 21st century. (Certainly the way James watches cartoons on one screen while his recorded lectures play on another will look familiar to today's parents and educators.) But many other aspects of the Philco-Ford future won't: even though the year 2000 is also retro now, the Shores' clothes and decor look more late-60s than late-90s.

In this and other ways, Year 1999 AD resembles a parody of the techno-optimistic shorts made by postwar corporate America, so much so that Snopes put up a page confirming its veracity. "Many visionaries who tried to forecast what daily life would be like for future generations made the mistake of simply projecting existing technologies as being bigger, faster, and more powerful," writes Snopes' David Mikkelson. Still, Year 1999 AD does a decent job of predicting the uses of technology to come in daily life: "Concepts such as 'fingertip shopping,' an 'electronic correspondence machine,' and others envisioned in this video anticipate several innovations that became commonplace within a few years of 1999: e-commerce, webcams, online bill payment and tax filing, electronic funds transfers (EFT), home-based laser printers, and e-mail."

Even twenty years after 1999, many of these visions have yet to materialize: "Split-second lunches, color-keyed disposable dishes," pronounces the narrator as the Shores sit down to a meal, "all part of the instant society of tomorrow, a society of leisure and taken-for-granted comforts." But as easy as it is to laugh at the notion that "life will be richer, easier, healthier as Space-Age dreams come true," the fact remains that, like the Shores, we now really do have computer programs that let us communicate and do our shopping, but that also tell us what to eat and when to exercise. What would the minds behind Year 1999 AD make of my watching their film on my personal screen on a subway train, amid hundreds of riders all similarly equipped? "If the computerized life occasionally extracts its pound of flesh," says the narrator, "it holds out some interesting rewards." Few statements about 21st-century have turned out to be as prescient.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Orson Welles Trashes Famous Directors: Alfred Hitchcock (“Egotism and Laziness”), Woody Allen (“His Arrogance Is Unlimited”) & More

A bold artist acts first and thinks later. In the case of Orson Welles, one of the boldest artists produced by 20th-century America, that habit also found its way into his speech. This became especially true in the interviews he gave later in life, when he freely offered his opinions, solicited or otherwise, on the work of his fellow filmmakers. The man who made Citizen Kane didn't hesitate to roast, for instance, the European auteurs who ascended after his own career in cinema seemed to stall, and whose work he elaborately satirized in the posthumously released The Other Side of the Wind. His considered remarks include the following: "There's a lot of Bergman and Antonioni that I'd rather be dead than sit through." No, Orson, tell us what you really think.

"According to a young American film critic, one of the great discoveries of our age is the value of boredom as an artistic subject," Welles says in another interview. If so, Michelangelo Antonioni "deserves to be counted as a pioneer and founding father," a maker of movies that amount to "perfect backgrounds for fashion models." As for Bergman, "I share neither his interests nor his obsessions. He's far more foreign to me than the Japanese." Welles has kinder words for Federico Fellini, whom he calls "as gifted as anyone making movies today," but also "fundamentally very provincial." His pictures are "a small-town boy's dream of the big city," which is also the source of their charm, but the man himself "shows dangerous signs of being a superlative artist with little to say."

Welles estimated the younger Jean-Luc Godard's gifts as a director as "enormous. I just can't take him very seriously as a thinker — and that's where we seem to differ, because he does. And though Godard may admire Woody Allen (himself an admirer of Bergman), Welles certainly didn't: "I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man," he tells filmmaker Henry Jaglom. "That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge." When Jaglom objects that Allen isn't arrogant but shy, Welles drives on: "Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is unlimited." Allen "hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It's people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest," while, in Allen's case, "everything he does on screen is therapeutic."

Allen has what Welles calls "the Chaplin disease," and Welles' interviews also feature severe criticisms of Chaplin himself. After referencing the fact that, unlike his fellow silent comedian Harold Lloyd, Chaplin didn't write all his own jokes but used "six gagmen," he declares that Modern Times — regarded by many as Chaplin' masterpiece — "doesn't have a good moment in it." Clearly Welles felt no more need to pull his punches on his elders than he did with the whippersnappers: John Ford "made very many bad pictures," including The Searchers ("terrible"); Cecil B. DeMille Welles credits with giving Mussolini and Hitler the idea for the fascist salute; Elia Kazan will never be forgiven for naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities ("it's just inexcusable"); and even Sergei Eisenstein, father of the montage, is also "the most overrated great director of them all."

You can read more of Welles' choice words on his colleagues in cinema in this thread of interview clips posted by a Twitter user who goes by John Frankensteiner. It also includes Welles' assessment of Alfred Hitchcock, who declined into "egotism and laziness," making films "all lit like television shows." Welles suspects age-related cognitive issues — "I think he was senile a long time before he died," in part because "he kept falling asleep while you were talking to him" — but he also trashes the work Hitchcock did in his prime, such as VertigoSight & Sound's last critics poll named that film the greatest of all time, but Welles calls it even worse than Rear Window, about which "everything was stupid." But at least all these filmmakers, living and dead, can rest easy knowing they didn't rank as low in Welles' estimation as John Landis, "the asshole from Animal House." Jaglom, believing he can influence Landis and mend their relationship, asks what he can do to help. Welles' suggestion: "Kill him."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Bob Odenkirk & Errol Morris Create Comedic Shorts to Help You Take Action Against Global Warming: Watch Them Online

My beach house must be somewhere around here. I used to be able to see the ocean from it. I should be able to see it from the ocean. Ooo, that looks familiar. Lady Liberty. Ha ha! Hellooo! All the best to you.     —Admiral Horatio Horntower

Are there any Better Call Saul fans among the global warming deniers?

A scenario in which one can simultaneously pooh pooh the melting of the polar ice caps and embrace The Thin Blue Line?

Director Errol Morris and his star, Bob Odenkirk, may not change any minds with their Global Meltdown spots they produced in partnership with the Institute for the Future, but hopefully the emphatic end cards will stir some fans to action.

The absurdist 30-second shorts feature Odenkirk, encrusted in epaulets and naval insignia, as the fictional Horntower, “an admiral of a fleet of one and perhaps the last man on Earth.” Marooned on a small block of ice, he rails against the inexpertly animated wildlife encroaching on his domain.

(“You don’t even have the facility of language!” he tells a penguin, and later threatens a walrus that it will “get painted out” of the final cut for “complaining all the time…”)

Certainly a documentarian of Morris’ stature could have taken a lengthier, more serious approach to the subject, but as he notes:

Logic rarely convinces anybody of anything. Climate change has become yet another vehicle for political polarization. If Al Gore said the Earth was round there would be political opposition insisting that the Earth was flat. It’s all so preposterous, so contemptible.

Odenkirk also has some out-of-uniform concerns about climate change, as expressed in "Where I Got These Abs," a 2011 Shouts & Murmurs piece for The New Yorker:

The middle ab on the left (not my left, your left, if you are looking at me) is called Terrence. It’s a dignified ab. It tenses each time I read an op-ed article about global warming. The article’s point of view is immaterial; simply being reminded that I can do nothing to stop the horrific future of floods and catastrophe gives this ab a taut yank that lingers, burning calories in my well-creased forehead at the same time. 

Watch all of Morris and Odenkirk’s Admiral Horntower spots, currently totaling nine, with ten more to come, on Global Meltdown's YouTube channel.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC this Monday, September 9 for the new season’s kickoff of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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