Kim Novak and Borrowed Music

by justindburton on January 10, 2012

Kim Novak, lead actress in Vertigo and current Oscar voter, made headlines yesterday with her reaction to the use of Bernard Hermann’s music in Oscar hopeful The Artist. Her statement:

Los Angeles: “I want to report a rape,” said Kim Novak, the legendary star of “Vertigo,” “Picnic,” and many other revered classics. “My body of work has been violated by ‘The Artist.’ This film took the Love Theme music from “Vertigo” and used the emotions it engenders as its own. Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart can’t speak for themselves, but I can. It was our work that unconsciously or consciously evoked the memories and feelings to the audience that were used for the climax of ‘The Artist.’”

Novak went on to say that “The Artist” could and should have been able to stand on its own. “There was no reason for them to depend on Bernard Herrmann’s score from ‘Vertigo’ to provide more drama. ‘Vertigo’s’ music was written during the filming. Hitchcock wanted the theme woven musically in the puzzle pieces of the storyline. Even though they did given Bernard Herrmann a small credit at the end, I believe this kind of filmmaking trick to be cheating. Shame on them!”

This kind of “borrowing” could portend a dangerous future for all artists in film. “It is morally wrong of people in our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what the original work was intended. It is essential that all artists safeguard our special bodies of work for posterity, with their individual identities intact and protected. [1. Michael Hazanavicius, writer/director of The Artist, has supplied a response, which one can read at the same Deadline link and which includes most of the points one would expect him to make.]

Novak’s reaction includes a number of curiosities that seem to run counter to film and score scholarship. [2. h/t to Luis-Manuel Garcia, who chatted with me about this via email last night and who should be credited with the ideas about Auteurism below, which I hadn’t considered yet.] While the last paragraph suggests that Novak is interested in protecting all works of art from what she considers abuse, the overall tone of shock that registers throughout her statement indicates that she’s probably not previously noticed that borrowing is common musical and cinematic practice. As an Oscar voter, Novak certainly saw screeners of True Grit and Black Swan last year, both of which incorporated a good deal of music written by composers other than Carter Burwell (True Grit) or Clint Mansell (Black Swan) for entirely different purposes than those for which it was designated in the film. But it wasn’t until this year, when The Artist encroached on her territory, that Novak spoke up.

As people who study music and its uses alongside other media, it can be easy to dismiss Novak as naively employing a notion of authenticity and originality that simply doesn’t – can’t – work. Interestingly, Novak isn’t alone, though. At both Deadline and Metafilter, a common response is that most film-goers probably wouldn’t recognize the music in question and would be surprised to find that it was borrowed from another movie, implying that most viewers trust that the music they hear in a film is entirely original.

This is not a new problem, of course; those who work in the hermeneutics of intertextuality must always deal with the gap between what is borrowed by a musician and what is recognized by a listener. What I find interesting about Novak’s statement, along with the general concession that audiences expect or assume that music in a film is originally composed, is that this casts directors and composers who borrow material from other films in the roles of plagiarists. The implication – the starting point for the discussion – is that they’re trying to “get away with” something. The point Novak is pressing has nothing to do with legalities (permission was secured; Hermann was credited) but with morality, and her use of the word “rape” signals this pretty clearly. Novak is insisting that borrowing music violates not only the original composer but anyone else associated with that piece of music.

And here’s where it becomes especially interesting! Novak didn’t compose the music in question, nor did she direct the movie in which it was used. In fact, her only known relationship to the music was that she appeared on screen at the same moment when the music was played. So how is its use in another movie a violation of her?

Novak is rubbing directly against the Auteurism that permeates film analysis from popular print to scholarship. While Novak mentions Hitchcock [2. She also mentions Jimmy Stewart, but, oddly, not Hermann.], she isn’t just claiming that The Artist is violating the director of Vertigo but also herself, Stewart, and, presumably, Hermann. She claims a collective ownership of Vertigo that invests each actress/actor/director/composer in the work of the others.

Whatever else comes of Novak’s statement, her notion of identity from an actress’s perspective is intriguing. She suggests that we may decompartmentalize the movie-making process so that each worker is granted the same claim in the other workers’ work as s/he receives from his/her own. She projects a hybrid identity that splices together music, drama, staging, and myriad other components of movie-making into a single endeavor to create “special bodies,” indeed.

{ 1 comment }

Christopher Doll January 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Interesting read, Justin! I would add that it has been widely accepted (to my knowledge) that the love theme from Vertigo itself draws heavily on the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, so Novak’s own score doesn’t “stand on its own.”

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