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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Music of The Wicker Tree (2011)

The mixed reception of Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012) reinforced my appreciation for Robin Hardy's The Wicker Tree (2011).  Despite Prometheus' successes, that film is plagued by evidence that it is not a pure vision of what its chief creators intended. With the competing interests of the studio, director, writer, and re-writer all at odds, there were too many chefs in that kitchen.  It's a shame, because it taints the strong underlying material.

In contrast, The Wicker Tree is a complete vision.  Hardy made his directorial debut in 1973 with The Wicker Man, an adaptation of a novel by David Pinner.  Hardy's career has been quiet ever since.  He directed one film in 1986, and appears to have done nothing but writing before returning to the Wicker universe.

In 2002, Hardy sought funding for a sequel to The Wicker Man, but coming up empty handed, he wrote his idea as a novel, which was released as Cowboys for Christ. Writing the novel solidified Hardy's vision, and he adapted his own work into the screenplay for The Wicker Tree.

"It really is another world over there in America, isn't it?"
The Wicker Tree is about culture clash.  Two Christian missionaries from the United States, Beth and Steve, travel abroad to preach to Scottish pagans, and wind up ritually sacrificed to a fertility cult.  From the UK himself, Hardy uses the Wicker universe to paint a caricature of evangelical Americans.  And if we may borrow from an interpretation of Eli Roth's Hostel (2005) (that the Europeans who torture tourists for sport are commentary on how U.S. Americans uniquely misunderstand the rest of the world), the evil pagans of Scotland may stand for the missionaries' misunderstanding of other cultures and traditions. These Scots are kind of a caricature of the enemy "out there," the heathens outside the evangelical faith community. They are habitual sinners at best, and murdering cultists underneath.

The mutual misunderstandings between the evangelicals and pagans are often sources of dark humor in the film.  Both groups underestimate each other, and through their mutual ignorance, the film satirizes the evangelical worldview without completely abandoning its adherents to parody.  Beth and Steve may be naive, but they are written as good, sympathetic characters. They face personal struggles as they strive to do good in their commitments to their faith, and their pagan hosts are wrong to dismiss them as fools.

A continuum of the use of music in film
Hardy's film stands out because of the importance of music in developing the characters, moving the plot forward, and reflecting the themes developed therein.  To me, this is the apex of telling a story not just in the script and on the screen, but in the audio track as well. When I imagine a continuum of the creative use of music in the horror film, it looks something like this:

I. No Music
A film rarely has no musical score. Besides The Birds, which truly had none, the final scene of Play Misty For Me comes to mind (ironically, as the title refers to a jazz standard) because there is no score accompanying the final confrontation between Dave (Clint Eastwood) and Evelyn (Jessica Walter), which today seems like a strange choice. Without music to create tension in the scene, their combat is a comically anticlimactic series of grunts and punching noises leading up to the end credits.

II. Atmosphere and Cues
Most films fall into this category. Psycho is famous for it's repeated themes and jarring cues that accompany the shocking scenes, and showcases the effectiveness of the strategic placement of music in a film.

III. Relevant Music Originating in the Fictional World
Sometimes, music played or listened to by a character in the film serves the dual purpose of contributing to the atmosphere of the scene while servicing the plot.  In Blade Runner, the atmospheric music fades as Rachael noodles at a piano, then returns to play alongside the piano.  The piano and background music are in different keys, but are harmonically relative, and the effect is haunting.  In The Strangers, Kristin and James listen to Gillian Welch's "My First Lover" on vinyl, and at one point, an intruder jostles the turntable, causing the phrase "quicksilver girl," with its jarringly unconventional harmony, to repeat over and over. The sound hides the footsteps of the intruder, and the repeating melody acts as a tense score to a tense scene.  Similarly, Funny Games begins with the protagonists challenging each other to guess the title of the classical compositions playing on their CD player.  The lilting music is harshly interrupted by John Zorn's "Bonehead," which foreshadows the use of that same track on CD by one antagonist to cover his own footsteps as he searches for an escaped captive hiding in an empty house.

IV. Music From the Fictional World Acting as Text and Subtext
The Wicker Tree features traditional atmospheric and incidental music, but is noteworthy for featuring music that furthers the plot while furthering the themes, with the lyrics and harmony speaking symbolically about the characters and the relationships between them.  The filmmakers have crafted a depth of culture for the fictional characters, but the songs also organically introduce subtextual themes while fleshing out the characters, and while serving the usual role of providing atmosphere to the scene in which they are featured.

The Songs of The Wicker Tree

"I Know Where I Am Going"
The film opens with Beth's voice singing a traditional Scottish (or Irish) folk song, which is fitting in that Beth soon travels to Scotland.  The performance introduces the audience to Beth's pure singing voice.  Though she speaks with a Texas twang, her singing voice is generally free from inflection. She has the control and technique of a formally trained singer, and her performances have the formality of musical theater, rather than the informal affectations of popular music styles.

Harmonically, the song follows simple I-IV-V chord changes common to Western folk music. Lyrically, it is a secular love song with a noticeably Scottish vocabulary, particularly from the use of "bonny," meaning "physically attractive." The song is an example of how European folk music begat so much of the popular music of the United States; more broadly, how European influence shaped the cultural, artistic, and religious traditions in America.

Second song, based on Luke 1:54
In a scene in her church Beth sings a Christian country song. The song appears to be an original paraphrasing of Luke 1:54 set to music. She is accompanied by piano, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and a drummer playing a two-piece kit with brushes. Hardy pays attention to detail- the instruments you see are the instruments you hear.  The instrumentation is a cross between traditional bluegrass and acoustic country music, and gives some background to the religious culture Beth and Steve hail from.  There's no gospel choir, nor is it Christian contemporary rock. It's Texan country music, with a biblical bent. It's harmonically and rhythmically positive and upbeat.  For these Christians, we see that churchgoing is a way of life, and it's fun-- not at all distinct from leisurely pursuits.

"The Canticle"
Beth's next performance takes place in a large Scottish church. Accompanied by an orchestra, she sings an original arrangement with lyrics credited to Handel (based on the phrase "I know that my redeemer lives," originally "liveth" in Handel's Messiah Part III). This piece is a departure from the informal music Beth has already sung.  The townspeople set up a microphone for her because, as Lady Delia says, "none of these pop people can really sing." But Beth graciously shakes her head and begins to sing perfectly audibly in a rigorous formal style that projects over the instruments.  Her pitch is perfect, and she displays an enormous octave range in full voice.  Beth proves that she has appreciation and ability for the highly-demanding classical tradition and its connection to an historical form of religious worship.  To the surprise of others, Beth demonstrates through this performance more depth to her musicality, and to her religious conviction, than what we have seen up to this point.

"Trailer Trash Love"
A local television station covers Beth's performance at the church, but for contrast shows a music video Beth starred in as a secular country music artist before being "born again." Her midriff is exposed over a pair of Daisy Dukes, and she chirps out suggestive lyrics. Most relevant to her imminent lifestyle change is the line "There are pleasures in Heaven and God above/But baby, nothing compares to my trailer trash love." The way the old Beth sang this song makes her more endearing. Her voice on that raunchy pop-country number sounds like a trained singer jumping into rock music for the first time. This is because singers who are used to singing in church or in musical theater are often not accustomed to the different skill set used in popular music forms. Learning to stop enunciating so carefully, when to use contractions, how to slide between pitches, when to apply vibrato, and adopt inflections comes from imitating other singers. Beth instead sounds like a talented theater kid doing Carrie Underwood karaoke.

This is not criticism of the actress (Britannia Nicol); it helps the impression that Beth was plucked from the church and placed in an industry where her body was more important than her talent. Poor Beth is ashamed of herself for that period in her life, even though it's likely that whoever produced that video intended to exploit her.

"The Laddie Song"
"Will you go, Laddie, go, to the breas o' Balquhither / We'll crown the Laddie's queen and we'll feast the night together / Will you go, Laddie, go."

Film is usually thought of as a visual medium, but because it is also a narrative, it can employ literary devices. A skilled filmmaker usually reflects the virtues of literature by using literary devices within visual cues or dialogue. It is more unusual to rely so heavily, as this film does, on film music to convey plot or subtler devices.  Here, Steve has just finished performing an elaborate card trick based on significant numbers in the Bible, and in doing so, he shows himself to be "above" his audience in that he no longer gambles, but still has mastery over the cards themselves (even when one man shuffles the deck mid-performance). As Steve completes the trick, however, the pianist begins singing "The Laddie Song." The song quite literally foreshadows the fate the townspeople have in store for Beth and Steve... a ritualistic crowning and a cannibalistic feast.   The song is even picked up in the next scene by the seamstresses, singing a capella as they sew the May Queen's dress. In the earlier scene, the song is sung in defiance of Steve, as though the pub patrons are joking about his impending murder right under his nose. In the next scene, the song is sung absently to pass the time, foretelling that the entire community is in on the conspiracy, but that to them it is a fairly pedestrian annual ritual.

"The Fruity Song"
As Steve ascends the stairs to his room at the inn, a woman at the piano sings an innuendo-laden song, full of golden apples, ripe cherries, etc. The tune is slow and sorrowful as the narrator recalls a past lover. The singer comes across as a sexy older woman; both Steve and the men in the pub watch her attentively as she sings. That she is nearly twice Steve's age yet evoking sexual encounters from her youth makes Steve question his promise of abstinence. He seems to fixate on what he is missing out on, visualizing Beth covered in fruit as he lies awake on his bed, and he soon cheats on her with a seductive young woman. He had struggles with his commitment to pre-marital chastity in earlier scenes, but the song seems to push him to break his promises and partake in the sexually liberal world he and Beth have entered.  Once Steve finally has sex, he is doomed under the slasher paradigm of "vice precedes slice-and-dice." (And the apparent implementation of this paradigm leads us to believe that the virginal Beth will escape as the "final girl..." which makes the twist all the more wicked.)

"Power in the Blood" and "Power in the Blood 2"
"Would you be free from the burden of sin? / There's power in the blood, power in the blood / Would you o'er evil a victory win? / There's power in the blood of the lamb / There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the lamb"

This is a traditional gospel song, recorded many times over. It appears in the film in two different arrangements. The first is the traditional version, a simple I-IV-V progression common to gospel, bluegrass, and country.  The second is an a capella arrangement with the melody reconfigured into the notes of the much more sinister-sounding melodic minor scale. Graham McTavish does not sound like a trained singer, which incredibly makes the transposition of the melody sound less like artifice and more like his inability to sing the tradition version correctly. It sounds like he's fumbling for the correct pitch, but the intervals he lands on are carefully chosen for their foreboding character.

In the earlier scene, Beth preaches to the pagans and then encourages them to join her in singing the song as Steve distributes the lyrics.  The group perks up and joins in, with at least one member truly getting into it with an impromptu harmony.  In the later scene, Sir Lachlan begins singing the minor key version as he and his followers advance upon the cornered Steve, preparing to devour him. The pagans join him in shouting the chorus and pumping their fists in a militaristic fashion.

This twist is brilliant.  In its first iteration, Beth encourages her audience to convert, so that they may be liberated from their pagan sins. The song calls up the age-old imagery of the blood of Christ, the lamb of God, the spilling of which washed away the sins of man.  To Beth, this is standard doctrine, but to her listeners, it is not so far removed from its literal meaning. For the imagery, nay, the practice of the sacrificial lamb is older than Christianity, and the literal spilling of blood for the greater good is something the pagans can endorse. The evangelicals believe their message is getting through, but the would-be converts have instead tapped into a hidden common ground between their faiths-- this violent image.  For Beth, the "power in the blood" is rhetorical, but for Lachlan's followers, it is still quite literal. Two millennia prior, Beth might have felt the same.

The best aspects of Beth's character are her respect for the past, as shown by her appreciation and mastery of sacred music and her commitment to abstinence (an old-school concept, anymore).  But her downfall was in failing to be able to relate to the pagans of Scotland. She believed too fully in the power of her form of evangelical Christianity, a very recent offshoot of the Abrahamic tradition, but she failed to see the danger she faced, a literal acting-out of the sacrificial lamb image at the root of her own faith. Perhaps more importantly, she should have seen the similarities between their respective traditions and left the Scots in peace instead of questing to convert them. After all, the evil committed by the pagans was guided by Sir Lachlan to hide his corporation's responsibility for the pollution of the land and sterilization of the people.

"The Anthem Duet" and "The Anthem at the Tree"
Both songs are original arrangements with lyrics taken from "Osin in the Land of Youth" in the Poem of Osin (or more commonly, "Oisin," the great warrior-poet of Irish mythology).

Beth joins a young man in a duet at the piano as he sings: "The feast shall cloy not, nor the chase shall tire / Nor music cease for ever through the hall / The gold and jewels of the Land of Youth / Outshine all splendours ever dreamed by man / Thou shalt have horses of the fairy breed / Thou shalt have hounds that can outrun the wind / A hundred chiefs shall follow thee in war / A hundred maidens sing thee to thy sleep."

At the climax, the defeated pagans sing in mournful defiance as they retreat from Beth: "Delightful is the land beyond all dreams / Fairer than aught thine eyes have ever seen / There all the year the fruit is on the tree / And all the year the bloom is on the flower / There with wild honey drip the forest trees / The stores of wine and mead shall never fail / Nor pain nor sickness knows the dweller there / Death and decay come near him never more."

The "Land of Youth" refers to Tír na nÓg, an earthly paradise inhabited by supernatural beings that fortunate travelers might happen upon.  The description from the song is very similar to descriptions of Heaven, but Tír na nÓg is an earthly reward, and plays into the differences between the evangelical and pagan worldviews. Their villainy aside, the pagans in the film worship fertility and endorse sexual gratification. In a way, they find their fulfillment in the satisfaction of their earthly desires, making the most of their lives in an immediate way. Contrarily, the evangelicals condemn those behaviors and practice modified asceticism in anticipation of a reward in the afterlife.

The song, with it's idyllic imagery, posits that Heaven exists on earth and there is no reason to deny it. Beth sings along at the piano, unable to see the ideological struggle in which she is participating.  And yet at the climax, having burned Sir Lachlan alive for murder, she asks the pagans, "Don't you have a song for this? 'Auld Land Syne,' perhaps? Oh, you don't like that one! How about your 'Laddie' song? I don't really know the words, so you'll have to help me!" Beth calls them out as being nothing without their songs and rituals, and she appears to have won the day when, without their leader, they retreat from her. Can her criticism be turned against her? From the beginning, her faith has manifest itself in song and performance, which makes for a good show, but says nothing about the depth of her spiritual experience. Her singing talent made her a star in the church in the same way it almost made her a sexualized starlet in her secular career. At this moment, she thinks she has won because she thinks the pagans are all singing and no conviction. The pagans thought the same about her when she arrived. Beth showed her substance through the strength she exerted to fight her own worldly desires, pressures from Steve, and the pagans' violent scheme against her. The pagans proved their conviction by eventually making good on Lachlan's plan.

I first watched The Wicker Tree over a year and a half ago, probably not long after the last time I wrote anything for this blog. It is an uncommon film, and my appreciation for it has only grown in the interim. It is campy in places, sure, and its dark humor seems out of place, but it is also scary, full of social critique, and an outstanding example of using film music to tell a deeper story than would otherwise be possible.

John Kenneth Muir, my genre criticism hero (and occasional reader) maintains that the highest success of a film is that its form reflects its content.  In a rare way, The Wicker Tree's form does so, not just visually, but audibly. I think that's quite an achievement.