Saturday, 11 August 2012

... pushed on by solar winds : Denny Zeitlin's music for Invasion of the Body Snatchers

There is a moment towards the end of Don Siegel's original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from 1956, when the hero, Miles Bennell, is rushing out of the town onto the motorway beyond. The town alarm is going, and the music comes in, strings beating in time, even seemingly in key, with the wail of the siren. The effect recalls the music of Edgard Varèse, who had been complementing his orchestra with sirens since the 1920s. Varèse had a certain notoriety in America at that time, in the early years of the Cold War. On the one hand, some suspected him of communist sympathies; others claimed the scientists at Los Alamos listened to his music while working on the bomb. His public image, as Anne Schreffler has remarked, was less that of a musician, more some sort of mad scientist, "a prophet of the atomic age."

A similar thing happens in Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of the same film. There is no 'town alarm' here. Kaufman's film is set in San Francisco; not across the bay in sleepy Mill Valley. But composer Denny Zeitlin creates his own alarm, with jerkily alternating, high-pitched and dissonant synthesizer chords.

Zeitlin was and remains a professional psychiatrist, rather like Leonard Nimoy's character in the film. He is also a highly respected jazz pianist, praised by Down Beat and positively fawned over in Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties. Thelonius Monk once said of him, "He knows what's happening." In the years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers he worked with Joe Reposo on the music to Sesame Street, composing this gem while he was there (featuring Grace Slick on vocals),

Kaufman's film is a real delight, surely one of the best science fiction remakes of its time, with The Fly and The Thing still a few years round the corner. In a way, though, it resembles less any other science fiction film of the period than certain political conspiracy thrillers from earlier in the decade, like The Parallax View. Such films of which Fredric Jameson said they represent an attempt to "think a system so vast that it cannot be encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception with which human beings normally orient themselves."

Its first act is full of these wonderful long takes, in which frequently next to nothing is really happening - or if it is, it is partially obscured, seen only in reflection or silhouette. But these moments are invested with incredible tension thanks to the minimal input of Zeitlin strumming piano keys, or easing out a low Moogy throb, or beating some strange and unidentifiable percussion instrument. Later in the film, these scenes are gradually faded out in favour of some increasingly repetitive chase scenes which never for a moment feel repetitive. This at least partly because of the strange things coming out of Zeitlin's band, which at one point in particular - just shortly before the scene mentioned above - starts playing decidedly free.

Even without Zeitlin's music, this would be a great sounding film. Ben Burtt, who provided "special" sound effects, had just finished work on the first Star Wars the previous year and had built up a tremendous library of synthesizers and concrète sounds in the process. Burtt's sound effects are so rich, so interesting, that they sound like music; while Zeitlin's instrumental treatments are so strange as to become like sound effects. At the score's finest moments, these extended techniques and electronic treatments will suddenly burst forth into a full lush orchestral sound, like life bursting out of some alien seed.

In order to survive, protagonists Bennell and Elizabeth Driscoll have to keep awake, guzzling fistfulls of speed along the way to help them do so. Before long, Driscoll is begging for sleep, "I can't stay awake anymore!" Things were evidently going much the same way for Zeitlin himself, who was so punished by the weeks of non-stop twenty-hour days working on the soundtrack that he refused to work on another film score again.