Taking IN the Trash

There's a scene in the movie Big Eyes where someone is nearly stabbed with a salad fork. It's a striking — even shocking — scene, and not the least because the surroundings are so very un-stabby. Elegant socialites in bejeweled cocktail dresses are standing around chattering in small groups. Fussy hors d'oeuvres sit on delicate china, waiting to be consumed. Antonio Vivaldi's "Spring" is playing in the background.

This scene reminded me of another scene in another movie, specifically the German art gallery scene from The Avengers. The tone is somewhat different — and the stakes somewhat higher — but once again a gathering of swanky people in fancy clothes turns abruptly into a scene of violence. This time, the accompaniment is a string quartet.

I can think of any number of scenes like this. Not scenes where upper-crust socializing is interrupted by unexpected violence, but scenes where classical music is used to imply classiness and sophistication. Put on a little Mozart, and we're swept away into a world of refinement, elegance, and charm. To be sure, it's overwhelmingly a world of surfaces — we're in the land of tittering laughter at an art gala, not raw confessions wrenched out in a private room — but there can be no doubt that it's a classy affair. (I'm primarily talking about diegetic uses here — times when the music is actually happening in the world of the story, instead of extra-diegetic uses where it's just happening in the soundtrack. Most movie scores would arguably fall under the classical umbrella, but you're usually not supposed to notice them consciously; here I'm dealing with moments where you're supposed to consciously notice the classical music as such.)

The flip side is that this is a very small emotional box to live in. It's polite laughter, not a bellowing guffaw. You might be melancholy, but there isn't enough room to be devastated. The most confrontational you can get is saying something arch. This is music you appreciate, not music you enjoy.

Read More