Thoughts On: Top Gun - Contrivance: Manipulative Soundtracks & Literal Melodrama


Top Gun - Contrivance: Manipulative Soundtracks & Literal Melodrama

Thoughts On: Top Gun (1986) & Manipulative Scores/Soundtracks

A look into contrivance in cinema, how audiences receive it and how it shapes a cinematic space.

Whilst much could be said about Top Gun as a genre film and an 80s film that sits in a strange post-New Hollywood space (the 60s and 70s being a world apart from the 80s and 90s in Hollywood in so many respects), today we are going to use this film as an example of a musically lead melodrama. This kind of film has been a key part of cinema since the coming of sound, one of the greatest examples coming from the late 30s via Gone With The Wind. In the likes of Gone With The Wind, the musical score or, as in Top Gun, the soundtrack, becomes a dominant force in the cinematic space - or rather, above the diegesis and so on the periphery of the cinematic space. In a variety of ways, these films demonstrate how music can 'manipulate' an audience. However, what exactly does this mean? This is our question for today: what is the impact of a manipulative score or soundtrack on a cinematic space?

To confront this question, we must place drama at the centre of our discussion. A cinematic space is made to move, is given time, by actions and conflicts. In art, in narrative, in cinema, action and conflict are the epitome of drama. To ask how an active slot of cinematic spacetime is manipulated by music, we must then specify with reference to drama. After all, we are all more than familiar with the place and purpose of a dominant score. When a character is sad, the score emphasises this, when they are angered, questioning, lost, scared, anything, the score sweeps in to heighten their emotion, to make palpable their inner thoughts, to physicalise the conflict and drama at hand; a quasi, some would say lazy, form of expressionism. In some cases, the lyrics of a song may even provide exposition of some sort, revealing the inner questions of character or the themes being explored. If we turn to Top Gun, we have a great example of this in Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone:

Top Gun (maybe rightly so - and quite like thousands of Hollywood films like it) is surrounded by a somewhat indifferent attitude that treats the film's narrative as meaningless spectacle, the comedy, romance and maybe characters the only aspects of substance thanks to their ability to entertain. Alas, as Loggins' song makes clear, this does have some meaning underlying it. Top Gun essentially deals with the ideal man in the ideal state - that being a hero in a danger zone. The danger zone is the place anyone who seeks greatness must venture in to, and Top Gun essentially deals with the effects of travelling into this place. We may argue that all hero narratives have this sentiment in them to some degree with stakes raising to their highest at the point that a hero must truly prove himself. Let us not stray, however.

What we discover with Loggins' rather horrible music video - which strangely imitates Apocalypse Now, a war film that is a world apart from Top Gun - is that Top Gun is not necessarily a meaningless film, nor a film constructed without intention and theme. The illusion that is conjured by the music layered onto scenes is the implication that this narrative has no meaning to speak on - thus it becomes an agent of simplification.

If we think about this on the level of character and drama, we come upon something troubling. Is it really that dominant musical scores manipulate the emotions of audiences, or do they create an illusion of emotion about characters? This is a very important distinction to make. The idea of a musical score manipulating an audience is a very vague one to me. I cannot imagine how to formulate or conceptualise this. With what does a musical score manipulate an audience? The answer would lead one towards assertions of association. A soundtrack may carry its own emotional meaning that, though it is separate from the narrative, is combined--associated--with it via sound-montage. The audience is, one could say, tricked here, but to be more specific, we could suggest that the score attempts to create an illusion of emotion around characters and drama, to represent the essence of the narrative moment with external material. In essence, the cinematic space does not carry emotion and symbolic material of great expression itself, a song does; we are not ambiguously 'manipulated', instead, the cinematic space is built with non-diegetic material.

With that outlined, we come to a problem. Is all non- or extra-diegetic material unwelcome in the cinematic space? One could make a good argument for 'yes' here. V.O is so often deplored in film and so are opening texts - just as much as dominant scores are. There then seems to be a common expectation in audiences that story will emerge from the diegesis, from characters within the physical world of a film. Alas, why? Why do we not like non-diegetic material being used 'too much' to tell a story on screen?

In my estimation, the problem with dominant non-diegetic elements concerns contrivance. Without music, V.O or opening text, an editor/writer/composer pretty much evaporates from a film and we are left alone with our performers, who, if they perform well, will only be perceived as their characters. This preservation of fantasy and illusion allows for simple, high quality communication through the artistic medium thanks to unbroken boundaries. When watching a film, one merely needs to pay attention to the rules of the world. In a melodrama, rules are a little like gravity: you don't need an equation to feel it. In more complex, arthouse films, one can often feel the need for someone to explain why this particular kind of gravity exists. And this can often be because we feel the presence of an auteur shaping a cinematic space with complex rules that require questioning. To break the continuity of a melodrama with non-diegetic material can re-introduce the filmmakers into question and so something is sullied; suddenly we must acknowledge the fact that film is made, that story is an illusion, and so we lose sight of the story and we are taken too far from it to feel anything - almost as if a melodrama's aura has a smaller radius than an art film's.

Let us stop before we fall too far into this exploration of why the non-diegetic is often disliked. We must ask who dislikes the non-diegetic. If we use Top Gun as our example, we can see that, whilst critics generally didn't care too much for it, audiences did. And a big part of this was the film's two incredibly popular original songs, Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away. We must now then contradict our pre-suppositions: do audiences really make value judgements based on the dominance of the non-diegetic?

It is difficult to tell. However, maybe it is reasonable to suggest that critics are sensitive to contrivance whereas general audience aren't necessarily. The massive success of so many 70s, 80s and 90s films with equally successful soundtracks is a testament to this. And such begins to suggest that a cinematic space with clear rules and explicit boundaries (an unbroken fourth wall for instance) isn't necessarily conducive of higher quality communication via art. We must then re-evaluate how we judge contrivance. And so we come back to drama.

Top Gun is a melodrama. What makes it melodramatic is its handling of reality. In short, melodramas orchestrate a reality; they present reality musically: contrived. To be specific, as specificity will really matter shortly, melodramas do not make up their own reality. Instead, melodramas present reality with a set of assumptions that manifest as stereotypes, archetypes and tropes. This makes melodramas foundationally 'unreal', however, the unreality of melodramas is predicated on what one might call a distilled or simplified vision of reality. Melodrama is easy to recognise with a simple question: Is this real, or is this what I assume things could be like?

If we apply this question to Top Gun, we quickly come to realise why it is melodramatic. Are we convinced that air force pilots act exactly as those in Top Gun do? Or, do we assume, given the little we know about fighter pilots, that Top Gun presents a simplified, distilled and heightened representation of real fighter pilots? I am more than inclined to assume the latter. And in assuming that the filmmakers behind Top Gun worked with stereotype and upon a set of personal assumptions, we can come to find greater truth in the Hollywood melodrama.

Tarantino is probably one of the greatest melodramatists simply for the fact that he seems to be the purest. Through Tarantino's films there is a very strong sense that not only is everything to do with his cinematic space based off of stereotype and trope, but that the logic underlying all of his films is not based in the real world, but in the world of movies. Thus, Tarantino is always, and rather consciously, making movies about movies; a gangster movie not about real gangsters as Scorsese would endeavour to, but a gangster movie about the only kind of gangsters Tarantino would have come into contact with: those on the silver screen. This melodramatic basis in the unreal gives films constructed under this mode, such as Top Gun, a characteristic naivety that doubles as a quasi-ideology: an often unconscious set of presuppositions about the real world. In my belief, audiences are attracted to this and may even find pleasure or entertainment in it.

Whilst I would not argue, like Slavoj Žižek does, that cinema tells us what we should desire, I would suggest that cinema, in addition to providing desires, massages and plays with pre-existent desires or yearnings in our sub-conscious. Melodramas formulate a mode of cinema that is built on unreal presumption and that appeals to audience's unreal presumptions. Under this unscientific investigation of the world through our own biases, I am confident there is some truth (albeit distorted and masked from ourselves). In Top Gun, the truth presented would be attached to the discussed thematic meaning in the narrative - that concerning the hero living on the edge of destruction, in the danger zone, as to become the best: the ideal. This truth is put through an aesthetic and stylistic grinder and dramatised by stereotypical personas, but it is nonetheless accessible. Alas, this is not what we are interested in. It is not important that melodrama brings truthful representation into question, but rather, that engaging what could be truthless representation is a source of either pleasure or discomfort for audiences.

Here, we make our return to non-diegetic material. Those who recognise and/or dislike soundtracks that are 'manipulative', for some reason or another, are negatively perturbed by unreal representations, or at least, representations of the world that aren't trying to mask their own contrivance. (I suspect that many critics who dislike melodrama, decry high concept cinema and bemoan manipulation, merely have the ability to recognise this contrivance and have not questioned its place in cinema, and have rather contrived for themselves an emotional and psuedo-intellectual response to it). On the other hand, those who cannot recognise and/or like manipulative soundtracks and scores are clearly left in comfort in a contrived world based on presuppositions they may just share - or have accepted from film.

Much more could be said about this subject, and indeed it cries out to be outlined more concisely, but, let us not get lost. Let us instead come to the conclusion that dominant non-diegetic material such as a song falls into the mode of melodrama rather comfortably. Melodrama, as we have said, makes music out of reality. To have music drive melodrama in a film like Top Gun leaves us with a literal melodrama, a musical 'musical drama'. Here contrivance is doubled-down upon. Not only is this kind of film made for audiences who are to have the same unreal set of presuppositions about the world as the film does, but the audience is also supposed to be comfortable with the illusion that is cinema. In this sense, once could argue that what snobbish critics may refer to as stupid, trashy films are often made for more sophisticated audiences, those that can very easily accept that a film is a film and can operate and receive emotion from a meta-textual piece of melodrama--can embrace the 'melodramatically meta' cinematic space. Granted, this meta cinematic space isn't likely accepted consciously by the majority of those that enjoy Top Gun. Instead, audiences who enjoy the likes of Top Gun are naturally, subconsciously comfortable with a contrived presentation of an inherently contrived piece of art; if a film is just a film, why should a filmmaker worry about damaging the sanctity of the cinematic space with heightening elements such as hyper-expressive soundtracks? What matters most is impact. Truth is given, it is assumed; narrative is known, it cannot be taught; cinema must affect, it can only intensify its ability to do so. It is for this perspective that the likes of Top Gun and other literal melodramas exist.

We will bring things towards a close now as we are approaching a topic I have tried to explore before: Bastard Cinema. Implicit in this perspective of film as just film is the assumption that film has lost its magic, that practically all the stories have been told, and that new experiences can be streamlined and heightened if filmmakers also embraced such facts. It is from this perspective, which, in my view, really starts to flourish in the 60s, that cinemas such as Michael Bay's have emerged. So, there is much more to be said about contrivance and its impact on drama and the cinematic space. But, for now, what are your thoughts on music's effect on melodrama?

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