Kaiju Kinetics: Anticipating Violence in the Soundtrack to Pacific Rim (2013)


Kaiju Kinetics: Anticipating Violence in the Soundtrack to Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013) is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. Guillermo del Toro's love letter to classic monster movies and Japanese mecha is expertly crafted popcorn fare. Once the novel introduction--a masterclass in exposition and montage--passes, every story beat is telegraphed from a mile away. Every origin story, every heroic sacrifice, every unlikely partnership, looms large in our narrative peripheral vision before landing. It's tautly executed and stylish, but safe: "Save the Cat" storytelling, propped up with monumental action setpieces that make it an ideal background movie, perfect for an annual re-watch during a long writing marathon.

With a sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising due to hit theaters in a few weeks, I thought I'd write a bit about one feature of the original's soundtrack that has always struck me: the main theme is constructed in a way that perfectly mirrors its larger-than-life action, and its comfortingly broad story strokes.

Pacific Rim was scored by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones, and most recently Ava Duvernay's A Wrinkle in Time) and features Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on its title track (used for the film's end credits). Djawadi wrote distinct themes for the heroic Jaegers (the giant robots that defend humanity), and the lumbering, mysterious kaiju (giant monsters who emerge from an undersea portal to attack coastal cities).

The Jaeger theme's metric structure is what makes it so striking. Most heroic themes seem to begin either on the beat (think of the fanfare that begins John Williams' Superman theme, or the orchestral flourish from Guardians of the Galaxy), or with a strong, single upbeat (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). The Jaeger theme's upbeat, on the other hand, occupies two beats, beginning on the "and" of three. As shown below (in comparison to some of those other themes I mentioned), this makes the pick-up both exceptionally long, and metrically very weak.

Pacific Rim (2013; Ramin Djawadi)

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Superman (1978; John Williams) [1]


Star Wars (1977; John Williams)

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; John Williams)

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Admittedly, this wouldn't be all that notable if the film didn't so frequently match the theme's opening downbeat to the action on screen. A good example is shown in the clip below. Gipsy Danger (the Jaeger piloted by our heroes Raleigh [Charlie Hunnam] and Mako [Rinko Kikuchi]) appears on the scene of a desperate brawl in Hong Kong harbor. "Alright Mako, get ready, this is for real," Raleigh yells. The underscore's tense silence says the same thing to the audience. The beast charges. Gipsy Danger bends at the knees as the theme enters, preparing to throw its shoulders up like an offensive lineman. The combatants collide as the downbeat lands and the rest of the orchestra enters. The moment seems agonizingly (or perhaps, thrillingly?) long; the underscore is less an upbeat and more of a complete suspension of musical time while we wait for the blow to land.

Such mirrored anticipatory gestures--from the Jaeger and the soundtrack, simultaneously--happen over and over throughout the film. Pacific Rim luxuriates in its own scale, fully understanding that the joy of watching a 30-story tall robot fight a 30-story tall lizard lies in the deliberateness of it all. The movie's fight scenes seem to unfold in slow motion. Gipsy Danger's uppercuts swing for acres before they land on the kaiju's jaw, and the viewer's pleasure lies not in the impact itself, but in the several seconds of anticipation: the frisson of just how awesome that punch is going to be.

(Slow motion, not coincidentally, has been a part of kaiju movies since the beginning: it's what gave the very first, man-in-a-suit Godzilla [1954] a sense of mass and scale.)

After Gipsy and the kaiju grapple for a few seconds, the monster gains the upper hand. It hurls the massive Jaeger toward the shore. The music stops as the robot soars silently, helplessly through the air. For five whole seconds Gipsy rotates gently; the soundtrack rushes back in as the robot nears an overpass, the rapid escalation of noise just before impact mirroring the release of the breath that the viewer is meant to have held until now. The Jaeger scrambles to its feet and digs its hands into the ground, dragging its fists through row after row of shipping containers to arrest its momentum: the monumental blows of Pacific Rim have after-effects that sprawl for as long as their anacrusi. The action sequences, and the soundtrack, are all about momentum. The antagonists charge toward each other, building up speed towards a clash that will finally bring the soundtrack back in. 

These (pseudo-)silences have much the same effect as dropping the bass in a pop song: the ubiquitous "BRAAAM" sound of contemporary cinema is nothing without the absence that precedes it. As Robin James has written of EDM drops, the sudden silence "build[s] intensity towards a valley instead of a peak." We anticipate the soundtrack's re-entry just as the EDM listener anticipates the return of the beat; the lurching absence is more powerful than the soundtrack itself, for it signals our anticipation.

The musical kinetics of the theme--the way it enters on an upbeat that points ahead to an eventual accent--mirror the massive wind-up that accompanies any meaningful gesture in this world of kaiju and jaegers. In the clip below, Gipsy Danger trudges up the street, dragging a barge behind it like a club. The robot transfers the barge to its right hand, hoists it, swings; the theme re-appears, aimed--just like the makeshift cudgel--squarely at the monster's jaw. Just as we are meant, in a summery popcorn movie like this, to watch each plot twist wind up and gather energy before it lands, so too are we meant to hear both the theme and the lumbering combatants pulling back, coiling up in potential energy, as we marvel in anticipation of what is about to happen.


[1] Note that the actual Superman "March," after the fanfare, has the same pickup as Star Wars

[2] See the first chapter of Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Femininism, Neoliberalism (New York: Zone Books, 2015).



On Longmire: Length and Form in Contemporary TV

It’s pretty common, in this age of “peak TV,” to discuss prestige dramas in cinematic terms: a 10-hour movie, a 12-hour movie, etc. The implication of these labels is that their stories unfold over entire seasons, rather than in the “anthology” style of older dramas and sitcoms, in which a story takes 22 or 42 minutes (you know, after commercials), and then everything returns to the status quo the next week, with very little indication that our heroes even remember what’s already happened.

But the “12-hour movie” label also effaces the episode as a unit of narrative, implying that the five-act structure of a television episode is less satisfying than 12-hours of...stuff. As the pushback to this attitude indicates, episodic storytelling is still useful, and still, I would argue, the norm: I'm hard-pressed to think of an epsiode of Mad Men, or even Game of Thrones, that doesn't develop themes and present narrative arcs (or several, parallel arcs) that come to some sort of end as the credits roll. Yes, things build, and stories continue, but individual episodes are generally still valid as units of narrative.

One thing I’ve found very interesting about internet TV shows is their variable length. (We can include HBO in this as well, since they don't worry about commercials). Most episodes of House of Cards, for example -- one of the earliest major internet shows -- stay close to the traditional length, albeit with a few extra minutes. Episodes average 47 to 53 minutes long, with season premieres and finales occasionally running a full hour. Game of Thrones varies a bit more, with episodes running between 52 and 70 minutes (and a whopping 92 minutes for the finale of the seventh and most recent season). I sort of like this variability: it lets a show "breathe" in a natural way across an entire season: some episodes are short, some need a bit more space. Small-to-medium arcs can arise and resolve themselves within the larger structure, taking a bit more time when necessary, and shorter, more self-contained episodes can break up the flow. I confess, however, that even I don't always notice the structure of episodes: when I was binge-watching the first six seasons of Game of Thrones over the summer or 2016, for example, I stopped and started whenever it was convenient, paying little to no attention to where individual episodes began or ended -- it was an undifferentiated flow that I dipped into at the gym, or when I had a spare fifteen minutes to kill.

Which brings me to LongmireLongmire is a police procedural about a sheriff and his small team of deputies in a fictional Wyoming county. It's one of those shows that Netflix rescued from cancellation. The sixth and final season came out last fall, and we've been watching it this week. It's a ten-episode season, and the thing I've noticed is that they're all about 65-70 minutes long, yet they tend to adhere to an absolutely old-school procedural structure. It's not all case-of-the-week stuff, there are long-term arcs. But they seem to be highly compartmentalized. The show left itself with several long-running threads to tie up, but it seems as if the producers decided to do so by devoting one mega-episode to each. The crazy survivalist who's been a thorn in Longmire's side gets one mega episode; a civil suit against the sheriff gets another. A cursory look at the episode list tells me that most of the same people are still involved, and the writing/directing duties are no more or less evenly distributed than in other seasons. Maybe some of this is just the liquidation process that happens when the writers know it's the last season, but I've found the effects interesting. The consistent use of 65-70 minute episodes in a police procedural (that is, longer than standard, but still much shorter than the "feature length" 90-120 minutes found in a series like Sherlock, for example) seems to carve out some kind of new territory, in which the undifferentiated, multi-season momentum of binge-watching collides with the conventions of episodic storytelling. I've found myself checking my watch more often than usual, not because the show is boring, but because conventional markers of timing don't seem to apply. I've sometimes wondered aloud to my wife, "has this all been one episode?" because they feel so long.

I'm not sure this observation is particularly deep, but I wonder about the way in which formal/narrative structures collide with the practical constraints of episode length, production schedules, etc. I wonder if this might reflect some new era of post-broadcast TV production: not the "breathing" sense of variable episode length found in many online/premium cable shows, but some new standard of episode length. In the case of Longmire, I'm not sure this is always entirely successful -- but at least it's interesting.

[As a postscript: perhaps I'm just being too conscious of the timing of my entertainment these days, since the other recent time I checked my watch was during the last reel or two of The Last Jedi. Not because I was bored -- anything but -- but because I knew how long the movie was, and couldn't imagine how things would possibly be tied up in only 15 minutes or so - particularly once Luke showed up. Maybe the solution is simply not to pay attention to how long a show or movie is, at all, in order to stop this sort of meta-framing from intruding...]



2017 Wrap-Up / 2018 Goals

I've never done one of these before, but I thought maybe I'd try it for 2017, especially since I actually sort of did things and published things this year.

First up: I finished my dissertation and started a tenure-track job. I still haven't posted it online, but I haven't yet had the chance to clean it up - some last minute formatting issues seem to have resulted in some fuzzy figures. Those pixellated monsters will be enshrined on ProQuest forever, but at least I can circulate a clean version on my own. Once I get around to it. Until then, check out the public talk I gave at my final colloquium.

I effectively took 2016 off of conferences (only partly by choice, as those things go). But I came roaring back this year, and did almost too many: IASPM-US in Cleveland in February; MTSNYS in April; the Amy Beach/Teresa Carreno Anniversary Conference at the University of New Hampshire in September; and SMT in November (same paper, linked here, as MTSNYS). One of the big tasks for 2018 will be polishing those talks up and doing things with them.

I also published a few things this year:

As I said, publication in my major goal in 2018. I now have two pieces under peer review and one which I need to revise and resubmit, so hopefully next year (or maybe more realistically 2019, given the speed of academia), I'll finally have a major byline. I'm also working on writing more for the public. I've had lots of conversations with colleagues about this interest, and have participated on Musicology Now, but I'd like to do a better job of really writing for the public this year. Part of that is maybe blogging some more. The other part is working with Gettysburg's communication office, which has a consultant on retainer to help profs place op-eds and other writings with various publications. This process is much tougher than I would have thought: I pitched two pieces in November and December, and our consultant said 'no' to one and 'completely re-work this' about the other. The first essay will appear in the opening days of 2018 in Musicology Now; the second I'm going to re-write now that the holidays are over.

It's also time to stop talking about the dissertation I wrote, and start thinking about the book I'm going to turn it into. Need to find some good resources on book proposals, and start writing/revising.

Finally, I'm really looking forward to starting the year off with the North American Conference on Video Game Music in Ann Arbor in a few weeks; it'll be great to talk about games (and hopefully play some) for two whole days. This past spring I taught a really enjoyable (and I think, successful) seminar on music in video games at Tufts. I'm re-working it as a course for non-majors this coming semester, so it'll be fun to network and share/hear some ideas for the course.

Finally, personal goals: better work/life balance, and more consistent workouts. I think these are pretty self-explanatory. Better, more focused work when I'm at the office, and harder lines between family time and research time. I was really good about getting to the gym the first month or two of school, but dropped off when things got busy. In 2013 I committed to going to the gym 150 times (roughly three times a week); it completely turned my fitness around, so I'm going to set that goal again, and track it occasionally on Twitter.

Happy New Year, everyone, and good luck in 2018. Godspeed, Rebels.