The origins of beat culture date back to the 1940s when artists such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were pioneering ways in which art and life became one. Their goals were to express the experience of living and creativity across the plain of artistic media such as film. Shadows, written and directed by John Cassavetes, was released in 1959 and featured a jazz scored soundtrack. At the time, jazz largely influenced American beat cinema because of its improvisational and spontaneous character. Beat artists identified with the jazz movement of the 1950s because it was a persecuted subculture community of artists. Europe, specifically Germany, in the mid 1970s and 1980s was also experiencing a musical revolution that influenced its beat cinema culture. Industrial music, jarring and aggressive in nature, underscored Germany’s political unrest during this time. The 1982 film Decoder, directed by Muscha, featured a soundtrack of industrial music. European beat culture, seeking to combat government and corporate control, utilized aggressive industrial music in film to do so. Through the use of different styles of music, beat artists were able to identify and collaborate with other artists; portray opposition to the larger aspects of political culture; and find solace in like-minded people. Shadows and Decoder are good examples of how music as an art form can influence society.
Bebop jazz, fast tempo and improvisational, first came to be in the 1940s. Reaching its peak in the 1960s, jazz underwent big changes before Shadows was filmed. It influenced beat culture in that it offered a point of identification among artists in a time when African Americans were facing prejudice in their social and professional lives. Jazz provided a community that offered social solace and artistic freedom. The beat artists of the 1950s largely used the concept of improvisation in their works to underline social and political issues of the time. A social situation was meant to parallel or be the art itself. Hugh Hurd underwent trouble finding work as a musician. The dark color of his skin hindered his job prospects even though he was talented, while his younger sister, Lelia Goldoni, had less trouble in social situations because of her light skin. Not aligning herself as either white or black did cause problems though.
The late 1950s was also a time when the African American community was struggling to come to terms with the prospects of freedom, from racism and discrimination. There were those who wanted to be accepted in totality, their race included, and were willing to revolt in their own chosen ways should they be denied this right. There were also those, such as Lelia, who would have preferred a tangible ‘ better’ treatment attained through diplomacy and tact, rather than an elusive and uncertain ‘ equal’ treatment that could only be won through a revolt . Jazz music was the form of revolt chosen by innumerable members of the African American society of the 1950s and 1960s.
The late 1950s and early 1960s was a time when the American society was undergoing great post-war changes. While the older generations sought to lead a more orthodox life, the youth wanted change and liberty in every aspect of their lives. The white youth population chose rock and roll music as one of the mediums to personify their difference within the white society. However, this generation was driven more by the need for consumerism and vanity when compared to the black American youth that still struggled for equality and acceptance. This aspect is depicted excellently in sequences in Shadows where Ben, a failing Jazz artist, endures time spent at white dominant rock and roll club parties. While rock and roll music signifies the consumerism movement in America, Jazz in beat cinema was used to great effect to bring to the fore a part of societal reality that was either ignored or even buried under glitzy commercial cinema.
In Shadows, the lives of Hugh, Ben and Lelia are separated by the color of their skin yet bound together by music – jazz. The music of the movie personified, through its spontaneous compositions, the turbulent mind frames of its protagonists. It chose to diverge from using traditional soundtracks that would ideally be used to demarcate emotions such as anger, sorrow, love and envy. It did so as its characters, and the film itself, presented a much deeper and realistic spectrum of emotions that commercial cinema otherwise ignored. Self-loathing, racial confusion, questioning one’s own origins, and belonging – to the society, to the nation, to the generation, to the culture, and to each other – these were just a few of the emotional realities that the movie communicated to audiences through its jazz.
In the 1984 German movie, Decoder, the setting is different and yet the purpose of beat is the same. Formed of a cast of real life Industrial music geniuses, Decoder is considered to be a ‘ dystopian’ movie – that it prophesized a doomed future for mankind. However, its predictions and concepts have been scientifically proven, leading to an anti-climax of sorts for those who considered the movie nonsensical. The movie revolved around FM, played by FM Einheit, also known as Mufti, a disillusioned sound mechanic who conducts extensive experiments aimed at ‘ decoding’ mass music. He soon discovers that the music is actually ‘ Musak’, aimed at dulling the senses of listeners so that they behave in a manner best suited to prevailing political and commercial factions. It is used extensively in large corporate offices, manufacturing units or factories, large department stores, restaurants and even hospitals. He then develops an ‘ antidote’ music which will cause people to get disturbed and act out their impulses .
The music of Decoder was to be in tune with its central theme of non-conformity. The sound track of the movie is purely industrial, a genre that had not witnessed any significant patronage during the early 1980s. Today, however, many prominent, and even commercial movies, such as The Matrix, one of the earliest mainstream commercial movies having industrial artists featuring on its soundtrack was Blade Runner in 1982 . It is interesting to note that each of these movies were considered to be ‘ ahead of their time’ and carried themes of non-conformity or the unwillingness to be controlled by others.
In Decoder, the use of industrial music was to depict the revolt against dictatorship and unsolicited control over people or human behavior. Although, in the movie itself, the use of FMs antidote music leads to unruly behavior and even rioting, industrial music itself does not induce such behavior. However, it has been used in beat cinema to drive listeners into a non-conformist state of mind whereby they are more open to seeing concepts of realism that the movie is seeking to convey. We know today that beat cinema; as well other mediums of expression such as music and literature, such as spontaneous compositions and cyberpunk, have the effect of bringing a synergy between body and mind .
While traditional music is meant to induce comfort and bring a sense of well being to the listener, industrial music has the opposite effect. It disturbs the listener’s mind, breaking orthodox concepts of happiness and contentment and opens it to the severity of realism. It can be equated to the effect that cinema verite has on viewers through the use of grainy, shaky camerawork as compared to traditional orchestrated frame, bringing a sense of reality to the footage, giving it a documentary kind of feel . Decoder uses industrial music to breakdown the viewer’s resistance to the concept of non-conformity it attempts to communicate, allowing the viewer to see the possibility of the concept of being a reality and not as a work of fiction.
While Shadows and Decoder were had different settings and messages, their purposes were similar. While Shadows was set in the late 1950s and addressed the problems of culture and race of a specific population in a specific country, Decoder addressed the problem of dominance and control over man in general. The characters in Shadows have their own internal struggles as well as struggles with their community, wherein they want to be accepted and treated as equals. In Decoder, FM fights against the control of unknown persons by establishments that could exist in any country. However, in both cases, the protagonists take up their fight using music as a weapon.
Jazz is used to great effect in Shadows to show Ben and Hugh’s struggle against racism, the failure of the society to accept them despite their musical talents, the judgments that are passed on the account of their color and racial origins, and the hypocrisy of liberalism when it is given to a few and granted to others under specified, if not openly voiced, conditions. Industrial music in decoder personifies the fight against growing consumerism and the control over unwilling and unaware human minds to convert behavior into predefined actions such consumer purchases and conforming with dictatorial or tyrannical corporate and administrative decisions. While Jazz in Shadows is used by characters to overcome their own self-consciousness as well as block out racial reactions from others, industrial music is shown to stop the person hired to kill FM and end the anti-musak movement in Decoder. In both cases, music is used as a medium of liberation, a weapon of psychological and emotional defense as well as aggression.
In conclusion, it can be said that beat cinema, since its onset in the 1950s, till today, relies greatly on music to deliver its message to audiences. As Shadows and Decoder illustrate, music can be used not only to express the feelings and thoughts of characters, but also to open the minds of viewers’ to realism, or even alternate realities. Music can be used to break down the barriers of mind, perception and comprehension to enable acceptance, through the use of improvisation and spontaneity, of realism in the minds of audiences trained to seeing and believing glossy, commercial cinema that is aimed solely at entertaining and bringing a false sense of well being. If used correctly, as in the case of Shadows and Decoder, spontaneity and improvisation in music has the power to trigger social change as well as open avenues of realism in cinema.
Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity – Improvisation and the arts in postwar America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Collins, Karen. ” Dead channel surfing: Commonalities between cyberpunk literature and Industrial music.” Popular Music 24. 2 (2005): 165-178. Web. 5 March 2013.
Decoder. Dir. Muscha. Perf. FM Einheit. 1984. Web. 5 March.
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