5 Great Cinematic Moments of the Bass Coming In (shoutout to 50PageMcGee)

Friday, July 2nd, 2010 Horrorthon Posts

I mention 50 because, until Octopunk’s Tron Legacy post a week ago, I had no idea that anyone on Horrorthon geeked out on movie music even more than me (since I’ve been known to get into discussing flattened fifths myself). (I’ve made a few special modifications myself. But, we’re a little rushed…) Anyway, off the top of my head and in no particular order (with absolutely no assurance that anybody knows or cares what I’m talking about), 5 Great Cinematic Moments of the Bass Coming In:

1) Silent Hill (2006) During her frenzied first hour in “ash world,” Rose follows the elusive, distant running girl to a cement staircase that leads down into a basement, and starts down the stairs. For the first time in the movie, the sky starts to darken…and, far in the distance, the air raid siren (that presages each transition to “the darkness”) begins to blow. It’s a slow, mournful two-note glissando—a major fifth, tonic to dominant—that repeats twice, as the sky darkens to black and rose ignites her (badass) Zippo lighter. And, on the third repetition, the cellos come in, deep and low, a minor triad on the dominant, and you get this uneasy chill.

2) The Queen (2008) Almost exactly the same move. Nearly at the end of the movie, Helen Mirren is standing outside her Scottish castle, facing the crowd for the first time in the movie, and she steps forward to speak to a young girl, who’s holding a bouquet of flowers. The soundtrack has hushed down and the score has reduced to a two-note figure on the violins (a monophonic inverted third). (Somebody can correct me if I’m not referring to these intervals correctly.) On the third repeat (as the touching exchange between Queen and little girl concludes and the girl hands over her flowers), the cellos come in, with a loud major triad. Incredibly moving and fulfilling.

3) Twin Peaks (1990) Somewhere towards the beginning of Season 2, James Hurley busts out his acoustic/electric guitar, turns the reverb to eleven (this being an Angelo Badalamenti score) and sings a little song called “Just You,” accompanied by Donna Hayward and Maddie Ferguson on vocal backup. They sing the first verse of the song, just like that (call-and-response vocals, guitar arpeggio) and then, as they turn into the second verse, out of nowhere, an electric bass guitar comes in, introducing a pleasant walking bass line. Not nearly as dramatic as the above two examples but very nice and very Twin Peaks.

4) Miracle Mile (1988) This one’s extremely simple, but wow, is it effective. The movie’s been going for about eighteen minutes, and, the entire time, Tangerine Dream has been doing their (unobtrusive, atmospheric, rhythmic) thing, just like they do in the opening scenes of Risky Business. Then it’s nighttime and Anthony Edwards is at the garishly-lit diner where he just missed Mare Winningham, and all the music goes away (replaced by clanking dishes, etc.). He tries Winningham on the pay phone outside the diner, leaves a message, hangs up; the phone rings immediately, and he grabs it, thinking it’s her…but it’s not. I won’t tell you what the phone call is, but, slowly, a very low, very loud single bass note fades in. (I think it’s a single note; it’s been a while.) Given that this is the 1980s, it’s pretty obviously a synthesizer note, but it’s got a rich, fat sound like a cello section; it’s filled with power and dread, and you understand that the nightmare is beginning.

5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Not an isolated note or chord like the preceding examples, but I think I can include it just because György Ligeti is so weird. The piece in question is called “Requiem For Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra”—it repeats four times in the movie (including the overture, where it’s excerpted) (Why don’t movies have overtures any more, damn it? Now all we get is fucking Coke ads), each instance corresponding to another appearance of the monolith. It’s a strange, atonal (I think…help me out, 50) piece of modern music, with lots of eerie choral effects and extremely sparse orchestration. And, at a minute and 16 seconds, as the apes start touching the monolith, the cellos come in. Like I said, a slightly less obvious example, but I have to include it because it’s the earliest such example I can remember. I still vividly recall being in the theater as a kid and (having played the phonograph record) anticipating that moment, without really even understanding that it involved the bass clef or anything like that, but feeling the excitement of, well, the (mythical) instant of human evolution that Kubrick conveys in that scene.