Richard Dyer Former Senior Fellow

Richard Dyer

Research Project

Ironic Attachment: Nino Rota, Music and Film

This project seeks to place the film music of Nino Rota in relation to a number of debates within contemporary cultural theory. Rota is by any estimation one of the most important – prolific, successful, esteemed – of film music composers and yet his practices and procedures also raise questions about a number of prevalent paradigms in film and cultural theory, including models of cultural production, ideas of affect and identification, the concept of pastiche and understandings of the role of music in film. Through a systematic and focused study of the work of Rota, this project intends to contribute to an interrogation and a nuanced account of these paradigms.
Nino Rota wrote scores for over 160 films, including mainstream Italian films, from neo-realism to popular comedies and melodramas, as well as films in Britain, France and the USSR, alongside a huge output of concert and theatre music. He is most famous internationally for The Godfather films, Vidor’s War and Peace, Death on the Nile, Plein soleil, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard and all of Fellini’s films from The White Sheik to Orchestra Rehearsal. He thus worked across a wide range of different production situations (e.g. commercial, arthouse, middlebrow, international), in developing relationships with some directors but in purely jobbing relations with others. He was enormously prolific and is also considered one of the finest of all film music composers. The range of his work provides an excellent basis for testing ideas about the particular role of a composer in relation to other artists engaged in film production as well as examining received wisdom concerning film itself as well as specifically music in film.
Rota’s working method, even with his closest collaborators, is distinctive in relation to ideas of cultural production. He was seldom involved in the planning and shooting of a film, often did not read a script and sometimes did not even see the film. With those he worked closely with (e.g. Fellini, Visconti, Zeffirelli, Cop- pola, Monicelli), he did discuss options at length, frequently drawing on but subtly modifying their musical suggestions. With others, he would often arrive at the last minute, sometimes basing the score on no more than an indication of what was required from the director, often working in response to a producer or a performer as much as a director. For all his scores he often recycled his own previous work and drew on existing material by others or on stock motifs. Yet his work is both highly responsive to the particularities of the people he is working with / for (he has for this reason often been called a musical chameleon) and at the same time characterised by a number of consistencies in terms of both musical character and narrational procedures. It thus provides a case study of the dynamics and variations in creative action, control, collaboration and interaction in cultural production. In particular, it demonstrates the presence and persistence of agency, the role of and interaction between intentions and the significance of different personal and organisational conditions of production.
An analysis of the net result of the above in the film themselves suggests refinements and challenges to received wisdom about the nature of filmic texts. The study contributes especially to consideration of the concept of affect, identification, pastiche and music and film.
There has been a resurgence of interest in issues of affect, and related notions such as feeling and emotion, in recent years. The current project (whose author has a long standing interest in these issues) situates itself with this validation of the centrality of the affective but also alongside the theoretical gains of cultural studies, namely, that feeling is historically and culturally moulded and that art is always a semiotic construction of feeling rather than being feeling itself. What a study of Rota adds to this is an example of a kind of music that, utterly committed to feeling, is also aware of itself as historically and culturally specific and with no loss of feeling in the process. This cuts through the dichotomy in twentieth century aesthetics between emotional wallowing and emotional distance as well as countering the assumption that irony and self-awareness run counter to emotional expressivity.
Related to this exploration, the study of Rota and affect raises questions about the prevalent model of identification in relation to narrative texts. His practice suggests a model rather of ‘ironic attachment’, whereby the affective role of music neither draws the viewer into an inescapable identification with character or camera nor distances him / her into a position of detachment or alienation, but rather plays on such aspects of our relation to the real as sympathy, interest, fondness and ‘fellow feeling’. It is here also that the concept of pastiche (the subject of the present author’s most recent book) productive, in the sense of a kind of imitation that signals itself as imitation. Rota’s work runs the gamut of signaled imitation, including reference, parody, auto-plagiarism, quotation and varieties of pastiche, each of which brings into play an awareness of the historicity of (musical) modes of affect without (necessarily) any loss of affect.
These elements of affect, identification and pastiche, themselves in part explicable by virtue of Rota’s working methods and situations, are achieved through precise ways of handling standard aspects of the use of music in film. Rota both uses but also runs counter to or complicates and nuances practices of underscoring, the Leitmotif, diegetic and non-diegetic music, pre-existing and original scores, genre and reference. This project is grounded in very precise attention to the detail of Rota’s practice even while relating it to the wider issues sketched above: indeed, it is one of its methodological principles that all general considerations must always be tested against the detail of a given instance in a process which modifies perception of the instance and is in turn modified by it.