At the risk of simply stating the obvious, music means something. Yet, what has perplexed the greatest human minds since the time of Pythagoras and his mathematical theorems is not only what music means, but also how it means. In spite of our best efforts to analyze, describe, and understand it, the significance of music and our musical experiences remains elusive, opaque, and even mysterious.
And when it comes to the filmgoing experience in particular, music seems to trade upon this very ineffability. Even though most audiences are savvy enough to identify the ways in which a particular piece of music is designed to function in a given film, the profound depth of meaning that music brings to our cinematic experience nevertheless stretches the limits of our language. At times, it would seem that there are simply no words to describe what music is doing with us, for us, and perhaps even to us. For, in the context of filmgoing, music is not simply meaningful; it is also powerful. It is somehow capable of accessing the inner recesses of our basic humanity.
A telling example of film music’s mysterious, meaning-making capacity is found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film, There Will Be Blood (2007). Very basically, the film charts the rise and demise of Daniel Plainview, a self-professed “oil man” who is relentlessly driven by his insatiable thirst for more. At the same time, it also depicts Plainview’s contentious relationship with Eli Sunday, the young, charismatic pastor of Little Boston’s “Church of the Third Revelation” whose deep-seated ambition and avarice are only matched by Plainview himself. Yet, in spite of the surfeit of overt religious imagery and Christian symbolism in this film, There Will Be Blood presents us with a world in which the divine is conspicuously absent, or perhaps more accurately, it presents us with a world in which humanity has rendered the divine inconsequential.
Interestingly though, while the film’s narrative paints a thoroughly modern, disenchanted picture of human significance in which humanity has displaced God as the fundamental shaping force in the world, the film’s music voices a slightly different notion: even in the midst of a purely immanent frame, transcendence remains mysteriously yet undeniably present, if only on the margins.
The film’s closing scene, which includes the unforgettable line “I drink your milkshake,” is now a permanent fixture in the annals of popular culture. Following an extended dialogue in which Plainview speciously agrees to engage in business with Eli Sunday on the condition that he admit that he is “a false prophet and that God is a superstition,” Plainview bludgeons Sunday to death with a bowling pin. He then utters a final pronouncement, an apparent gloss on the last words of Christ: “I’m finished.” Notably, this segment of the film takes place in complete musical silence. Yet, immediately following Plainview’s declaration, the third movement of Brahms’ violin concerto in D Major breaks into the silence, continuing unabated as the film fades to black and the closing credits roll. Given the stark brutality of the murder, the decidedly jubilant, even “glorious” feel of Brahms’ composition is particularly affecting. In relation to the scene, the music is working “anempathetically.” Much like mechanically produced diegetic music foregrounded during scenes of violence, the lively concerto moves along as if it were indifferent to the human condition.
As this music appears in only one other location during the film – the dedication of the oil derrick in Little Boston – it directly links Plainview’s act of murder with his drilling for oil, treating both the spilling of the land’s blood and the spilling of human blood equally. And as it exhibits an apparent lack of concern toward such acts of violence, this music reinforces the senseless absurdity of Sunday’s death. In the end, his demise is no more significant than the act of digging up mud.
Yet, the music also registers the mundane completion of Plainview’s lifelong contention with Sunday and, indeed, his lifelong contention with the divine. In killing Eli, whose Hebrew name literally means “my God,” Daniel simply follows the path that the narrative has set out for him. That is, he effectively removes God from his lived-experience of the world. As the violin concerto anempathetically ushers the audience back into the world beyond the diegesis, we as filmgoers recognize that this fatal struggle carries no larger, cosmic significance, nor does it bring about any sort of redemption for either character. Rather than the overcoming of death through self-giving sacrifice (“It is finished”), we simply have death and dying (“I’m finished”).
Even though it is unsettling, the Brahms concerto is consistent with the rest of the film, if for no other reason than because of its apparent indifference toward the human condition. Film music of this kind often expresses an inability or reluctance on the part of the “cosmos” or “world-spirit” to intervene in mundane human affairs; nature blindly and unrelentingly moves along even in the face of our abhorrent hostility toward one another. Yet, as the rest of the music in this film suggests, the energizing force that is present in the There Will Be Blood is neither unable nor unwilling to intervene; indeed it has firmly set the course for Plainview’s ultimate demise. Thus, the indifference of the Brahms concerto does not express cosmic apathy per se, but rather, the world-spirit’s willingness to grant Plainview the desire of his heart, namely, an existence unfettered by transcendence – one in which he has wholly displaced God as the ordering, shaping, and creative force in the world.
Rather than offering clarity into the heart and mind of Daniel Plainview, the music’s ambiguity and duplicity – its simple refusal to explain itself – only add to the disconcertion we feel as an audience. A brief glance at the IMDb discussion boards reveals sharply divided impressions of the film as a whole, its final scene, and the appearance of the Brahms concerto. However, what is generally agreed upon is that this particular choice of music evokes a profound sense of dis-ease among filmgoers; it simply “feels” wrong. In some fundamental way it conflicts with our deep-lived experiences of the world. Yet, in a surprising twist befitting of a film like There Will Be Blood, our basic dissatisfaction with a world where transcendence has been stamped out serves as the very space in which the Other (re)emerges or breaks through, not as one who was lamentably absent, but one who was present all along.
Here, then, is the power of film music writ large. As signified by filmgoers’ reactions to the music in this sequence, our inability to look upon Plainview’s god-less life with indifference reflects the presence of something (or someone) that subtly yet relentlessly calls our attention to the emptiness of such a state. What is more, as it throws us back into the “real” world, our dissatisfaction with the end-credits music forces us uncomfortably into the position of Daniel Plainview, namely, railing against the apparent senselessness of a world that we have created, that we have ordained, and over which we have ultimate control. Thus, the more that the music disturbs us, the more that we sense the presence of an Other who, from beyond the margins of our immanent frame, rushes back in to the void, filling the spiritual gaps in both the film and our own lives.
Kutter Callaway is the Director of Church Relations and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. Most recently, he contributed to Halos and Avatars (2010), the first book on theology and video games, and Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), a dictionary of religion and popular culture. His book on the theological significance of music in film is due out next year through Baylor University Press.