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  • Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age ed. by Stanley C. Pelkey II and Anthony Bushard
  • Jamuna Samuel
Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age. Edited by Stanley C. Pelkey II and Anthony Bushard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. [xviii, 298 p. ISBN 9780199936151 (hardcover), $105; ISBN 9780199936175 (paperback), $36.95; (e-book, Oxford Scholarship Online).] Music examples, illustrations, bibliographic references, index.

This fourteen-essay volume advances the thesis that American films—and consequently film music—that are either of the 1950s or 1960s (or that represent those decades) project or mute specific anxieties of the time. These anxieties relate especially to the Cold War, consumerism, alienation, suburban spread, technology, the women’s movement, and civil rights. The argument extends to television series, and indeed, four out of thirteen articles in this volume are devoted to this genre.

The interdisciplinary essays, written mostly by formally-trained musicologists but also by individuals with backgrounds in film studies, history, library science, and arts journalism, address a broad readership. The volume is accessible; while it is necessary reading for those already well-versed in film-music studies, it also offers an engaging, informative starting point for those just becoming familiar with the subfield.

The arguments developed in each essay consistently spark larger dialogues regarding the place of music in audiovisual material, and the cultural meaning of film as a multimedia object. The text is suitable for adoption in an academic course on film music within curricula in film studies, music, and American studies, but also in gender and, in one case, disability studies. The numerous references to audiovisual materials beyond the object of the individual essays offer fertile ground for exploration and expansion through further research. The music excerpts and analyses included in seven of the essays require basic understanding; they could be adapted to an undergraduate course for non-majors. The collection could easily be used in a seminar for majors, and could launch extensive discussion in a graduate seminar in music and film studies. Most essays deal with one visual text; the author contextualizes the individual [End Page 526] film or television episode(s), then comments on the music. Ideally, a companion Web site would have supplemented the reading with video excerpts, but perhaps that proved to be unfeasible; the current $36.95 paperback price maximizes accessibility for a broad readership.

Stanley Pelkey’s opening survey situates the collection within the social context of postwar America, especially, starting in the 1950s, in the phenomenon of suburbia, a phenomenon that coincides with the rise of television and a general decline in civic life. He presents two goals: first, to address the lack in screen-music studies of “technical language to consider both music’s affective and material qualities” among readers; and second, to explore “how films and television programs implicitly and explicitly broadcast anxieties through music, or . . . emotionally mute those anxieties . . . ” (p. 20). Pelkey lists the many roles of music on screen, not just as signifier, but as object, structuring tool, and persona. This multivalency extends to the impact on the receiver; each reception is unique, dependent on “personal histories, identities, and perceptions” (p. 2).

The next seven contributions move chronologically, from 1950 to 1968, through the films featured. Christina Gier, in “Music and Mimicry in Sunset Boulevard (1950),” offers a guide to a nearly through-composed, leitmotivic score, the result of a collaboration between fellow immigrants from Hitler’s Europe: the composer Franz Waxman and director Billy Wilder. She seeks to “explore how [the score] works with the filmic narrative to heighten the portrayal of the film’s core idea of mimicry” (p. 31). Walking the reader through the psychodramatic narrative, Gier highlights how music “does even more than is typical to shape [it]” (p. 36); through a detailed description of the score, she reveals the inextricable audiovisual relationship.

Also functioning as a thorough and insightful guide to the music in the film discussed is coeditor Anthony Bushard’s “Who’s Who in Hadleyville?: The Civic Voice in High Noon (1952).” He discusses the role of another pair of immigrants, director Fred Zinnemann and composer Dimitri Tiomkin, in crafting a landmark and distinctive Western...


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