In the opening sequence of “Miller’s Crossing,” a 1990 gangster film by Joel and Ethan Coen, a tracking shot of treetops dissolves into a static shot of a black fedora on a forest floor. The shift in imagery is marked by a radical shift in soundtrack, whereupon a pop-oriented progression of a mysterious and foreboding nature replaces a pseudo-Irish tune of harmonic simplicity.
When the hat is blown away by a gust of wind, the Irish melody returns, “restoring order and predictability to the credit sequence,” noted Matthew McDonald, an assistant professor of music in the College of Arts, Media and Design.
“The music that marks the image of the hat blowing in the wind is an odd and unsettling detour,” he explained. “We are left to wonder whether the hat actually appeared or was an apparition.”
McDonald addressed the meaning of music in the Coen brothers’ movies last Thursday afternoon in Ryder Hall for an audience of students, faculty and staff.
Like the Coen brothers, McDonald grew up in Minnesota, where, he joked, “the simplest explanation is the best and stoicism is the greatest of all virtues.”
The filmmakers agree, refusing to satisfy critics who call the black fedora an irrefutable symbol of sex and death. As Ethan once put it, “The hat doesn’t ‘represent’ anything. It’s just a hat blown by the wind.”
The flat-out denial did not deter McDonald from digging deeper into the meaning of music in the Coen brothers’ filmography of offbeat hits, including “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “No Country for Old Men.”
He said Carter Burwell’s score of “A Serious Man,” a 2009 meditation on a middle-aged math teacher from suburban Minnesota whom he calls a “modern-day Job,” pays homage to Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 ballet “Orpheus.”
Both the tragic Greek hero and the film’s protagonist share a lack of faith, which McDonald said ultimately led to their downfalls.
“This association with ‘Orpheus’ enhances the mythological aspects of the film’s narrative,” McDonald explained. “Music, because it is inherently inscrutable, provides the Coens with an ideal vehicle through which to smuggle the suggestion of symbolic meaning into their films.”
“Music,” he added, “can imbue filmic elements with the aura of meaningfulness without providing concrete meaning.”