On the way back from a family holiday, we spent 7 hours moving a few miles down the motorway. The police had decided to blow up a van in a suspected terrorist incident. It turned out that the owner of the van was not a terrorist but an antique dealer who had parked the van and gone about his lawful business. Either way, we had a very tedious journey and we had almost run out of music and audiobooks. What we had left was a 4 CD box set of the music of Dmitri Tiomkin.
If anything, Dmitri made a bad situation worse. After getting halfway through the first CD, we resorted to sitting in happy silence, counting the cars and watching people stretch their legs on the motorway. Anything but listen to it anymore.
Some will say this is negative. And it is. But we do not learn about music by loving everything that has ever been composed. We learn to have a style of our own by distancing ourselves from music, which does not suit our taste. And sometimes we do not learn from a composer's style but from his inability to communicate appropriately.
I have just seen 36 hours again. It is a very tidy story set before D-Day. James Garner plays the American hero, who is captured and tricked into giving away details of the Normandy invasion. Dmitri Tiomkin composed the score. The music is not always bad. Some of it is good. But it is rarely in the right place. Tiomkin sees busy activity on-screen and writes busy music. He sees a love interest female on-screen and writes romantic music. Anything like nuance and shades of meaning eludes Tiomkin.
It is an annoying habit of Tiomkin that his flashes of real beauty (such as occasionally in The Fall of the Roman Empire) are spoiled by really dreadful compositions, as he draws attention to himself far too much. It's like a broken limb. You know it's there. You don't need to be reminded because it is hurting!
This is not to say that Tiomkin is alone or unique in his ineptitude. But the fact that he is celebrated in spite of it means that criticism ought to be made, to ward other composers away from following his example.
Another similar offender is Maurice Jarre. Consider Jarre's score for the otherwise excellent Grand Prix. The romance in that film is difficult. She is married. He is married. Both are aware of the tension that what they are doing is wrong. It is not first love. It is not innocent love. Neither is it dirty and stolen love. But it is guilty and doomed. The characters discuss and express these fears. What does Jarre do? He gives us sweeping "Romance" music. It does not relate to them, to the story or to the rest of the score.
The problem in raising any criticism with such composers, is each is remembered for getting it right once or twice. Maurice Jarre had Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Dmitri Tiomkin had the Alamo and High Noon. When your good music becomes so iconic, all of your bad music is suddenly respectable and untouchable. But that doesn't change the fact that both of these composers have almost killed moments in films by their ill-considered spotting and lack of sensitivity to the tone of the story.
Back in the Car
Perhaps both of these composers suffered by having a foot on the art world and another on film. The subordination necessary in the latter discipline is not natural in the former. If a film composer thinks he is an artiste then he will do whatever he wants, no matter its effect on the entertainment value of the film.
And yet, I cannot ultimately blame Dmitri Tiomkin for how his music worked in a 7 hour traffic jam. He did not write the music with that scenario in view. He could not anticipate the effect of listening to music about wide open spaces trapped in a car or the impact of Do not forsake me O my darling when you are stuck together whether you like it or not.