Dennis Cozzalio and I are going to recap American Horror Story's first season at our respective blogs. Each Monday, one of us will will start the discussion and we'll go back-and-forth on our respective blogs. I am posting Dennis's response to my third post here, but you can also follow along with our conversation at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Read on for Dennis's concluding thoughts on the first episode of the show's first season.
I tend to agree about the use of the Twisted Nerve cue in the sequence involving Tate and the imagined (or are they?) high school murders. It’s distracting not because of the fact that it’s a recognizable sampling of Bernard Herrmann’s music, but because it’s already been appropriated and now associated strongly with Tarantino’s movie, so it’s like a reflection of a reflection. I would argue that it’s now, since the release of Kill Bill, probably even more strongly associated with that movie, and with the shot of Daryl Hannah moving down the hospital corridor toward the immobile Uma Thurman, than with the film for which it was originally written, which I’m guessing 99% percent of the appreciative Tarantino audience has never even seen (or at least never heard of before they saw Kill Bill Vol. 1).
It doesn’t seem so much a clever choice on the part of Murphy and Falchuk to include it either, largely I think because it now seems too obvious, but also because it also plays a little lazy, as if they’re going for a quick and easy bit of pop culture cachet rather than searching out another sample or, heaven forbid, a piece of original music that could evoke the same emotional response they’re going for. I think they miss the opportunity by using the Herrmann cue, and I think, as you suggest, they fall short of understanding here what separates Tarantino from the usual suspects when it comes to this kind of borrowing. It’s the meaning of the scene that is, if not entirely missing, then at least hopelessly confused by their easy grab of Herrmann’s odd little theme.
Chunks of Herrmann have been showing up a lot these days. In addition to the Twisted Nerve soundtrack, the score from Vertigo is once again appropriated by Murphy and Falchuk for a bit of emotionally shoring up during the scene in which Ben has his first conversation with Larry, the mysterious man with the seriously burned flesh who has been tailing him. I would think that the hue and cry in the wake of The Artist lifting a huge section of Vertigo to underline its climactic drama would have given the creators of AHS more than a little pause in using a different section of the score for the same essential purpose. Is it a cheap shortcut? In a way I think you have to say yes, especially since there is no official acknowledgment of Herrmann, for this or for Twisted Nerve, anywhere in the credits. There’s no denying that the music works as an aural foundation for Larry’s fundamental pathos of Larry’s character and the tragic story he spins to Ben. What I suppose I object to, apart from the possible misunderstanding on the part of audiences who may not know the music isn’t original for the series, is the lack of audacity in the choice to use it in the first place. It doesn’t make you sit up and say, “Oh, my God, I never thought this piece of music could be used in this context to say this, or make me feel this,” the way you often react when Tarantino clicks on his mental iPod. (Lack of audacity is not a charge you could level against QT in any arena, I’m thinking.) So even though Herrmann’s Vertigo themes are effective here, I still am rather jarred when I’m left to consider why the creators of American Horror Story would opt for the easy swing (and risk the ire of those who can tell the difference between Herrmann and a more routine musical choice) instead of attempting to swim the emotional undercurrents with original material.
But then again, accessing and riffing on, and hopefully adding to the depth of familiar horror tropes is, as you say, at least suggested in the very title of the series, and perhaps some justification for the sampling of music can be found in this line of thinking. (There’s not quite enough of it throughout the episodes I’ve seen to be considered a motif, however.) What’s more interesting to me is how Murphy and Falchuk begin to explore the other implication of their rather loftily titled show. What is it about the way that AHS is structured and played and resonates that makes it a particularly American horror story? That’s a question that I think the show begins to address right away in the first regular season episode, entitled “Home Invasion,” which (segue, segue, segue) we will begin talking about tomorrow!
See ya then, Simon!