Gorecki is Suprise Collaborator on 'An Unfinished Symphony'
By Doug Pray
War—and editing documentaries—is hell. What editors won't tell you about, however, are those moments of ecstasy they experience in the privacy of their cutting rooms, when they lay down a new piece of music and it completely transforms and uplifts a montage with which they've been struggling. It's heaven.
Mike Majoros and Bestor Cram experienced this happy phenomenon a few years back, while working through a large body of black-and-white footage of a Vietnam veterans’ protest that took place in Lexington, MA in 1971. They used a part of Henryk Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, and it happened: this gorgeous, haunting—and fairly well-known—music, when played against footage of the anti-war protest and the war itself, just worked. The images had been plenty powerful on their own, but Gorecki's music gave them an entirely new emotional context. In fact, it was so powerful that Majoros and Cram decided to use the entire Gorecki symphony for the entire film. The finished documentary, An Unfinished Symphony, premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's a brilliant study of juxtaposition and the power of background music.
Though editing a documentary to a recorded symphony from start to finish may be unprecedented, it wasn't the first time that classical music had dramatized the insanity of Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola used Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings may well have helped Oliver Stone earn an Academy Award® for Platoon. But these are dramatic features with specific, well-placed cues.
An Unfinished Symphony works on the viewer in a more holistic way. Says producer and co-director Cram, “It’s one thing to have a scene with a particular piece of music, but it’s another thing with the entire film…[Co-director and editor] Mike Majoros figured that out and placed the musical print on the entire film.”
In one scene, we hear from a young veteran about drug use in Vietnam. He’s leaning up against a Revolutionary War monument and, seemingly stoned himself, his dialogue is a bit aimless and meandering. But it's not boring; the viewer is getting so much more from the scene than his words alone. Majoros keeps us on him for a long while, forcing us to experience this character's reality. There's a great sadness in his musings, and the Gorecki music brings this out.
“For a while the music almost disappears from consciousness because you're trying to listen carefully to what [the vet] says,” Cram points out. “And then it swells at the end just perfectly for concluding the scene.” Cram admits that rock music was the soundtrack to his own personal experience as a Vietnam vet, but he also knows those classic rock hits wouldn't have gotten the audience beyond the usual clichés: hair, dope, free love. “There is a shorthand that we're all looking for in terms of trying to find ways to recall eras, and if we use it over and over again, we often forget the larger subject,” says Cram. “We only represent the icon we have created.”
The other icon that Gorecki helps us to go beyond in An Unfinished Symphony is archival war footage. The filmmakers decided to edit out the corresponding audio from the news-footage war scenes: a bomb drops out of a B-52 and slowly descends toward earth and up towards the top of the screen as it blows a thatched-roof farmhouse to bits. All we have is Gorecki and the raw visual. It's “an invitation to pay attention, to feel what's going on,” says Cram. “We were trying to empower the doc image…to put it in its raw context, rather then organize a context of today."
There’s another scene with a very old woman, a little boy and his young mother, praying for their lives to whomever was filming them. It’s deeply upsetting footage, but it’s also the kind of shot we're very familiar with from that era, so there's a tendency to ignore it. But again, the editor forces us to watch it by repeating it several times during the movie, and in slow motion. Meanwhile, the music demands that we be there experiencing the moment. To Cram, “Bad or good editing has everything to do with whether or not somebody gets something from an idea, as opposed to the conventional language.”
So much of documentaries is created in the editing room, and when the bulk of the footage is archival, it’s all editing. Once the filmmakers decided to use the Gorecki Symphony as a whole, they had to make the footage fit. “When you use a symphony, it becomes like a music video,” Cram notes. “You adjust one thing and everything is thrown off a little bit. On the other hand, it was remarkably easy to change things because Gorecki's music gives you a sense of the way in which the music is moving, so it made some of the editing easy to switch around.”
The filmmakers took this to a logical extreme by dividing the film into distinct chapters that matched the symphonic movements. The sections follow a three-act progression: from “Bearing Witness,” in which the audience is shown the confused horrors of American involvement in Vietnam; through “Dissent and Democracy,” which presents the dynamics of the veteran's protest itself; and finally to the third section,
“Reconciliation and Responsibility,” which asks, “Has our nation come to terms with what happened in Vietnam?”
Cram, who himself appears in the Lexington protest footage, suggests an answer to that question with the film's title, An Unfinished Symphony. Like the war itself, “The music actually has a quality to it that feels unfinished. It doesn't have a conclusion in the way we understand most music to conclude, and it matched our title with our idea,” he explains.
What was unique about the 1971 Lexington protest march was the degree to which it led to enlightened and intelligent discourse over the idea of dissent and its place within a democratic society. It was veterans themselves, as opposed to homebound college students, who were protesting the war they'd fought in. Like the march, An Unfinished Symphony works as intelligent discourse. It considers the horrors of human aggression and the beauty of human intelligence together as one. And this is precisely the power of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony—dark and sorrowful music that is, at the same time, beautiful and uplifting. The protest, the film and the symphony all end with a feeling of promise.
Cram looks back on the choice of music and concludes, “Part of the problem we had getting people to see the film is that it’s about Vietnam, and everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s about Vietnam; yeah, we've seen all the Vietnam films already,’ so we knew we were up against a set of ideas that have been worked cinematically for a long, long time. But we felt there was room for something new and fresh, and it was enormously satisfying when we realized, ‘Oh yeah, Gorecki is going to be our friend here!’ And once we welcomed Gorecki as the partner, the film went to a place that we would never have been.”
For more information about An Unfinished Symphony, visit www.nlprod.com, the website for Cram's Northern Lights Productions.
Editor’s note: Doug Pray related to An Unfinished Symphony for several reasons: he had three older Vietnam-eligible brothers, and he grew up in Madison, WI, home of many anti-war protests, which he's just old enough to remember firsthand. He's also an unashamed fan of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony.