For those of you who are fans of Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove, I just got a tune stuck in your head.
There’s a moment in TV shows, movies and video games that I always like. Something is happening that is bad, be it a brutal fight, a building falling down, or the world being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and instead of playing intense music in the background, something cheerful is playing.
This is best explained with examples:
- In the opening scene in Watchmen, the Comedian is brutally beaten and thrown out a window, all while Unforgettable by Nat King Cole is being played.
- In Metropolis (the anime movie), as the Ziggurat (a huge tower) is destroyed we hear not the bombs or the twisting metal, but “I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Ray Charles.
- In Dr. Strangelove the ending is dozens of nuclear explosions, signifying the end of the world, all while someone sings “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.”
I love this to the point where I have even imagined a character who acts as a mafia assassin while Abba music is playing. Can’t you just see it? Someone is riddled with bullets while “Dancing Queen” is played?
Okay, that’s pretty macabre and it’s not exactly what I mean.
I like the contrast of something sweet and something scary. This last week while I’ve been sitting in the living room with the dog I’ve been playing BioShock, which is chock full of moments like this one. The whole game is set to the tune of 1940s standards including the apt “Somewhere, beneath the sea” (the game takes place in Rapture, and underwater dystopia). It’s gotten to the point that when I first entered a room and heard the strains of “Danny Boy” I swore, knowing that something terrible was going to be just around the corner.
So this got me thinking, is there a way to do this in writing?
I guess tone would be the closest analog to actual music. Your character can be the sing-song cheerful type who describes an imploding building with glee, but this doesn’t feel quite right. Again it’s macabre, and fundamentally I don’t think this moment is macabre, but strangely apt. The perfectly executed moments like this in cinema make you feel like there couldn’t have been any other music underneath them.
You could talk about an actual song playing and try to get people to think about that contrast in their heads, but that feels a little too much like screenplay writing as opposed to actual fiction writing. You’re looking for a bizarre juxtaposition, but not one that seems loony or completely off the wall either. It has to fit.
Well, more often than not I write these posts without a particular conclusion in mind. This is just one of those problems I’ll toss into the back of my sub-conscious and see if I can come up with anything. In the meantime, however, have you ever read a story that creates this kind of a moment? How about more of your favorites from TV and film?