A Postcolonial Critique of Musical Topics in Film

James Buhler, University of Texas at Austin

A musical topic can be defined as a conventional musical sign with an unusually clear signification. Scholars (e.g., Gorbman, Pisani, Sheppard, Gaines and Lerner) have pointed out that in film music this clarity in signification is often gained by reifying pernicious stereotypes, and such scholars usually recommend using music indigenous to the group being represented to avoid stereotypes. Running contrary to this understanding is a body of scholarship (e.g., Tiomkin, Burnand and Sarnaker, Brownrigg) defending stereotypical topics on the basis of dramatic utility. If such approaches can seem woefully naìˆve about ideological deployment of stereotype, they do have the advantage of highlighting formal properties and functions of topical signification; in particular, nearly all such studies readily acknowledge such signification as arbitrary, that is, as bearing no morphological relation to that which it signifies. By focusing on the formal properties of signification rather than on the conventional musical content, these studies show that the formal system, not the content, determines signification; one consequence of this analysis is that stereotypical signification becomes a formal property of the sign type and so would apply whether the content is fabricated or genuine (Stam and Spence, Bartoli). In this paper, I will discuss the deployment of ethnically and racially stereotypical musical topics in a variety of films (e.g., Birth of a Nation (1915), Stagecoach (1939), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962)) from a postcolonial perspective, following Homi Bhabha's suggestion that "the point of [postcolonial] intervention should shift from the identification of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse." This recommendation suggests analyzing both how these films require and enable particular stereotypical topics and how these topics serve to articulate the ideology of the larger social structure in all its contradictoriness.