Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Notes on Diagesis

(Please accept this as not a fully formed dissertation, but a stepping stone to the real product. Sometimes things need to be written out before they start to congeal into a concept.)

The role of diagetic vs. non-diagetic elements, especially, particularly, and almost solely music, is a much contested and unreliable mode in the Disney parks, especially in light of their efforts to construct a fairly fully realized "reality" when operating in the Stratification mode. Contesting sightlines are eliminated, distractions are screened out, and the whole unitary environment is made as polished and real – hyper-real – as possible. Some definitions are in order now. Diagetic elements, or diagesis, are defined as any one "operating element" of a scene, environment or fictional world which is motivated by or explained by elements organic to that world.

The prevalence of non-diagetic music in the world of motion pictures is an institutalized element of those operating realities, ie, John Williams music blaring throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark, “inhabiting” environments where the entire London Symphony Orchestra would be unlikely to be located. This tradition likely draws back to the tradition of live music before, during, and after silent cinema – from an upright piano for poor theatres all the way up to huge organs of full orchestras for the largest movie palaces. Similarly institutionalized in cinema is an awareness of the prevalence of non-diagetic music in the film world; as early as 1931 William Wellman was limiting the music in The Public Enemy to onscreen bands, musicians and phonographs. The only song heard in that film is the 1919 sentimental ballad “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, a piece contrary to the brutal film, which pays off when James Cagney falls through his mother’s doorstep dead as her Edison drones out the whimsical tune, then slows and dies.

European film tradition limited the use of non-diagetic music through the 1960’s, in the French “poetic realistic” cinema by Renoir and others, and the “new objectivist” cinema of Germany’s years immediately before their slide into fascism. Ingmar Bergman’s films of the 1950s and 1960s tend to reserve non-diagetic music for moments of high drama or fantasy. And the modernist and post-modernist cinema of Europe often seeks to limit significantly or otherwise expose the use of non-diagetic music as in Antonioni’s Blowup, where the soundtrack eventually dwindles to silence, or Godard’s Contempt, where a single piece of orchestral score is repeated over and over again with no variation in an effort to made the audience aware of the practice.

Less clear are the boundaries between film diagetic and non-diagetic music, and although the rule often is that any music is or becomes diagetic when a source is shown, some filmmakers commonly use diagetic music to bridge gaps between scenes in a non-diagetic way, such as in The Godfather when a montage bridging several months of “plot time” is tied together by diagetically motivated score played on a piano in the preceding shots. In Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, non-diagetic film score is revealed to be diagetic when the main characters leave their apartment in the first scene and turn off a radio, thus halting the main title music.

While few films ever fully remove non-diagetic music – The Birds is a single common example – the limitation of music for very particular moments is fairly common is American cinema. John Ford preferred to use folk tunes and ballads to “orient” his audiences in the American myths he was creating; Daryl F. Zanuck judiciously and sparingly placed Alfred Newman’s soundtrack, mostly a single accordion playing “Red River Valley”, throughout his film of Grapes of Wrath and its’ minimal appearances in the film are emotionally devastating.

Disney has never been one of the film makers comfortable with such concepts, and his breakthrough success was based entirely on the novelty that diagetic space and non-diagetic sound can interact in synchronization - his films are filled with wall to wall didactic classical soundtracks which lead the audience by the nose through the story's paces. It hasn't helped his reputation with scholars but it is the tradition which the Stratification parks operate in; the narrative tradition of the reassuring Hollywood soundtrack where every emotional beat is thoroughly underscored. Disney uses period or location appropriate music to underscore the atmosphere of their Stratification-oriented parks; drum music in Adventureland and marches in Liberty Square. Some of the musical choices are somewhat suspect per the time period presented (the 1940’s cowboy songs of I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle and I’m an Old Cowhand sit alongside real folk tunes like The Old Chisholm Trail in Frontierland), the music is assertive and omnipresent.

In some ways this is desirable and appropriate – the Soarin’ Over California film is artless without its Jerry Goldsmith music, and although Impressions du France is significantly better shot and edited, its’ Buddy Baker soundtrack makes a travelogue into a stirring short film. Disney similarly uses the persistent music soundtracks of the Magic Kingdom to mask out other undesirable sounds – garbage collection, attraction sound cues, vehicles and more. The soundtracks command attention away from anything “other” toward the diagesis of the environment.

There are, of course, varying degrees of diagesis. Marc Davis probably preferred diagetic music in his attractions and when you enter the part of the Haunted Mansion he is most responsible for, the music becomes consistently motivated by on-stage elements: the ballroom organ, graveyard band, singing busts effect etc. Yet this often distracts spectators’ estimation of non-diagetic elements in the Claude Coates portion of the attraction, like the organ dirge heard in the entry area or the low, almost subliminal music in the loading areas and s√©ance circle. There are non-diagetic music scores in Pirates of the Caribbean, too, like George Bruns’ “Scare Me Music” or the almost-motivated accordion which subtly underlines the Auction and Chase scenes in the seaport. These elements are generally of the “felt but not heard” variety, a subtlety which cannot be applied to the outside general music loops. In fact, the only general area music which is clearly diagetic is the Fantasyland carousel music, which doesn’t always emanate only from the carousel but is at least motivated by it.

The largest noteworthy variant from the non-diagetic pattern in the golden era of Disney theme design of 1963 – 1982 is, to my mind, the Magic Kingdom Adventureland of 1971. Marc Davis’ influence looms large in this area, perhaps explaining the approach. The area was not originally graced with the tropical drumbeats it currently offers, but a central plaza where the key sounds in 1971 would’ve been the Tropical Serenade’s Wally Boag toucan, the tapestry of jungle sounds emanating from the Jungle Cruise, Marc Davis’ drumming tiki figures, and the Swisskapolka raining down from on high from the Treehouse.

The last piece of music which was probably in place on or around opening day in 1971 has recently come into the public sphere online, which is a piece of music once played in the Adventureland Veranda at the land entrance. It does consist of non-diagetic, canned “exotic” music, but throughout the piece of music is a curious, mild clinkling between songs, like wind chimes. Chances are, this sound is intended to tie into an element in that old Magic Kingdom eatery: a number of wind chimes hanging in the show scene balconies along the inside of the restaurant made of shells. With the tinkling chimes on the breeze, filling the space with “room tone”, the non-diagetic music swells out of it, like a dream.

Speaking of Adventurelands, an interesting effort towards creating a land dismissed of any non-diagetic music is the 1994 Adventureland at Disneyland, where many unique radio “loops” were recorded to fill the streets with radios and CB radios broadcasting all manner of period music, news updates and casual banter. The addition of the Tarzan overlay to the Swiss Family Treehouse as of curse compromised this aesthetic as where once a fairly motivated organ piece played, now there is, well, Phil Collins.

There are many other examples on both counts, including some which are probably debatable and open to interpretation, like that radio at the start of Eyes Wide Shut – Disney can only in the end guide and coax our experience of their parks and there thus can never truly be that single authorial hand which is the foundation of the argument for film as a potential art. And yet if we do try to view the themed space as a kind of an extension of filmic “space”, oughtn’t we also see the non-diagetic music which informs so much of our experience in the Magic Kingdoms and other places as an essential failure of design? The music which constantly informs also constantly leads, suggests, curtails possible alternate readings. The theme spaces can certainly stand on their own, so should there not be a concerted effort to move beyond the blaring non-diagetic music and craft a more sophisticated palette of sounds and music, to move farther from the institutionalized Hollywood soundtrack and into potentially ever more rewarding design scheme?


Brad Gravett said...

Good stuff, I look forward to the finished work =) I think that's a definite hallmark in Disney's approach as of late - the story one sees in themed spaces are best inferred instead of explicitly stated.

Unknown said...

I'm left a little nonplussed by this article. Two major issues I have - 1) you operate on the assumption that non-diagetic music is inherently inferior to diagetic music. In film as well as themed design, this is way too black and white. What matters is the overall effect, and the skill with which it is implemented. Do you really think the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly would be a better movie if you replaced Ennio Morocone's score with a diagetic soundtrack?

2) I think you do a disservice in hanging too much on film theory. Much like the early film critics who fell back on established academic tools both philosophic and specifically using critical ideas from other medium (such as theater) to critically analyze a completely different medium, film. While theater and film share many similarities, viewing them through the same critical lens is folly. The same could be said about film and themed design.

Early film critics struggled against the popular convention that their medium was merely pablum, similar to how critics such as yourself must feel, and they used techniques from and comparisons to more "legitimate" works of art to make their subject seem worthy of study.

Finally, I'd recommend reading some Rick Altman. He was one of the pioneers of film studies, and has focused most of his career studying film and sound. You can read preview versions of many of his books online:

FoxxFur said...

Sounds silly saying this down here followed by the above article, but I personally much prefer non-diagetic, purely atmospheric music in films. My own films are full of such music and I don't tend to like the sort of directors that try to eliminate such music because I think film has no responsibility to resemble anything but celluloid-based visual patterns. However, the point I was trying to work towards is that Disney's themed design work is so geared toward creating fully convincing enviroments that, in a certain sense, their loud area music loops are contrary to the apparent wishes of the designers manifest in the work itself.

I approach the theme parks from an area I know. since I'm not a theater or music or literature theorist I avoid those readings, although I do hope to inspire others to share such readings, if for no reason other than outrage that I'm so wrong. ;) I'm fairly nonplussed with the essay as well but it's mostly because it doesn't exist for any other reason than "here's some ideas I'll drop into your lap."

Unknown said...

Foxx - I hope I'm not coming of boorish, it is just that you have such consistently excellent work that I probably have unrealistic expectations when I see your updates in my feed stream, even when clearly marked as a very rough draft.

Reading your comment, I think I did miss your original point. Seeing it now, I'm still not sure I agree. Is the goal of themed design really to just be convincing? In my opinion, that is only part of the equation. Themed design is meant to immerse you in a fantasy. The area music accentuates this. It is not just a mask of other sounds, it serves the same function as film scores do - to subconsciously orient you to the emotions the 'authors' are trying to instill in you. Sometimes this emotion is better conveyed through diagetic elements, sometimes through non-diagetic, but in every case, it is the feeling that is important. The idea is to play on the E.Q., not the I.Q.

Per using film terms, I understand where you are coming from, as I come from a film background as well. However, I still maintain that you are most successful when defining your own terms to discuss this unique medium of themed design.

Unknown said...

Disneyland, and, by birthright, the Magic Kingdom have always been explained as existing as if in a movie.

If we take that to the level Foxx talks about, then the debate takes more shape. I have always thought of the load loops as a way of priming the guest for the next experience. Relating that to film, could each attraction be seen, not as a seperate scene, but as a seperate short film. The load loop would be non-diagetic, still, but it would seem to have a better sense of why it was placed there. Less to compete with the attraction.

I only really notice the music if it is out of place for my notion of what I should be hearing. Growing up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I fully expect, appreciate and enjoy non-diagetic music.

But still, in this so-called recreation of fantasy, where does that leave the ooutdoor music loops? since the Magic Kingdom is a construct--and makes no apologies for it--does this make the non-diagetic music diagetic? head hurts!

I can't wait to see this more fleshed out!

Unknown said...


This is EXACTLY why it is folly to talk about themed design in the language of film. You end up squishing the new ideas in theme park into the existing frame of film (no pun intended), and it just stops making any real sense.

Looking at the park as a unified entity is problematic, simply because it is something that has been hodgepodged together over decades by innumerable people. I do feel that there is a unifying "thesis" to Disneyland and its clones, but to see it you have to look at the longview of how things were originally implemented, and weed out the evolution. Same could be said for Epcot.

FoxxFur said...

Ooooh, exciting stuff happening in here. =)

I mostly agree that my most successful postulations re: theme parks grow not from films but from the parks themselves; defining different modes of theme design and identifying 'essential materials' like false portals and fractional architecture are def. way more important than saying "hey, why's this music here?" Again, it's part of the reason I marked this essay as unfinished is because it really doesn't even come around to much of a point.

I am, however, at heart a formalist and my thinking regarding our perceptions of space and continuity is most informed by Eisenstein and Brakhage and so I'll probably never fully get out of my cycle of "looking IS editing!" which of course forces me to view everything as having some vague cinematic distillation. But I'm working on it. At the very least I've started to recognize different schools of Stratificational theme design, if not named them as of yet.

Which leads me back to that music. I believe that some schools / approaches to theme design are are generally receptive to non-diagetic music than others. There are certainly varying degrees of "realism" we find in theme design; Main Street USA could very well be cardboard next to the strikingly realistic environments found at Animal Kingdom. I think the argument shouldn't have been "is it good or bad?" but "isn't it sometimes less appropriate than others?".

And there are of course nagging problems I have with the whole concept that a themed environment can't have non-diagetic music; I know in the pit of my being that Main Street would be a failure silent. I have problems with the music played there *now*, but that has nothing to do with the initial design of the place and thus must be disregarded.

I guess the value of this piece may not be the music question at all, but helping point me in a new direction in regards to thinking about those traditional themed design modes.

I am, however, most humbly thankful that my work is generally of high enough quality that I can inspire unreasonable expectations of my abilities!

Unknown said...


I'd love to continue the conversation, but alas I have to be running to catch my plane down to Orlando for the week.

As I truly believe that critical thought is only productive as part of a dialogue, I hope to continue this back and forth as it is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating and I think it does both us and your readers a world of good to use your essays as a point of conversation and don't let the topics begin and end with your posts.

Joe Shelby said...

of course, then there's having it in the parks and taking it away for the sake of promotions.

worst violation of this was this past year or so, where in the WDW Magic Kingdom the "tavern" restaurant across the street from Pirates' main entrance had replaced the sea shanties and classic pirate tunes (like Pirates Life from Peter Pan and Whale of a Tale from 20,000 Leagues) with the over-the-top orchestra of the Badelt and Zimmer scores from the movie. Utterly out of place. I love the music from the films (and I have no problem with the "how to be a pirate" Jack Sparrow show in the parks) but that music is just WRONG in that atmosphere.

Unknown said...

Excellent article. Sad to hear that Anaheim Disneyland no longer has its Swiss Family Tree House :(
Thank goodness the folks at Orlando kept it up....