Films are powerful vehicles for communicating religious meanings, mythic stories, and bedrock ideological values to millions of people. Their chapters teach us to recognize the explicit and implicit presence of religion in one of the most important media of our contemporary culture. Movies can no longer be viewed as “just entertainment”, and religion can no longer be viewed as an antiquated or a peripheral institution in a predominantly secular society.J.W. Martin and C. E. Ostwalt Jr., Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film, 1995
The famous composer Bernard Herrmann felt like music was “the communicating link between the screen and the audience” (M. Russel and J. Young, Film music screencraft, 1998).
In contemporary history, the same concept applies to various cases of singers who connect their abstract musical entity to their interpretation of reality through the media of short film. The lyrics of their songs (and, more generally, the scores used) put the viewers in an empathetic situation that allows them to experience the artist’s own unique environment, usually under the form of a transposition of these musicians’ feelings and thoughts.
This article is going to explain the world of the American singer Lana del Rey by analysing her short film Tropico and the one of the British indie-rock band Florence and the Machine with their episodic project The Odyssey. Both the shorts collect various symbolism about the Christian religion, nostalgia and love, influencing completely the mise-en-scène and the atmosphere they are developing during their narrative.
As the professor David Nicholls has written in Narrative theory as an Analytical tool in the Study of Popular Music Texts, Music and Letters, “music can become an integral part of a narrative, especially when it is used in combination with other media.”
The difference between this kind of audiovisual artworks and the film genre of musicals is that the firsts have narratives that are less defined by the scores, while the seconds have songs that are played to highlight important parts of the stories’ developments.
This main difference does not mean that the plots of Tropico and The Odyssey are less meaningful, but that their interpretation is defined by details given by the choices of the directors and, in particular, of the cinematographer.
The main goal of this research is to uncover these two projects and demonstrate how the songs and philosophy of life of their creators influenced both the short films’ environments.
Anthony Mandler’s Tropico is based on the Biblical story of sin and redemption. Written and performed by Lana del Rey, it could be easily divided into three chapters: Eden, Los Angeles and Heaven.
These three environments are full of details and accompanied by scores that make the whole experience more vivid. The movie starts with Lana del Rey as Eve in the garden of Eden, where she finds herself with Adam, Jesus, God (in the physical form of John Wayne), Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, whose lives were a big inspiration for the American singer.
The Garden is portrayed as a neon paradise; the bright colours and the various plants surrounding the main character are strictly connected with the choice of exploring the Genesis from a modern point of view, as it is demonstrated by the choice of inserting pop culture stars in the narrative fragment of the Creation of the world.
This eccentric mise-en-scène is deeply influenced by the choices that were made regarding the acting and the sound: John Wayne’s accent, Marilyn and Elvis’ tones, the eco of the entire situation and, finally, Lana del Rey’s song “Body Electric” respect sound design guru David Sonnenschein’s theory: “When sound works well with image, the impression is that the sound is already contained in the image itself. This can derive from the interaction between the natural world and our physiological responses and how our muscles and nerves tell us what’s happening out there” (from The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema, 2001)
Adam and Eve
The viewer is able to enter and experience this sacred Wonderland inside Lana del Rey’s head because of the convincing environment that was created for this first chapter.
The narrative follows Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and consequently being catapulted into what seems to be the contemporary Los Angeles. This second chapter is about the loss of innocence, the hedonism and the violence that surround human beings. Nevertheless, the environment changes completely, as the emotions that the film crew wanted to pursue for this part of the storyline are different from the Garden of Eden’s ones.
Even the sound design gets less spiritual and more realistic, showing a great change in the way the environment around Adam and Eve is perceived by the audience: “Many times, even within the most oppressive situations, the composers’ scores speak with the imaginative and uniquely inspirational voices” (from M. Shelle’s The Score, 1999).
Eve is now a stripper in a nightclub and Adam works in a convenience store while being the leader of a gang. Lana del Rey’s evocative monologue connects the naked meat of the body (which she now embraces because of her job, even if in the Genesis it is said that after eating the forbidden fruit she was ashamed of being naked) to the soul, showing her as a version of Virgin Mary.
The Garden of Eden
The game of lights in these sequences is incredibly strong; the tints are darker, as the props inserted in the various scenes: dollar bills, drugs, guns. The Garden of Eden is now the garden of Evil, the peace that was reflected in the beginning of “Tropico” has been replaced with pain and a nostalgia of happier times, which is portrayed with just some flashbacks that follow the meaning of Eve’s monologues. These flashbacks are the moment of happiness and innocence she feels sometimes, even when stuck in the “City of Angels”, and in those sparkling memories she finds the faith to keep going forward and believing that the original sin she committed is going to be forgiven. These flashbacks are exaggeratedly saturated, they glow and they are put in contrast with the mise-en-scène of the strip club and of the convenience store, which are more obscure, raw, empty and less retouched.
Eve knows it is never going to be same as before, that is why the nostalgia of her memories makes them literally spark. She is a spokesman of humanity since she “gradually abandoned the belief in the enduring existence of the earthly paradise as an oasis of happiness that is barred now but is preserved somewhere at the end of the world. But this turn to realism was not accomplished without pain” (from J. Delumeau’s History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition, 2000).
The final and most spiritual chapter of Tropico is Heaven. It represents the post-life experience. Adam and Eve, after fighting the corruption of the planet, are now free to reconnect with God. Under the notes of the dreamy “Bel Air”, the two souls fluctuate in air, spinning with white clothes on, happy to be together even after death. They are in a field, overly graded and luminous.
The main colours are the same used in the various flashbacks’ sequences of the second chapter, and the whole scene shows isolation: it is just about Adam and Eve now, they found happiness on Earth and are finally able to reach purity.
At the beginning of this final chapter, they get rid of their possessions because they are free from material requirements as they are finishing their journey to become eternal souls.
The shots are alternate with Eve being immerged in water, a sign of purity and life. All these details are able to track an environment that is magical and dreamy. It follows the song’s lyrics (Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s okay to shine?) to define the physical communication between the two characters and the change of lights and sequences.
Tropico is a relevant example on how a person’s artistic voice can influence the environment portrayed in a short film, treating important themes as faith and the Genesis.
“It was always much easier to think in terms of recreating the vegetable side of the original Garden of Eden (…) and to unlock the botanical secrets of health, medicine, and life” (from J. Prest’s The Garden of Eden – The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise, 1981) and, through the advent of cinema, is now possible to feed the nostalgia humanity feels for peaceful times of the past. Everyone has their own personal Garden of Eden, but environments as the ones of Tropico can be considered symbolic enough to become an anthem of universal utopia.
Haycock’s The Odyssey focuses on some of the same themes, but takes a slightly different approach from a narrative and, consequentially, an environmental point of view. It uses the grief of a heartbreak and connects it to a journey towards freedom, peace and regained faith.
The opening scene already shows the influence of the Christian environment Florence Welch (the singer, the writer and the main actress of this short film) has experienced in her life path: it is a slow zoom into a crucifix that looms over a landscape of Los Angeles. It starts the fall into chaos and the isolating calm that the protagonist feels during the narration. There is not any background music, just some sound effects as the cars moving into the streets and the noise of a storm. As the professor Anne Krikler says in The magic of music in film, “most film-goers are unaware of the fact that, in the background, there is usually sound to be heard, though specific themes and other compositions may stress the actions that are seen, usually in a most attractive and exciting way. The film-goer may be unaware of the fact that the sound has in many cases enhanced the quality of the film.” By this point of view, even everyday environmental noises play a strong part in creating a realistic atmosphere because they can create a vivid reaction in the viewer.
The plot of The Odyssey is a long path that a heartbroken lover follows through the different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. They’re all portrayed through symbols, creating a sort of active viewing that makes the audience always attentive and awake.
The whole narration starts with a peaceful chat between Florence and her lover. Then, a car accident plays as a metaphor of heartbreak, in which Florence’s partner seems to die. She is able to escape from the car and, instead of calling for help, she wanders down the street, singing How big, how blue, how beautiful, a song with various environmental elements that help the contextualization of the storyline (“Between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign we decided to get hurt”). She is slowly realising what had happened, the urban environment is now a maze; she is lost, and she struggles to embrace it on her own.
She sings the song to a busy street, while there are dreamy sequences in front of a sea where Florence gets immersed to redeem her sins.
While trying to cope with the demons in her head, Florence starts a trip between reality and fantasy. She enters into churches, finds peace under the rain and ends up talking to strangers who wonder why she is traveling alone. All these actions and, in general, the plot development is accompanied by a smart use of colours. The shades of blue are strongly present in the whole middle of the narration, which is more introspective, while the sequences which show the important actions gain red tints.
As it is imaginable, colour psychology is another strong element of this short film.
“Blue can be a tranquil pond or a soft blanket of sadness. It is quiet and aloof. Year after year, our colour investigations show that in a blue environment, people become passive and introspective. It’s a colour to think to, but not to act” while red is what “we tend to see first, red gives the illusion of advancing toward us. Due to this, it can manipulate our sense of space.”
The “red scenes” are sometimes claustrophobic, in other cases just full of details and props, defining the choice of colour as something that “can activate your libido, or make you aggressive, anxious, or compulsive. In fact, red can activate whatever latent passions you might bring to the table” (from P. Bellantoni’s If it’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: the Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling, 2005). In the case of The Odyssey, it happens literally when a very angry Florence jumps on a table where she was having dinner with some family members and ex-lovers and destroys a lot of plates.
The story continues by alternating more introspective chapters to more narrative-driven ones, and the themes are still nostalgia (there are parts where Florence is portrayed as a child, symbol of innocence) and faith (churches, crucifixes, prayers and various references, both physical and abstract, which define religion as one of the main topic of this short film).
The whole narration ends with Florence going on stage, ready to keep going with her life. The tints are blue but in this case the colour’s goal is not to influence our perception of the character: Florence is not passive anymore, but she is still coping with the loss of her loved one, and of herself. She is embracing the bittersweet feeling of hope, and the environment of the stage (as a way to portray the beginning of her being protagonist of her own life and, in real life, of her comeback after a long break from music) helps the viewer to focus on the whole situation better. All these little details marks The Odyssey as a deeply studied array of environments that have the role to contain a narration but at the same time adapt to the narration itself to make everything more realistic.
If in Tropico it was more of a literal garden, in The Odyssey is nature itself to be portrayed as the only place to find peace and faith.
Even in this case, it is possible to define this reconnection to primitive instincts as the Nostalgia of the Eden. Even if the garden of the Genesis is not as literally transposed as it happens in Tropico, the importance of escaping reality and society to find happiness is a strong theme in both these short films and the atmosphere created is strongly helping the viewer to understand and feel the same emotions as the two heroines.
The fact that in the two religion-oriented short films women are assimilated to the role of the Martyr is surely a massive evolution in the way Christianity is portrayed in the contemporary. In the second chapter of the Genesis, God says to the Eve:
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man”
Though, in Tropico is Eve to be the central focus of the narrative and it influences the way she interacts and coexists with the short film’s environment. Adam is more of a passive character and, in the different chapters of Tropico, he is standing at Eve’s back and, more in general, has less power and character definition than his partner. In The Odyssey it would be really easy to explain the similarity between Ulysses’ journey and Florence’s one, but when it comes to the environments shown to the viewer the point of focus is too different: Florence Welch is painted as a 21st Century Jesus, reaching her redemption in an introspective and really personal travel inside her memories, fears and hopes.
The use of hands and touch in the scenes of the short film (when she tries to stop fights between citizens, when she hugs her lover to protect him from the world, when she touches everything surrounding her to keep contact with reality) explains her primitive desire to reach peace with herself and other people. As it happens also in Tropico, her role is central and is tremendously driven towards the Christian topics of faith and forgiveness.
In conclusion, the film industry has always helped to share various values to a larger audience, but when it comes to artistic projects based on Christianity as Anthony Mandler’s Tropico and Vincent Haycock’s The Odyssey, the viewers are put in front of a re-interpretation of the holy texts, showing an evolution of the possible views of famous Christian environments.
It is coming to a point where it does not even matter what the viewer believes in, since the topics that are treated are universal.