'Manchester By the Sea,' classical music, and cinematic reverie

Casey Affleck in 'Manchester-by-the-Sea'Pearl Street Films

November 25, 2016

Manchester By the Sea, the new film from lauded writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, is apt to be described with terms like "quietly devastating." It centers on Lee (Casey Affleck), a man who returns to the eponymous Massachusetts town where he grew up when tragedy strikes his family. That tragedy, it turns out, wasn't the first Lee's had to deal with.

Lee is caught in a cycle of grief, and Lonergan uses several cinematic strategies to capture a feeling of time standing still. One is through the setting — the seaside town seems perpetually overcast, with boats going out and coming in with the tide. Another is the use of flashbacks, which are integrated into the film seamlessly and without warning. Then there's Lonergan's use of music. In addition to an original score by Lesley Barber, the film features classical music by Handel, Poulenc, Albinoni, and Massenet.

When the classical selections are heard, dialogue and sound effects drop away and we enter a sort of reverie. Lonergan's use of classical music, in this sense, is not dissimilar from the way Stanley Kubrick used classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Why use classical music in contexts like this? Why not use the original score? (Alex North wrote a score for 2001, which Kubrick ultimately rejected in favor of selections by Strauss, Ligeti, and other composers.)

Sometimes, the familiarity of a piece contributes to the intended effect. In 2001, for example, the Blue Danube waltz is used to intentionally draw comparisons between docking spaceships and waltzing Viennese, and to emphasize the jump from prehistory into a civilized age. In other cases, precisely the opposite effect is intended: Ligeti's experimental Atmosphêres was very new (premiered in 1961) and unsettling, signaling a leap into the unknown when astronaut David Bowman approaches the alien monolith.

In Manchester By the Sea, though, Lonergan is looking for something else. None of the repertoire selections heard in the film are apt to be recognizable to most viewers, but they're all very recognizably classical music. With selections like the Pifa from Handel's Messiah, Lonergan activates a certain set of association — but without such specific referents as waltzing aristocrats. Barber's score, heavy on plangent strings, extends the effect of these pieces.

Still, the original music can't do it all — or so Lonergan determined. In Manchester By the Sea, classical music captures Lee's feeling of being a stranger in a strange land despite being in his own home town. The music is familiar, but also strange. It's civilized, but distant. It's human, but alien. In a sense it speaks for the inarticulate Lee, as it's spoken for so many others in times of turmoil.

The use of this music is all the more poignant given that we have no evidence Lee's actually a classical music listener; when there's source music in the film, it's either contemporary rock or, more commonly, pointedly anachronistic pop and jazz tunes. The classical music functions like the score, playing over the action and seemingly not heard by the characters.

Listeners often say they use classical radio as a source of comfort and companionship — not just in the sense of a host's voice, but in the sense that classical music bridges eras. Its often long, patient structures convey a sense of structure and continuity, even when (perhaps, in some ways, especially when) the music itself isn't recognizable.

The music can also, though, come with a whiff of fatalism. Albinoni's Adagio in G minor lives on, even though the composer is long-gone. There's something reassuring about that, but also something uncanny. The composer is both here and not here, sort of like Lee — or, when we're overcome with great emotion, any of us.

Postscript: After I finished writing this, I read Anthony Lane's New Yorker review of Manchester By the Sea. "Should Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor not be banned onscreen?" he asks. "Any piece of music that has been used for Rollerball, Gallipoli, and Flashdance has, by definition, been squeezed dry." Maybe the Maestro is more with us than I realized.