October 12, 2010

A Stylist or a Generalist?

What's in a literary style? I've always thought the great American 20th century stylists were Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.

One facet of the debate, I suppose, is the instantly recognizable prose rhythm of these writers. One paragraph is all that's necessary to make an ID in some cases.

Most critics, I think, would call this facet an achievement--a mark of genius, even. Let's change venues artistically, to the arena of the film music.

Danny Elfman, the composer behind Batman, Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Edward Scissorhands, has built a career focused on the macabre, the lonely, the wretched. His portraits are handled delicately; it's clear how much empathy the composer feels for his subjects. The dark side, we find in his worlds, is romantic, lush, and misunderstood.

Then, why is Elfman still regarded as an outsider in the elite circles of Hollywood film music? Perhaps there is a downside to being a stylist in literature or film music, after all. If an artists hones a narrow style and inhabits its regularly, is that artist then "limited"? No one would doubt that top-tier Hollywood film composers like James Horner and John Williams can writer for any mood, any occasion. But could Elfman the same? One can only wonder how Elfman would handle a score like Indiana Jones, or Jurassic Park.

I think there is food for thought in the debate over stylists versus the "general geniuses" of literature and scoring.