By Kaveh Askari, author of Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran: Material Cultures in Transit
Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran investigates how the cultural translation of cinema has been shaped by the physical translation of its ephemera. I examine film circulation and its effect on Iranian film culture in the period before foreign studios established official distribution channels and Iran became a notable site of world cinema. This transcultural history draws on cross-archival comparison of films, distributor memos, licensing contracts, advertising schemes, and audio recordings. The book meticulously tracks the fragile and sometimes forgotten material of film as it circulated through the Middle East into Iran and shows how this material was rerouted, reengineered, and reimagined in the process.
The following section from the book’s third chapter, “Collage Sound as Industrial Practice,” picks up the theme of asynchrony from previous chapters. In the first chapter, junk film prints are rebranded as classics and serial films fall out of sync. In the second chapter, Iranian engineers leapfrog other industries in magnetic sound technology. What was largely limited to expensive Hi-Fi applications in the United States has been adapted to a methods of dubbing films. In the chapter excerpted here, music editors in Iran explore what is possible when film music travels separately from, and sometimes faster than, the films themselves.
With the help of audio recognition software, I have identified hundreds of fragments of found sound in midcentury films made in Iran. Clips from the three examples discussed in this excerpt are included here.
Temp Love, Out of Sync
Consider the asynchrony of the trends in film music in Iran and the United States. What creative and marketing opportunities did this asynchrony afford? The film studios in midcentury Iran used American scores composed when the pendulum had swung away from compilation scoring norms of 1930s Hollywood. Then, by the late 1960s both industries had swung past each other in the opposite directions. Just as Hollywood was rediscovering the compilation score and directors were rekindling their temp love, the film industry in Iran began to favor original scores from its own composers, and its remaining compilations turned away from their rowdier past. The cyclical trends for or against compilation were, for these two industries, about as far apart as they could be.
This was the period in which Max Steiner, Hollywood’s celebrated golden-age composer, famously spoke out against the compilation score. It was a period in which he helped to consolidate control of the score around the composer, and film studios packaged and sold this music apart from the films as part of a campaign of tie-in branding. These efforts created the conditions of recognizability that inadvertently gave the scores their currency in compilations abroad. It is important to see these scores made in Iran as a creative interaction not just with found melodies but with the commercial life of this branded property. The patterns of sampling film music at midcentury were wildly out of sync with the commercial trends that produced the source material, which made it possible to resynchronize new forms of recognizability and commercial viability.
Some recycled scores in Iran appeared at the speed of global fashion. Remember that while some of these scores came from film prints themselves, better sound quality could be transferred to magnetic tape from commercial LPs. Vinyl was both stable and fast. Music editors’ collections were archived over years to be sure, but vinyl could circulate in ways that distributor-controlled film prints could not. This portable format met with a nimble soundtrack technique in which all dialogue, music, and effects were recorded and assembled last, with the rapidity of a temporary preview track. This resourceful production method not only saved time and money, it gave the industry opportunities to create novel forms of tie-in simultaneity. One way to trace this simultaneity is to compare newspaper exhibition records for Hollywood films in Iran with the release dates of the Iranian films that recycle their scores. It turns out that some Iranian filmmakers were able to integrate music quickly enough to score their own films with musical themes from imports that were still playing in first-run cinemas.
The score for Fereshtei dar Khane-ye Man (An Angel in My House,Armais Aghamaliyan, 1963), edited by Dariush Azizi at Golden Age studio, opens with the piano theme from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment to accompany its nighttime shots of busy Tehran streets. The LP, Theme from The Apartment, was one of several cross-promotional efforts that succeeded on the music charts in the early 1960s. With this film, United Artists piloted rack sales of albums in cinema lobbies. The company expanded the program when the promotion proved profitable. The Apartment hit US theaters in 1960, but it premiered in Iran in October 1963 at the Moulin Rouge cinema in Tehran. An Angel in My House was released this same year. The soundtrack played in Iran simultaneously for Aghamalian’s urban melodrama and Wilder’s cynical sex comedy about the postwar managerial class. The choice gives Angel’s opening a contemporary feel. Wilder’s ironic uses of the song’s sentimentality are not conveyed in the new context, but something about its source still stands out. It would not have been unreasonable to expect it to be recognized given the commercial success of the album, the film itself, and the narrative significance of that particular song within the film. The Rickshaw Boy LP features visibly in the diegesis of The Apartment as a running cynical gag. Wilder’s film also had prestige associations in Tehran. The Moulin Rouge was a high-end cinema, and Jack Lemon was on his way to becoming a major star in Iran.
The same accelerated sampling happens with the score for the James Bond film From Russia with Love (Terrence Young, 1963). The film was released in Iran two years later with the descriptive title A Trap for James Bond. John Barry’s score for the film follows the other big-theme composers with its pop melodies tuned to marketing opportunities. It was Barry’s first in a series of Bond scores, which helped the franchise become famous for its branded music. The theme tied record sales and radio play to the film in most markets, but in Iran audiences may have heard it first in a locally produced thriller. Sarsam (Delirium, Samuel Khachikian, 1965, sound by Mohammad Mohammadi) was released in Iran the same year as A Trap for James Bond, and it makes use of two cues from Barry’s score. The musical cues in Delirium, as in Angel, do not call back to time-tested classic scores. They play simultaneously with anticipated new releases at first-run theaters. The business ties between Hollywood film companies and record subsidiaries by 1958, and the stylistic changes in theme music that followed, encouraged multimedia commercial viability. Simultaneous screenings of films that were produced seven thousand miles apart but that make use of the same scores illustrate how such commercial strategies could be repurposed.
In some cases, collage sound in films made in Iran may have traveled faster to cinemas than the original films for which the scores were composed. Take Hollywood’s orientalist battle spectacle Taras Bulba (J. Lee Thompson, 1962). The film did fine in the United States, but Franz Waxman’s score received radio play, multiple commercial releases, and awards nominations. I do not have an Iranian exhibition record for Taras Bulba, but I have found an instance of its soundtrack in the Iranian film Zamin-e Talkh (Bitter Earth, Khosrow Parvizi, 1963), which was released less than three months after a limited American release of Taras Bulba. The Iranian premiere of the score, in a compilation credited to Parvizi himself, must have preceded the local distribution of the film by at least a year. It even preceded some key US markets, as the film followed a standard staggered release pattern. As a result, when moviegoers in some US cities heard Waxman’s score for the film on opening night, they were hearing a score that Parvizi had already presented to Tehran audiences weeks earlier in his own take on the western genre. The score for a Yul Brenner action film set in the Eurasian Steppe had been reattached to a cowboy movie made in Iran before the Hollywood film had completed its first run in its own domestic market. The Waxman-Parvizi vector, outpacing the United Artists domestic release schedule, offers an acute example of what can be discovered when one replaces linear arguments about temporal delay with inquiries into circulation’s layered chronologies.
Iran’s temp love was all about the odd timing. Commercially available recordings of film music, products of one industry’s rejection of compilation scoring, transformed into a working archive for another industry’s exploration of the possibilities of compilation. The products of the cross-promotional strategies of Hollywood and its record subsidiaries around 1960 could be retooled for other kinds of crossings on the sound stripes of films and in the public venues that screened them. These processes help us to challenge assumptions that circulation follows a linear chronology from origin to destination with a kind of dilution marking each step. It shows that Iranian sound editors, who (like the composers they sampled) were keen to craft music with publicity in mind, took advantage of these records’ acclaim while reshuffling their linear timelines. They could return to a 1930s soundtrack over decades, create resourceful affinities with contemporary films, and even leapfrog Hollywood films’ domestic release schedules. Tracking patterns of recognizable sound draws attention to these essential networks of exchange without implying that asynchrony is a one-way street.
This post is part of our #SCMS22 series. Conference attendees can get 40% off the book with code 21E5879.