Over the weekend I saw the new Wolfgang Petersen picture, Troy. (I always liked that old Spy magazine piece in which someone went round to movie theaters asking for tickets to “the Ivan Reitman picture” and “the film by Chris Columbus,” getting blank stares from the cashiers.) A few minutes in, I experienced a tingling sensation of déjà vu. Where had I heard this music before? Where had I heard music borrowed in this way before? Soon enough, it hit me: I was listening to another omnivorous musical collage by James Horner, the artist of Titanic. This most stylistically codependent of Hollywood composers is once again up to his old tricks. The principal Bradmotif derives from the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The Greeks’ march on Troy played out to the first few bars of Prokofiev's “Battle on the Ice” from Alexander Nevsky. The Trojans parade to pealing fanfares from the Sanctus of Britten’s War Requiem. [Postscript: A reader points out that the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia becomes a Josh Groban song during the closing credits. I fled a little too quickly to notice this.]
There are two possible interpretive approaches to this challenging opus. One is that Horner is presenting us with a kind of musical meta-narrative of deconstructive requotation—a postmodern tour-de-force on par with the Pierre Menard Don Quixote. Notice the emphasis on Shostakovich and Prokofiev, two composers who served unwillingly as mouthpieces for totalitarian terror. We are being told that the hero Achilles has let himself become a figurehead for the tyrannical Agamemnon. The citation of Britten, meanwhile, is a sly acknowledgement of the story’s homoerotic subtext, which was evidently omitted for fear of persecution by the Bush regime. Thus, music becomes what Theodor W. Adorno might call a negative dialectic of original unoriginality, allowing the seeming banality of impoverished invention to serve as a vessel for the lamentations of the outcast. By reducing other people's masterworks to cheap ditties, Horner shakes his fist at the suffocating weight of bourgeois culture. In the absence of an individual voice, we are given to perceive the destruction of individuality itself.
That’s one explanation. The other is that the man is a hack.