Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins transgresses the boundary between the real and the fantastical through pan flutes and theme park attractions in his review of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Pirates of the Caribbean_ The Curse of the Black Pearl

In the expansive pantheon of movie franchises that have lengthened their gravy train by trafficking in sequels (or prequels), Pirates of the Caribbean seems intent on claiming a spot at the right hand of the throne. First we had Dead Man’s ChestAt World’s End followed, wherein we discovered—to our horror—that the series had metamorphosed into a bad rendition of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Most recently came On Stranger Tides. And there’s more to come, says Wikipedia: a fifth installment in the Pirates franchise promises to appear in 2015. Despite the loathing with which I regard the sequels, I won’t spend time here skewering them; I leave it to a future 10YA reviewer to do that, and that person may see things differently than I do. Here we concern ourselves with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Though I have seen Pirates several times since I first saw it ten years ago (I don’t remember whether I saw it at home in Silicon Valley or down in Goleta, my new ‘hood at the time), and I generally still find it entertaining in a “I’ll throw it on while I do other things” kind of way, I’ve never really bothered to sit down and think about it with my academic hat on. That lacuna now remedied, witness, dear Reader, the result.

For a movie inspired entirely by a theme park attraction, Pirates acquits itself rather well. I suppose this implies a bias against theme park attractions when it comes to providing source material for Hollywood blockbusters, but I’d argue that the statistics on movies sourced from novels or plays vs. theme park attractions tell you all you need to know. Though the performances definitely tend toward the predictable, and the score, while effective earlier in the movie, sounds later on like the same 30-second cue stuck on repeat—all of which should make for a conventional, perhaps even forgettable, movie—Piratesdoes stand out for one particular thing: its treatment of the relationship between the fantastical and the worldly.

First, a disclaimer: I have not had the opportunity to construct even a working bibliography of material around the subject of the fantastical in film and literature (and its relationship to music), so I must apologize profusely in advance for the armchair nature of my analysis. I think the fantastical appeals especially to those of us who have, for most of our lives, seen ourselves as different from our peers—so different, in fact, that we may have wished for an entirely separate world to call our own. Characters with access to the fantastical—the Pevensie children, the Darling children, Harry Potter, etc.—allow us as moviegoers to live vicariously through them, making for an unusually strong sense of escapism. Movies that involve both the worldly and the fantastical have, however, a particular pitfall to negotiate: how to address the co-existence of the two, and to what degree the movie emphasizes one over the other. Sometimes they must co-exist in the same space (as in Pirates), and sometimes they must interact across a space of greater or lesser physical definition. Too often, movies will lavish attention upon the details of the fantastical—I’m looking at you,Harry Potter—and fail to give the relationship between the fantastical and the worldly adequate consideration. How do we know who, or what, belongs in each realm? When the fantastical and the worldly exist as two separate spaces, what prompts, or allows, a character to move between them? Perhaps most simply, what boundary keeps the two worlds separate; what power does each hold over the other?

Consider the closet door as threshold in Monsters Inc., a clear demarcation of the boundary between the worldly and the fantastical. Stardust provides another example of a physical demarcation, in this case, a stone wall with but a single gap in it. The night sky in Peter Pan, through which the children return to London from Neverland, represents a much fuzzier space separating the worldly and the magical (I refer here to the 2003 live-action film; I confess I don’t remember Disney’s original Peter Pan very well). The navigation of this in-between space has always piqued my interest, and I find that the quality of its handling can vary wildly. The approach taken in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe proves quite compelling: the wardrobe becomes imbued with power as an entity in its own right; the Pevensies know that they can access the fantastical world of Narnia by entering the wardrobe. As a physical object it has stature, and its portrayal in the film—standing alone in a seemingly forgotten room—almost makes it come alive. It creates a tension between the real and the fantastical which I consider crucial to an effective depiction of the two on screen.

I feel wholly unsatisfied, on the other hand, with the treatment offered by the Harry Potterfilms (at least, the ones I’ve seen); the magical world and the real world clearly exist as separate spaces, but magic apparently works in the real world, and transit between the two worlds seems to happen by whatever method appears most outrageous. These realms co-exist, but unequally: you can fly a broomstick in the real world, but nobody in the magical world has ever heard of a ballpoint pen, or e-mail?

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The Curse of the Black Pearl manages to strike an acceptable balance between the worldly and the fantastical or magical, and we should not underestimate the significance of that achievement, whatever else we might think of the movie. Pirates succeeds because it limits its engagement with the fantastical to a curse upon a chest of Aztec gold, which it integrates into the worldly narrative context of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s mutual longing. The curse has a straightforward history and a straightforward, almost Biblical remedy. Elizabeth’s purloin of the Aztec gold from the young Will upon his rescue sets in motion the rest of the movie’s narrative, but the movie doesn’t make an especial point of this; in its first appearance, we interpret the Aztec gold as having no function other than to identify pirates. Without delving into anything requiring a disproportionate suspension of disbelief, Piratesintegrates a hint of the magical into the everyday, allowing it to provide a credible but not overbearing framework for the story. Will Turner even states it plainly early in the movie, as he prepares to strike a deal with Jack Sparrow and spring him from jail: “The ship’s real enough; therefore, its anchorage must also be a real place.” The dead island exists—like the Bermuda triangle—within a folklore that we in the real world have of mysterious places in the Caribbean where ships disappear. But, other than the Aztec chest of gold, it’s nothing more than a standard-issue treasure stash.

The realness of the real world in Pirates benefits from an extensive amount of historical research, done by the film’s art department and production designers, who aimed to produce as historically plausible an interpretation as possible. (But!—I hear you protest—British colonialism! Slavery! European prejudices and social classes! Well, yes. But Pirateshasn’t much need for social and historical critique, has it?) This approach speaks to me as someone deeply enamored of “early music”—music written more or less before the turn of the nineteenth century—because the revival of this music in the twentieth century has produced so-called “historically informed performance practice,” which aims to interpret the music on period-accurate instruments, drawing upon treatises and records of the time in order to represent the original context as faithfully as possible. Though such an enterprise is of course riddled with fallacies, we should commend the effort, as I do with regard toPirates’ art direction. This also means that the movie leans less heavily on CGI effects (with the exception of the skeletal pirates), another aspect of the art direction that I commend as well.

When it comes to the cast, however, Pirates seems very much like a mixed bag. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner turns in a performance equally as waxen as his Legolas of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings adaptation. The Legolas role operated within the constraints of the world that Tolkien had created, and thus made possible the casting of a relatively green actor. Quite possibly his first film acting appearance had come only five or six years prior to Pirates, and only three years prior to The Lord of the Rings; he appears briefly as a male hustler in the 1997 movie Wilde. We have no similar context-based excuse for Will Turner’s character in Pirates.

Bloom’s inexperience comes to feel quite leaden in contrast to Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, which I consider the most solid performance of the whole movie. Barbossa needs no innovation, no creative touch. Rush, with his swarthy accent and nuanced gestures, makes for a very convincing pirate, never coming off as boring or trite despite the conventionality of his character. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann fares, on the other hand, little better than her costar Bloom, playing her character in exactly the sort of modernist way that contemporary audiences seem to expect. Her sass just the right shade of blithe (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset.”), her character for me needed to hew a little more Pride & Prejudice than Bend It Like Beckham, her performance in which, proclaims the all-knowing Wiki, director Gore Verbinski hadn’t seen prior to Knightley’s audition. It all feels a little contrived, which disappoints me because, with the movie taking its inspiration from the Disneyland ride, the actors and the writers had considerable creative license to develop compelling roles. Instead, the writing of Knightley’s character feels like a cop-out.

Johnny Depp, as we know from practically every movie that has featured him, can play strange as few actors can play strange, and he does so in Pirates to great effect, though at times I think his affectations may serve as a distraction from playing a role in much depth. (I find it telling that in one scene Turner apes Sparrow’s off-kilter demeanor, suggesting that the performance has already become a caricature of itself, even within the film.) Though I promised to refrain from sequel-related vitriol, Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow only gets weirder in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, and though I know many people who seem satisfied with the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp marriage, after movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp starts feeling to me a little like Johnny One-Note: ASAP—As Strange As Possible.

For those who may not have recognized him, I suggest you seek out Jack Davenport (Commodore Norrington) in a fabulously hysterical British comedy series called Coupling, written by Steven Moffat, a name you’ll likely recognize as he currently serves as executive producer for that small-time series about some ne’er-do-well time lord that nobody’s ever heard of.

In the end, Pirates holds up well, despite these mostly average performances. By exercising restraint over the potential for rampant outlandishness, Verbinski gives us a movie that doesn’t collapse under the weight of too-high expectations; neither totally serious nor totally flippant, it tells a story of appropriately limited scope. Its integration of the fantastical with the real only contributes to the movie’s balanced feel.


Despite the musically infantile and downright unprofessional heavy-handed repetition of musical cues later in the film (during, for example, the fight sequences in both the cave and on the Dauntless), the score for Pirates does in fact do some effective things. As always, music counts as one of the most important components in establishing the fantastical and the exotic. The portrayal of the exotic has a long history in Western music, from Mozart’s use of “Turkish” figurations in several works to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schehérazade and Ravel’s imagined Spain in Rapsodie Espagnole. Just as these works used melodic contours, harmonic progressions, and orchestration to evoke exotic places, a number of musicologists have demonstrated the existence of musical codes for the evocation of moods and identifiers for the fantastical in film scores. (Just don’t ask me about James Horner’s racial train wreck of a score for Avatar.) Pirates’ selective use of two of these identifiers lends its sound-world the same touch of the fantastical-within-the-real that the narrative and the visual design contribute: the pan flute (also known as panpipes) and vocal/choral elements in the score. For examples, I give you the following:

Example 1

The five-note pan flute motive that appears early in the film uses repeated pitches to create a suspenseful effect and an accent on the different note to outline the interval of a minor third (here transposed to C minor for easy reading):

pirates music 1

These features, combined with the exotic timbre of the pan flute (exotic for Western ears, at any rate), make this motive an effective signifier of the fantastical, but it doesn’t occupy a completely separate space. It exists within the framework of a tonal score, the musical analog of the worldly or the real in the narrative.

Example 2

The score additionally identifies the pirates as belonging to the fantastical world through the use of subtle vocalizations that slide through quarter tones—another exotic sound for Western ears—to reach each pitch in a melodic pitch cluster. For example, we hear the following figure early in the film when Elizabeth first boards the Black Pearl, having invoked the right of parlay with Captain Barbossa (again transposed to C minor for easy reading):

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This little figure immediately tells us that we have entered the fantastical world, even if it exists, for the moment, only aboard the Black Pearl. The pitches cluster around C, moving in whole steps, and have relatively little harmonic accompaniment. These features, atypical of Western tonal music, help identify the music as belonging to the Other. The vocal/choral timbre itself becomes a signifier of the fantastical, heard later in the movie as the Black Pearl pursues the Interceptor following Will Turner’s successful rescue of Elizabeth Swann. We can see clearly, as this ship chase takes place in broad daylight, how the Black Pearl is literally shrouded in mystery, visually as well as musically marked as fantastical. The subtle choral component of the score also reappears in the dénouement of the movie, after Will Turner successfully lifts the curse on the pirates. We see the clouds unfurl to reveal a full moon, and the pirates realize that they have now become mortal. The appearance of the chorus here pairs with the visual scene to signify that the pirates have re-integrated into the worldly.

Free-Floating Thoughts

Did anyone else object to the maid putting burning embers from the fire into that copper holder and then placing said contraption UNDER the bed covers? Nevermind that that’s a nasty burn waiting to happen, but HELLO, FIRE HAZARD??

With trailers for the new Lone Ranger movie now in abundance, tell me that the costume and makeup design for Johnny Depp’s character doesn’t pay tribute to his costume and makeup in Pirates.

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