Monthly Archives: October 2012

Apologies

Apologies for anybody who follows this blog for the occasional “Discussion Prompt” posts that end up on Movie Music Musings.  As you might imagine, these are intended for the Course Blog of a class that I teach.  Wordpress seems to have some sort of glitch that sometimes resets any new post back to your default blog, even when you’re posting it on a different blog’s home page.  Sorting this out, and hopefully it won’t happen again.  Thanks, and stay tuned for new “real” articles on Movie Music Musings.

Best,

Paul

Advertisements

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Film and Score Review

Film:

In a year that gives us new films from P.T. Anderson, Quintin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, David O. Russel, and Steven Spielberg, it’s fittingly ironic that the best of the lot might actually be this low-key fantasy from first-time director Behn Zeitlin.  Perhaps best isn’t the right word (particularly given that half of the aforementioned films have not been released yet), but I have a hard time imagining that anybody is going to make a more singularly unique and viscerally moving film than Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Scrapped together with a miniscule budget, a non-professional cast, and a director who doubles as his own writer and co-composer, the film pulses with raw youthful energy and a rebellious spirit that has gone all but missing in today’s corporate-controlled filmmaking industry.  A crowd-pleaser despite its refusal to pander to the crowd, Beast is a film that builds its own universe from the ground up.  Here, that universe takes the form of the film’s fictional island in the New Orléans Bayou known as “The Bathtub.”  Located outside the levee walls, the “The Bathtub” sits in constant danger of flooding, and is consequently deemed uninhabitable by society at large.  The people who do eke out an existence there do so by hunting and scrounging, all the while knowing that every storm represents a threat to their already-fragile survival.

Yet living on the cusp of oblivion also gives The Bathtub’s residence a special form of freedom.  Until a temporary mid-film development, the government does not even seem aware that The Bathtub exists.  This turns the community into an insular bubble where residents seem to live in complete freedom form the concerns of modern society.   Few seem to have “jobs” in the modern sense of the word, living instead off of animals they either own or hunt.  This gives residents of The Bathtub a sense of self-sufficient independence that at times appears invigorating.  In the process The Bathtub comes across as its own isolated universe, one that is part Neverland and part third-world country.  On the one hand, people in this community live in what we know as squalor – within the first ten minutes, we witness a child attempting to feed herself by frying a can of cat food.  Yet they also seem to live in a constant state of perpetual celebration – adults seem to be drunk 24 hours a day, and community wide music-and-fireworks festivals are a nightly routine.  The film makes surviving on the fringe of society seem thrilling, even as it refuses to undersell the gritty hardships that come with that world.

We see this dynamic encapsulated in Hushpuppy, the film’s young protagonist who embodies both the childlike and the fierce survival qualities of The Bathtub.  Though vulnerable in her need for parental love and vivid in her imagination, Hushpuppy is nevertheless a hardened warrior of a child.  She has been raised by her single father, Wink, though Wink does not so much raise his daughter as train her  to survive in her wild environment.  A fiercely independent alcoholic, Wink embodies both the best and worst qualities of The Bathtub.  At his worst, he leaves his child for days, and gets drunk and nasty when he returns.  At his best, he treats his daughter like a peer and nurtures her fighter instincts.  Despite his volatile temperament, he clearly loves his daughter fiercely, and their bond ultimately gives the film its heaviest emotional weight.  Hushpuppy loves her father and wants to echo his fighter’s spirit, but she also craves parental affection.  Wink loves his daughter, but he knows painfully well how essential toughness is to survival in their world.  His preferred way of bonding with Hushpuppy is to encourage her physical acts of strength, challenging her to arm wrestle or prompting her to pry open crabs with her bare hands (it’s telling that he only knows how to express approval in masculine terms, screaming “You the MAN, Hushpuppy!” when she succeeds at something).  But as the film moves forward, both daughter and father’s shells begin to crack, and Wink and Hushpuppy’s efforts to negotiate tenderness with stoicism leads to some of the film’s most searingly moving sequences.

All of this is executed with incredible gusto from the people both behind and in front of the camera.  As actors, both Quvenzhané  Wallis and Dwight Henry give raw, piercing performances.  I don’t usually hold stock in the neo-realist idea that non-professional actors automatically give the most “real” performances, but it’s hard to imagine professional actors making Hushpuppy and Wink seem more spontaneously alive than Wallis and Henry.  And as a filmmaker, Zeitlin has the makings of a visionary.  With the film’s emphasis on images from nature and guileless voiceover from its child protagonist, one might be tempted to draw comparisons to Terrence Malick.  But Zeitlin is much grittier and looser in his style, and the film has an improvised feel that stands at odds with Malick’s immaculate imagery.  Beautiful images don’t gracefully float by Zeitlin’s camera – they stumble past haphazardly, tripping over the images of grime and squalor that share the screen.  The director manages to hold your head under filth for 90 minutes and still have you leave thinking you’ve just seen the most uplifting crowd-pleaser of the year.  That takes a special breed of filmmaking magic, and it makes me excited to follow Zeitlin’s future career.

Score:

It’s rare for a director to score his own movie, and its even rarer for a director to competently score his movie.  But in the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, with a score co-written by Zeitlin with Dan Rohmer, it’s hard to imagine the film with any other music.  Far from the typical low-key meandering that often plagues small indie films, the music unashamedly carries some of the film’s biggest moments.  In a style best described as Cajun Minimalism, Zeitlin and Rohmer merge a small chamber ensemble with a Creole folk group “The Lost Bayou Rumblers.”  In the process, they create a musical aesthetic that’s recognizable as film music but completely unique to the world they’ve created.  The composers make an asset out of the limited ensemble, emphasizing the rough earthy timbre of every individual plucked string and guitar fret in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a full studio orchestra.  They have also anchored the score to a powerful main theme, one that actually goes through major development as the film progresses.  At times played as an intimate lullaby on the glockenspiel, at others as bold and heraldic anthem on the trumpets, the theme functions as a moving musical extension of Hushpuppy’s emotional life.  The music is simple in its construction, to be sure, but Zeitlin and Rohmer have an uncanny ability to mine the simplest pieces for the biggest emotional impact.   Like the film, the music is rough in its execution but vibrant with raw emotions.  That balance between roughness and sweetness perhaps explains how both film and score manage to wear their hearts so blatantly on their sleeves without ever lapsing into sentimentality.  And it at least partly explains the special magic that makes Beast of the Southern Wild one of the year’s most uniquely moving filmgoing experiences.

Film Rating: * * * * *

Score Rating: * * * *

The Master – Film and Score Review

At this point, I don’t think we’d be courting too much controversy if we called Paul Thomas Anderson one of the five best filmmakers of his generation.  From his late ’90s classics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to the apocalyptic masterpiece that was 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the man has yet to make a film that falls short of greatness.  So it perhaps goes without saying that expectations have been high for The Master, the director’s first film in five years.  And once again, Anderson has both met and thwarted our expectations with a film that is oblique, thought-provoking, and beautiful in equal measure.  It may not reach the same operatic heights as There Will Be Blood, but the subtle way it probes at deeper questions might make it Anderson’s most challenging film to date.

Situated in Anderson’s larger filmography, The Master is in some ways the natural continuation of a trend that has been developing in Anderson’s films since the early 200os.  Where his earliest films tend to feature likable (if flawed) characters who invited our empathy, Anderson’s post Punch-Drunk Love work has shifted towards violent, unpredictable characters that constantly keep us at a distance.  Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan is sympathetic, but the film presents his destructive outbursts in such an alienating way that we observe him more than we identify with him.  Anderson took this idea to an even greater extreme with There Will Be Blood, the cinematic equivalent of being  locked in a  room with a rabid tiger for two hours.  There Will Be Blood practically dares us to find any humanity in Daniel Plainview’s embodiment of pure animalistic rage, and the result is one of the most intensely unsettling cinematic experiences in recent memory.  In comparison, The Master might seem positively warm and fuzzy, but it’s nevertheless another film that places us into constant close contact with a violently unhinged individual.  In this case, that individual is Freddie Quell, a WWII veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  He is played by Joaquin Phoenix in a phenomenal performance that has unfortunately been overshadowed in the press by the actor’s own publicly staged meltdown in I’m Still Here.  Regardless of any perceived connection to the actor’s own public persona (which itself was a feat of immersive acting, however bad the resulting mockumentary may have been as a film), Phoenix disappears into the Freddie, delivering a grunting, staggering performance that often barely seems human.  Communicating primarily through inarticulate mumbles, disarming laughter, and violent outbursts, Freddie is a difficult character to warm to, and Anderson emphasizes the character’s grotesqueness with large closeups on Phoenix’s scarred, glowering mug.  On one level, Freddie seems like another specimen of Anderson’s ever-growing menagerie of feral man-beasts.

Yet as unsettled as Freddie can make us feel, the film doesn’t keep us as distant from him as we might initially expect.  It’s ambiguous in many respects about his character – the film never flat-out states why Freddie behaves the way he behaves, or why he makes certain seemingly arbitrary decisions over the course of the film.  It does, however, give us just enough information to hazard meaningful guesses.  We see enough of Freddie’s past to get the sense that he longs for some lost sense of human connection, and enough vulnerability under his compulsive laughter to see a wounded childlike creature underneath his scars.  Anderson bookends the film with images of Freddie curling up on the beach next to a naked woman made of sand, an image that suggests volumes about Freddie’s underlying desire to regress back into the womb.

The film is not just about Freddie, however – it centers on Freddie’s relationship with cult leader Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played by a grandstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman is a great actor, but he sometimes seems to rely on a series awkward-aggressive actorly tics that can detract from his performances.  This is not the case at all with The Master – Hoffman drops all of his usual mannerisms and presents Lancaster as a charismatic showman.  In a performance that recalls Orson Welles at his most grandiose, Hoffman plays a man who seems able to reshape the world with the power of his voice.  Lancaster is in the early stages of forming a Scientology-like cult known as The Cause, one that promises to “cure” its followers bad impulses through an intense therapeutic/brainwashing process known as “Processing.”  Freddie ends up falling in with Lancaster, and for a time he becomes Lancaster’s “guinea pig and protegé,” a test subject for Lancaster’s experimental processing methods.  In theory, if Freddie can successfully work  his way through the “Processing” trials, he will cure himself of his violent temperament and recurring bouts of madness.

Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship –  and all of the questions it raises –  ultimately lie at the heart of the film.  We don’t know exactly why the usually restless Freddie is so content to fall in with Lancaster’s cult practices for so long, just as we don’t entirely know why Lancaster is so dedicated to keeping the uncontrollably violent Freddie in the cult.  But with subtle gestures, the film hints at answers to these questions.  On one level, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be using each other – Freddie gets unlimited access to room, board, and booze from Lancaster, and Lancaster gets a test subject who can validate The Cause’s methods to the world.  But Phoenix and Hoffman have intense chemistry as performers, and their interactions suggest emotional undercurrents that aren’t directly stated in the script.  When we see them embrace and playfully wrestle after a prolonged separation, the affection between the two men seems genuine.  Furthermore, Freddie’s fierce commitment to Lancaster’s “Processing” method indicates that he actually does believe in Lancaster’s teachings on some level, just as Lancaster’s staunch loyalty to Freddie in the face of all of his violent transgressions indicates a genuine desire for Freddie’s recovery.  In their complex relationship, the line between self-deception and honest human connection blurs beyond perception.

It’s perhaps because of our investment in this relationship that we grow closer to Freddie as a character than we ever did to Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood or Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love.  We might never understand Freddie enough to know exactly what makes him tick, but we understand  him enough to recognize why Lancaster and his cult would be appealing to Freddie.  Rather than paint this The Cause in a judgmental light, Anderson presents the cult the way it appears to Freddie: as the promise of a happier, more secure way of living with benevolent parental figures.  We sympathize with Freddie’s desire for these things, in part because we identify with this desire.  In this way, Freddy’s conflict – whether to listen to the nagging voice that tells him Lancaster is a fraud, or to fully give himself over to the teachings of his friend – becomes a more universal conflict about what people value most in life.  Are we happiest with independence or emotional security?  Cruel honesty or blind loyalty?  Adult agency or childlike dependence?  Anderson, to his credit, never gives us answers, and allows the film to end with all of its question marks very much intact.

So says my reading, that is.  The film is oblique to the point where many people leave the film and come away with a very different understanding of what it all means.  This, however, is part of what makes Anderson such a rarely gifted filmmaker – he provides just enough powerful fragments that we can piece together our own meaningful readings of his films without making us feel like we’re grasping in the dark.

Film Rating:  * * * * *

Score:

I’ve spoken so far about the film in terms of content, but Anderson’s audio-visual aesthetic is just as essential to his style of filmmaking.  At the start of his career, Anderson was famous for his ability to select the perfect song to nail the emotion in any given scene (so much so that Aimee Mann’s songs in Magnolia are organically integrated into the script itself).  But after Magnolia, Anderson has taken a sharp turn towards scores that thwart the musical pleasures of his earlier films.  It begins with Jon Brion’s kitschy avant-garde score for Punch-Drunk Love, abrasive music that constantly emphasizes the dangerous instability of the film’s protagonist.  But the real watershed comes in Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood,  practically a modernistic concert work that becomes a separate character in the film.  Greenwood’s score is a textbook case of what sound theorist Michel Chion refers to as anempathetic music – film music that seems coldly oblivious to the drama unfolding in the film.  Greenwood’s ferociously dissonant score isn’t entirely divorced from the equally ferocious Daniel Plainview, but it churns ahead with complete disregard to what the character is actually doing onscreen.  The result is a score acts as a wall of dissonance around the character, a wall that blocks any access to his internal thoughts and emotions.  It’s one of the most original and controversial scores of the 2000s, and it sets a high-water mark for the Greenwood’s score for The Master.

As it turns out, Greenwood’s music for this new film isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking as his music from There Will Be Blood.  But with that caveat out of the way, the score is nevertheless a fascinating work that adds great emotional depth to the film.  What’s perhaps most interesting about the Greenwood’s The Master music is the fact it is how conventional it is in its approach.  Where his score for There Will Be Blood went out of its way to block our access to the protagonist, Greenwood’s music for The Master actually seems to invite us inside Freddie’s head.  In this respect, the score is not that far removed from the great psychological scores of Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver) and Alex North (Streetcar Named Desire, The Sound and the Fury), composers who used music to dig into the unseen turmoil churning inside characters’ heads (parts of the score actually remind me of North’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a masterpiece of psychological scoring that Greenwood does well to emulate).  The Master‘s score has many facets, but they all revolve around illuminating some aspect of Freddie’s complex internal life.

The composer anchors the score on two primary ideas, one representing Freddie’s schizophrenic madness, the other representing Freddie’s complex relationship with Lancaster.  For Freddie’s madness, Greenwood employs vaguely playful atonal passages that feature sharp pizzicato sounds, from harshly plucked strings to piercing notes on the oboe.  It’s unnerving music, and it effectively captures the irritable anxiety that Freddie seems to live with.  That said, Greenwood is following in a long line of composers to use avant-garde textures and atonal music to represent madness;  for all of its experimentation, this music actually shows Greenwood following fairly standard Hollywood conventions .

Far more interesting, however, is Greenwood’s music for Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship.  Here, the composer actually introduces a rare note of tenderness into the score.  Greenwood reveals the effectiveness of the simplest devices, with strings that gently enter with a sustained major C chord before gradually descending in and out of dissonance.  The push and pull between the innocent purity of the basic major chord and the turbulent dissonance gracefully reflects Freddie’s relationship with Lancaster – hopeful and tender, but constantly laced with the potential for doubt and disorder.  And just as this central relationship remains unresolved in the film, the music shifts in and out of dissonance without ever firmly resolving itself.  It’s brilliantly perceptive film scoring, and it adds great emotional depth to the film.

It’s music like this that ultimately makes The Master such a rich and challenging audio-visual experience.  Greenwood might not have recreated the explosion of his last Anderson collaboration, but he’s nevertheless created a profound and intelligently constructed film score.  Greenwood has always demonstrated meticulous attention to technique and orchestration, but here he balances that technical precision with searing insight into human emotion.  While composers who could balance all of these qualities were not so rare a few decades ago, today Greenwood seems to be one of the few  still capable of writing uncompromising music like this.  This is perhaps why, while it doesn’t rewrite the book, Greenwood’s score for The Master is one to savor.  It balances the suggestion of tenderness with the threat of madness, and like the film, it leaves its central question marks intact right through the end.

Score Rating:  * * * * 1/2