Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How to Predict the Academy Awards

The Academy Awards have long been a sort of joke to me. Even when you put aside the hackneyed speeches, the ridiculous clothes, and the creepy contest to see which dead people will get the most applause during that “In Memoriam” film they show, you still have to consider the awards themselves, which are almost always absurdly chosen. Gladiator? Forrest Gump? Crash? Were these really the best films of their respective years? Of course not, but to make this complaint is to fundamentally misunderstand the way the Academy Awards function as a social construct. See, while the various critics’ awards that come earlier in the season have sometimes been known to honor the best films of the year, the Oscars and their retarded cousin the Golden Globes usually give out awards to the most obvious choices-- that is, the easiest and least controversial films that have built up the most hype in the run-up to the ceremony. Undoubtedly the Academy, whose members include writers, directors, and actors(which means that hacks like Michael Bay and assholes like Alec Baldwin are voting), is strongly influenced by what has already been winning awards and what is getting the most media attention. Combine this influence with political correctness, the academy’s own partisan leanings, and the historical pattern of what kinds of films win and which don’t, and you’ve got a nearly foolproof algorithm for determining what will be honored as the best works of the year.

With this in mind, I offer some very early predictions of what will win at the Oscars this year. It is worth noting that no films have even been nominated for the Oscars yet, nor have I even seen the majority of my predictions. It’s simply not necessary.

Best Picture

Based on everything I’ve seen and heard about it so far, Atonement will be the winner of the award for Best Picture, even though it won’t win many others. This kind of safe, sophistic fare that’s in love with its own artifice always does well at the Oscars, especially when there’s no epic film like The Lord of The Rings or Braveheart around to steal its thunder. Mark it.

Best Director

No Country For Old Men will be nominated for Best Picture, but I simply don’t see a film that bleak and nihilistic winning it all at such a mainstream awards show. Hollywood generally leans toward more epic films or superficial message movies like Crash and Million Dollar Baby. That being said, I think the Coens will be rewarded for their technical prowess and receive the award for Direction. Fortunately, this one will be deserved.

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis will more than likely win for the second time with There Will Be Blood, but this will probably be that film’s only award. That’s three awards, three films. I may be spreading myself a little thin here, but I don’t see one film making anything close to a sweep this year. Denzel Washington is a shoe-in for yet another nomination, this time for American Gangster, but this ain’t his year.

Best Actress

This is the category that I know the least about this year, and the one that I’m most likely to get wrong. Julie Christie is far and away the critics’ choice for Away From Her, but I have the sneaking suspicion that if Atonement actually wins for Best Picture then Keira Knightley might win Best Actress as well. If there were an actress in a major film who’d made herself look ugly for a role then this one would be a cinch (in image obsessed Hollywood the most daring thing a beautiful actress can do is play someone homely), but no such luck this year. Instead, I’ll bet on the recent trend of awarding older actresses and go with Christie.

Best Supporting Actor

Javier Bardem should and will win Best Supporting Actor for No Country For Old Men. If anyone manages to unseat him I guess it’ll be Casey Affleck, something I never thought I’d say a year ago when Casey was just the sickly-looking little brother of a mediocre actor. I still haven’t seen the films he’s supposedly so good in, so for now I still think of him as such.

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett for that dreadful looking Bob Dylan movie. A woman playing a man is just too novel of a concept for these people to resist. If anyone beats her it’ll be Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone. As I’ve seen neither film, I’ll rely on shock value to help Blanchett pull out the win. (By the way, this trend is something that feminists and other PC-obsessed people should be getting up in arms about. A woman is almost never awarded for simply giving a good performance at the Oscars-- there’s always a catch. She’s either the first black person or fat or old or playing a controversial role or had the audacity to look like a normal person. No matter how you spin it, it seems weird.)

Best Original Screenplay

Here’s the one I’m most sure of and the real inspiration for making this lame little list: Diablo Cody will win for Juno. Why? Because it’s exactly the kind of smart-aleck, kitschy script that always wins for Best Original Screenplay. As far as this category is concerned, the more gimmicky and “offbeat” the better. And people like the idea of a former stripper winning an Oscar, even if that little factoid has been shoved down everyone’s throat for the last two months. Mark it.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Generally as Best Picture goes so goes the Screenplay award, usually in the adapted category. Atonement will get this one then, unless there’s an unusually large contingent of Cormac McCarthy fans out there.

And I’ll stop there, because this is getting a little tiresome. But hopefully I’ve made my point. It’s generally hype, oddness and political correctness that guides what wins these awards, which are themselves just one very cleverly concocted advertisement for the movie industry. Is this shameful? Sure. But anyone who believes that a ceremony made by and for the Hollywood elite is not solely about money and publicity is being willfully ignorant. What is shameful is how many legitimately good artists, critics, and movie fans still go along for the ride. George C. Scott is the only star in recent memory to rail against what he called the “meat parade” of awards shows when he turned down his Oscar for Patton in 1970. In today’s world of cinema, where the studios are part of multimedia conglomerates and actors are owned in ways that put the old studio system to shame, we’ll probably never see such a display again.

And by the way, Ingmar Bergman will win the clapping contest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

I went to see Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with all intentions of liking it. Not only is it directed by Sidney Lumet, whose Network and Dog Day Afternoon are personal favorites of mine, but it also boasts supporting performances by the great Albert Finney, a running contender for “best living actor,” and Marisa Tomei, one of the more underrated actresses in American film. The film has received almost unanimously positive reviews, and has been hailed by many critics that I trust as a return to form for the 83-year-old Lumet.

All of these prejudices notwithstanding, I don't at all care for Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, which seems to unfold in a melodramatic, convoluted and ultimately amateurish fashion. These criticisms seem astounding considering Lumet’s canonical status in the film world, but here he seems to be floundering and failing on many levels, from cinematography to pacing to character development.

The film stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, two of contemporary cinema’s more notorious overactors, as Andy and Hank Hanson, a couple of brothers who decide to rob a suburban jewelry store in order to solve their respective financial woes. The catch is that this is no ordinary store: it happens to belong to their parents, painfully underdeveloped but competently played by Finney and Rosemary Harris. This far-fetched but intriguing premise fails to take shape, primarily because the film never succeeds in completely selling the viewer on the possibility that two so feckless characters as the brothers Hanson could ever concoct let alone attempt such an audacious scheme. Andy, for his part, is set up as adequately sleazy, with his faux tough-guy talk and his penchant for snorting cocaine on the sly and making visits to an upscale drug dealer’s apartment to be injected with smack. But he comes as far too self-absorbed to ever consider such a plan. As for Hank, he is in need of money to pay child support to his shrewish ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and prove himself in the eyes of his young daughter, but nothing in his character suggests that he could be capable of legitimately devious activity. Similarly, the film’s script, by first timer Kelly Masterson, does little to establish what, if any, animosity exists between Andy and Hank and their parents that would make the brothers want to use their family in such a way. Only three-fourths of the way into the film are we provided with a motivation for Andy’s behavior-- but at that point I didn’t really care anymore.

Which brings me to one of the major problems with Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead: the film, like many others these days, jumps around in its narrative time frame, showing different scenes out of order and from many different points of view. This is not necessarily bad in and of itself, as many films have used such a technique to their advantage, Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon being the exemplar. But when it is used merely as a stylistic flourish and not as a legitimate formal technique (Tommy Lee Jones’s disappointing 2005 directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada comes to mind), it can ruin an otherwise interesting story. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may very well have been a much more intense and dramatic film had Lumet and Masterson not opted for such an elaborate conceit, but as the film stands we get several scenes where motivation and explanation are given after the action that they trigger, a technique that does little to build narrative tension. It’s a lazy style that attempts to make individual dramatic touches and bits of camera movement and set design have greater impact by giving the viewer some kind of omniscient perspective on the plot, but it does so at the expense of the film as a whole, as several scenes appear to have been added merely for the sake of fitting neatly into this serpentine plot device. That such a style appears on its surface to be a sign of a carefully constructed script is no doubt a part of its appeal, but few films have used it to their advantage.

In the same way that it squanders a potentially interesting story idea, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead also misuses its excellent supporting cast. Marisa Tomei’s role as Andy’s unsatisfied wife Gina is the most egregious waste. While she holds her own as the object of Andy’s half-baked affections, there seems to be little for her character to do other than look alternately bored and upset. Gina is having an affair with Hank, a dramatic twist that doesn’t play out in any meaningful way until a exchange between the two brothers in the film’s final moments so absurdly melodramatic that it feels as though its been lifted from one of the many prime time crime shows currently being circulated on network television. Indeed, many of the film’s secondary characters seem to be stilted archetypes, at their best recycled from Lumet’s oeuvre of New York crime movies, at their worst from re-runs of NYPD Blue.

Unfortunately, in it’s worst moments Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does play more like a TV show than a film, with the gratuitous sex and copious shots of a naked Marisa Tomei seemingly inserted to remind viewers that they’re watching a serious film and not an episode of Law and Order. I’ve heard reviewers compare its family tensions and epic falls to the rhythms of Greek tragedy, and I couldn’t disagree more. Good tragedy works on having believable, well-sketched characters and a tightly plotted story to create some kind of illumination, where even though the characters may lose everything we in the audience come away with some knowledge or understanding of human nature that we didn’t have before. Not only does Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead not provide much insight on why its characters lose out in the end, but the only thing it offers its audience in return for their pity is a shoddy mess of a story.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick is anything but a prolific filmmaker. Like Stanley Kubrick, his films are few and far between, but their originality and beauty is such that each one of them is its own special event. Since 1972, Malick has made but four films. I really enjoyed his first film, Badlands, which featured a young Martin Sheen as a dangerous teenager tearing up the dustbowl with his deadpan girlfriend (played by Sissy Spacek in maybe my favorite performance of hers) in tow. Days of Heaven was Mr. Malick’s second feature, and many have pointed to the troubles he endured while working on it as the main reason for the twenty-year gap before he made another picture.

Production problems aside, Days of Heaven is a beautiful film, a painterly portrait of migrant workers trudging through the dust-bowl, their hardships and troubles conjuring up memories of the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath. In typical Malick style, the film is slow and lyrical, relying more on the scenery and subtle character interaction to propel the action rather than outright conflict and grandiose speeches. Malick has a philosophy degree from Harvard and is rumored to be very devout, and these metaphysical leanings show in his storytelling style. He employs a biblical rhetoric in telling the story, a kind of tragedy that seems reminiscent of a religious parable, right down to the plague of locusts that strikes in the film’s later stages.

The story is deceivingly simple. Richard Gere plays Bill, a Chicago factory worker who, after accidentally killing a man, takes off to the mid-west with his little sister Linda and girlfriend Abby, played wonderfully by Linda Manz and Brooke Adams. Abby poses as his other sister when they travel and work because, as Linda explains, “people talk.” The trio find work on a small farm on the plains, a barren wasteland of grasses with a stately mansion looming on a hill, seeming incredibly out of place in such empty territory. The owner of the mansion on the hill, who is never referred to by name and is simply listed in the credits as “the Farmer,” is dying of a rare stomach disease. He has watched Abby from afar and falls in love with her, wanting to take a wife to ease the pain of his last days. Bill has overheard a doctor declare that the man has less than a year to live, so when the Farmer proposes to her, he encourages her to accept, hatching the plan of inheriting the man’s wealth when he dies. As devious plans never properly come into fruition, the Farmer, played with an endearing kind of softness by Sam Shepard, lives on, his body seemingly rejuvenated by the love that he feels for Abby. The result is that a considerable strain is placed on Bill and Abby’s now secret relationship, and even though they live in greater luxury than they could have ever imagined, happiness has slipped further away than ever before.

The film is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Linda, who plays a negligible part in the dramatic heart of the story. She is an outsider to most of the action, taking it all in. Like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she tells the story through narration, relating the events while adding in her own opinions on love and death, good and evil (“we’re all half angel and half devil”). The story is all a memory, and Malick’s lyrical style helps to recreate the feeling of reconstructing one’s life. There is little dialogue throughout most of the film. The characters instead speak in quick exchanges or looks, and the countryside, with its blood-red suns and mud-banked rivers, often hijacks the inertia of the plot in favor of more contemplative moods. Like a person recollecting years past, it is not what was said that is always remembered, but instead a look or the way the wind blew the grasses on a particular day. Such a style is often trying, but Malick has an artist’s hand, using his cinematography to evoke feelings and place suggestions in the viewer's mind.

Like all Malick films, Days of Heaven is slow and contemplative, leaving the viewer with many questions when the credits roll. It is not a perfect film--it sometimes focuses too much on style over substance, and the last ten minutes seem to weigh down the mood-- but it is a tale of such evocative beauty that Malick’s self-indulgence can be forgiven. It presents questions about the price one will pay for security, and whether or not love can flourish under any circumstances. It is a powerful film, and seeing as it lead the auteur to abandon cinema for two decades, one that should be carefully considered.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Army of Shadows (1969)

Re-releases of old films are always interesting, especially when the film in question has never been seen in the United States before. Like the long-awaited re-release of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate back in the 1980s, the premiere of French master filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows gives film fans the rare chance to see a classic film for the first time since it was made almost forty years ago. It’s like time travel on a small scale, allowing us as viewers to step back into the 1960s, or to bring this forgotten classic forward into the present day.

Army of Shadows centers on a group of underground agents of the French Resistance during World War Two. Melville, using the same hard-boiled style that worked to perfection in films like Le Circle Rouge and Bob Le Flambeur, keeps his characters forever at a distance, allowing them to blend in to the scenery as much as possible. Philippe Gerbier, a droll middle-aged man with a guarded demeanor, is the closest thing we have to a main character here. His narration is perhaps our only window into the inner workings of the characters’ minds-- their outside bearing being as nondescript as possible purely out of necessity. Through Gerbier we learn of the organization of his resistance group, which also includes the young Jean Francois, a female master of disguise called Mathilde, and “the Chief,” the boss of the group and a former professor of philosophy. The film follows them through their clandestine attempts to fight against the German occupation, which includes sending radio transmissions to the British, shuttling agents in and out of the country and finding ways to slow Hitler’s march through France to the English Channel.

Interestingly, Melville focuses less on the results and fruits of the Resistance fighters’ labor than on the extreme risks that they took and the terrible consequences of capture. We do not see many victories for our main characters, outside of eluding the Gestapo and a thrilling escape from a Nazi firing squad. What we do see is the characters’ anguish at having to kill members of their own who have turned traitor, or the desperation of men undergoing torture and imprisonment. The prevailing mood here is one of somberness-- Gerbier and his associates seem to know that they are forever one step away from the end but they fight on anyway. Melville, who fought in the Resistance himself, uses Army of Shadows not as a thriller or an espionage film, but as a eulogy to those that risked-- and often gave-- their lives to fight for their country. But his method is one of extreme subtlety. There are no grandiose speeches celebrating the glory of France or decrying the German occupiers. All the characters simply do their duty with a coolness that speaks louder than words. For them, the cause does not need to be articulated-- it’s simply the right thing to do. Likewise, the war itself often seems to be far away in Army of Shadows. In one particularly memorable scene Gerbier, in London to collect supplies from the British, finds himself caught in the middle of a bombardment by German aircraft. Ducking into the first door he sees-- that of the YMCA-- he is surprised to find young service men and women dancing and drinking as though the sounds of the Blitz were merely a thunderstorm.

The actual effects of the French Resistance are hard to calculate, though in recent years historians have claimed that the efforts of freedom fighters had an immeasurable impact on slowing the German invasion of Britain. For his part, Melville seems content to document the efforts of the special few who recognized the sacrifice that had to be made in the name of the greater good. This often meant losing friends, family, and livelihood-- the very things that one was fighting for-- a dichotomy that the film illustrates quite poetically in its heart-wrenching final moments. It’s quite strange that it has taken such an important film this long to be released in the United States. In an oeuvre that includes several great films, Army of Shadows may very well be Melville’s masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exploring Film Sound

One of my major formal preoccupations in the cinema is with sound. No other aspect of film has been so important yet so neglected in critical studies. A few scholars, most notably Michel Chion, Rick Altman, and John Belton, have tackled the subject, but on the whole there remains a disappointing dearth of material. A lot of my favorite filmmakers, like David Lynch, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola have used sound as a key element in some of their best movies, most notably in Eraserhead and The Conversation (another essay on this film is forthcoming).

Like all of the most effective elements of art, film sound is subtle. When properly employed, you often don't notice how much of an effect it is having on you. Because of this understatedness, we as viewers have tendencey to attribute the emotional impact of sound to what's appearing on the image track. This is especially prominent in the horror film, where good sound is the most crucial of elements.

The following essay centers on these different aspects of film sound as they relate to horror films, especially Dario Argento's Suspiria, where countless artful uses of sound can be found on display.

"What's That Sound?" Sonic Suspense and Mystery in the Horror Film

Discussions of the horror film often focus most of their attention on what is seen on the image track. In a genre populated by ghouls, monsters, and madmen, it naturally follows that strange and disturbing sights will be the most salient aspects of the apparatus. But such images of the grotesque and horrific are usually only the end result of a much more complicated and subtle process-- that of suspense. Ultimately, most horror films are about the lead-up to the frightening images, not the images themselves. Nearly all of the “trademark” stylistic aspects of horror films refer to the creation of suspense, of setting the mood. Rain, pitch-black darkness, heavy shadows, howling wind, creaking floorboards, heartbeats, loud breathing, and otherworldly music are some of the most noticeable and recurring themes in these films, and all relate more to the set-up of the horrific rather than the follow-through.

But what also becomes apparent from such a list is that, more often than not, the stylistic elements that make up suspense are auditory phenomena. As K.J. Donnelly says in The Spectre of Sound, in horror film it is the sound that most often “encompasses the strangest phenomena (38).” It has long been acknowledged that the sound track of the horror film is much richer than more conventional genres, but when it is considered in-depth, sound emerges as both the most ubiquitous and effective formal element of the scary movie. As a result of its heavy reliance on offscreen sounds and voices, what Chion has termed acousmatic sound, the horror film reveals itself as an aurally constructed genre where sound operates as the major source of suspense and atmospheric dread. Whether through manipulating sounds, creating false connections between sound and source, or the extensive use of music, these films employ acoustics as a subtle means of hinting at the sinister while still maintaining the central mystery of the plot.

Acousmatic Sound and Suspense

An old cliche about the genre says that if you watch a horror film with the sound muted it isn’t scary. While there is some truth to such a statement, it must not be forgotten that sound is a key element in every genre, and that the same loss of value would occur in any kind of film. Without sound, comedies aren’t funny, action films aren’t exciting, and dramas aren’t affecting. The reason this notion has become so tied in with horror is because scary movies trigger more of a visceral, automatic, bodily reaction than other genres. The viewer is less in control of where the film takes them, and the sudden liberation from this grasp when the sound is excised is thus much more notable than it would be otherwise. But such an assertion is certainly telling about the ways in which horror constructs its mood of suspense and dread. In horror, the images ultimately serve as a means of revealing what the soundtrack suggests through dialogue, sound effects and music.

The difference between the auditory realm of suspense-- the mood, tension, and dread-- and the visual realm of terror-- the violence, action, and gore-- is a key one. In horror, there seems to be a constant shifting between dominance of one sense over the other. In moments of suspense, the main purveyor of mood in horror films, the audience is often deprived of its sight and forced to listen to the ominous sounds that echo throughout the frame. As Dennis Giles says in his essay “Conditions of Pleasure in Horror Cinema”: “sound plays a crucial role in the horror film by filling in the relatively empty visuals with suggestions of menace (49).” In horror and mystery films, we often have scenes where a lone character feverishly tries to hide from the “menace” that is stalking them. In such a scene, the image track is noticeably sparse, often filled with blackness except for the faint outline of the protagonist’s face. As they hide and wait, it is the sounds of the space that become the center of our attention, sounds that echo from unnamed, offscreen sources.

Michel Chion uses the term acousmatic to describe such sounds that “one hears without seeing their originating cause (71).” According to Chion, active acousmatic sound forces the viewer to ask “What is this? What is happening? (85)” Such sounds are odd enough or noticeable enough that they force the viewer to consider them independent of the image track and ponder their possible source. They take on a especially supernatural quality in the context of the horror film because of the shroud of mystery that surrounds them. The character hiding in the darkened room as well as the audience begin to imagine ghastly causes of the sounds, which are doubly mystifying because they often seem to be coming from everywhere at once. Such sounds become de-acousmatized when their onscreen source-- the monster, slasher, creature-- is revealed onscreen. When the helpless victim is finally attacked by the villain, the different sounds become attributed, and the image track becomes prominent for the action scene that follows.

These uses of film sound are all on display in director Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, about a coven of witches operating out of a European dance school. Throughout the film, sound is the primary source of mystery that leads the protagonist, Suzy Bannion, to uncover the sinister plot of the coven. One such sound is the shallow, groaning sound of the “Directress” of the school, a character that is never seen until the film’s final moments. In an early scene, the strange, staggered sound of a woman snoring is linked to the Directress, and it becomes a sort of leitmotif for her character throughout the story. The sound is ambiguous enough that the viewer begins to imagine its possible implications. Is it merely the sound of old woman that is ill, or is it the growl of some evil creature? In the film’s final moments, the snoring sound is de-acousmatized when the heroine confronts the Directress in her bedroom, and the weird sound is finally linked to the terrifying image of the leader of the pack of witches.

In all of the scenes that we hear this off-putting sound, the image track is deliberately made subordinate to the soundtrack in order to force the viewer to concentrate on the foreboding quality of the sound. In one of the early occurrences the characters are preparing to go to sleep, and the screen is dominated by harsh shadow with only a dull red-colored light seeping into the frame. When two of the characters wake suddenly and begin to discuss the sound, its volume is slowly increased, almost as if in response to their noticing it. In the final scene, when the heroine finds herself in the Directress’s bedroom, we see only the sheer sheet covering the bed and a dim shadow behind it. As the girl nervously approaches the bed, the sound again increases in volume, becoming the dominating aspect of the scene. In both cases, there is very little to look at on the screen, and the sound is deliberately manipulated to make the viewer absolutely aware of the snoring of what is eventually revealed to be the villain of the story.

Acousmatic sounds are perhaps the main way that horror constructs feelings of anxiety and suspense. Because an acousmatic sound is unattributed, it takes on a kind of power, a life of its own in the viewer’s mind. The viewer will often project their own most personal fears onto the sound, imagining a host of ominous possibilities. More than one theorist of film sound has used the classic suspense film Kiss Me Deadly as an example of the the power of acousmatic sound and the acousmetre-- that is, a character identified only through sound (Chion 129). In the film, the villain of the story is not shown on camera, save for his legs and shoes, until the film’s final scene. This technique works wonderfully, as the very nature of the story relies on the both the main character and the audience being deprived of information. It works so well, in fact, that when the man’s face is finally shown, there is an inevitable letdown for the viewer, simply because the villain looks so normal. This is because the audience has been pondering his identity since early on in the film, and to see him appear onscreen so suddenly almost seems to deprive him of his power. Indeed, Chion mentions in Audio-Vision that Pascal Bonitzer “has noted that the de-acousmatization of a character generally goes hand in hand with his descent into a human, ordinary, and vulnerable fate (131).” It is a testament to the god-like power of acousmatic sound and the acousmetre that to finally show these characters is in a way to doom them. The acousmatic thrives on mystery, on making the audience doubt what they see. As soon as this veil of uncertainty is lifted, both the character and the sound become de-mystified.

Common Suspense Sounds: Footsteps, the Heartbeat, Breathing

In order to more fully explore how the horror film constructs its suspense through sound, it is necessary to explore some of the more recurring sounds of mystery and anxiety. While acousmatic sounds gain significance through their lack of a visual source, a number of sound effects have their own inherent meaning and significance. These are sounds that are implicitly tied in with particular emotions or states of physical arousal, and they can be understood as some of the major causes of the intense, physical reactions that the viewer experiences when watching a horror film.

Footsteps are a recurring, perhaps even overused form of sonic suspense. They not only reinforce the character and audience’s feeling of being pursued, but they are often used as a means of deception and as a way of establishing the power of a certain type of villain (Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street films is a good example) to seemingly be everywhere at once. In the inevitable chase scene that was discussed earlier, the character hiding in a darkened room waits with only sounds to determine if the “menace” is coming after them. What often follows is the sound, slow at first, of heavy footsteps, probably from just on the other side of the door. Footsteps in the dark are always a harbinger of danger in the horror film. They seem to represent the unceasing nature of the “other.” The villain will not stop chasing them until they are caught, and the steady, even cadence of footsteps is an auditory signal of this inevitability.

Another common suspense sound is that of recreating the sound of a human heartbeat, either through an internalized sound effect, or sometimes through the film music (Chion 76). The heartbeat sound effect has a multiform meaning: it demonstrates both the physical strain and stress being undergone by the character, as well as engendering a similar response in the audience. The low, bass sound of the thumping heart also reminds us of the very “real” implications of what is happening on screen, that this character is very much alive for the moment but perhaps won’t be for long. In addition, the heartbeat also conjures up notions of the basic animal response to the situation at hand, reminding the audience that this character is running for their life. It is a physical cue, like the scream or the growl, designed to evoke feelings of excitement, and to remind us that the characters, and perhaps the audience as well, have become the equivalent of lab rats caught in a maze.

Another common sound of horror, most notable in moments of rest, is the sound of human breathing. Breathing can have different meanings depending on the context, but it is important to note that it is only heard in times of intense silence and stillness, when the sound of breathing would truly be audible. One common way that it is used is to trigger feelings of isolation or helplessness. In this context, the character’s breathing can be heard because they are totally alone, far away from any possible sources of help. One more extreme example can be found in 1988’s The Vanishing, the final scene of which shows a character waking up from being drugged to find that he has been buried alive. When we first go to his point of view inside the coffin, the screen is completely black and the soundtrack silent, except for the sound of his ragged breathing as he gasps for air. The overwhelming sense of helplessness expressed by the character’s breathing is quite intense, as we can quickly understand that the sound is dull and unformed from sounding in such an enclosed space.

Another common use of breathing is employed when we are shown the point of view of the villain or killer. In this case, the breathing is usually even, steady, and unlabored. This robotic kind of breathing is designed to make the villain seem wholly other. That they can do such terrifying things in such a cool, collected manner is a sign of both their evil and their power. In John Carpenter’s Halloween, the point of view of the killer Michael Myers is always accompanied by the sound of completely steady breathing. It makes the viewer feel that Myers is not human, that he is not even completely invested in what is happening. Not only will he murder, but when he does it doesn’t seem to have any physical effect on him. Like the heartbeat, the sound of breathing is finally a way of emphasizing the animal nature of both the pursuer and the pursued. The victim cannot reason with a character like Michael Myers, who is so unaffected by what is happening. They cannot plead or beg, they can only run like an animal being chased by a predator.

One noticeable trait about these common sounds of suspense is that they are all completely familiar, everyday noises. In their usual context, they would not evoke anxiety or dread in the least, it is only the particular situation of the horror film that makes them take on such dark overtones. This is a common thread in suspense: to give the ordinary and mundane new depth and ominous mystery. In horror films, these usually unnoticed sounds gain terrible significance, becoming symbols of both the character’s own mortality and isolation and the villain’s detached (in the case of Halloween) but unrelenting pursuit. It is also worth noting that these are all human, personal sounds. More than anything else, they signify a presence in the diegesis, both of the struggling protagonist and the mysterious “other.”

Sound Effect Manipulation and Auditory Subterfuge

One of the most common ways in which sound in the horror film is used as foreshadowing and forewarning is through deliberate manipulation of the soundtrack elements, most often through creating false connections between a sound and a source. While acousmatic sounds take on a directly mysterious nature by having no discernible source, falsely-synched sounds work more subtly, often placing auditory suggestions in the viewer’s mind that will only take on meaning later in the story. Michel Chion has called synchresis the condition wherein an “irresistible weld (is) produced between a particular auditory phenomenon and a visual phenomenon when they occur at the same time (Chion 63).” Because of this “irresistible weld,” the filmmaker is free to insert almost any sound they wish over top of the action of the story. As long as the movement and the sound are properly synched, they will be read as concurrent by the viewer.

In horror, this phenomenon can be used in a number of ways, but is most often employed as a means of foreshadowing the fate of a particular character. In Suspiria, Argento uses synchresis in the opening sequence to immediately suggest the dangers awaiting Suzy Bannion at the dance school. As she walks out of an airport into a thunderstorm to find a taxi, the sound of the automatic door shutting is deliberately altered. Instead of the smooth swishing sound commonly associated with such a door, we hear the sharp sound of metal slicing against metal, conjuring up images of the guillotine and other devices of torture. The sound is quick and could easily be missed by the viewer, but it triggers a particular mood and expectation of menace. That a storm is raging outside only increases this feeling of anxiety. The sound seems to suggest that the airport has been Suzy’s last safe haven, and once she walks through it she has been cut off from everything that is familiar and comforting.

Auditory subterfuge stands as a microcosm of the nature of sonic suspense in the horror film. It both subtly builds the mood of dread and anxiety, and works as foreshadowing for the more horrific events that follow it. Later on in Suspiria, during some startling scenes where the unnamed killer stabs his victims, the sound of the knife is nearly the same as the automatic door in the opening scene, so that the use of the sound effect early on in the film comes full circle. What the audio track has been preparing the viewer for through sound effects is finally revealed on the image track and linked inextricably to a particular scene. That these later startling moments are so effective is a testament to the atmosphere of horror built through sonic suspense. As Robert Baird says in his article “The Startle Effect,” about the moments in horror that make the audience jump or gasp, a “less-than-horrific mood largely mitigates the possibility of viewer startle.” In other words, if the film has created a proper mood of dread, anxiety, and suspense, then when the true “scares” come they are all the more frightening for the audience. While not as obvious and direct as acousmatic sounds or the personal sounds of pursuer and pursued, the sounds of false-synchresis build their own mood of suspense by placing cues in the viewer’s mind that are later manifested onscreen in gory detail.

The Ghost of Horror Film Music and “Sonic Architecture”

While sound effects and ambient sounds are a major source of diegetic tension and suspense, it is also important to consider the awesome power of the non-diegetic music track to set the dark mood of the horror film. Music is the most overt and perhaps the most oft-discussed of all of horror film sound, and with good reason. Unlike the music of other genres, the score of a horror film has a style and usage that is all its own. As K.J. Donnelly says in The Spectre of Sound, “horror film music is particularly apparent in its techniques and functions (88).” Unlike other genres, where music is usually a
background, secondary aspect of how the film is perceived, music in the horror film is very much a foreground phenomena, highlighting the action of the story to such a degree that it often bleeds over into the realm of sound effects (Donnelly 93-4). Because of its often direct intervention and involvement in the action of the story, the music of the horror film guides the way in which the film is understood, adding tension to otherwise normal scenes and often helping to provide the physical shocks and responses to the more terrifying parts.

Donnelly terms “sonic architecture” the way in which a horror film “can manifest a distinctive and enveloping...ambience (93). Starting with the opening titles, the music of the horror film is the most overt way in which the particular mood of horror exhibits itself. The music tends to have more of a physical presence in the film both through its close relationship to sound effects and its ability to evoke a physical response. Suspiria, with its menacing score by Goblin, once again presents itself as a good example. The strange electronic score created for the film, with its creaky music box sounds and disembodied voices and moans, is so distracting and so prominent (Argento allows it to be played almost painfully loud) that it becomes, from the start of the film, the dominating way in which the spaces shown onscreen are understood. The ornate interior of the dance school, already gothic in appearance with its spiral staircases and vaulted ceilings, takes on an especially unsettling character through its relationship to the music. Often, the music is used in scenes that otherwise have no narrative suspense or tension, hinting at a baleful presence beneath seemingly benign surfaces.

Indeed, music in the horror film is often a presence that seems to “haunt” the narrative of the story (Donnelly 39-40). Because of its ability to seemingly be “elsewhere” and within the events that occur onscreen, it functions as a kind of ghost in the film that is “not quite of its world nor of its logic (Donnelly 41).” This means that the music in horror, like the acousmetre, is seemingly everywhere and nowhere in the film. While it often follows the events of the story, it also obeys its own set of rules, as Goblin’s score for Suspiria does by invading seemingly unimportant scenes. This “presence” or “spectre” of music can also be effectively utilized by its particular timing in the narrative. For example, in the previously discussed opening of Suspiria, just before the automatic door sequence, we watch Suzy walk through the airport toward the door. As she walks, Argento alternates between a medium shot of her walking through the crowd and a handheld shot of the door that represents her point of view. Whenever we see this POV shot, the Goblin musical score is suddenly played very loud for a brief moment before returning to the ambient sounds of the airport when the camera cuts back to the medium shot. This technique of quickly fading the creepy score in an out effectively ties the music to the character of Suzy, hinting that it is she that will be the one to experience whatever peril the score suggests. It also serves as an example of the way horror music often assets itself as a definite presence in the narrative, not merely a background motif to be ignored.

The previously-mentioned tendency of the score to overlap with sound effects is another way in which horror music constructs a “sonic architecture” of suspense. Through overlapping the music with the sound effects and creating acoustic similarities between the two, the sound track can take on the quality of an acousmatic sound, as the viewer is forced to question the cause and even the existence of particular sounds. In Suspiria, the scene directly prior to the characters hearing the odd breathing of the Directress is scored with a cacophony of moans and whispers that are only slowly revealed to be non-diegetic. While setting the proper mood for the chilling scene to follow these sounds also serve as a forewarning of the odd sound that will trigger the search for the Directress. During the more shocking murder scenes of the film, especially one scene in particular where Suzy’s roommate is pursued through the bowels of the dance school, Argento seems to employ this blurring of sound effect and music as a means of narrative confusion for the viewer, as we are never quite sure if the sounds we hear are a part of the Goblin musical score or of the story itself.

In all of these instances, music in the horror film seems to dominate the soundtrack and provide the major means of narrative suspense and tension. It is the ghost that is able to move about the film, manifesting itself both in non-diegetic music and sound effects. It can also often be found in the diegesis itself, as the preponderance in ghost stories of onscreen music from piano’s and ancient record players suggests. In these instances, the music often plays without warning, as if the machines themselves were haunted by some kind of poltergeist. In all of these forms, the music, through its inherently otherworldly nature as well as its particular characteristics. serves as a primary means of expressing mood and anxiety. It works as an intangible force of the story that, seemingly against the will of the benign images shown onscreen, brings dark and troubling things to the surface.


The most difficult aesthetic challenge for any horror or suspense film is to build a feeling of anxiety and tension early in the story while still maintaining the central mystery of the plot. This requires that the film find ways to render the normal and familiar aspects of the world odd and disturbing. Sound and music are the perfect tool for such a challenge. As John Belton said in his essay “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound,” because of its intangibility and its untenable relationship to the image, “the soundtrack does not undergo the same tests of verisimilitude to which the images are subjected (389).” Because sound is such an amorphous, protean force in the horror film, it is able to be employed in a number of fashions to subtly suggest foreboding elements while still keeping the viewer in uncertainties. When considering sound’s multiform use in the horror film, it becomes tempting to extend Donnelly’s notion of film music as a “spectre” or “presence” to the whole of film sound. In horror especially, the sound is something of a ghost, with its ability to manifest at will, to remain invisible to the naked eye, and yet to still be able to affect the physical world of both the film and the viewer.

Works Cited

Baird, John. “The Startle Effect: Implications for Spectator Cognition and Media Theory.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 53 no. 3. Spring 2000. 12-24.

Belton, John. “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 386-394.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994.

Donnelly, K.J. The Spectre of Sound: Music in FIlm and Television. London: British Film Insti- tute Publishing, 2005.

Giles, Dennis. “Conditions of Pleasure in Horror Cinema.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Hor- ror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. London: The Scarecrow Press, 1984. 38-49.


Altman, Rick. Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: the Articulation of Body and Space.” Yale French Studies. Number 60, Cinema/Sound. 1980. 33-50.

Metz, Christian. “Aural Objects.” Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 366-369.

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Despite being an obsessive watcher of movies, I don’t feel compelled to go to the theatre much anymore. It often seems like Hollywood doesn’t have that much to offer me these days. Instead, I generally rely on video and television channels like Turner Classic Movies to satisfy my craving for interesting and well-crafted films. It costs much less, I can drink beer, and I usually find myself less disappointed than when I make a trip out to the theater.

That being said, rarely have I been as excited for a movie as I was for No Country For Old Men. Waiting for this one to come out was like being twelve years old again, when it seemed as though every movie I saw was good, and I waited for new films to be released like other kids waited for Christmas morning. Thankfully, this time I was not to be let down. No Country For Old Men is by far the most brutal, beautiful, and haunting film I’ve seen this year.

I have enjoyed many of the Coen Brothers’ films, Fargo and Blood Simple especially, but I’ve never been much of devotee. For me, their work has always lacked restraint, relying on style over substance, quirkiness over meaning. I still haven’t bothered to see Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, both of which seem so farcical as to be unwatchable, a sentiment that I developed after seeing the overwrought O Brother, Where Art Thou?

As it turns out, though, the Coen’s are just as comfortable handling terse, literary material as they are their own orotund dialogue. In No Country For Old Men they have found a story that has the moral and visceral power to make their considerable technical prowess seem as measured and flawless as ever before. Films like Miller’s Crossing and Fargo have shown that the Coens can construct a scene with the best of them, but here they show a restrain that is remarkable and chillingly effective.

The film is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, a modern literary virtuoso whose books have always seemed to have a biblical nature to them, concerned as they are with last things. Death, decay, morality, and the nature of man have all had a vital part in his novels, especially of late in The Road, a novel that is literally about the end of the world. Ever-present in McCarthy’s mythology and well at work in No Country For Old Men is a yearning for the old ways, personified here by Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a man who has seen the halcyon days of the Old West give way to senseless violence and nihilism-- brutality so absurd that “it’s hard to take its measure.” Although he is on the screen less than some of the others, Bell is the true protagonist of the film; he is its moral compass and the character with whom we most identify. The film opens with his lamentation of the state of the world and ends with his touching description of a dream concerning his long-dead father. Both monologues help to frame the story that comes between, the former setting the stage for the starkness and violence that is to come, and the latter offering the most resignedly hopeful of codas.

But these scenes are perhaps more McCarthy than they are Joel and Ethan Coen, who seem more at home in the middle 90 percent of the film, which concerns a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. In a snap-decision, Moss decides to steal the $2 million in cash that he finds on the scene, a move that he seems to know will mean his death but that he makes anyway. This decision triggers a rash of violence when the Mexican drug dealers, a bounty hunter named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), and an existential killer (Javier Bardem) all begin to chase him down in order to reclaim the fortune.

Brolin seems to fit comfortably into the role of Moss, playing the kind of resourceful man’s man that has slowly begun to fade from major Hollywood fare in recent years with the rise of the juvenile leading man. His Moss is forever kept at a distance from the audience-- we know little of his motivation for taking on such a dangerous burden, which for the film’s purposes is just fine. Moss is the equivalent of the rat caught in the maze, and No Country For Old Men establishes early on that it is much more interested in studying the complexities of the maze than it is the plight of the rat. Still, Brolin deserves a great deal of credit for doing so much with the little backstory that he is given-- he manages to gain the audience’s support even as his struggle becomes that much more futile.

With his lazy gait and wild-eyed stare, it is Javier Bardem who steals the most scenes as the unstoppable and unflappable Anton Chigurh. He has thus far been the center of most of the coverage of the film, and rightfully so. He manages to be both despicable and strangely principled, flipping coins to decide whether people live or die but also remaining true to his word, however horrifying it may be. Monster that he is, Bardem’s Chigurh is also honest. He tells Moss in one scene that if he gets his money back, he won’t kill the other’s wife. “I won’t tell you you can save yourself,” he adds, “because you can’t.” Strangely, I found myself believing that if Moss had agreed Chigurh would have been true to his word. What that’s worth, I can’t say, but it lends a quite contradictory dimension to a character that’s otherwise wholly evil. I’ve heard Chigurh compared to the likes of Hannibal Lecter as a villain who is terrifying to watch yet also strangely alluring, and I disagree. Chigurh is too taciturn to resemble Lecter, whose horrifying quality came from his ability to be charming one moment and terrifically violent the next. Chigurh, on the other hand, seems to have a relative balance of presence and temperament, and comes off more as an unhinged version of the existential hitman at the center of Jean Pierre Melville’s classic film Le Samourai. Brutal, but not without method or principle.

No Country For Old Men, for all its moral and existential preoccupations, also manages to include some of the most heart-pounding set pieces of any film in recent memory. The scene where Moss and Chigurh first clash is absolutely chilling, as the gun battle moves from a decaying hotel out into the deserted streets where the two characters take turns stalking one another among parked cars and darkened corners. The scene works so well because of the Coen’s mastery of film language, a visual dexterity that is also visible in the final scene of Blood Simple and throughout much of Fargo. Because of the no-nonsense way that the brothers handle violence, every scene is permeated with a sense of dread. The film doesn’t need to rely on the exchange of gunfire to build excitement, but rather on the suspense of the hunt, which is itself a major theme of the film at large.

Another highlight of No Country For Old Men its excellent photography, which manages to mirror the bleakness of the story while at the same time preserving a painterly command of space and color. Decay is ever-present in cinematographer Roger Deakins’ striking photography of motel rooms, trailer parks, and the sun-baked West Texas landscape, which here looks and feels just as wild and untamed as it did in the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work. The mood too is one of sparseness: characters speak more in actions, looks, and gestures (especially the kind involving firearms) than they do in words. Similarly, the film’s painstakingly minimal use of music (absolutely the right choice for any McCarthy story) strips the soundtrack down to its most basic aural elements, where even the smallest sound, like the beeping of a transmitter or a rifle being cocked, can have grave implications.

Despite his reclusiveness, Cormac McCarthy has become very much in vogue in the last few years, to the point that two more of his books are currently in production as films with the likes of Ridley Scott and John Hillcoat (The Proposition) directing them. Hillcoat seems like a good enough choice to make The Road into a film. 2006’s The Proposition, with its arid landscapes and shocking violence, is perhaps the closest cinematic cousin to No Country For Old Men, and hopefully a good indication of things to come. Previously, I would have said that most of McCarthy’s novels were unfilmable, but the Coens have definitely set the standard for how to adapt such powerfully dark material. Rarely have I seen a film where all of the elements of cinematic language where working so seamlessly to create one complete and uncompromising vision.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


"Film is not the art of scholars, but illiterates" -- Werner Herzog

Hello and welcome to the Seventh Art. This blog will be a place for me to dump a scattered back catalogue of film writings that I have built up over the years, and it will also serve as a location for news, essays, and reviews of films both new and old. There is no format. I cannot even promise that I will always confine myself to the subject of cinema, nor will I focus only on new releases. This will more or less be a directory of things that are new and interesting to me, in whatever random and chaotic order that they may present themselves. In other words, there is no grand or overarching purpose for all of this, other than to provide insightful commentary on things that I consider worth talking about.

All film writing, as any person who has seriously practiced it will tell you, is shamelessly masturbatory. As Mr. Herzog points out, cinema doesn’t require educated people talking about it to be affecting or important-- it doesn’t even require education to be understood, as writing does. Films are self contained, they exist in their world even as they draw from and imitate reality. They instruct one on how they are to be viewed even as they unfold in time. I have little doubt that people who had never heard of persistence of vision and had never seen a camera would understand fairly quickly what a film was if one were shown to them. It is that intuitive a medium, and therein lies its beauty.

This caveat recorded, I write about film anyway, because in its all-encompassing way it provides the perfect window for exploring so many of the mysteries and truths of the world. The seventh art, as it is sometimes known, is a kind of amalgam (some would say bastardization) of all the others that preceded it. Photography, poetry, music-- all have a place within the confines of film, and film criticism is often the best way to reveal how these disparate entities are all working together to provide some kind of illumination. Therein lies its purpose. Movies don’t require commentary to have worth, but commentary may very well illuminate some dark corner of experience that would otherwise remain in the shadows.