Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prisoners and Gravity: 2 icy scores

In my experience, film music is meant to augment the story the film tells. As it unspools, the music can heighten tension, reveal character or conflict, and express things that actors and writers and directors and editors find elusive. Like that of aroma, the effect of music on one’s emotions can be hard to pin down and harder still to describe. Think of the burst of music when the shark appears in Jaws. John Williams brings forth the full power of the orchestra, using melody and massive color to tell us this shark is huge and what it can do is huge. We get just a glimpse of the shark; the music tells us everything else we have to know. •• Two recent movies, Prisoners and Gravity, feature scores that are icy in their approach. The former, composed by J√≥hann J√≥hannsson, is a real chillfest. Long, drawn-out tones communicate the frustration of the characters as they try to make sense of what’s happened to their children. Have they been abducted? Are they still alive? Will they ever learn the truth? This is a twisty movie experience, and the music serves to lower the temperature even as the heated conflict soars, taking its inspiration from the cold and rainy weather under which the action plays. •• Gravity, with a score by Steve Price, works much the same way, ratcheting up the drama about a woman, played by Sandra Bullock, who’s all but stranded in space, 600 kilometers above the earth’s surface. How will she get home? Will she, ever? She’s not experienced in space; she was out there to do a medical experiment, and her crew has been killed. Now she’s alone, and all she has are her wits and her very basic training. The music, which builds in a sort of monotonous electronic vibrato that never lets up, like the enclosing reality of space, has an irritating way of cutting short at the moment of climax, like a massive door that’s slammed shut. I kept waiting for the cues on the CD to open up, to be really be as beautiful as the images in the film. They never did. ••  Here’s the problem, though, for me: I don’t think either film needed a score at all. As effective as it was, Prisoners would have worked even better with no music, no added undertone of dread. It was dread-filled enough, with all the music playing across the actor’s faces. Hugh Jackman, in particular, gives a nuanced, highly tuned performance. What more could the music tell us? As it turns out, nothing. ••  And Gravity? Well this film tells the audience in the first few minutes that the best thing about space is its silence. Even as the line is spoken, though, there’s music. I remember thinking, What? Let the audience hear what silence sounds like. What space sounds like. From that moment on, all through this amazing film, I kept thinking how much better it would have been without a score. The best composers know that silence can sometimes be the best music of all. For without a melody of any kind to grasp, the audience and the characters are left alone to grapple along without assistance. ••  These films, both brilliant, both effective, both unforgettable, would have been improved by the silence their stories screamed for.

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