Conversation: We Own the Night and James Gray (Part 2)

27 08 2013

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This is the second part of my conversation with Izzy Black on We Own the Night and director James Gray’s oeuvre. For the first part (and a link to Izzy’s response) click here. Izzy’s response to this second post will be shared shortly on this space. 

To Izzy Black: I love that you brought up Grandrieux and Lynch, regarding my final comments on the soundtrack of We Own the Night, because those two filmmakers were exactly the ones I had in mind. I’ve been wearing hearing aids since the age of four, after a spell of chickenpox, so I have gotten into the habit of doubting everything I hear, especially when I don a pair of headphones. Are the sounds I notice a distortion produced by the headphones? Are they actually part of the film? Can I trust what I think I hear? After all, my hearing aids are, essentially, a pair of tiny microphones, and the complexity of the sound they amplify is dependent on their technology and on the number of channels they have to interpret the aural information. So, at the end of the day, there’s essentially a filter between me and the audible world. This problem, if you will, is further complicated when the soundtrack is of the variety used by Grandrieux, Lynch, and Gray, which is reminiscent of the ideal soundtrack imagined by Tarkovsky. There’s a supremely relevant quote from his Sculpting in Time book:

Electronic music seems to me to have enormously rich possibilities for cinema. Artemiev and I used it in some scenes in Mirror. We wanted the sound to be close to that of an earthly echo, filled with poetic suggestion – to rustling, to sighing. The notes had to convey the fact that reality is conditional, and at the same time accurately to reproduce precise states of mind, the sounds of a person’s interior world. (…) Furthermore, electronic music has exactly that capacity for being absorbed into the sound. It can be hidden behind other noises and remain indistinct; like the voice of nature, of vague intimations… It can be like somebody breathing.”

That is, we’re talking about a soundtrack that’s barely perceptible, at the edges of our awareness, like a white noise. There’s not necessarily any rustling or sighing or earthly echoes in the music of Lynch, Grandrieux, and Gray, but the idea is similar, they’re sounds of an interior world, like somebody breathing, the music of imbalance. These filmmakers create distorted worlds with rotten cores, and the distorted music complements the theme. Sometimes, these worlds are tearing at the seams: the characters of Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway live out imagined narratives that cover up the truth about what “actually” happened. This is very much like what Vladimir Nabokov did in Lolita and Pale Fire, where the stories told by the unreliable narrators are veils hiding realities underneath, but these veils have the particularity of suggesting – again, in a distorted way, like a muffled scream – what is being kept under wraps. Lolita is particularly dramatic, as Humbert Humbert starts out justifying his affair with a minor and ends up melodramatically admitting that he’s robbed a young girl of her childhood, as his self-made fantasy shatters under the weight of his unbearable guilt. Something similar happens in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, where the protagonists – who are both murderers – concoct elaborate fantasies in order to hide their crimes from themselves, from their memories. Neither movie shows us the crime itself, but it’s suggested by the self-destruction of the surface narrative, through which we glimpse the terror that inspired it (1). So the soundtrack, going back to it now, is a kind of announcement of this: an underground rumbling, barely there, but definitely disturbing and foreboding.

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Grandrieux places his characters at the edges of the sensible and human. They’re always about to be mutated into monsters, and in La vie nouvelle, that is what they have basically become: they almost never speak to each other, they only hurt their bodies and scream towards the ceiling, like overgrown infants or hardly sentient blobs of pure experience and pain. At other times, especially in Un lac and Sombre, the protagonists are clearly human, but they seem about to disintegrate into film matter, into the frame or celluloid, pushed to the limits of their being. Again, the soundtrack almost pre-announces their dissolution, as it can barely be called a soundtrack. We almost don’t even notice it, as it has been “absorbed into the sound,” as Tarkovsky wanted.

We might also think of the rising sine wave in Wavelength by Michael Snow: the increasingly insufferable tone, which grows in volume throughout the 45-minute running time, generates a feeling of expectation: When will the sound end? What comes after it? Silence? And what will that bring with it? Such extended sounds and tones can be used in more conventional drama, and have been: I remember a classic example in Joffé’s The Killing Fields, where a note is stretched out throughout a short scene in which a pair of journalists in 1970s Cambodia are waiting to find out if they will be executed or not by the Khmer Rouge. In this case, the final silence signals, at long last, that they will not, while the previous sustained tone paralleled their anxious wait for an answer to the question of their survival. In Wavelength, the question, to put it crudely, is when will our peregrination to the wall and its photograph end, and what will happen to the dead body on the ground the camera’s zoom has so nonchalantly ignored. Michael Snow builds his film upon a series of simple mechanisms that activate our curiosity and anticipation – a slow progression towards something, a mysterious murder – and the disturbing sine wave on the soundtrack is not only annoying but distressing, an alarm that will not shut off, while the camera “floats” over a dead body, as if the fate of a human being were not really important against the unchanging universe around him: the stillness of the apartment, the imperturbability of the city bustling outside the windows… Kind of like Brueghel’s depiction of Icarus’ fall, the whole world trucking on while Icarus drowns unnoticed.

I apologize for this diversion into the history of sinister, droning electronic sounds. In We Own the Night, the purpose of the garbled, nearly unnoticeable music resembles that of the above examples. We know something is wrong, that the surface is about to be torn by tremors from below. Even in early scenes, in which we cannot guess what will happen next and to what an extent Joaquin Phoenix’s life will be transformed, we can already foresee the coming disaster. The background drone connects scenes together like a tissue, and despite the different environments – clubs, apartments, hospitals, churches, etc. – they all seem linked by noise.

Which brings me, circuitously, to something else, to the status of family – or, rather, of the family home – in We Own the Night. The background noise, like I suggested, seems to contaminate every moment. And like you mention in your review, oppression (social and familial) is pervasive and characters cannot escape its fatalistic influence (by the way, as an aside, you’re right about Mann’s Heat, it’s been too long). I think this oppression (suggested, in part, by the ubiquitous music) is such that, curiously, the protagonists no longer have a home. No place is safe or even provides the illusion of safety. I mentioned the no-places of the hotel rooms (2). But the characters’ whole lives are a constant transition between no-places, a continuous transit. The characters are perpetually exposed in the urban wilderness. We almost never see Phoenix, Whalberg, and Duvall – father and sons – together at home. They’re always at public gatherings, hospitals, police stations, cemeteries, nightclubs… We see them once at home, yes, but when we do, Phoenix is already chained to the witness protection program. And furthermore, the house is full of guests, it’s barely private, it’s poked full of holes, clouded over by the danger of mob action. Phoenix is tense and worried, “lead-footed” as I said before.

And, in the case of the criminals, what do they call home? Compared to something like The Godfather, they don’t have a home either. Now, in The Godfather, certainly, the family house is not free from mob business. In fact, that’s where the protagonists meet to decide on their future course of action. Family and crime, as famously condensed in The Godfather‘s opening marriage scene, are intertwined. But in The Godfather, despite this, the home is still a fortress, an insular space where the Corleones can speak in relative safety. Death is kept outside of it, unless it’s caused by natural death, which can obviously strike anywhere. And most importantly, there’s a kind of twisted honesty about the way home is used: though doors are employed to demarcate certain boundaries – between men, who take care of business, and women, who are kept at a distance – there is no secrecy or shame about the fact that the house is where business is discussed. In We Own the Night, even criminals must conduct their business outside the home. They have no fortress. In fact, home, as used by the Russian mob boss, is only a front, a charade to mislead the police into thinking that the mob boss, in fact, is an innocent civilian. Business happens out on the streets, in the great and mysterious “out there,” where Phoenix’s family is forced to do battle every day. Home is insubstantial. Only the streets exist. As it were, the characters are forced to deal with that larger social mechanism we mentioned earlier, they must confront the overpowering forces around them, because no place is a buffer zone, least of all home.

(1) Echoes of Nicole Brenez and Slavok Zizek. Brenez, in her essay “Incomparable Bodies”: “To put this another way, contemporary fabulations occupy the terrain of figurability, as the films set about translating a referential reality into a nightmare, or underlining its anamnesic nature – the journey must take place in order that a second image can reveal the truth and suffering hidden in the first. Such an investigation into human gesture finds its apotheosis in Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997): this film about madness shows not the slightest image of the real, since from the outset we are in a doubled position and can only deduce the inaugural image – the one translated throughout the entire scenario – as the basis of its catastrophic versions.”

And now Zizek, in the documentary A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema: “After killing her, in an eruption of frustration, the hero enters his phantasmagorical space, where he reinvents, not only himself, but also his whole surroundings, translating them into the typical universe of film noir.” (Emphases are mine).

(2) I’m going by Marc Augé’s definition: places like airports or shopping malls, meant for transit, to be walked over, spaces that resemble each other in all corners of the world, and whose structure, unlike that of a town, does not underline, create, or refer to a local social or political structure, since the point is that such a place is never local, it’s only a bridge between destinations, without being anyone’s destination itself, except for the people who work there (the humor in Spielberg’s The Terminal is based around this, as the prototypical space of transit, an airport, unwittingly becomes Tom Hanks’ home). Augé admits that no-places can also be locations like Paris or Rome, which are not so much no-places in and of themselves – clearly, there’s a lot of history in either city, a lot of culture and meaning – but rather are experienced like a no-place in the blur of breathless tourism. So, I think, a no-place is also created at the level of interactivity, how we relate to our surroundings. Even a shopping mall has a history, a past. It’s obviously a place (if we’re going to be anal about it), though we don’t really interact with it in a way that activates any of these deeper qualities. For us, usually, it’s just another replaceable collection of the same chain stores found in any other mall, and that’s also how it is for the vast majority of those walking besides us.

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20 09 2013
The Cinema of James Gray: A Conversation Between Two Cinephiles, pt. 2 | Agents and Seers

[…] This is part two of my conversation with Guido Pellegrini. Please read his part here. […]

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