Category Archives: Reel Sounds

Serie noire: Murder Goes Pop

Serie noire

Director: Alain Corneau

Writers: George Perec, Alain Corneau

Based on the novel A Hell of a Woman by: Jim Thompson

Cast: Patrick Dewaere, Andreas Katsulas, Myriam Boyer, Bernard Blier, Marie Trintignant

France 1979

111 mins

There is no non-diegetic sound in Série noire, and yet there is music almost constantly (especially in the first half). When Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere) isn’t singing in his car, or singing drunk with Tikides (Andreas Katsulas) in his flat, there is the radio. And the radio is like a character all of its own. In the very first scene, we see Franck alone with his car in La Zone, the wastelands beyond the city, dancing with the radio in his arms to Duke Ellington’s ‘Moonlight Fiesta’.

Alain Corneau transposes Jim Thompson’s harebrained tale of love, larceny and multiple personality disorder A Hell of a Woman to the Parisian banlieue. With the change in setting comes also a change of rhythm, from Thompson’s frantic hard-boiled Americana to the quickened pulse of late 70s urban France. Novelist George Perec’s dialogue, itself a kind of wild music composed of rapid-fire fragments of verlan and argot, is syncopated to the rhythms of French disco.

The film then becomes a kind of extended riff on Noel Coward’s thesis on the potency of cheap music, the songs acting sometimes in ironic counterpoint to the action – as in the use of Dalida’s Francophone Cockney knees-up ‘Le Lambeth Walk’ behind a tense scene in the office of Franck’s boss in which he airs his growing suspicions – at other times heightening the tragic pathos of the scene – Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’ as the young girl Mona (Marie Trintignant), prostituted by her aunt, strips for Franck.

Sometimes the choice of songs seems even to predict the action. As Franck fights with his wife, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), in the bathroom we hear Sheila B Devotion’s ‘Kennedy Airport’, as if to suggest that Jeanne’s mind is already made up to leave – and that soon after she leaves she will start to think about returning (we hear the song one more time, later in the film, immediately before their relationship comes to a tragic end). But it is ‘Moonlight Fiesta’ that seems to represent the utopian element of the film. Both opening and closing the picture, it offers a glimmer of hope, the chance of escape, amidst the grim squalor of the banlieue.

Robert Barry

Reel Sounds: Ominous Silences – Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water

The story of Krzysztof Komeda provides a very good argument for US health reform. While in the States at the end of the 60s to compose the music for Rosemary’s Baby, the Polish jazz pianist sustained severe head injuries in a random accident. Lacking any health insurance, he was unable to get treatment and immediately put on a plane back to Poland. He died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness. He had been one of Poland’s most celebrated jazz musicians, and the first to start a modern jazz group in Poland. His distinctive style was characterised by a mix of the cool school of Gerry Mulligan and the Modern Jazz Quartet, mixed with the bebop he’d witnessed at tiny jam sessions in a basement in Krakow. Under the influence of his years spent composing film scores, his 1965 album, ‘Astigmatic’, was noted for its unique approach to structure, and came to signal a whole new European influence on the development of jazz.

Markedly different from the Wagnerian approach of most Hollywood composers at the time, notably in the way it attaches leitmotifs to specific characters or themes and so on, Komeda’s music for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) acts more like punctuation, breaking up the tension of the dialogue scenes almost theatrically. But, as Steven Shaviro has commented, the most noteworthy thing about what he calls the ‘scansion’ of the soundtrack is its frequent recourse to silence. Tension is built up, not by the hysterical maximalism of Bernard Herrmann, but through gaps and absences. It is the horror of reading a crucial life-or-death document, partially blacked out by the censor’s pen. At what we might consider the dramatic climax of the film there are no swirling crescendos of discordant strings, no pounding brass or crashing cymbals, just a wandering bassline, circling, seemingly aimlessly, around some indistinct tonality, never quite resolving itself, or finding its home.

Robert Barry

Reel Sounds: Psycho Strings


Hitchcock once said that when the images of a film and its soundtrack are doing the same thing, one of them must be redundant. In the famous shower scene in Psycho, it is perhaps truer than ever. The superficial impression that image and music are simply ‘mickey mousing’ is a tribute to the effectiveness of the music. For all we see is a raised knife, a woman’s screaming face, blood around the plughole. The knife scarcely moves, and certainly never meets the flesh of Janet Leigh. It is Bernard Herrmann’s music that pierces the skin, plunges the blade and carries out the murder.

From 1-30 April the BFI will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (1960) with an extended run of a new digital print and a season putting it in context – from cult classics Peeping Tom and Repulsion to traditional horror with screenings of Halloween and Deranged. More info on the BFI website.

By 1960 Herrmann was already an old hand, having started his own chamber orchestra at 20, before working for many years at the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles. The Psycho score was unusual for a horror film at that time in being only for strings, but this approach (with the addition of a little percussion) would provide the blueprint for many of James Bernard’s classic scores for Hammer Horror.

Heard in isolation from the picture, the prelude resembles at times the stringent sonorities of early Schoenberg only with added soaring, plaintive melody and machinic rhythms more akin to the work of Schoenberg’s student, Hans Eisler. Elsewhere, themes recall the sombre menace of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Snooping in Norman Bates’s bedroom, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) spies a copy of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on the record player, and Herrmann sneaks in a pastiche of the funeral march from the second movement.

Then there is the shower scene. Initially, Hitchcock wanted the scene to play just with sound effects and no music but Herrmann talked him round, creating in the process one of the most famous pieces of film music of all time. Working as a kind of expressionist intensification of Janet Leigh’s scream, it is the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, and is culturally just as central. The reference to Eroica is apposite; just like Beethoven’s symphony, Herrmann’s score meant that things would never be the same again without sounding thoroughly old-fashioned.

Robert Barry

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Reel Sounds: The Power of Silence

Cowards Bend the Knee

This Reel Sounds column takes the form of a dialogue as it is an edited extract of an episode of Resonance FM’s visual culture show I’m Ready for my Close-Up broadcast in September 2008, in which Alex Fitch and Virginie Sélavy discussed modern silent movies, including the work of Guy Maddin.

Alex Fitch: Before we discuss Guy Maddin, I want to bring up the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called ‘Hush’, which – suitably as it celebrates a form of filmmaking that most people think is anachronistic – was the last episode to be broadcast on TV in the 20th century. It won many awards and is based on German nightmarish tales like Struwwelpeter; by removing the dialogue from the soundtrack Buffy’s creators have brought something very primal and nightmarish to the storytelling.

Virginie Sélavy: Yes, it is a bit like one of those nightmares that everybody has at some point: you’re running away in slow motion from something scary that is chasing you! It’s the same idea in ‘Hush’: the characters scream as they are attacked but no one can hear them. The other interesting thing is that it shows how powerful the human voice is when Buffy finally gets her voice back and screams, breaking the silence and killing the evil guys.

AF: Maybe it’s because we grew up on a diet of MTV, or rather TV influenced by MTV, where the combination of music and visuals became a new language for film. That said, people from the ‘MTV generation’ are increasingly reliant on bad dialogue rather than visual storytelling to drive the plot of their movies, which is bizarre.

VS: It’s not surprising that someone like Guy Maddin is attracted to primarily visual storytelling. I think that it’s much easier to create surrealist types of narratives or fantasy worlds with silent film because dialogue can make certain scenarios seem a bit trite or too literal. I think Maddin avoids the excesses of melodrama by not having dialogue. Through silent film you’re able to create a more poetic world, because it is not purely representational. It’s a bit like animation: it can’t be realistic, it doesn’t attempt to recreate the real world, which makes it a lot easier to create a convincing fantasy world.

AF: I thought Maddin’s first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, which does have dialogue, wasn’t particularly good. It could just be because he was learning as a filmmaker, but I think he found his voice – ironically – when he started making silent movies. He started using dialogue again a few years ago in The Saddest Music in the World, but that works really well because it feels informed by his silent work. It is as if his development reflected the history of cinema itself: he had to learn how to make sound movies by doing silent films first. He doesn’t need dialogue to tell a story, but The Saddest Music in the World is as much about music as it is about pictures, and I guess that also came from his work on the ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary the year before.

VS: These modern silent films are different from the films from the silent era because old silent films didn’t have a synched soundtrack – it was generally played live in each cinema, and improvised by the pianist. In a film like Cowards Bend the Knee, the soundtrack is very important and so suggestive and well used that you don’t feel the need for dialogue at all.

AF: It makes me think of animation, from Fantasia to episodes of Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes – the ones that won awards were quite often the ones without dialogue, I’m surprised people haven’t noticed this correlation over the years! Film is such a visual medium; particularly when you’re making something like a cartoon, when you’re drawing a character 24 times every second, to have to then think about how the mouth might move and dub over it seems a needlessly convoluted way of telling a story.

VS: Definitely. Hitchcock once said something like ‘silent film is the purest form of cinema’, and I can really understand that, it’s often a much more poetic form than sound film. It is unfortunate that modern silent films, like Guy Maddin’s movies, or Esteban Sapir’s La Antena, are categorised as ‘arty’ movies, and therefore only get the attention of a minority audience, because if more people got to see them they would realise that not only are they stunningly beautiful, but they’re also really entertaining…

audio Listen to the podcast of the discussion of modern silent movies.

Reel Sounds: Unsynched Rhythms – George Antheil’s Le Ballet mécanique

Le Ballet mécanique

George Antheil, the pistol-wielding, self-styled ‘bad boy’ of the European branch of the Roaring Twenties avant-garde composed Le Ballet mécanique in 1924. Scored for eight pianos, eight xylophones, pianola, two electric doorbells and an aeroplane propeller, it was scratched out in the context of post-WWI technological and sensorial momentum. When art either looked askance or fluttered its eyelashes coquettishly at the pyschotropic dimensions of the world. A world perceived from a multiplicity of angles, far away and at high speed. Mechanised warfare, aviation, railways, automobiles, skyscrapers, telephones, super mass production, jazz, radio, cinema, futurism, cubism, dada, surrealism, Duchamp and all manner of post-traumatic stress disorder freak-outs. Antheil would have adored the Heathrow Express.

Antheil’s score was originally commissioned to accompany Fernand Léger’s film of the same title, shot by Man Ray, but it was twice as long and could never be synchronised with it. The only commonality the two works have is, seemingly, their title. Léger’s film flickers like an ashen moth in a lethargic strobe light. Antheil’s score has the quality of a combustion engine with brass fittings and a modicum of grease.

In 2000, technological advances allowed Paul Lehrman to combine an edited version of the original score with the film. This version appears on the DVD box-set Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 released by Image Entertainment in October 2005.

A bombastic, belligerent, percussive work, vulgar in its way, formed from a lattice of insistency. Xylophone and the hi-frequency linear vibrations of doorbells evoke a mirage of movement that lances through the dense mahogany clusters and churnings of mass piano vamps. Vamps that chase linear rhythms like Keystone Kops in pursuit of a villain.

As a quaint anthropomorphic fantasy of mechanic frenzy, an homage to the resilience and persistence and oppression of advanced capitalist production, it is indeed quite witty. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a Keaton catastrophe or, as mentioned, a Keystone caper. In terms of composition and arrangement, if you’re looking for comparisons, Antheil’s piece is closer to Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian than Varèse, Russolo, Cowell, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg or any other important modernist composer. It’s rather weak tea to Léger’s biscuit too, best not to dunk.

Richard Thomas