To make good on the “other worldy delights” part of this blog’s subtitle, I thought the following might be of interest:
I was watching Shadow of the Vampire recently (2000, dir. E. Elias Merhige, incl. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe), and was struck by how important sound is in its impact. The film, for those who haven’t seen it, depicts wierdness during the filming of F. Mornau’s 20s-era silent classic, Nosferatu, staring Max Schreck (in Shadow, the conceit is that Schreck’s character, the vampire Count Orloff, played by Dafoe, is actually a vampire). I found the film as a whole somewhat less than compelling–specifically, my interest wandered towards the end, because there wasn’t much of a narrative arc–but I thought it had a number of absolutely stunning moments, ones that rank among my favorites of late. In particular, I was held by the opening credits, a brief travel scene in which the cast and crew relocate to Slovakia by train, and the climactic rape/murder of Orloff’s final victim, the actress Greta.
All three scenes are notable for their sonic identities. The credits are long–excessively, excruciatingly long–and visually static, showing a series of art deco (or is it nouveau?) sets, panning and zooming slowly. Aside from the names, which seem somehow beside the point, the impact of this is largely accomplished through music. In fact, I’d say it would be as satisfying to “watch” the credits with closed eyes.
The other two bits, the train scene and the climax, are notable not for music, but for the way sound and noise are handled. The train scene is beautiful–and again, excessive, I think–and something about showing the train without its sound is profoundly affecting. Mornau has a little soliloquy on the impact of film (which I thought was itself fairly compelling–“our music will linger and finally overwhelm…we are scientists doing experiments in memory”), and it is highlighted by being cast into the void. It is not simply that there isn’t other sound, but that there is the explicit absence of sound that should be there. The climax, by contrast, is highlighted by the abundance of noise.
Both of these seem like fairly typical cinematic techniques, if ones that are handled skillfully by Merhige. The reason they seem worth noting here is that they put me onto thinking about music and film. A quick glance at various musicology journals and conference programs suggests that we have become, as a discipline, fully invested in film music as a topic (largely, I think, because the film scholars have not really dealt with music); but it’s my impression that we have not really written about music as part of the larger category of sound in film. Our investment in music, per se, as a thing apart (and our position as specialists) may be to blame. It seems to me that an approach along the lines taken by Albin Zak with regard to rock recordings would be ideal: not only is music interesting and noise, but the sound of voices, the ways they are recorded, and so on, the sonic profiles of movies must be extremely important.
And then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there are film music articles out there by musicologists that do deal with sound as an integral thing in film? I am open to standing corrected.