Aural Pleasure in the Cinema

Music is something that can make or break a film for me.

And, I mean, it makes sense, right? Since the first days of cinema, there’s been a musical aspect.
From organists to scores to pop music. It’s been ubiquitous and a part of the experience.

Even if the performances are top notch, head-of-the-class, flawless ones, the music will kill it for me.
Take for example Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. You’ve got the best performance of Cameron Diaz’s life as well great ones from Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. They’re almost flawless. They’re very good.
But from the first battle scene on, the score completely pulls me out of the otherwise well-done period piece.
I mean, seriously, a battle scene set to trip-hop? Was Martin Scorsese sitting there, drinking coffee and listening to Portishead and then began to think, “Oh my God, I can see immigrants dying to this shit!”
Howard Shore just followed suit, I hope, because he otherwise has done some very good scores (Like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Departed and Se7en)

And an example of a well-done score is last year’s There Will Be Blood.
It takes music from the period and twists and convulses it with aleatoric swells and discordant pieces. Because of the way it was composed, and how well it fits with the period of the film, it turns a movie with all the right aspects and turns it into one of my favorite films.

It’s just make or break for me.
If it’s overused it can tear an otherwise decent movie apart (see: Smart People) and if it’s just pisspoor, it can tear myself apart as to whether or not I enjoyed the film—though I do know that no movie with shitty music has given me the feeling that I’ve gained something from watching it.

But, then, what about movies with no music?
Silence is definitely an aural tool that is used far too sparsely in film these days.
With music, you’re given the mood of the scene on a platter. With silence, though, you have to ask yourself how this scene makes you feel. Without the deep swells of the orchestra, how’re you sometimes to know when to cry?
One movie that I can think of that used silence excellently was last year’s No Country for Old Men. In it, there is next to no music—it’s in the credits and, apparently, in a couple of scenes though I have yet to hear any in the film proper.
With that comes the film’s morally ambiguous center: the characters don’t know how to feel about this whole situation, so why should we give you clues as to how we the directors and producers think they feel?
The problem with silence is that it is unforgiving to the viewer. In a theater, you feel sucked into the image because of the silence of everything around you.
Take for example the movie Punch Drunk Love (I know, another P.T. Anderson film—he’s real goddam good at music and silence, though). In the beginning of it there is a whole scene where Adam Sandler is standing from his workplace’s doorway and staring at a harmonium that someone just dropped off for no reason.
There is silence. There is no movement from the camera or the characters.
And it completely sucks you into the mystery of why the fuck would someone dump a harmonium in front of his shop.

The difference is that silence gets into your mind first and then your emotions come out of your own thoughts while music gets into your emotions first and tells your mind what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, though. One is not better than the other. They work together in a great harmony when things are done right.
But when done wrong, both can totally destroy a film.

titular note: when I thought of the title I was thinking of the part of Alanis Morisette’s song “You Oughta Know” where she asks, “would she go down on you in a theater?” And then remembered that that song is about Dave Coulier (Joey on Full House). I almost puked.

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