Fri. February 8
Hollywood and the Triumph of Silence
One of my favorite action sequences of any film is the Joker “truck flip” scene in The Dark Knight. And the scene’s effectiveness has a lot to do with a crucial fact: there is no music in it. Twenty years ago, or even ten, a similar scene would have come with a soundtrack–either pounding heavy metal or rap, or even classical. But Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan had the artistic vision to see that the scene already had a soundtrack–the humming of the engines, the gunfire, the sparse dialogue. Nolan figured out that not pounding audiences over the head with musical cues actually heightened the drama of the scene. It allowed us to become immersed in the life and death drama playing out on the screen.
Somehow, Hollywood seems to have learned that when it comes to music, less in a film can actually mean more. Last year, Acculturated editor Emily Esfahani Smith wrote about the virtue of silence and the 2012 Best Picture winner The Artist.
This year, I’ve seen almost all of the Academy Award’s Best Picture nominees, and one thing has been common in all the films: a wonderful restraint in the use of music. There is a scene in Argo, Ben Affleck’s terrific movie about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when the lead character arrives in Los Angeles from Washington to meet with some movie people. As Affleck’s character walks into a party, Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” plays on the soundtrack. And then, after a few seconds, the song fades away. It is a completely understated and perfect use of a segment of a song to convey a feeling and an era. There was no drawn out montage like every 80s teen movie ever made, no heavy-handed use of Aerosmith, Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath to scream at the audience: THIS FILM TAKES PLACE IN THE 1970s.
Other films are similarly restrained. Silver Linings Playbook employs a nice mix of jazz, pop, and a Danny Elfman score, but never lets the music overtake the actors or the script. Zero Dark Thirty shows that heavy metal music was used as part of the torture of prisoners, but trusts the audience to get the message after one brief sequence and not turn the film into a headbanger’s ball. Les Miserables, of course, has a lot of music, but it’s sung live by the actors and that offers a greater spectrum of emotion than just the usual bigness that come with a music. Life of Pi has a beautiful and gentle theme song. Even Steven Spielberg, the king of earsplitting scores–I still have a headache from the first twenty minutes of the first Jurassic Park–manages to keep things mostly quiet in Lincoln, which is my pick for the best film of the year.
So bravo, Hollywood. Keep giving us less.