Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hearing the Sounds of "Gravity"

After my brief step into the world of film with my post about the 1984 movie "The Hit" I felt that I should return to the origins of this blog: music. However, after recently seeing the new box-office hit that is "Gravity" I desperately wanted to write about it, so I decided that the solution would be to write about the sounds and music of Alfonso Cuarón's work.

Please be aware that I will be spoiling parts of the movie below.

"Gravity" is a movie which has an incredible depth when it comes to the way it tells its story and conveys information to the audience. It has stunning visuals using camerawork which pans, swivels, and rotates (very reminiscent of certain moments within 2001: A Space Odyssey), yet "Gravity"'s success lies more within the atmosphere it establishes through sound.

While the movie begins with the duo that is Kowalski and Stone (aka Clooney and Bullock), Stone is soon left alone in the vastness of space. Managing and manipulating the oppressive atmosphere that manifests itself in this setting is key in keeping viewers stimulated and interested in the movie. "Gravity" manages this with its more than competent score, which is carefully manicured to be in harmony with the plot. Climactic scenes are accompanied by sharp and tense music, while the grand swooning orchestral style pieces are befitting to the many panoramic shots of earth, the music often just delicate enough to accompany those pensive moments.

Aside from the well done musical score, there's something to be said about the way in which "Gravity" plays with sound. The emphasis on the sounds truly "surrounding" the audience is an aspect which the production team obviously put in a lot of hard work. I say hard work because it must have been quite the task to properly map a character's voice as the camera and perspective is almost constantly in motion. Yet the work pays off, adding most importantly another sense of immersion to the setting that is space. Having the voices and sound effects truly surround you as your eyes drink in the sweet nectar of 3D visuals (for those that saw it in 3D theatres) makes for a truly immersive experience.

I mentioned above the importance of keeping the viewer stimulated in the desolate and lonely story of a woman trying to escape space. The director Alfonso Cuarón shows an incredible sense of pacing in the way he seamlessly transitions to and from scenes, and of course, he uses sound as a nifty tool when doing so. While the audience becomes quickly accustomed to the muffled space-suit crackle voices of the characters, Cuarón throws in a new element by occasionally transitioning to inside the space-suit. The first time he does this, it's an incredibly tense moment which features the camera constantly inching closer to Sandra Bullock's helmeted head. We hear her constantly talking, and at a certain point the camera traverses through the helmet, and that is when we hear the character's pure unaltered voice for the first time. From the visual vicinity of the shot to clearly hearing every inflexion within Sandra Bullock's voice, there was a distinct intimacy that the viewer felt with the character.

The role that sound production and music play in movies is immense. It's very easy to forget about what the interplay between visual and audio can do in terms of immersion and connection with a story. Cuarón's "Gravity" seems to have plucked a very deep and instinctual string within our hearts, as it pushes a very vulnerable and relatable character to the brink of isolation in the immense mystery that is space. Yet it all could have easily fallen apart without the proper attention and detail regarding the sounds necessary to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere. Next time you see "Gravity", make sure to pay special attention to hearing the sounds which accompany the lonely protagonist in her journey.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Protagonists Within Stephen Frears's "The Hit"

While this blog began with my analysis of classical, it's about time I began to branch off. While I'll definitely continue writing about music (from classical to modern day), after seeing the 1984 film directed by Stephen Frears "The Hit", I couldn't resist writing down a few thoughts about it. In case you haven't seen the movie, I suggest you go watch it before reading this because I'll be spoiling things (and also because you probably won't understand much of what I'm musing about if you haven't seen it).

"The Hit" is a movie which provokes us to search for its true protagonist. The first name coming to mind would be Willie Parker (portrayed by Terence Stamp), after all, he's the only character in the journey who immediately fills our expectations of a protagonist. After doing the right thing and ratting out his criminal buddies, he's kidnapped and to be executed. He's a good-looking smooth-talking fellow (checks the boxes of "hero" so far), delivering constant philosophical ramblings and coy smiles which pervade the thoughts of his captors who pretend to be so indifferent (but probably have a more monotonous effect on us viewers after a while). Willie becomes the archetypal sage hero in his calm acceptance of his fate, we quickly grow bored of him, and because of this we turn to the two characters holding Willie's destiny in what seems to be a fairly shaky grip.

The poor souls that are Myron and Mr. Braddock become much more interesting than Willie, and while at first it's difficult to see them as heroes in any way, they quickly affirm themselves as key protagonists. Tim Roth definitely succeeds in performing the wild and insecure Myron, gifting us viewers the easiest character to decipher in this film which changes our expectations of who characters really are, and how quickly we should change our opinions about them.

As we hunt for who the true protagonist is, director Stephen Frears gives all of the characters enough depth to don at least a glimmer of heroism. Even poor Harry (the Australian gangster inhabiting the Madrid safehouse) who himself admits that he was just "in the wrong place at the wrong time", has an arc which after its end solemnly sticks with its memorable moments. He's almost the first of many to face death (don't forget Willie's bodyguard who early in the movie heroically faced an oncoming car with as much gusto he could muster. That same heroic gusto is also seen later by the young man at the petrol station phoning the police before Mr. Braddock puts a lead pellet in his skull). Each man confronts his impending doom a different way. While throughout the movie we grow accustomed to Willie's instructive musings on the afterlife, it's only Mr. Braddock (the darkest and most unsettling character of them all) who seems to be able to remember Willie's soothing words after suffering the most gruesome death of the film.

While during the story Mr. Braddock does his best to maintain a cool professionalism, behind his shades and shifty names that others know him by, his constant struggles in pulling off "The Hit" definitively establish him as the most likeable of the protagonists. Especially when Willie, the mystical man with a plan shows his cowardly vulnerabilities and the fact that he doesn't actually have a plan against a loaded gun when Mr. Braddock decides "it's time". As for Myron, his hyper-active tension fuelling (but also tension-cutting with his humor) presence is just boyish enough to make you suffer when you see the lack of understanding in his face right before being taken out by Mr. Braddock.

"The Hit" undoubtedly challenges what we expect of characters in these types of films. While perhaps we were waiting for a singular hero to take command of the plot (funnily enough, if there is one it's the only woman in the story, Maggie), we discover that it was the mixture of these different and enigmatic characters which provided the special moments of the movie. When they all end up dead (except for Maggie, who interestingly enough if the main character we know the least about), we're left with disappointment not because a single protagonist died, but because the characters which drove the story through the gorgeous Spanish spaces are no longer there.