Yearning for a Return to Terror-Sonic Soundtracks

I Stand Alone + Run Lola Run

published in Real Time No.32, Sydney, 1999

n the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), the 'stabbing' violins' perform a psycho-musical function which - if it had not been articulated clearly enough before - stamped the film soundtrack as a postmodern plane upon which the multiplicity of the self is repeatedly decimated, reconstituted and expelled to form a constellation of disembodied and decentred 'selves'.

Let's take that again one step at a time. The inherent romanticism of film music is based on clarity of emotional synchronization - primarily through a matching of musical codes and references to character traits and conventions: appearance of sad person = cause to announce sad music; announcement of sad music = cause for sad person to appear; etc.. Characters and narrators - following many a grand literary tradition - act as conductors and navigators for the placement and intensity of musical presence, creating a whole catalogue of 'motivational strategies' for film scoring (when to cue, for how long, etc.). The shower scene from Psycho (as with most of the 20 odd musical passages which comprise Bernard Herrmann's score) never adheres to this easy logic. For the shower scene cue is a depiction (not an illustration or justification) simultaneously of two liminal characters: Marion (Janet Leigh) and the shadowy 'mother' figure (Anthony Perkins) - as well as a conflation of two subliminal figure - Norman Bates and his dead/mummified mother (both Anthony Perkins in dress and voice). However, the 'cue' does not simply emote something about 'people' on the screen. Herrmann's music performs as a sono-simulacrum which conducts the physiological performance of the on-screen bodily states.

The cue in question can be broken down into three parts, each component not only longer in duration, but also lower in pitch, and less rhythmically defined:
1. The high pitched ZGRIK! ZGRIK! ZGRIK! ZGRIK! ZGRIK! ZGRIK! etc.
2. The full frequencied BA-BOOOOMMMMM. (...) BA-BOOOOMMMMM (...) ;
3. The low frequency RRNNNNNNNNNNNNNN which grows longer with each occurrence.

For Marion, the cue is her body thus:
1. Standing: shocked by Norman/mother's attack, her heart beats at an excessively fast rate, fuelled by an adrenalin rush, causing her to breathe and scream in a series of short gulps and gasps as she fends off the knife;
2. Sliding: her body opened by numerous wounds, blood pours forth in series of expulsions, as her heart beat slows down due to the diminishing level of blood circulating through her body; &
3. Lying: drained of muscular energy due to the loss of blood and the heart's inability to further power the body, her physical presence contracts to breath alone, as she heaves with increasingly finality until all inhalation ceases.

For the Norman/mother combine, the cue is their body thus:
1. Thrusting: stabbing Marion's corpus in series of jolting penile penetrations;
2. Spurting: having climaxed, the orgasm peaks in a series of arrhythmic pulsations; &
3. Breathing: the trauma of erotic detonation now past, the body repairs itself, checking itself in a series of deep breaths, returning oxygen to the blood flow just as the runner's body recovers after an exhausting marathon.

Not only is Herrman's work remarkable in its sensitivity to the biorhythms of drama - marking him perfect for projecting psychological states through the audibility of on-screen bodies - but it is also unerring in its fusion of the psychological states of both killer and victim, of conflating terror and delight in direct opposition to the classical strictures which accord them their difference within motivational humanist drama.

With such ground-breaking and mind-fucking work done almost 40 years ago by a guy who was 49 at the time, it should comes as no surprise that I am unimpressed by the soundtrack to a current 'end-of-the-millennium' film directed and co-composed by a guy in his 20s: Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (1998), playing in this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. Many films have effectively employed the clock-tick effect as a dramatic and thematic tension device: Ralph Nelson's Tick ... Tick ... Tick (1970); Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming (1976); John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981); Phil Joanou's 3 O'Clock High (1987); John Badham's Nick of Time (1995). Run Lola Run uses huge dollops of trance-pop music (a la the use of early 90s tracks by UK rock-dance combo Underworld in that 'with-it' movie Trainspotting) in a way that poorly mimics late-80s/early-90s ads for Nike/Pepsi/Gatorade/etc..

In fact, Run Lola Run is decidedly un-innovative in its use of music. Just because some tacky breakbeat samples, the occasionally fuzzed acid line and swirling analogue synths throb on a movie soundtrack at the end of 90s is no cause to celebrate anything new. More importantly, there is an absence of depth in the linking of such music and cueing either to the film's 'game' narrative, or to the physiological performance of the on-screen bodies. I'm being overly harsh on what is nonetheless a well-crafted and enjoyable film - but only in proportion to the laziness which allows this kind of film to float on a presumed hipness. Despite all the ham-fisted digital effects, pyrotechnic camera tracks, drug references and Love Parade streetwear, the film tellingly hits its fundamental pitch when all music abates to leave us with a triptych of 'Men-Are-From Mars-Women-Are-From-Venus' bedroom babble worthy of a pathetic Woody Allen flick. Run Lola Run is desperately about centring the self - a pathologically gendered one - while its depiction of death is a far cry from the posthuman paraphilia (the confounding yet arousing identification with the abject body) unleashed in Psycho's murderous set pieces.

Another film in the Melbourne International Film Festival has a similar surface of sallow hipness, yet it manages to generate a resonant depth LOLA cannot sound. Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone (1998) has existential angst carved into its textuality - flip arthouse marketing would say RESERVOIR DOGS meets BENNY'S VIDEO but with one grumpy old man - but its audiovisual nous saves it from being a protracted exercise in stylish bleakness. The film exudes a stagnant aura of inertia: unsited voice-over narration spits across numerous still images of violently ugly and banal domestic environs (the MIFF catalogue embarrassingly likens these images to the baroque excesses of Joel Peter Witkin!), creating an intense claustrophobia as we remain trapped in the Euro-macho head of a 50 year old loser (played by Phillipe Nahon), fucked over by life and clinging to his limp cock with one hand and French patriotism with the other. Little moves on the grainy pornographic screen - especially the lead actor's eyes which resemble those of a fish in the supermarket freezer - but the soundtrack energizes and even terrifies the blank world depicted. Music appears at the beginning and the close of the film like mouldy red velvet curtains as a corny old anthem played by a dying brass band. Elsewhere, a single orchestral note is struck sparsely - maybe 10 times; no other music occurs. Yet repeatedly, the loud sound of a compressed, fat gunshot is synced to sudden lurches in the digital editing (hyper-speed jump-tracks which reposition a mid-shot frame into a close-up across 12 frames).

These sonic moments initially appear gratuitous, again recalling the in-your-face basket ball pounds of late-80s/early-90s Nike/Pepsi/Gatorade/etc. ads. (The subtext of the sound of basketball on the contemporary film soundtrack is another story altogether.) What becomes apparent is the tension created in the spaces between these highly stylized POWs which violently rupture the polished naturalism of the film's 16mm grain: before long, one is psycho-acoustically primed to anticipate a bang, or to actually witness rather than audit a horrific act (which you will in the film's final 15 minutes). True to this logic, when the pounds occur while on screen violence is most manifest, the mix pushes the gun shot effects into the background; the vision becomes deafening. Just as an extreme tension is maintained by opposing non-natural sound design to naturalistic visuals and performances, so too does a consonant tension hum throughout the film, representing the sexual and emotional constipation of the film's lead psychopath. In fact at the film's climax, an audible vocal humming rains uncontrollably from his mouth, as if he is trying to block out the chorus of aberrant voices which articulate his turmoil as he falls prey to the ultimate transgression of incest.

The sonic punches which periodically and perniciously drill holes into the I Stand Alone's soundtrack function as shocks which gradually destabilize the lead character's head-set. It's like the sonic version of the famous image of George Sanders' thinking of a brick wall in Wolf Rilla's Village Of The Damned (1960) as the children try to penetrate his thoughts and control his mind. Eventually, the wall inside Sanders' head crumbles; he dies as the bomb he has been hiding from the children explodes. In I Stand Alone, the gun shots are not merely sonicons of violence, but a string of detonations which reduce social conditioning to the state of postwar rubble - the definitive picture of the modern European landscape. With all psycho-familial architecture blown apart, the film's 50 year old loser stands alone as a repositioned self, ready to act out his own Marco Ferrari-style narrative (a la Themroc, 1971, etc.). This is the male core at so much Euro angst: dumb, blank, unforgiving, unremitting. Not liberated but unleashed; not resolved but evoked. A common social core, traumatized by shocks as symbolized by the soundtrack's percussive violence, yet revealed as an unavoidably natural and dramatically inevitable figure - like the bare location sound of a street at the outer ring of Paris' industrial zones which closes the film. No operatic catharsis as in the glorified finale(s) of Run Lola Run; merely the respite from noise which hollows out the head of the psychologically scarred and the socially dispossessed. I Stand Alone is a thankful return to the incisive violence which gave life to Herrmann's score to PSYCHO, and which - if things turn out well - the next millennium will neither avoid nor smother with stylish excess.

Text © Philip Brophy 1999. Images © respective authors