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Punch-Drunk Love
Muzak, Prozac, Noise

Original version published in 100 Modern Soundtracks, BFI, London, 2004
Extended version published in FFWD Magazine No. 4, Rome, 2007

The title of P. T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is a sign of its own critical practice on the corpus of the Romantic Comedy. The term refers to a false state of love, and one artificially induced through a soft intoxication that lubes the emotional drive to seek out love and dive into its widening pool. Most importantly, Punch-Drunk Love presents itself as both opiate and sedative - as something for the divergent audiences either desperately attracted to or nauseously repelled by all representational forms of love.

It is in this mixage of opiate and sedative - between its cinematic pull and push - that Punch-Drunk Love reveals itself as a highly complex audiovisual work. For this is a film that orients everything along a hard line drawn between image and sound; between all that is visually apparent and suggested by those depicted on-screen, and all that is aurally contained and unleashed around their personal space and within their invisible interiority. Punch-Drunk Love heightens the aural, the sonic, the acousmatic and the psychoacoustic in order to probe the mind both afflicted by love and afflicted with love.

If love be a drug, then Punch-Drunk Love listens to its effects. The film may appear to reference Romantic Comedy from a pre-cynical era of cinema, but that is where its cinematic veneer ends. Underneath its mere historical sheen is an undulating swill of dysfunction, oozing uncontrollably and taking unpredictable dramatic shape. This is the primordial genetic swamp from which all manner of modern neuroses arise and into which Punch-Drunk Love slides. The film deliberately shapes its dramatis personae according to principles of repulsion. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and his mysterious muse Lena (Emily Watson) are not your ideal couple, nor are they sumptuous beauties to whom love must fatefully descend. Moreso, they are problematised, dysfunctional border-line psychotics with mental disorders that the film openly invites you to ridicule. Merely observing their character traits and reading their behavioural signs will grant you no understanding of their private plight. Only by listening to, gauging and monitoring their psychological states in flux will you understand both these characters and the film they inhabit.

Barry Egan is about as anxious a person you'd want to find. Berated since childhood by a gaggle of seven insensitive sisters who never listen to him, Barry is so divorced from familial, social and personal contact, his emotional emptiness shapes Sherman Oaks into a desolate terrain of terrifying width and infinite vaccuousness. Yet within this oppressive psychological landscape, Barry appears pathetic, laughable, dismissible - until one experiences the raging storm within him. These are violently conveyed by some of the most devastating sonar-shock effects recorded in cinema (such as the opening car crash); visually intensified by his isolated and caged panic attacks (such as the heavily distorted restaurant bathroom demolition); and vocally displayed by his capacity to scream into phones with the force of interstate tornadoes (such as his yelling match with Dean, Philip Seymour Hoffman). Switching violently between states of control and disability, Barry is always reverberating with his alternate state - literally disconnected as he grimly clasps ripped phones following his rupturing encounters with those who pressure him into deepening psychosis.

Punch-Drunk Love is delicately and finely constructed of the minutiae which comprise Barry's world. True to the aural reality of panic attacks, psychotic episodes and anxiety disorders, sound is received in pre-amplified, over-compressed and highly-distorted fragments which stretch one's emotional dynamic range. This leads to psychological exhaustion, due to a debilitating aural fatigue: everyone's voices become irritatingly loud; tones of their delivery become perceptually congested. The overall presence of sound in Punch-Drunk Love is designed and mixed to simulate this impossibly broadened dynamic range where sounds either detonate or tickle. Respite and solace are found in numerous touches of beautifully subtle sonics: from gentle hums when freezer doors are opened, to rattling of unseen debris in deserted streets.

The film's opening 'delusion' signposts Barry's base disposition as someone to whom the visually apparent dissolves daily. An imaginary car-crash unfolds and explodes right outside his work at the break of a new day. Barry's attempts to be bright and early and on-the-job are in his mind doomed to disaster. The sound of the car crash is apocalyptic, and its opening occurrence punches a sonic hole in the audience's head, leaving its implausibly violent effectiveness to jar and unsettle us for the rest of the film. Keeping in synch with Barry's delusional slippage, the narrative then calmly proceeds as if the car accident did not happen: neither Barry nor the film's plot nor the visible world of the story acknowledge anything to do with it. Yet as an audience, we still register its shock. In a simple and remarkable opening stroke, Punch-Drunk Love welcomes us to the world of psychosis - of the deafening realism of delusions and the disquieting silence surrounding its acknowledgment.

A related moment occurs when Barry suffers a major panic attack on his first date with Lena. Momentarily self-imprisoned in the bathroom, Barry lashes out at the hand-warmer. The violence is wholly unexpected and is recorded tail-to-end with extreme distortion. The soundtrack - like Barry's fragile mental state - is destructively frayed and torn asunder. Cut: Barry returns to his seat and continues the date with Lena. Again, the audience is left half-pondering whether in fact they audited what just occurred; again, the audience has been manipulatively attacked by the soundtrack in keeping with the film's strategic division between sound and image and between the publicly-sane and the privately-unbalanced.

If sound is 'beyond cinema' - beyond the pictorial frame's ever-inward projection through a window, into a box, onto the stage, back to the novel - then the design and mix of Punch Drunk Love's soundtrack perceives its space as all that is beyond the silver screen's archaic proscenium. Not only do its sounds swirl through the 5.1 auditorium, they also replicate mostly a recording of what occurs inside Barry's mind. Symbolically, Punch-Drunk Love posits Barry - a psychotic Everyman nurtured by a global decrepitude in attitudes and practices toward mental health - as someone beyond the reach of our rational understanding and our so-called 'humanist' care. If you were sitting next to Barry on public transport, you would most likely sit elsewhere - maybe to retain your own sanity least you be caught up in his noisy world. When one considers the broader social and psychological ramifications of staging a repellent central character in a genre predicating on projecting hyper-attractive central characters, Punch-Drunk Love starts to resemble a controlled exercise in clinical self-destruction and self-observation.

Overall, Punch-Drunk Love is a cinematic ward which analyzes Barry's condition - not merely to 'cure' him, but to allow us a deeper insight through aural phenomenology into his existential state. The score's eclectic and multi-voiced compositions are thus a chemical read-out of Barry's fluctuations and imbalances. Sometimes the music is beautiful. It therapeutically wraps itself around him like a much-needed hug in decorous waltzes which conduct a lost world of idyllic bonding as he is drawn toward the honesty and openness of Lena. Jon Brion's gorgeous orchestrations in waltz mode recall the lush passages composed for Jacques Tati's latter acerbic comedies Playtime (1967) scored by Francis Lemarque, and Traffic (1971) and Parade (1974) scored by Charles Dumont. Tati's alignment of post-war bourgeois French urbanity with fleckless modern muzak and its air-conditioned affects on the mind is a mix of pathos and pathology. The analogy between Muzak and Prozac are deftly inferred throughout Punch-Drunk Love - again, not in a damning way, but as a means to encourage a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of psychoses such as those which grip Barry.

Other times, the music diagnostically breaks out from within Barry's boiling psyche in passages of multi-tracked percussive improvisations - not on but completely around a drum kit, like the kit itself is quaking in paranormal response to Barry's inner turmoil. Consistently, Brion's transitions between music's poetic signification (its ability through melody to entrance the knowing listener) and the collapse of music into indistinct rattlings and drones (the noisescape that bombards the unknowing listener) tracks Barry's twists and turns. This amounts to a sophisticated strategy largely unaccounted by those with a vested interest in defining 'film scoring' as a rarefied specialist craft. Brion eschews all normative conventions for musical accompaniment, and engages in acts of 'descoring' as much as 'scoring': diffusing, blurring and obfuscating musical signification rather than underlining it according to self-stating audiovisual practice. Simpatico with P. T. Anderson's working beyond the obvious depictions of the psychotic and the romantic, Brion's score resonates with those two states and types without labelling them.

Perversely, a quotation is provided for those who miss the point. One key song on the soundtrack is actually a song form another film (a tactic P. T. Anderson has used in other of his films). The song is "He Needs Me" - sung by Shelly Duval and composed by Harry Nilsson for Robert Altman's Popeye (1980). Here is the true precursor to Punch-Drunk Love - and maybe the latter is a textual transmogrification of the former. Both are musicals - with Punch-Drunk Love 'sonorizing' the genre into an expanded field of abject aurality - and both are centred on harshly dysfunctional love affairs - with Punch-Drunk Love rendering real the cartoon unreality of Altman's bizarre take on romance.

If the need for love is about losing control and 'falling in', Punch-Drunk Love is certainly a love story. But the film is in fact an inversion of that archaic and ultimately false 'punch-drunk' manifestation of the heart. The unfashionable love which wells up in Punch-Drunk Love is a calming, stabilizing and welcome psychoacoustic Prozac: those who hear it swear by it.

 

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