Movies for your ears, 2012 edition

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Scott Walker, in the doc 30 Century Man, recording his album The Drift
  • Scott Walker, in the doc 30 Century Man, recording his album The Drift
Since it came out a few weeks ago, I've listened to Scott Walker's Bish Bosch several times, almost always with friends and at top volume. I tend to be a headphone enthusiast (when the listening experience is that private, I feel like I'm disappearing into music the way I do with works of literature), but Walker's records feel most impactful when they're able to fill an entire room. Walker has long expressed affinities with cinema, and this is less evident in his references to particular films (Scott 4, from 1969, begins with a song about Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal) than in the imagistic quality of his arrangements. In his recordings, you can practically visualize the space between instruments or sections of an orchestra—it's not just the notes that matter, but the impeccable sense of mise-en-scene.

On Bish Bosch this is just as true of moments of near silence as it is of lavish orchestrations. The album's centerpiece is a 21-minute opus called "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)," a modernistic epic that alludes to early human history, Attila the Hun, Louis B. Mayer, and recent breakthroughs in astronomy. For all the terrain it covers, its most powerful passages are of Walker singing a cappella, surrounded by an immense sonic void. His powerful baritone sounds shockingly fragile, as though we were seeing his person reduced to a speck in extreme long-shot. "It's the idea that [the song's protagonist] is being heckled by silence," Walker said in a recent Pitchfork interview. "He's being pestered and made to feel guilty. Silence of course is where everything originates from."

As for what the rest of the song means, your guess is as good as mine. Along with The Master and Hors Satan, "SDSS1416+13B" is one of the great inscrutable artworks of 2012. I think it's about each person's fundamental detachment from the whole of existence, which only becomes more pronounced when he stops to consider the immensity of world history or the cosmos. (The song is named after a substellar body first discovered in 2010.) I don't know how Louis B. Mayer (or "the pissing stench of mares-milk beer" or "phalanxes fleeing like zippers of blood") fits into that, though the seeming lack of logic behind his cameo evokes an unsolvable order comparable to that of the song's larger subjects. Since I learned that Walker likened the arrangements on his previous album The Drift (2006) to "blocks of sound," I think of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey when I hear certain parts of that record; Bish Bosch inspires similar associations.

And yet I haven't responded the same way twice to any moment on the album. Walker understands that the feelings conjured by music are transient and that the longer you live with any song the more it becomes an environment you inhabit. (The deliberate inscrutability of his late-period albums requires a listener to live with them for a while before he can start to determine what they mean.) How simple, then, have most songs sounded in the movies I've seen since Bish Bosch came out! In much subpar narrative cinema, filmmakers deploy songs like blunt objects to pound in place a precise emotional interpretation for a scene. Even great audiophile filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson can be controlling in their creative use of music, orchestrating their montage to lock into the rhythms of a song.

Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
One of the more interesting qualities of the current release Silver Linings Playbook is how director David O. Russell uses pop songs for environmental effect without losing grasp of their particular meanings. Most impressive is a scene Russell sets to Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be." In it, Bradley Cooper's bipolar hero has a breakdown in the middle of the night, waking his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) and becoming so unstable that his father ends up slapping him senseless. The scene becomes steadily more explosive as it goes along, but the Zeppelin song alternates between low-heat verses and galvanic choruses. Russell turns it into something like a bipolar anthem, using it to remind us how close these lives have been to boiling over in the moments leading up to this scene.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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