When Red Sorghum debuted in 1987, it did not so much announce the arrival of two new major talents as it did shout it from the rooftops. The debut film from director Zhang Yimou, it also marks the first film for Gong Li, an actress who would be a muse for the director over the next decade, collaborating with him on films such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live. While Red Sorghum feels like a debut film - with rough edges here and there - it still packs a powerful wallop and highlights Zhang’s innate skills as a director. Less thoughtful than some of his later films, Red Sorghum aims from the gut and the nerves: a raw, resonant work of art.
Author Asher Gelzer Govatos
If you couldn’t tell from my previous Sounds of Cinema posts (particularly the first), I have a background in classical music. Aside from random odds and ends (Peter, Paul, and Mary was a favorite) classical music filled our house almost exclusively growing up. Starting at age seven I picked up the cello, a habit I have not been able to kick since. My sister learned the violin, got quite a bit better at it than I ever have been at the cello, and now makes her living through her talents. Like many from such a background, Mozart has always held a special pull for me. He is by no means my favorite composer (short list: Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich), but the magic of his music and the mysteriousness of his life make for a potent combination. An absolute whiz at both playing and composing music, Mozart’s brilliant life ended before he turned 36, but in that short span he created more work of lasting significance than really seems fair.
If you followed my coverage of the deadCenter Film Festival, you know that one of my favorite short films was Paul Avellino’s Un Regalo (A Gift), a gory shock comedy with real chops and dry wit. Mr. Avellino happened to be at the showing, so I had a chance to talk to him for a few minutes afterwards. My curiosity was piqued enough by our discussion that I wanted to follow up with a proper interview. Thanks to the power of the Internet, we were able to have a good discussion about the film.
At the heart of Dust in the Wind, like so many Chinese films, lies a humming tension between old and new. The ways of modernization and urbanization glitter with promise for the Taiwanese youth at the center of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but they leave in their wake the destruction of their family units and the old traditions, and in the process end up wounding themselves as well. That the director and cast do such a good job with another common element of Chinese cinema - the layering of subtext under a surface calm - makes the film’s ideas and reflections resonate all the more.
Immediately after watching the comedy shorts at deadCenter (you can see my review of those here), I stuck around for a showing of the “Cutting Edge” short films, a group of more experimental films. As the name suggests, these films take risks, both narrative and visual, that a standard film would not dream of taking. The nature of risk taking, of course, entails opening yourself up for failure as well as success. That’s the sort of mixed bag the Cutting Edge shorts presented. On the whole it was a weaker group of films than the comedy shorts, with a wild variation in quality and lacking a true standout film. Still, even the failures here were for the most part interesting failures. It is good to have a venue for filmmakers to show off their experiments, even when those experiments blow up in their faces.
On June 6th I had the opportunity, thanks to Next Projection, to attend the opening night of the deadCenter film festival in downtown Oklahoma City. Due to some schedule conflicts I unfortunately did not get to stay for anymore of what promises to be a stellar festival lineup. The showings were a little sparse on opening night: only one feature length narrative film, one documentary, and two sets of short films. Since I wanted to get the most bang for my (technically nonexistent, since I got a press pass) buck, and since they were showing in the same theater back to back, I saddled up for a night of short film potpourri. In this column I will tackle the first compendium, the comedy shorts.
So far in Sounds of Cinema we have focused on musical scores; that is to say, music written specifically for a film, generally in the “classical” genre, which usually occurs non-diagetically, heard only by the audience. Scores are wonderful, and we will continue to examine them in this column, but I want to expand our circle of examination just a bit this week by talking about film soundtracks. Soundtracks differ from scores in that they do not represent a unified composed whole but rather a curated collection of songs to accompany a film. They often comprise pop, rock, rap, or other mainstream styles of music.
What can I do to convince you to watch Speed Racer? The deck is stacked pretty heavily against me. On its release, critics did everything they could to convince the public to stay away. For once the public listened, and the film barely made back a third of its budget on domestic release. Nor has the film gained steam as a cult classic. If anything, Speed Racer seems doomed to become a film history footnote, a cautionary tale against giving filmmakers too much money and freedom.
In the first installment of “Sounds of Cinema” I explored the magic which happens when a score perfectly suits a film’s characters, using David Shire’s score for The Conversation as a prime example of that. For this second piece I want to pull a 180 and see what happens when a score gleefully defies the tone of the film it accompanies. Obviously this is a tightrope walk of an endeavor; there are plenty of films with scores that just don’t make sense and leave the viewer cold. Done right, however, the dialectic between image and score can create a whole world suspended in tension.
Welcome to Sounds of Cinema, a feature in which I will discuss various film scores and soundtracks and the impact they have on the films for which they provide music. This is not intended merely as a catalogue of great film music, though hopefully along the way it will provide plenty of wonderful tunes to discover or rediscover. Beyond this, the intention is to offer a series of thoughts on the mysterious intermingling of sound and image that film offers. There is no overarching argument here, rather a series of separate thought projects, but perhaps these sketches will, in the end, offer something of a link between great movie scores of all varieties.