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After the warmest North American December on record, Winter has finally made his appearance in Upstate New York. With the natural world in full, furious retreat, the seasons increasingly have to be visually simulated by computers, or captured by cameras from distant corners of the globe. Only then can they be enjoyed vicariously in artificial environments—none more contrived than the local multiplex. In the age of climate change, cinematic realism becomes ever more surreal.
Yesterday I went in search of hibernal storms at the local mall. What I got was more cinematic blasts than any person should be exposed to: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant. It’s a double bill that in a rational world would come with a Surgeon General’s warning.
At some point during my six hours watching the blizzards rip across the screen of Tarantino’s snow-covered Wyoming and Iñárritu’s North Dakota, I imagined a version of the 1960s olfactory experiment, Smell-O-Vision, in which the theatre was infused with a range of image-related aromas. In the case of our local mall the technological requirements for Clima-Scope would be less complicated: simply fling open the back door and let the winter elements in.
While this would add a bit of atmosphere to the experience, it would also demonstrate that Old Man Winter shows but few signs of his once-vaunted ferocity; there is no power in his punches this year in this part of the world. Sadly, the same could be said for the maestro responsible for the Hateful Eight score, Ennio Morricone, the living legend who created the sound of the spaghetti western. In 2012 the octogenarian Italian master wrote an elegiac, antiqued song for Tarantino’s Django Unchained. After the movie appeared, Morricone then crowned a six-decade career in film, one which has brought forth more than five hundred scores, by lambasting what he called Tarantino’s incoherent approach to cinematic music. Morricone claimed he would not work with the petulant self-styled auteur ever again.
Morricone’s contribution to Django was called “Ancora qui,” a song whose title seemed to tell the world that the composer himself was also “still here”—a fine sentiment, especially when it was followed by his quashing of the upstart pest Tarantino, a twerp so eager to shine the Klieg light of Morricone’s genius onto his own ruddy adolescent cheeks. All right-thinking cineastes applauded when Morricone yanked the plug of his approval from the very movie he’d written the marquee number for.
What a blow it was, then, to learn that Morricone had joined Tarantino’s latest exercise in sophomoric violence and onanistic self-love—The Hateful Eight, the “Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino” as the title screen puts it redundantly and pompously, as if this very long, very slight flick were a mighty symphony worthy of canonic cataloging.
For his part, Morricone had claimed that his remarks about Django had been taken out of context. Hollywood money doubtless offered persuasive reasons for this retraction. However silly and specious the movie may be, one can be heartened at the prospect of a great musician still at his craft well into his eighties. Morricone is a composer and he composes: he still has artistic energy and the discipline of craft. Also impressive is the fact that Morricone conducts his own score and does so with intense precision. (http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/01/ennio-morricone-hateful-eight-score)
At the opening of the Hateful Eight all looks and sounds promising. There are wide shots of a stagecoach traversing the snowy shoulders of majestic mountains: Robert Richardson’s landscape cinematography delivers images of requisite majesty, and these offer a fine backdrop for Morricone’s three-minute overture, though the effect of this grand introduction was severely blunted by the preceding twenty minutes of trailers featuring militaristic musical strains introducing us to the upcoming attractions offered by massive terror attacks on London and American propagandists dressed as super heroes.
Undaunted, or blissfully unaware of such unwanted preludes, Morricone has earned the right to start in default mode with the endless drone employed by the likes of Bach and Brahms (and countless others before, between, and after them) to signal that an epic is underway. Morricone’s modernist chords built on the interval of a fourth menacingly circle above this pedal point until arcs of brooding orchestral melody darken the bright white surface of the land and screen, tracing out the contours of tragic destiny, even if the inevitable comic book bloodshed to come is hardly a surprise, indeed is the very joy juice of Tarantino’s fan base.
As we close in on the humans and horses journeying across the expanse, there is the snap of the snare and the jangle of the ride cymbal urging the coach and the movie on as if with spurs borrowed from Morricone’s great Western scores for Sergio Leone.
Then the blizzard hits and we are driven inside—first into the coach and then to a remote hostel—for the remainder of this two-and-a-half hour mélange of monologues, misogyny, and homoerotic gunplay. The Western becomes a drawing room whodunnit, a tedious game of Clue played with a superabundance of shooting irons. Rather than taking to the open range, the action, such as it is, plays out fireside, the flames occasionally whipped up by wintery gusts that breach the broken front door. Pipes are smoked and coffee drunk. There’s even a cheeseboard.
The invisible ninth actor in this inert onscreen ensemble cast of eight is Morricone’s score. And within this claustrophobic interior Morricone’s music totters around with about as much relevance and verve as Bruce Dern’s decrepit Confederate general, who only leaves his armchair after he’s been shot dead in it. The soundtrack wheezes pizzicatos at the outbreak of gunfire and scratches its dry skin with Psycho-esque violins when the gunslingers say something portentous. Occasionally the score rouses itself to attempt a few angular steps of a Bartokian Totentanz, but is then quickly ushered by Nurse Quentin back to its own quiet-chair from whence it occasionally mutters vaguely remembered symphonic snippets. Keeping Wagnerian leitmotivs straight as in Once Upon A Time in The West would be too taxing, especially for Tarantino. The silly set in which the music is trapped looks like a cheap snow globe blown up to widescreen format. This is not the retirement home for a late Morricone Western score. We will remember instead the sound of his great outdoors.
After emerging from this bloody bagatelle with its cloying pranks, I got a quick gulp of outside air and then made the trek down the dimly-lit multiplex corridor to The Revenant, another picture clocking in at nearly 150 minutes. This movie is a lot colder and a lot better than Tarantino’s. For his vast frozen stretches, director Iñárritu had to seek out winter and mountains at opposite ends of the earth: when shooting ran longer than planned in Canada, the filmmakers had to chase down the proper climate in Patagonia.
The movie’s sparse soundtrack is from Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who won an Academy Award in 1987 for his score for The Last Emperor. Since then Sakamoto has logged much more film work, as well as doing symphonic projects and chalking up pop hits. For The Revenant the pair provide soundscapes ranging from gnawing unease to serene poise. These are mixed into a complex sonic design that layers them with the sounds of the natural world: rushing water and the misery of wind; the hiss of campfire and snap of rising sparks; the crackle of branches and cackle of crows. What the composers have produced is a fitting enough background to the vast cinemascape, as if providing a metallic gray under-painting for a Western canvas by Albert Bierstadt from which the opulent colors had been leached. Along the epic way there are the suggestions of Romantic striving, as in the repeated orchestral chords that recall, if elliptically, the tragic heroism of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.
The ghostly hum of the soundtrack, coming as if from the unconscious, is meant, it seems, to yield access to the spirit world of the departed, where the dead Pawnee wife of Leonardo DiCaprio’s revenant hovers. It’s an old trick of the movies, as can been seen and heard in Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, where similar visions of a murdered family are conjured.
But these sonic halos also serve to sanctify acts of survival and revenge. Notwithstanding the occasional upsurge of Romantic ardor, the score renounces the kind of musical syntax of a Morricone, searching instead for a music so minimal it would purport not to be music at all. But this approach, too, participates in Romantic tropes: the timeless and ineffable. Through such means the film’s soundtrack wants to make archetypes of the story and characters. This in turn renders the litanies of death on screen less harrowing and less convincing: reality shaped into legend. The Revenant would be a much harder film to watch and a much better one with only the sounds of the natural world.
The Revenant score is charged with transforming humans’ contest with each other and with their environment into a universal. The effort is self-defeating: in going for the big statement, even with the sparsest of means, the soundtrack ends up making the movie smaller.