Saturday, 5 November 2011

Music, Sound and Time in Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan

Early on in the new film by former philosophy teacher, Bruno Dumont, Alexandra Lematre's character (identified only as "elle") takes an in-ear headphone from the pocket of her hoodie and slips it in her ear. We, the audience are never made privvy to the music she listens to, but the gesture draws attention to the absence of music in the film. As traditionally defined, there is no music in Hors Satan - no silken Hollywood strings, no pop songs, no diegetic performance, no non-diegetic score. Even the kind of sonic re-structuring usually handled by a sound editor is missing, for Dumont did not hire one.

No music, nor very much dialogue either - and most of that which there is is largely inconsequential. But Hors Satan is not a silent film. Far from it. We hear birds tweeting, cocks crowing, leaves rustling, as well as several more revealing sounds - a camera dolly rolling over its track, the wind blowing against a microphone.

In an interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, the director explains, "We recorded only live and "mono" sounds. What you hear in the film are the actual sounds recorded during shooting. I didn't alter or re-record them. I wish some noises weren't there, but I kept them anyway, stoically. . . The sound material is very rich and untamed. Therefore, when there is a moment of silence, you can feel it loud and clear."

At one moment, after it has been raining, we hear water running over a corrugated iron roof and falling to the ground. The two main characters pause in their journey to watch and listen, and we listen with them. These characters frequently take time out to simply stand still and pay attention to some ambient sound. And even in their absence, the camera will likewise pursue such sounds to their sources, becoming, in the process, a character like them. Sound - and a certain quasi-musical attentiveness to sound - thus subjectivizes, and in so doing constructs an audience that will be willing, like the film's characters to offer a certain attentiveness toward sounds, to give them time, without preconceptions.

How can we describe the sense of time experienced in the films of Bruno Dumont? It is certainly very far from the clock-time of Hitchcock, the almost Taylorist efficiency with which narrative details are revealed and slotted into the perpetual motion machine of the diegesis in North by North West or The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example. We find with Dumont a concern with rhythm and tempo that goes beyond brute functionalism, and there is evidently something musical in this. But neither are we dealing with the languorous time of Apichatpong Weerasthakul, nor the deep time of Bela Tarr, which would be something like the Erfahrung of Walter Benjamin.

Karlheinz Stockhausen once remarked that "Wagner, more than any other western composer, expanded the timing of western music: he would have been the best gagaku composer." While the first half of this statement is undoubtedly true, I'm not so sure about the second half. Think of the constantly held back, teetering sense of anticipation, of desperate yearning for an impossible fulfillment, found in Tristan und Isolde. Perhaps I am wrong, but I suspect this is something foreign to the Japanese gagaku tradition. But maybe not so much to the cinema of Bruno Dumont - even if only to an earlier film such as Twenty-Nine Palms, in which the palpable sense of dread, of waiting for some seemingly inevitable horror hangs suspended in each crawling take, like the infinitely delayed resolution of some dissonance in the middle voices.

Hors Satan is different in this respect. The shot lengths are generally shorter than in his earlier films (though still considerably longer than most mainstream films), the forward motion of the narrative less precipitous. Perhaps this film is closer to the sense of time alluded to in Stockhausen's reference to gagaku.

In his book, Haunted Weather, David Toop, in the midst of a discussion about contemporary Japanese electronica, describes this 7th and 8th century court music which, he says, survives largely unchanged to this day, "So measured in the progress of its percussive markers that it draws the image of a footstep raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut, gagaku's timbral consistency is a gaseous astringency of reeds, flutes and free reeds."

Toop quotes William P. Malm's book on Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, which claims that the chords of the sho bamboo reed pipe do not serve the functions of tension and release allotted to western functional harmony, "Rather, they 'freeze' the melody. They are like a vein of amber in which a butterfly has been prepared. We see the beauty of the creature within but at the same time are unaware of a transparent solid between us and the object, a solid of such a texture that it shows that object off in a very special way."

Stockhausen discovered gagaku music when he travelled to Japan in 1966 to complete his Telemusik at the NHK electronic music studios, where composers like Toshiro Mayuzumi and Makoto Maroi had been creating electronic music for over a decade. Mayuzumi would score over a hundred films, including several by Imamura and Mizoguchi, both of whom are renowned for their long takes and slow, refined pacing.

Despite the sometimes austere titles, Mayuzumi's electronic music, such as 1953's X,Y,Z for musique concrète, (contemporary with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry's concrète opera, Orphée 53), exhibits a kind of delirious playfulness, equal parts hallucinogenic Looney Tunes pandemonium and delirious melodrama, as pitch-shifted horns and bird tweets give way to echoplexed weeping.

Moroi and Mayuzumi's collaborative work, Variations on 7, is, however, more restrained, with a much greater economy of means, while still remaining very different from either the French concrète of Schaeffer and Henry or the sine tone based electronic music of Stockhausen and Eimert in Cologne. "One probably reason why this work seems to compelling and relevant now," says David Toop, "is the directness, the clarity, the sense of pure intent."

And this last seems to me a good description of the attraction of Dumont's film-making. He is one of the few directors working today willing to impose restrictions upon himself, to act with a strict economy of tools and means. Utilising a restricted repertoire of shot lengths, camera heights, and angles. Even if his short lengths were to be reduced much further, there would still be a certain sense of slowness to his film because there is none of the usual digital busyness of superimposed sonic and visual detail (/clutter). He does this without nostalgia: there is nothing old-fashioned looking - or sounding - about his films. But there is this sense of "propriety" as he says of Alexendra Lematre's performance. And the drama comes from the disproportion between this propriety, this certain holding back, a resistance to express even, and the sometimes quite startling events which unfold; events which in another context, filmed in another way, might seem, as Dumont says in the above cited interview, quite normal. This is the source of Dumont's "slap in the face"; a slap which is in many ways very musical. Like a snare drum erupting in the midst of a performance of John Cage's 4'33''.