Cronenberg & Lynch: Music & Non-Music


The two acclaimed cult directors are often saddled side by side in terms of vision and creating dystopian cinematic works, yet there application of music in their recent releases couldn’t be more different…

The last two weeks I’ve been on a bit of a film blitz – Atonement (excellent), Jacob’s Ladder (good, yet oddly unfulfilling), The Piano Teacher (horrific, yet compelling), Changing Lanes (awful, US-moralising guff), and The Principles of Lust (Mark Warren-assisted Brit flick with added porn) have all been consumed – but the big two that have really made an impression are David Cronenberg‘s Russian Mafia gorefest Eastern Promises and David Lynch‘s psycho-surrealistic nightmare Inland Empire.
Both directors are often lumped together, not least for their very individual styles, thematic delving into the human psyche and their controversial approach to sex, sexuality and violence.
While Cronenberg has edged nearer to the mainstream with his visceral exploration of the London-based Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood, Lynch has produced perhaps his most enigmatic and ambiguous work to date with the three-hour film within a film within a film marathon starring long-time leading lady Laura Dern.
While both films made lasting impressions – the former for its brutality and a superb leading role from Viggo Mortensen and the latter for its overload of ideas and mystery – it was the use of music or lack of, that also resonated.
Both pieces were characteristic of their directors approach to sound – there was no great deviation from their previous works, with Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises scored by his regular partner in sound Canadian Howard Shore, while Lynch applied his mix of sonic collage with cult pop to disorientating effect.
The contrast couldn’t be more apparent. Cronenberg subtle and orchestrated. Lynch overtly deliberate and full on. Cronenberg made the music seem almost inconsequential – something I very much doubt it is, for he is so specific. Lynch forces the viewer to respond to the music – the music itself adds to the narrative and can make the viewer laugh one moment, or recoil the next.
Cronenberg’s picture is almost non-music, Lynch dramatically music-based.
Eastern Promises, set on the banks of the Thames, is a world away from the Dickensian Oliver Twist or the Sawf Laandan stereotypes of your Danny DyerGuy Ritchie trash.
And unlike virtually every other gangster film you could name, no scene appears arranged around a juicy slice of audio riffage. Think Goodfellas synonymous with Derek and the DominosLayla, Get Carter‘s Roy Budd-composed jazzy menace or Reservoir Dogs a film where nigh on every scene is shaped to a rolling rock riff.
No, Cronenberg relies on subtle orchestration either building tension or allowing the music to breathe so you relax and jump out of your seat during some of the film’s heightened moments – indeed there are scenes of horrific violence where almost complete silence is employed, a technique similarly used by Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather – most obviously when Brando‘s Don Corleone collapses to his death.

This is juxtaposed by Lynch’s brain-bursting use of sound in the digital video-filmed Inland Empire. If the lack of narrative and the killer imagery doesn’t induce nausea the noises emitted from the screen certainly will.
Strangely the combination of sound effects, dialogue which is non-distinct (a trick readily copied – see Chris MorrisBluejam as an obvious reference point) and quirky pop numbers make you stand-up and take note while also at times lulling you to the point of sleep.
It is a kind of hypnotism which has the impact to make you twitch violently.
There is one key scene where music is used to both confuse and overlap the chaotic web of narrative. Actress Nikki Grace (Dern) finds herself in a secret house behind the set of the film she is rehearsing for. In the sparse, gaudy surrounds sit her circle of beautiful friends – now transformed into hideous, whore-like extremes of their former selves – and as Dern’s Grace watches in complete confusion her friends form a dance troupe and complete a routine of Little Eva‘s The Loco-Motion (see picture above).
In a surrealistic turn the entire film, which previously had a relatively straight forward plot, becomes intentionally disjointed and chaotic with only a few reference points piecing it together.
The Loco-Motion scene is both unsettling and yet comic, spoof and yet macabre.
The scene is reminiscent in its power to that in Blue Velvet, where Bobby Vinton‘s track of the same name is performed by Isabella Rossellini‘s Dorothy capturing both beauty and horror.
The whole spectacle is repeated to brilliant effect during the closing credits where the nine prostitutes gather at Grace’s home to mime and bop their way through Nina Simone‘s Sinnerman – all the while an odd lumberjack saw’s wood in the background.
In amongst this final third of mayhem are noises that make Aphex Twin sound positively conservative.
If it sounds ridiculous, you really should see it. And therein lies the brilliance of Lynch; a director, who like Cronenberg, uses sound in a profoundly unique, uncompromising manner.