By now, I’m sure most folks who read this blog have heard about the latest offering written and directed by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man. The film, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened this weekend, garnered rave reviews. I’ve glanced through a few (it’s my custom to keep some distance from the the press on a film before actually seeing it) and know enough to feel excited about seeing it asap (knowing my local theater, ASAP may mean waiting until it comes out on video).
But I didn’t have to read a single review to get revved up for this one. The highly effective trailer was enough for me to feel like this latest film might be the best helmed by the Brothers Coen:
This clip’s masterful use of sound reminded me that the Coen Brothers’ entire body of work reveals an appreciation of this crucial element in the cinema. It’s often taken for granted, but sound plays an important role in creating atmosphere in a narrative. My friend Alyx over at Feminist Music Geek has recently taken to posting paradigmatic clips in which pop music plays a central role in the scene. For the Coen Brothers, I would point to The Big Lebowski as a text riddled with such segments. My favorite would be the “Gutterballs” dream sequence, accompanied by “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition:
With a different song, the scene would change irrevocably, as it is clear from the editing, camera movement, and action that the visuals have been perfectly tailored to the music. The effect is so powerful that upon hearing the song on the radio recently, my mind immediately called up the corresponding visuals from the scene (e.g. the xylophone interlude triggered the memory of the dude dancing down those checkered steps). In the same way that a Busby Berkeley number (which this dream sequence clearly references with its sets and staging) operates as a spectacular excess, so too does this scene from the The Big Lebowski and others like it in contemporary film.
Fargo exemplifies another type of musical excess through its use of heavy scoring. The opening sequence, a long take of a car driving down a snow covered highway, couldn’t be less remarkable. Yet, the score by Carter Burwell swells from a gently plucked melody into a full orchestra of strings in a minor key that suggests ominous happenings await the audience. Listen to the opening track called “Fargo, North Dakota” below:
The soundtrack plays an important role in setting the dark tone for the film, offsetting the film’s frequent use of humor. In essence, it ensures that the film’s melodramatic qualities do not go unnoticed.
While, I could certainly point to a number of other Coen Brothers films for their use of sound (particularly O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its phenomenally successful soundtrack), I end with the contrasting example of No Country for Old Men. The film uses non-diegetic music sparingly, instead focusing on diegetic sounds within the story to build suspense. Below, find the scene that prompted me to comment upon leaving the theater, “That movie had killer sound!”
By limiting the action shown to the space occupied by one character (Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin) sound becomes increasingly important by indicating movement outside the confines of the frame–we hear the phone ringing in the lobby, foot steps approaching, the beeping of the tracking device, before finally being startled by the pop of the lock. The film works very hard, in other words, to keep us on our toes with sound playing an important role.
These examples demonstrate just how varied the use of sound can be in film, and in particular, the ways in which films written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen have deployed these various tactics. From the looks of it, sound will be similarly important in A Serious Man.