Sunday, 4 April 2010

Shutter Island

Somewhat belatedly (the problem of coordinating diaries), I just saw Shutter Island. A lot of reviews have concentrated on the labyrinthine (dare I say implausible?) plot though the "twist" - guessable in essence, if not in detail, within the first few minutes - bothered me less than in The Sixth Sense, which simply wasn't good enough to stop me being annoyed at how its self-proclaimed USP had failed.

Others have dissed it because of the plethora of movie references, majoring on the acrophobic Vertigo and Black Narcissus and another film which, were I even to mention it, might give my smarter readers (as if you aren't all smart!) a clue as to what happens. As if it's the first time Scorsese's ever done something like that!

But back to Shutter Island and a number of critics have talked about the music. Scorsese does use original scores: Howard Shore followed on from a blossoming relationship with Elmer Bernstein that was cut cruelly short by the composer's death* (or the intervention of Harvey Weinstein, if you believe what some say). But many of his soundtracks rely on pre-existing music in a way that's worth a study in itself. Still, it works for Woody Allen, though a more pertinent comparison - which we'll come back to - is Kubrick.

The music was chosen by Scorsese's old friend Robbie Robertson - The Last Waltz is their most famous collaboration but he's been involved with several other films. Now, looking at the playlist, the first name to come to mind would not be the driving force behind The Band, though Paramount were so excited that their press release didn't even bother to mention the names of the actual composers.**

But think about the filmic associations of some of the names on the list and the fog lifts slightly. 2001, The Shining and The Exorcist share Shutter Island's needle-drop aesthetic and all feature the "acceptable faces of modernism" Ligeti and Penderecki. Shutter Island and The Shining even share Ligeti's Lontano. In later years those two have been joined by Alfred Schnittke (who duly turns up here).

The soundtrack divides into three types of music. There are some vintage pop songs while the mournful post-minimalism quotient is filled with Ingram Marshall, John Adams, Lou Harrison and the oscillating On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter, best-known for Waltz With Bashir. At the end of the film, it returns as a new underscore to Dinah Washington's recording of This Bitter Earth.

But there's also a gratifyingly large chuck of unrepentant modernism, though as usual such music accompanies threat, madness, violence, etc. The aforementioned Lontano with its wonderful thick yet fluid textures, dark and glistening, the hypnotic ritual of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, a bit of middle-period Gianto Scelsi - the surprising step-father of TV Times' former agony aunt and Eurovision Song Contest presenter Katie Boyle - which precedes his later, Zen-like utterances. Probably the most extreme piece is Nam June Paik's Hommage à John Cage, a post-fluxus mixture of pre-recorded tape and the sounds of random live performance. But undoubtedly the 'tune' that most of the audience will go out whistling is Penderecki's long-gestating Third Symphony. The insistent passacaglia theme (actually more of a rhythm) sits as solid as Shutter Island itself.

As is the way with film soundtracks, a lot of the pieces are abbreviated or overlaid with dialogue so it's great to think that soundtrack purchasers will be exposed to the full, mad glory of Nam June Paik, the middle section of Christian Zeal and Activity with its looped recording of a preacher, or the near sub-ambient Brian Eno - all things that would probably have passed them by in the sound mix.

Anal emo teenagers will point out that Mahler's Piano Quartet, a long-ignored student work, wasn't actually premiered until 1965, eleven years after the film in which a record of it is played was set and might even question why Max von Sydow makes a point of mentioning its key signature: nobody who actually knows about classical music bothers with that kind of detail and anyway it's the only one he wrote (that we know about). Anal emo pensioners will point out that This Bitter Earth came out in 1960 (though we can bat them aside by pointing out that it's a non-diegetic track).

For me, the film that came to mind was Cape Fear. They're both genre pieces that weren't generated by Scorsese: Cape Fear started out as a Spielberg project and Shutter Island moved from Wolfgang Petersen to David Fincher before he picked it up. Nevertheless he made them both his own and, ironically had two of his biggest hits. And the relentless and increasingly frenetic Penderecki, a thick block of sound coming out of Polish sonorism can't help but remind us of Bernard Herrmann's original Cape Fear, as channelled by Elmer Bernstein.

Anyway, you can get the soundtrack from Rhino Records, here.

*Having said that, he's also used ... errrrrr ... Philip Glass and U2.

** For your delectation here's a proper track-list (some of the pieces are on slightly obscure labels so I'm giving them a leg-up, with links):

1) Ingram Marshall: Fog Tropes. Brass Sextet from the Orchestra of St Lukes, pre-recorded tape/John Adams
2) Penderecki: Symphony No 3 (passacaglia). National Polish RSO/Antoni Wit
3) Cage: Music for Marcel Duchamp. Phillip Vandré (prepared piano) [written for Hans Richter's film Dreams That Money Can Buy]
4) Nam June Paik: Hommage à John Cage [tape and live performance]
5) Ligeti: Lontano. Vienna Philharmonic/Abbado
6) Feldman: Rothko Chapel 2. UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, David Abel (viola), Karen Rosenak (celeste), William Winant (percussion), California EAR Unit
7) Cry. Johnnie Ray
8) Max Richter: On the Nature of Daylight. Max Richter
9) Scelsi:Uaxuctum: the Legend of the Mayan City, Which They Themselves Destroyed for Religious Reasons. Concentus Vocalis, soloists, Vienna RSO/Peter Rundel [the soundtrack album only has a section of the full piece]
10) Mahler. Piano Quartet. Prazak Quartet
11) Adams. Christian Zeal and Activity. San Francisco SO/Edo de Waart
12) Lou Harrison: Suite for Strings (Nocturne). The New Professionals Orchestra/Rebecca Miller
13) Brian Eno: Lizard Point. Brian Eno [not easy to find on the website but it's on their re-release of Ambient 4: On Land]
14) Schnittke: Hymn no 2. Torlief Thedéen (cello) Entcho Radoukanov (double bass) [sadly, I don't think that Borodin Quartet cellist and dedicatee Valentin Berlinsky ever recorded it]
15) Cage. The Root of an Unfocus. Boris Berman (prepared piano) [For what it's worth, Merce Cunningham, for whom it was written. said this piece was about fear, awareness of the unknown, struggle, and the final defeat]
16) Ingram Marshall: Prelude: The Bay [originally the musical element of Alcatraz, a multimedia piece about the island]
17) Bennie Benjamin and George David Weiss: Wheel of Fortune. Kay Starr
18) Lonnie Johnson: Tomorrow Night. Lonnie Johnson
19) Clyde Otis (arr. Max Richter) This Bitter Earth, Dinah Washington (and Max Richter)

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