Stertorous

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Fiona experienced a sensation of uncanniness right at the start of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s THE REVENANT, when laboured breathing on the soundtrack seemed to be coming from immediately over her left shoulder, to the point where she suspected some cine-pervert had snuck up behind her to wheeze in her ear. And no, I was sitting beside her at the time. And I didn’t experience the same sound. It’s the fulfillment of Walter Murch’s dream of sound design — “the sound designer positions sound effects in the auditorium the way the production designer positions furniture on the set.”

Unbelievers who find the film lacking in story are, arguably, failing to surrender to the experiental aspect of the film: its tactile, impressionistic, auditory qualities. A limited amount of narrative is actually helpful in appreciating these qualities, as viewers of BBC4’s more restful The Sleigh Ride discovered. Everybody shut up and let us just feel what it’s like!

Open your ears to Lon Bender’s astonishing sound design, seamlessly integrated with the score by Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto (a man who previously journeyed to the Pole to record the melting ice cap: the rushing, tinkling sound of our imminent extinction). The fraught tale of survival (and non-survival, if you’re a bear or a bystander) becomes oddly hypnotic and peaceful, so that I do understand those who grumble that they slept through the thing. Obviously, they didn’t get the whole experience so that’s frustrating, but it’s also their own fault, and it’s in no way a bad thing for a movie to offer a lulling, peaceful quality amid bear-mauling and impromptu frontier surgery and whatnot. Allah loves wondrous variety, as Morgan Freeman says in that other great bow-and-arrow romp, ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES.

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Exactly like The Sleigh Ride, the long take camerawork (I see CHILDREN OF MEN as the obvious influence on protracted action sequences staged as sequence shots) work to dump you in it along with the hero, and create a nervous tension simply by limiting the speed with which the camera can react to unfolding events. It’s decidedly NOT realistic, since the lens is always more sluggish than the human eye could be in such circumstances, but by weighing down our eye-movements so frustratingly, the film accentuates our impression of the world becoming too chaotic, too fast-moving for us to keep up with.

To be honest, I found some of the script’s elaborations on the true story to be slightly dumb (Hollywood movies have really lost the ability to question the satisfactions of vengeance intelligently) but the plot is not the thing here, merely a serviceable hook — the basic situation or set-up is very strong, so we don’t need an infernal machine of twists and reversals, or shouldn’t. Though what Leonardo DiCaprio does with a big forked stick made me smile for about ten minutes.

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5 Responses to “Stertorous”

  1. I first experienced Murch’s principle the opening weekend of RETURN TO OZ. Early on, at Uncle Henry’s farm, I was trying to figure out who in the seats behind me had some kind of newfangled Swizz Army watch or other buzzing device. I had look behind me to either side, annoyed until I realized that the noises aall around me in the theater were the locusts on on the farm.

  2. Ha! The danger of this kind of technique is that it can of course pull you out of the film.

    Almost my favourite moment in movies is the start of the VO in Le Plaisir, with Jean Servais explaining that he’ll be telling us these stories as if he were sitting next to us in he dark. I tried to swipe that for the start of Natan, but the copy isn’t as good as the original. The way to do it would be to start the film with a black screen and a VO and make it go on for even longer than Ophuls’ version.

  3. I think maybe The Revenant made people feel sleepy because quite a lot of the film is taken up with DiCaprio having to get up on cold mornings when he really should have a lie in. So at least some people who are complaining about not being ‘in’ the story were actually too far in, experiencing a radical yet (to them) imperceptible form of identification.

    The big action sequence near the beginning was great – a very organised and motivated multidirectional relay thing. Like the start of The Player, only with more killing. It’s nice how the best ways of showing chaotic disorganisation seem to require the highest levels of planning.

    I felt like the film perhaps had one section too many and I agree about the revenge thing being overcooked. It’s fine for a character to be confused about revenge but the film seemed to get a bit confused about revenge too, and that is probably less fine.

  4. “Is there a way we can say that revenge is bad, while having the character get revenge and feel quite good about it, and have the audience feel quite good about it too?”

    No, Mr. Movie, no there isn’t.

  5. It’s even worse than that! But I will shut up about it. Partly because of spoilers, but mostly because indignant spluttering is hard to type. Still, there were loads of good bits and I will probably go and see it again. I just wish he could do endings.

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