It can be an instructive and amusing exercise to pretend you’re the one who has to write the movie captions for the hearing impaired.
Sound effects are easy: [distant artillery fire]; [a chainsaw in the closet]; [a dog barks from other side of the confessional]; [rain drops on the magnolia leaves]; [sound of pant seam splitting].
Doing the musical soundtrack is both easier and more difficult: [creepy music]; [angelic chorus]; [thundering drums]; [elegiac bugle]. We get the general idea, but even in the case of a gang of off-screen choirboys, the devil is in the details. There are a million ways to be scary with music, and as many more to be sanctimonious—as American cinema and its composers never tire of demonstrating. Thus, all these parentheticals begin with an adjective that directs the inner ear, if vaguely, towards the relevant mood. To be sure, the sound of an unseen chainsaw will elicit an immediate response in the viewer, but it is the music that is called on to stir the emotions: to warm the heart or put an icy hand on it.
If the musical descriptions run something like this—[strumming mandolins with or without X, Y, and/or Z]; [portentous men’s chorus with or without jaunty pizzicato strings]; [Arabian flutes that whisper “Oriental Other” and terrorist threat]; [circling guitar chords, the strings touched gently, even gingerly]; [circling piano chords, the keys touched gently, even gingerly]—then you’re playing the parenthetical soundtrack game to the tunes of Alexandre Desplat.
One of the many gifts of this richly talented musician is that of ubiquity: Desplat is everywhere. He has conjured the political past (e.g., The King’s Speech) and present (The Ghostwriter); he has done fantasy (the final installments of the Harry Potter franchise) and farce (Florence Foster Jenkins); love (The Shape of Water) and war (Zero Dark Thirty) to name but a few of the dozens of film scores he has delivered. Desplat’s output has been richly decorated with prizes both in his native France, and more recently in Hollywood, having won a couple of Oscars, including this year’s award for his score for The Shape of Water.
To be called prolific is no insult. There are apocryphal stories about the likes of Vivaldi and Telemann composing faster than even their assistants could copy out their music. These tales can be read as an attack on musical creation-by-the-numbers, but they also sound like jealous responses to imaginative efficiency and skill: when occasion demanded, the best composers of the past could produce the necessary musical material, and they could do so quickly and effectively.
What these composers of the pre-digital age didn’t have was a catalog of their own material stored on their computer’s hard drive, a technological resource that allows for recombination of accumulated ideas into new constellations. Whether Desplat makes use of such tools, I don’t know, but one often has the feeling that before heading out for coffee on Melrose Ave, he presses a couple of function keys on his computer keyboard and after he returns with his latté, the next score is ready for his imprimatur.
Whatever the case, Desplat has consistently shown his reliability and range: he commands many styles, from the orchestral epic swirling around Hogwarts to the minimalist whimsy of his work for the director with whom he has collaborated most often—Wes Anderson. The pair has done four films together since their first project, The Fabulous Mr. Fox of 2009. That movie and their latest effort, Isle of Dogs, are both stop-action animated films; in between came Moonrise Kingdom (for the score, think kids choir hidden in the high grass of a Maine Island), and then The Grand Budapest Hotel (I hear mandolin and male chorus), in which human figures goof and gambol against a backdrop of sets that seemed to have been lifted from a regional theatre disbanded in the twilight years of the Hapsburg Empire.
The Grand Budapest Hotel had the quality of a late nineteenth-century illustrated volume of fairy tales in which the characters had sprung to life and onto the screen to be jostled along by Desplat’s strummings, hummings and janglings. His score conjured a central Europe tapestry of diverse peoples speaking various tongues fleeing glowing interiors to race across snowy and mountainous landscapes in pursuit of money and love and something ineffable but about to be lost forever. Desplat’s music was Olde Worlde updated: Zithery Third Man stuff with a touch of Super Mario Bros. Like Anderson’s own vision, Desplat’s music was all too eccentric to be taken as a counterfeit, but occasionally pretended to be one just the same.
This is my main problem with Wes Anderson’s super-controlled works of animation, however entertaining they are: from behind the pristine sets and minutely managed action and dialogue, the filmmaker seems to wink and grin at his own deadpan cleverness. Image and sound are quirky, but also rather too cute.
Likewise, Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which garnered Anderson the Silver Bear statue for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, has much of a video game about it, not just in the stilted artificiality of the depictions and the succession of scenes that move from one level of difficulty to the next. To be sure, the opulent design and virtuosic references to Japanese visual art, from the woodcuts of Hiroshige to the films of Kurosawa, surpass anything dreamt up by the likes of Atari (not coincidentally, the name of the big-eyed boy hero—a kind of Speed Racer who flies a plane). It’s an enthralling spectacle, a kind of sumptuous arcade entertainment. Anderson is an auteur of the automated.
Accordingly, the flashbacks, cued by intertitles in English and Japanese that announce both their beginning and end, have the effect of a gaming scenario trapdoor that leads to another phase of the challenge. The progress of a tram transporting dogs through the deadly trash handling system on the island to which they have been banished—and on which they are soon to be threatened with extermination—has the feel of another segment of the ongoing video game ordeal on which has been lavished incredible artistic riches out of all proportion to the payoff.
Anderson’s laconic canines—voiced by A-list actors including Bryan Cranston and Bill Murray—are given clever, self-aware dialogue delivered with a calculated reserve that often feels part of a pre-set routine.
Keeping these tableaux rolling from one to the next are looping riffs from Desplat: the male chorus dishes out on-demand ominousness; Atari’s plane crashes to the lurching chug of a cluster of low saxophones; the muffled bash of cymbals and Pachinko palace dings shoo things inexorably forward; and, most important, Taiko drumming, subcontracted to Japanese-American composer Kaoru Watanabe, provide the restive energy that gets the dogs to go where they’ve got to go and do what they’ve got to do. For tender moments of repose Desplat produces his trademark plaintiveness in a detuned pentatonic call that binds Atari and his lost-but-found-again-dog Spots.
The relentless rhythmic locomotion of Desplat’s score—long stretches from which all sentiment has been extracted, just as the packs of dogs strip their vast garbage dump of life-sustaining scraps—pushes the progress of the plot. The hearing-impaired intertitles for this material would have no mood-making adjectives. Desplat is at his best when he is moving the action forward, not when he is trying to move the heart, human or canine.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)