n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
When it was announced shortly after the release of Morvern Callar that its director, Lynne Ramsay, was to helm the adaptation of Alice Sebold's best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, I didn't quite know what to think. On one hand, The Lovely Bones is one of the worst books I've read in the last few years, a mawkish and shallow tale of a suburban teenager's murder. On the other, Ramsay's treatment of death and bereavement in both Morvern Callar and her debut film Ratcatcher impressed me by in fact deftly avoiding the sort of sentimental cliches that mar Sebold's novel. In the end, I didn't have to worry: she recently abandoned the project, citing concerns about the film's potential commercialization, and it's since fallen into Peter Jackson's lap. In the Guardian last month, filmmaker Mike Leigh, a fan of Ramsay's, called the result a "blessing in disguise." And as much as I remain curious about what Ramsay could have done with the script, Leigh is probably right.
What makes Ramsay special, after all, is a sensibility that is usually at odds with blockbusterism. Most notably, her two films are imbued with a poetic naturalism that values truth and mood over narrative drive and conventional character arcs—a trait she shares with my other favorite young filmmaker, David Gordon Green. In both Ramsay's and Green's work (the latter's best is 2003's All the Real Girls), our understanding of the story and its protagonists is gathered cumulatively, through a series of gestures and episodes rather than through written exposition. In a related fashion, they're also unafraid to linger on moments that are perhaps superfluous to the narrative but contribute to an overall tone. Like in All the Real Girls, when Leland walks slowly through a field with his daughter on his shoulders, or in Morvern Callar, when the eponymous character leans against a tree and cakes her hand in the dirt beneath her—these are brief, silent scenes that nonetheless provide a fuller sense of the worlds these characters inhabit.
If music plays a significant role in Morvern Callar, it's precisely because the absence of rich dialogue or a carefully structured plot forces Ramsay to tune into the look and intricate sounds of her film's environments more than most directors would. In some ways, she's only underscoring her lead character's own non-linguistic tendencies. Morvern Callar is a young woman (played by the alert and compelling Samantha Morton) who copes with her boyfriend's unexplained suicide by wandering in a haze, first through her humdrum life in small-town Scotland, where she's a supermarket cashier, and then through the tourist resorts and earthy countryside of Spain. She rarely speaks or engages with others—not even with her best friend and traveling companion Lanna (Kathleen McDermott)—which means that most of the time we are watching her merely observe and soak up her surroundings.
So the first thing we hear in Morvern Callar is in fact abject silence, as Morvern lies still on the floor beside her boyfriend's freshly discovered body, the Christmas lights behind them dumbly switching on and off. Gradually, other sounds creep in: the clicking of her computer keyboard as she scrolls through his suicide note, a car rushing past on the road outside, water splashing as she gets out of the bath. These are all noises we take for granted, but in isolation they take on the quiet strangeness of a world that's suddenly without someone but somehow continues. Eventually, however, Morvern unwraps a mix tape that her now-ex has left for her ("Musicfor You"), which thus becomes, as she dutifully slips it into her Walkman, the soundtrack for the rest of the film.
In the 1995 Alan Warner novel on which the film is based, Morvern is more clearly established as a music fan, rather than simply as the benefactor of her boyfriend's tastes. She's a frequent ravegoer, and she prepares hip soundtracks for even the smallest trips: "I took some new cassettes: new ambient, queer jazzish, darkside hardcore, and that C60 I'd made with Pablo Casals doing Nana on his cello again and again. I sat on the toilet with the door locked listening to all the stuff on the Walkman; the Auto-Reverse turned the cassettes without having to take them out!" The book even gives track listings for three separate offbeat mix tapes that she makes for her journey, filled with things like Sonny Sharrock, the Cocteau Twins, and This Mortal Coil.
The film, while paring down the volume of these selections, at least preserves the record-collector geekery inherent in them: we see and hear Morvern listening to, among others, Boards of Canada, Broadcast, and Lee Hazelwood. But Morvern herself exhibits none of the fetishism and trivial interest that marks, for example, Rob's relationship to music in High Fidelity. The tape, of course, is primarily a coping mechanism for a girl who can't or won't express her grief in the usual ways; as a gift from the dead, it simultaneously brings her closer to her boyfriend and helps her heal from his loss. But in a general way, Morvern seems to use music as a channel between her private self and the world outside; she uses it both to reconnect her senses and to numb them. The vital thrum of Stereolab's "Blue Milk," for instance, accompanies Morvern as she attunes herself to nature, watching tiny worms crawl through mud. And when she smokes on the sofa, bobbing her head and wiggling her toes to Can's "Spoon," it's a form of distraction through oblivion.
Only once is the tape used as ironic counterpoint to Morvern's actions: in the film's most uncomfortable scene, she arranges her boyfriend's body in the bathtub for dismemberment, with the Walkman strapped to her bare torso, blithely playing the Velvet Underground's twee "I'm Sticking With You." But since the music is used diegetically- that is, within the film's visual narrative (through the Walkman)—we accept that choice as belonging to Morvern's character, rather than serving as detached commentary. It's worth noting that Ramsay neatly reminds us of the music's source on several occasions when the stereo cuts out and it finishes as tinny, distant warbles.
In fact, there are only two songs in Morvern Callar that aren't obviously part of the film's space. (Besides the mix tape, we also hear music at parties where Morvern finds herself, including thunderous sheets of hardcore techno at a Spanish rave.) But in both cases, I wonder if we can think of them as belonging to the tape after all. A Lee "Scratch" Perry track scores a sudden hotel-room tumble between Morvern and a stranger at the resort, but the scene is so dreamlike—free of natural sound, edited as slivers, sometimes in slow motion—that the song's place in the scene might be in Morvern's mind, as a memory. Likewise for the last music we hear before the credits—the Mamas and the Papas' "Dedicated to the One I Love" (unfortunately absent from the official soundtrack)—which plays as Morvern waits for a train to her future, and which ends with a barely audible noise that sounds like, yes, a fast-forwarding cassette.
Part of why I'm drawn to music is the sheer ineffability of it, the way it operates on intuitive, emotional levels outside of everyday discourse. Despite the codifying work of music theory and the explicative attempts of music criticism, in the end there's always something about it that can't be translated into a rational paradigm, which I find oddly comforting. (I should say I view music writing as sort of an impossible quest!) One of the things I like about Lynne Ramsay is that she clearly understands this, too. Her films pay close attention to elements (like sound) that can't be scripted, and the music in Morvern Callar in particular, woven into a random tapestry of noises and silences, succeeds in allowing her disaffected, withdrawn character the possibility of a meaningful interior landscape. I can't wait for the judiciously chosen follow-up.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-03-31