Surround Sound: Welcome to the Odditorium

In this installment - Gamer, The Informant! and Drag Me to Hell

As film fans, we expect certain things - even from our cinematic scores. Horror films are going to feature musical backdrops that give away the upcoming scares while supporting a sense of fear and fright. Action films will be packed with perfunctory hard rock and lots of orchestral overkill. Comedies will cobble together a collection of predetermined pop hits accented with some standard sonic "wackiness" while dramas will be dour in their heavy handed musical manipulation. So when convention is thwarted and invention is applied, we tend to sit up and take notice. As a matter of fact, a new or novel approach to the stereotypical soundtrack can really perk up our motion picture pleasure centers. Not every eccentric or oddball attempt works, but when it does, the end results are more than delightful. They literally redefine the aural aspects of film.

In this edition of Surround Sound, we look at three new scores that all add something distinctive and extraordinary to the overall movie music paradigm. Sure, a title like Drag Me to Hell may suggest a certain orchestral type, but the work here is so marvelous in its macabre complements that we don't really mind the standard sonic operating procedure. The real weirdness, however, comes from old stalwart Marvin "What I Did for Love" Hamlisch and the able ambience of the Robert Williamson/Geoff Zanelli partnership. In tandem with the terrific terror tenants of Christopher Young's always excellent efforts, we have a trio of titles that suggest one style of soundtrack designing, but that then turn around and deliver a wholly unique aural experience, beginning with:

Gamer: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

When they first came onto the scene, few knew what to make of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They refused to play by the standard cinematic rules, instead using a single Cher-like nomenclature (Neveldine/Taylor) to label their partnership. Two sensational Crank films and a less than scary fright flick (Pathology) later and the duo are diving into the big time with their sped up, suped up science fiction actioner Gamer. Utilizing the buff bravado of 300 star Gerard Butler and a virtual reality video game premise, the pair hope to give audiences a unique vision of the shape of things to come ala Rollerball and/or The Running Man. Whether they succeeded or not is a question best left to film critics. To their creative credit, they avoid a great many of the standard Hollywood histrionics in bringing their vision to life. Take the score for this hyperactive stunt spectacle. Instead of going with something that accents and amplifies the machismo, the duo ask that their backdrop add depth and design to their often muddle message - and what they get works brilliantly.

After you get past the bookend Billboard mandates of heavy metal (Marilyn Manson's take on the Eurhythmics "Sweet Dreams (are Made of This)"), white boy hip hop (Bloodhound Gang's "Bad Touch") and Rat Pat peculiarity (a Sammy Davis Jr. medley???), the score for Gamer finally settles in, and it's a stunner. To call what composers Robert Williamson and Geoff Zanelli offer here "music" really pushes the boundaries of said definition. Instead, the pair provides what would better be called "rhythmic atmoshperics" - snatches of Brian Eno on steroids sound that both enhance and amplify the future shock fun Neveldine/Taylor are having. Tracks like "Deathwatch", "Society", and "Slayers" set up the storyline expertly, while middle movements such as "Simon's House", "Turn Me Loose", and "Dress Up Doll" illustrate the pair's preference to avoid the obvious and, instead, design an aural experience that really gets under your skin. By the time we get to "Kable vs. Castle", we are convinced that Gamer the movie could never live up to Gamer the film score. This may just be the post-post modern trend for film soundtracks, and if it is, it's fantastic.

The Informant!: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

What happened to Marvin Hamlisch? He was everywhere in the '70s, scoring comedies for Woody Allen (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) and Academy Award winners (Save the Tiger, The Sting, The Way We Were). He helped create one of the longest running shows in the history of Broadway (A Chorus Line) and is one of only two people ever to win a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize (Richard Rodgers is the other). From 1968 and The Swimmer to 1996 and The Mirror Has Two Faces, he was a constant presence in film scoring, taking time out to continue his work for the Great White Way. And then - nothing. No major movie work. A couple of less than successful stage productions. So it's sort of shocking to see his name on the new Steven Soderbergh comedy, The Informant! The reasoning behind his return would probably be as entertaining, and as captivating, as this unusual bit of retro-motion picture backing. While we may never know about his time in entertainment exile, his work here speaks for itself.

Everything about Hamlisch's music here is reminiscent of another time and place, plundering the past for what sounds like the equivalent of a lax longue lizard's sonic resume. Peppered with kazoo and other quirky touches, we are transported to the world of the Midwest circa the early 1990s, a time as lost and ugly as the 1970s, except without Watergate and the leisure suits. Hamlisch instills his sunny magic on such introductory tracks as "Meet Mark:, "The Raid" and "Polygraph". It's all upbeat hipster hilarity. Similarly, sections like "Boxes", "Sellout" and "Golf" frame Soderbergh's deadpan droll style perfectly. The soundtrack also features two version of the track "Trust Me" - one a smarmy instrumental, the other a bubbly vocal featuring singer Steve Tyrell. Along with a nice little solo piano bookend of the title track, Hamlisch proves that he never really went away. Like the films he used to supplement, he just needed the right project to propel his muse - and The Informant! is clearly it.

Drag Me to Hell: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

Christopher Young and Sam Raimi have a lot in common. While both have gone on to greater commercial success as part of mainstream moviemaking (even working together on the Spider-man films), both have a history in horror that is hard (if not impossible) to live down. For the composer, his haunted high profile began with Clive Barker's directorial debut Hellraiser, a mind-bending take on adultery that, to this day, is often cited for its novel narrative, disgusting gore, inventive monsters…and its scintillating, symphonic score. In fact, you can't think of the Cenobites and not be reminded of Young's terrifying take on the genre. While his current resume readily moves from the macabre (The Grudge) to the maniacal (Disney's The Country Bears???), the end results are usually powerful and perfectly suited for the project at hand. So when Mr. Evil Dead asked him to join up for his own return to terror, Young happily played co-conspirator. The results are the brilliant, bravado soundtrack for Raimi's ridiculously fun Drag Me to Hell. Combining the best of old fashioned fear with softer, more subtle bits, this is one of 2009's best musical backdrops.

There is a main theme running through the pieces, a lovely bit of Gothic gloom that's heard in the title track, as well as in "Auto-Da-Fe" and "Concerto to Hell". It's like having a Hammer film battle old school Hollywood schmaltz in your head for sonic superiority. Elsewhere, sections like "Ode to Ganush", "Black Rainbows", and "Ordeal by Corpse" keep the tension taut and the evil electric. Indeed, Young rarely missteps here, filling every available piece with palpable dread. Even moments like "Lamia" and "Bealing Bells with Trumpet" sell the sense of terror unleashed and the notions of demons around every corner. It proves unequivocally that some composers cotton to certain styles more readily than others. Earlier this year, Young was responsible for the compelling if ultimately underwhelming work on the Bret Ellis Easton adaptation The Informers. Here, collaborating with the man who made Deadites a household world, he's back to his old smart shock theatrics, and the results are memorable indeed.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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