2011 in film: Two pictures that hit the right notes
"You're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing."
Rob Gordon, the protagonist of 1999's High Fidelity, was giving a lesson on the fine art of making a mixtape when he spoke those words, but the concept is also applicable to a pair of the most transfixing scenes in movies this year.
Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene and Steve McQueen's Shame both feature scenes of characters singing standards, using other people's poetry in ways the authors never might have imagined. Both directors use delicate, minimalist approaches for maximal emotional impact, potentially sidestepping lots of clumsy and too-specific exposition through performance — and subtle twists on someone else's words.
The technique is nothing new. Stanley Kubrick ended his 1957 anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory in a French music hall, as a nervous young German woman sings a folk song in her native tongue to a rowdy bunch of French soldiers. As tears stream down her face, the men quiet their chatter to hear her initially shaky voice. The mood of the room quickly changes, and the soldiers, overtaken by a beauty they forgot even existed while stuck in the trenches, begin to hum along, though they don't understand the words. By the end, the singer isn't the only one in the room crying.
The scene is nothing more complex than the singer and the reactions of those watching; Durkin's and McQueen's films follow the same model. In MMMM, John Hawkes plays Patrick, the leader of a small cult in rural upstate New York, and Elizabeth Olsen is the latest recruit. As he does with every young person who joins, he gives her a new name, Marcy May, to replace her given name of Martha. The technique is meant to separate the flock from their previous lives and identities, an aim that's underlined when Patrick sings to the gathered congregation "Marcy's Song" by '60s folk singer Jackson Frank.
The song is already a haunting one, about the memory of a woman who is no longer with the singer — who is, possibly, dead. "Well she, she's just a picture/Who lives on my wall," go the opening lines, and as Patrick sings them, the song is recast as a meditation on the death of who Martha was before and on her new role as something less of a person, a thing on the wall.
Eventually the words no longer matter; Durkin cuts only a couple of times, between lengthy shots of Patrick singing and Martha transfixed, and the depth of his hold over her is established in the power of her gaze and the seduction in his voice.
The initial conception of the parallel scene in Shame is far more complex. In this film, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is to sing "New York, New York" in a swanky Manhattan martini bar as her brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender) looks on. The pair share an unexplained but rocky past that has led him to a sex addiction that's becoming all-consuming, and her to a vagabond lifestyle of instability and bad decisions. In McQueen and Abi Morgan's screenplay, Sissy plays the piano while she sings, eventually leaving the instrument to sing a capella as she walks the room and building to a passionate finish.
But McQueen wound up making the same decision as Kubrick and Durkin — filming the scene with as little movement as possible. His camera holds for uncomfortably long stretches in closeup on Mulligan, who never builds the song to any kind of dramatic crescendo, instead completely subverting it into a hopeless tune of resignation. She's not going to make it here. She's not going to make it anywhere.
When her pleading eyes turn to her brother halfway through the song, he looks into his martini glass and starts to cry, and when she's finally done, he continues looking dejectedly into his glass, the only person in the room not applauding wildly for his sister. Years of pain and disappointment pass between them as she sings a hopeful song that sounds hopeless.
Like a song on a mixtape, these two moments are sequenced and contextualized to mean something unique; they contain coded messages that pass, hidden between the lines, between the maker and the recipient. They're moving reminders that the combination of music with performance and editing (or in these cases a conspicuous refusal to edit) can be a powerful tool in the hands of a filmmaker with the know-how to use it — that a simple two-minute pop song can carry more meaning and history than pages and pages of dialogue.