Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Things I Love About Movies #1 – Dialogue-free musical sequences

Film: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2015)

Other notable examples: Girlhood & Catch Me Daddy

Introduction:
Music videos rarely make it onto my radar. However, use the same sonic/imagery-driven approach to storytelling in the midst of a feature film and I’m besotted.

Description:
What I’m talking about here are sequences – usually a few minutes in length (the duration of a song, normally) – that contain little-to-no dialogue and instead shift the focus onto the music and the corresponding visuals. The music can be either licenced tracks or original compositions, however songs with lyrics arguably provide the best results and using diegetic music (existing within the world of the film; the character putting on a record etc.) makes more sense. Such moments usually, but not always, include the character/s dancing (a la Catch Me Daddy). As a result, they are often representative of some kind of escapism, and almost always tied to youthfulness (playing on the youthful connotations of both dance and pop music).

Example:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night features one such scene. The vampiric central character, referred to in the credits as ‘The Girl’, has stumbled across the hopelessly high Arash. Arash has just wandered out of a costume party dressed as a wide-eyed Dracula, and he is left aimlessly drifting through suburban streets. Perhaps bonded by Arash’s attire, or possibly The Girl’s attraction to him, she brings him back to her place. 

The scene in question.

With Arash slumped on her bed, she lowers the needle to her turntable and out burst the thrumming guitars of White Lies’ Death. Arash slowly rises from his stupor, mesmerised by the sparkle of the disco ball hanging from the ceiling. A quick spin sends dots of light flashing across the collage of music posters tacked to The Girl’s walls. The Girl goes from the stalker to the stalked as Arash slowly enters frame behind her. He’s transfixed, eyeing up the delicate curves of her neck. He pauses inches behind her, and The Girl turns unnaturally steadily to face Arash. Their eyes meet. She reaches up to arch his head back, exposing his neck. She eyes it predatorily, but turns away at the last minute to rest her head against his chest. As the song fades out, the drum line is replaced by the deathly slow rumble of his beating heart.

It’s a dazzling sequence, made even more glorious by its simplicity. The whole scene is shot from two angles, with just a single cut; we begin in a medium long shot of the whole room, and then switch to a medium close-up cutting the two characters off just below the shoulders. This simplicity is made all the more striking by Lyle Vincent’s gorgeous black and white cinematography. Sheila Vand (The Girl) and Arash Marandi (Arash) both deliver beautiful silent performances as these two young people entranced by each other. Their inhumanly protracted movements enhance the dream-like quality of this breath-taking scene.


Up until her encounter with Arash, every interaction The Girl has had with men ended in their deaths or, in the case of a young boy, aggressive intimidation. However, she sees something in Arash. Maybe it’s his disarming vulnerability as he wanders the streets; perhaps it’s the fact that he is an inherently decent human being. But the fact that we’re left unsure of her motivations brilliantly echoes the unexplainable intricacies of attraction, and of love. This initial encounter bonds the two characters for the rest of the running time and the mesmeric quality of their second scene together ensures we do little to question their sudden infatuation.

Yes, Oscar Isaac grooving to disco music is awesome and makes for one of the most memorable, and unexpected, movie moments of the last twelve months, but it doesn’t quite fit my criteria here. For one, it’s too short: just over a minute of music. Also, not all of the characters in the scene partake in the dance/escapism. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is utterly perplexed, and maybe a little bit terrified, by the whole ordeal, and spends the scene off to the side. To qualify, Caleb would have needed to join in. These musical sequences need to be a shared experience between the characters in the scene.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is currently available on Amazon Prime streaming. It also made my honourable mentions list on my rundown of the best films of 2015, click here to find out which films made the top 10.

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Thanks for reading!