Friday, July 23, 2010

Climbing The Penrose Stairs

This past week I finally gave in to all the positive reviews, the flashy previews, and the endorsements from friends and family, and went to go see Christopher Nolan's new film Inception. Mostly I was afraid that the longer I waited to see it, the greater the chances would become that a friend would drop an unintentional spoiler and the whole thing would be ruined for me before I could even set foot in a theater.

I was not disappointed. One reviewer described Nolan's film as an elegant piece of origami, and I couldn't have said it better. I had trouble at times remembering where we were in the many layers of the film, but trust me, if you are as jaded as I am by formulaic plots, the challenge is most refreshing. I was also impressed by how skillfully the director was able to weave action, cerebral story writing, and human interest together. Basically just about anyone would be able to find something to like in this film, which much as I like inaccessible sleeper hits and cult films, I could definitely appreciate.

All of that aside though, what really grabbed my attention the most was the musical score. It is easily one of the film's strongest features and almost literally carries the viewer along through the story. (I have no musical education, which means I have a very limited vocabulary for describing it, so all you music aficionados out there, please have patience with my fumbling.) The more I listened to it the more the techniques that the composer was using began to sound familiar to me: repeating harsh, almost sawing strings overlaid with smoother soaring tones. The score has no climax, just a continuous build-up, promising eventual resolution but never delivering. This theme is carried out throughout the film, often played over dialogue, and sometimes during scenes where there is no corresponding dramatic action occuring.

The effect is that one is kept in a constant state of light tension, alert, and interested throughout the duration of the film. Even mundane events and situations seem to be imbued with significance. The mind is arrested, cannot help but try to tease out, to reach for a conclusion. It is an incredibly clever and effective method of using music to enhance a film's dramatic content, and I realized at once that this is not the first time that I have encountered it. Nolan's previous film The Dark Knight contains the same musical technique, which is not surprising since Hans Zimmerman composed the scores for both films, but Soderberg;s Solaris (music composed by Cliff Martinez) has it, as does Duncan Jones' Moon (music composed by Clint Mansell).

I have included a sample of the theme from each film below. Listen to them one by one and the similarities will fall into place.

Start by listening to the theme for Inception (dont worry, if you haven't seen the film yet, this wont ruin it for you)

Now The Dark Knight (this is the same composer-Hans Zimmerman)

Then for something slightly different, lets listen to Cliff Martinez's theme for Solaris. Quieter, less energetic, but a similar idea...

Lastly, we have Clint Mansell's piece from Moon....

As you can see the effect in each is of constantly ascending or progressing tones but with no real climax or resolution. Interestingly enough, there is actually a famous aural illusion called Shepherd's Ascending Tones in which the same two notes are played over and over but create the illusion that the tone is continually ascending in pitch ad infinitum.

I cant help but also be reminded of the Penrose Stairs - an optical illusion wherein a two-dimensional depiction of a staircase makes four 90 degree turns as it ascends or descends, and yet appears to be a continuous loop. In other words, a person walking on such impossible steps would climb forever and yet never get any higher. There is a reference in Inception to the Penrose Stairs which ties in nicely with both the central plot of the film and also the musical techniques that I have been describing, but I cannot say more for fear of spoiling the story for the uninitiated.

So whats my point with all of this? I'm not quite sure...except to say that a: next time you really feel carried away by a film, take a good hard listen to the music and find out who the composer is, for they deserve your thanks just as much as the director. And b: nothing interesting exists in a vacuum, every detail ties into a larger theme, a bigger picture and one of life's chief joys is finding out how those pieces fit together.

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