Violence is for the birds


I’ve not been able to make it through a James Bond film for the last few years. They are just too brutal, too violent. I miss the stylish Bond, where taste supersedes action. Oddly though, I’ve been listening to Bond film soundtracks. The difference between David Arnold’s throbbing soundtrack to Casino Royale and Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack to the faux-Bond Casino Royale is jarring. The latter film is so fun, and while listening to the former I just feel pummeled. Critics do call the new Bond “stylish” but if this is style, you can have it as far as I’m concerned. Soundtracks are integral to the Bond franchise, carefully reinforcing the brand at critical moments.

Sometimes, film music is inseparable from the drama of the moment , such as the shrieking violins in the shower scene of Hitchock’s Psycho. In other cases, such as the Bond films, the soundtrack can be playfully ironic. John Barry’s score for Goldfinger with its brash brass layers on not simply a commentary, but a commentary on style. My difficulty with the latest Bond isn’t simply the violence though, it’s also the constant sense that I’m being lead through the eyes, ears, nose and throat to be told what to feel. And I really don’t want to feel violent. It’s simply not a world I want to inhabit, and yet it’s polyannaish and impossible to avoid the presence of violence. Why do some modes of violence in reproduction seem important and “real,” others gratuitous, and still others, diverting and almost charming?


I’m beginning to think that music has a lot to do with it. In most cases , even though it purports to be an incidental background, the soundtrack tells us how to feel. It’s not simply an affectual nudge. Music can be a narrative element that pulls you through something. Or, in the case of Psycho the soundtrack music almost physically create a tear— an extreme case of what Roland Barthes labeled as punctum. This sort of extreme affect/effect is by its very nature contrived as artifice. Music is in actuality primarily incidental both in the sense that it is a part of a physical territory we happen into, but also in that it helps isolate temporal incidents of daily life.


I want so many moods and then I want so many more
Cars and tape decks carve eternal between my worlds
Windshields are like TV screens and I’m not involved at all
My entertainment takes me everywhere, nowhere at all
Everywhere, nowhere at all.

My soundtrack tells me what to think of what I see
Interpretation by the music, and not by me
I don’t point myself anywhere where I can’t turn away
I’m only going places, I never mean to stay— I never mean to stay
I don’t intend to stay.

Soundtrack, Thin White Rope, Exploring the Axis (1985)

I’ve written recently about my experiences/perceptions of nature growing up. So, when Krista and I watched Hitchcock’s The Birds last weekend it seems a given that it would push my buttons. What I hadn’t counted upon, though, was how the lack of a soundtrack made watching the film far more powerful than I remembered. The film, in a lot of ways, simply doesn’t make any sense. Birds start violently attacking people. There is no rhyme or reason, no explanation. A couple of characters in the film offer hysterical explanations for the violence, such as it is surely a sign of the apocalypse. But the violence escalates without pattern until it ultimately just stops.

Because there is no soundtrack at all except a few electronic bird sound effects and snatches of truly incidental music. The real score for the terror is silence. Silence is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.