Monday, March 12, 2012

Earworm Cinema: A Theory

Do you know what an “earworm” is? It’s the name for those songs that get stuck in your head. Like when you walk through your day with “Walk like an Egyptian” or something echoing incessantly inside your mind, and you wonder how it happened, since you don’t even like that song.

There’s a lot of science and speculation around earworms and how they work, but one theory has it that they’re a form of cognitive itch: Basically, your memory of the song is imperfect -- it’s missing something -- and the brain, without any real prompting from you (or “you,” since your brain effectively is you) plays the song over and over in your head to get it right. This, btw, is also one of the reasons why earworms are usually songs you don’t like all that much – your brain would presumably have a better memory of a personal favorite. (It’s also the reason why one recommended way of getting rid of an earworm is just to try and play or sing the entire song from beginning to end. So next time you see me trying to remember the lyrics to “All That She Wants,” you’ll know why.)

What does all this have to do with movies? I believe you can apply the concept of an earworm to other things as well. (You could even apply it to people, if you want. I do, sometimes.) And there are certain films that could be classified as earworms, too, but with a twist: It’s not that you’re misremembering them, it’s that they actually are missing an element. Also, there’s something beautiful about earworm movies, and there’s little that is beautiful about actual earworms.

But the films do work along the same lines as regular earworms in that they seem to be missing something. They could be missing anything, really: A plot, a central character, an emotional resolution, a key piece of backstory… a certain conventional element, perhaps, that the filmmaker decided to do without, or maybe even inadvertently wound up without. Of course, this can describe a lot of bad movies, too. An earworm movie has to be beautiful in all sorts of ways in order to be absent in others; in a way, it’s that gap between beauty and completeness that makes the film so compelling. (As you might have guessed, with earworm cinema, watching the film from beginning to end is rarely a solution; often, it’s the key symptom.)

There are some great earworm movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, with its gnawing open-endedness and its submerged central character, is the one that most often comes to mind. (Also, it’s all about sound, which makes for a nice symmetry.) Lars von Trier is the king of earworm cinema -- his films often lack certain concrete things by design: A set in Dogville, a cameraman (or a "cameraman") in The Boss of It All, any semblance of human reason in The Idiots. But sometimes they're missing elements that I can't even put a finger on. There's something strangely wrong and beautiful about Melancholia. (There's even something strangely wrong and beautiful about Anti-Christ, though maybe that one errs more on the wrong side.)

Miami Vice
I’d also cite Michael Mann’s film of Miami Vice, which, despite its generous running time and almost novelistic expansiveness, keeps its central characters so opaque that it has a strange, mesmerizing effect on me. It seems to acknowledge that we will never get to really understand its protagonists – as evidenced by its final, distant, almost stolen shot of Colin Farrell entering a hospital where one of his teammates lies recovering, right before the film’s title (finally) flashes on the screen. The film does have many emotional entry points for me, but I keep trying to find the traditional one – identification and reflection. I never quite do – the characters come into focus for brief, tenuous moments, not unlike the quivering, pixelated textures of the film’s digital photography.

There are earworm movies that aren’t so great either. I can’t stop watching Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, but mainly because I keep wanting it to get better – the absence of any spark between the star-crossed adulterous romantic couple at its heart, played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, just picks and picks at me to no end. In a way, the total lack of chemistry between them – in a film that’s supposed to be about all-consuming love -- gives the film an unintentionally Brechtian quality. But it’s so unspeakably gorgeous and tender on so many other levels that I have to return to it, like a painful yet resonant memory. The rest of the film pulsates with passion, but its heart is cold.

But what got me thinking about earworm cinema wasn’t any of these movies, which all have a certain critical cachet. No, it was a fairly obscure recent film I’m finding very hard to shake. It’s a little skating documentary directed by Tristan Patterson called Dragonslayer (completely unrelated to the 1981 medieval fantasy of the same title, in case you’re wondering). It’s whisper-thin – only about 74 minutes – and it’s an episodic, impressionistic look at Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a young skater in Fullerton, California. He’s got a bit of renown on the skate circuit (we follow him to Copenhagen at one point) and he’s respected among his peers, but he’s not on his way to being the next Tony Hawk or anything like that. He’s also got an infant son he’s had with an ex, and the film captures the beginnings of a new relationship in his life, one which may or may not go anywhere. He may be falling in love, but he’s not about to tell you about it.

The film might initially have you believe that it’s going to show Skreech learning responsibility and adulthood, and there’s a bit of that (he’s got a restaurant job by the end) but, again, it’s all very glancing. You do sense that this is a person on the cusp of something – maybe the blissful abandon of his youth is coming to an end, maybe the rest of his life is starting to peer over the horizon. But it’s just a sense. Another person could see the same film and wonder if the character has gone anywhere.

The movie has a lot of dead-ends: A brief phone conversation with a parent that goes nowhere; a romantic, desperate attempt to leave Fullerton behind which seems to be over almost as soon as it begins. It’s even told in an episodic, chaptered structure, as if we’re going to be given a systematic portrait -- little segments that come together to form a whole -- but each piece feels incomplete, interrupted. We never even find out why the damn thing is called Dragonslayer.

Indeed, I walk away from Dragonslayer every time not really knowing that much more about the character than what I started with – as if I’ve only seen part of a much longer movie. On some level, you could call this unsatisfying. But I find it strangely intoxicating. It helps that the cinematography is extraordinary. It helps that the emotions on screen feel genuine. It helps that the film, even as it revels in the iconic freedom of skating, seems to acknowledge that half the time it’s basically just a bunch of guys going in circles around an empty pool. I want it to mean more. And, in a way, through the reverie of revisitation, through the way it grabs hold of me, it kind of does.

Dragonslayer ends oddly. Skreech has taken a job. He’s trying to take care of his child. He’s always been a pretty easygoing guy, and he seems just as zen about this shift in his life as he was about anything else. And then, as we watch him putz around the restaurant, Patterson cuts to the pretty amazing song that will close out the end credits: “Panda,” by the Swedish rock band Dungen. The song is in a foreign language, you have no idea what it’s about, but it’s aggressive and melodic and lovely, which just adds to its mystery. And as you exit the brief, uneasy daze of Dragonslayer, you begin to wonder if maybe beauty is just another word for a song you’ll never really understand.

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