Friday, November 26, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Sound Design of Punch-Drunk Love

Michael C here from Serious Film.

The opening moments of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love feature a prolonged stretch of silence broken by the crash of a truck doing flips down the street. In most movies this would be the cheapest trick in the book, giving the audience a jolt by hitting them with a loud noise out of nowhere. It doesn't feel that way here. The sound design in this scene, as in the rest of the movie, is wired to the off-kilter psyche of Adam Sandler's Barry Egan. He too harbors the constant threat of sudden violence under an ocean of surface calm.

The sound work on Punch-Drunk Love is a study in discomfort. It's not just a case of Jon Brion delivering yet another brilliantly original score, though there is no question he does that. It's the fact that the score doesn't behave according to any of the rules audiences have been trained to expect from years of movie watching. Punch's score comes and goes at right angles to the material, sneaking in unnoticed only to drop out suddenly giving the viewer a cold splash of silence.

In the early sequence when Barry is hounded by incessant, abusive phone calls from his seven sisters, the sound mix works with them as a team to drive Barry over the edge. The twitching, relentless score is layered over top, ratcheted up until it competes with the dialogue, so that we are having as hard a time focusing on work as Barry. The tension mounts steadily as the score gives way to the sound of his sisters' chatter. The wall of sound builds until Barry is forced to smash a glass door to get a few precious moments of peace. With barely any exposition we know all we need to know about Barry and his rage and repression issues. The sound design is as big a part of the story as the dialogue.

Most other movie soundtracks are there to soothe the audience, to underline emotions and essentially pat the viewer on the back for feeling what he feels. Not here. The soundtrack doesn't bother to take much note of actions that would have most scores swelling like mad. It keeps the same steady rhythm whether Barry is doing his memorable little soft shoe shuffle in the supermarket or he is attacking the brothers with a crowbar. Even the use of a pop song breaks with the expected. The movie's main love theme, Shelley Duvall's sweet and goofy rendition of Harry Nillson's He Needs Me, may climax with that swooning embrace in Hawaii but it meanders its way there, beginning over talk of pudding. The soundtrack, like Barry, cannot get in step with the rhythm of normal behavior.

The sound design of Punch-Drunk Love incorporates all the story's elements into a seamless piece, from the gentle sliding motif of the harmonium through the sickeningly matter-of-fact realism of the violence. We feel like we know what Sandler is thinking or feeling at any given moment, since, whether we register it consciously or not, the sound has given us a map of Barry Egan's mind. It accomplishes without words what most other movies require a voice-over narration to do.


Robert said...

I agree entirely. This under appreciated film was such a hard sell for so many reasons, one of which I think is that it was such an aural experience.

As, when you think about it, are all of PT Anderson's films.

Nice piece.

Aaron said...

Thanks for pointing out this under appreciated film. This is one of Sandler's best roles and I wish he'd go back to do more stuff like this. PT Anderson is the man (along with his sound designers) at getting the right sound in the film at the right time.

Ruth said...

I've always wanted to see this film...the first PT Anderson I saw was There Will Be Blood.

tim said...

This film has a great soundtrack! If its of use we did a group discussion on it a while ago:

Joseph said...

so happy you chose to discuss this! since I saw this movie in theaters in 8th grade I've been obsessed with the soundtrack. The track list does such a great job explaining the film's tone: it goes back and forth between that "punchy" harmonium melody in various iterations and those frenetic beats like "tabla." Barry is all over the place...Lena's alien, pacific nature breaks up his percussive mind waves. Finally, he's in "harmonium" with the world.

Kent Sparling said...

Thanks for this piece, and for taking note of an exquisitely-built, subtle and rich soundtrack.

While I too am a fan of Jon Brion's wonderful music, I have to admit to being a little disappointed that you did not mention by name, even once, the sound designers of the film. Chris Scarabosio, with the helpful guidance of Gary Rydstrom, and an incredibly talented team of editors and mixers at Skywalker Sound were those responsible for bringing PT Anderson's acoustic vision for the film to life.

Again, thanks for your article, and for opening up a discussion of a film with excellent, understated sound design, which goes way beyond the realm of the composer alone.

Michael said...

Kent - I agree that those people you named deserve a lot of credit and I hope I made it clear in my post that the achievement goes beyond Jon Brion. When researching the post I couldn't turn up any details on the construction of the soundtrack past the long list of names in the credits, so I was reluctant to assign credit to any individuals if I couldn't be sure who did what exactly.

I'm glad you commented so we could single out the leadership of those people by name. They, along with the whole team, deserve the accolades.