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“The Driver”

May 26, 2009

I’ve just recently watched the 1978 film, The Driver.  Cool film!  My head has been firmly in the world of car sounds lately so it was very good timing for the DVD to pop through the letterbox from lovefilm.com.

There’s something appealingly raw about the soundtrack of this film.  Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, music is used sparingly.  And when it is used, it’s not the same old tired arsenal of ‘big’ orchestral sounds signposting moments of drama.  The sounds seem almost metallic and industrial at times, which fit perfectly within the many urban locations such as disused warehouses and underground car parks.  There always feels like there’s space for the film’s sounds to breathe, and FX, music and dialogue take turns performing their function at the appropriate moments rather than all at the same time.  My favourite moment which exhibits this is the final car chase which begins and then runs for 6 and a half minutes purely on FX until suddenly the chase turns into hide-and-seek.  Now the music creeps in to increase the tension, and is so effective precisely because of it’s prior absence.

Secondly, for some reason, I like the fact that the sound FX are what would these days generally be considered ‘rough around the edges’.  The cars sound aggressive almost to the point of distortion (it’s quite funny that every single vehicle in the film, from the initial Ford to the orange Merc and even the police surveillance vehicle, sounds like it has a V8 monster lurking beneath the bonnet!) and  the sound cuts during the chases are jumpy and awkward at times.  But for some reason this gives the scenes such a great energy and atmosphere!   I find it interesting that these sound cuts don’t take me ‘out of the picture’ as is so often predicted – somehow they heighten my experience of it.  This effect is obviously even more evident in lower budget B-movies of the time.  The sound of such films is, of course, often imitated nowadays.  One film that immediately springs to mind is Death Proof by Quentin Tarantino, which I really enjoyed.  

(I wonder what sound editors (and directors for that matter) thought of these more prominent sound (and visual) cuts back then?  Was it frustrating or was it just an accepted limitation of the medium?)

Although Tarantino seems to use these old film cuts primarily to give his film a retro feel, the effect makes me engage with the film more as a work of art or a medium rather than solely an illusion to escape into.  In the art gallery, a trompe l’oeil image and a blank canvas with a slash through it can both provoke emotions in a spectator, they just use different methods to achieve this.  Sometimes the latter can be more dramatic than the former.

This line of thought reminds me of a Clement Greenberg essay about the advent of modernism that I read as a student.  It has been quite extensively undermined (including by Greenberg himself) since it was written, but something in it has always seemed to ring at least partially true to me:

 

“It….emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. “Purity” meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance.”

(taken from “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg, 1960)

 

My personal view on this is not that artforms are always best when stripped to their unique characteristics but that they certainly don’t need to always hide them in order to function better as works of art.

This is all clearly a giant leap from talking about dated technical elements in “The Driver”!  I’m obviously not comparing the film to abstract art.  I’m just toying with the idea that the art of storytelling through film doesn’t need to always hide the fact that it is a recorded medium with technical limitations.  Indeed, sometimes those limitations can add to the film’s texture and expressiveness.

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