A perfect story could be one of which nothing could be told. That is to say, a plot so closed, where each detail was so significant and essential and in which each small action, each image, meant a key, that nothing could be said without implying a spoilers. the power of the dog, the new film directed by Jane Campion, premiered at the Venice Film Festival, screened by Netflix and recent winner of the Golden Globes for best dramatic film, best direction and best supporting actor, is very close to that ideal. Perhaps the only thing that can be teased without ruining the final reveal is that the surprise isn’t limited to her. Just like in the novel elementary particles, from Michel Houellebecq, in its last minutes the film changes genre and what was believed to be a western –atypical but western nonetheless– or the story of a romance –also atypical– ends up being neither one thing nor the other.
Written by the director herself from a novel published in 1967 by thomas savage, the perfect fit of his pieces rests, of course, on the preciousness of the image, on the almost infinite desert seen from the interior openings always in the dark, and on ascetic, astringent and exact performances of benedict cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons Y Kodi Smit-McPhee. Extreme close-ups of the heads and feet of horses and cows (the filming of their sweat, the perception of adhering dust), railway tracks and automobiles traversing the wilderness of Montana in 1900 – reproduced for the film in Otago, New Zealand – they build an oppressive and always threatening fabric – although it is not known why. Nothing is free. And Campion’s mannerist goldsmithing has a narrative sense whose ruthless effectiveness will only be discovered in the end. But there is something that can go unnoticed: the deep theatricality of a music that goes far beyond the mere setting and the pseudo-Celtic jellies that cinema has become accustomed to in recent decades.
the composer is Johnny Greenwood. He was the guitarist and keyboardist for Radiohead. There he also played the viola, the harmonica, the Martenot waves, the banjo and the glockenspiel. He has just founded The Smile, along with thom yorke (his roadmate in Radiohead) and Tom Skinner. He worked together with the composer Krzysztof Penderecki –the hero of the Polish avant-garde of the 1960s–, whose Treno for the victims of Hiroshima he had inspired him for “Popcorn Superhet Receiver”, one of the pieces written while he was composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra. From Polymorphy, also from Penderecki, created his 48 Responses to Polymorphia, which he recorded in 2012 on a joint album with the Polish author. And in addition to his cameo in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where he is part of the Weird Sisters, the band that plays at the party (along with Jarvis Cocker Y Phil Selway), composed among others the music for There Will Be Blood, directed by thomas anderson (for which he won countless awards, including the Berlin Film Festival and the Los Angeles film critics), and two other films by the same director, The master Y Phantom Thread, for which he was once again awarded multiple prizes. the of the power of the dog, for its part, was nominated for best soundtrack for this year’s Golden Globe, which it finally won. hans zimmer with the music for dunes.
It is not common, in the cinema, for music to accompany the visual in aesthetic risk. The sacred monsters of classical modernism –Godard, Antonioni– used to resort to the baroque or to soundtracks that referred to the orchestral pieces of the early 20th century. Orson Welles used, in The process, to that scam of Rowing Giazotto called “Albinoni’s Adagio” (which Albinoni never composed) and the wonderful Romance of Aniceto and Francisca, from Leonard Favio, resorted to the adagio of a flute concerto by Vivaldi. There were, of course, exceptions. Among the most significant, the works of the composer Juan Carlos Paz for Leopold Torre Nilsson, between 1955 and 1960 (the house of the angel, the kidnapper, The fall, end of party), the compositions for the cinema of Toru Takemitsu and those of Leonard Rosemann for films with james dean, the experimental soundtrack of Jerry Goldsmith for Planet of the Apes, in 1968 (the first –and perhaps the only–, totally atonal), the extraordinary music of Gerald Busby for Three women, from Robert Altman (1977), citing the metaphysical inquisition of The unanswered question, from charles ives, in Alien (again Goldsmith, in 1979). That quote, precisely, is quoted by Greenwood in a key scene of the power of the dog. A scene whose essentiality –for a resolution still unknown to the viewer– is only revealed by the music.
Strictly speaking, the film begins with the music, A repetitive arpeggio on a cello, in pizzicato (a cello played like a banjo), against a black background, on which a voice is superimposed and, already with the image of a cattle, the sounds of the mooing and neighing of animals, and, later, of a harmonica, playing in another key (an unanswered question, too), and the footsteps of people and the heels of some boots on the stairs. Greenwood’s music, as if it were a piece for cello and various sounds (and it is possible that it is) is extinguished before the first dialogue. In the key scene whose importance will be revealed at the end (and which will not be anticipated here) something happens with the music. What has hitherto been limited to the sounds of a banjo –even an unlikely twelve-tone banjo–, to a cello that imitates it deliberately imperfectly, to a march of johann strauss poorly played on the piano and the translation into another language of what could be considered the materials of the western – folk instruments, the gritty side of popular songs, with their indeterminate pitches and their “misaligned” vocalizations – transmutes into another territory. The same notes of Ives –or almost the same ones– are anticipated by a horn –lower, darker version of the original trumpet– against the plucking of some isolated strings when Peter loads a wheelbarrow, just before one of his dialogues with Phil, inside the shed. Then, in the “key scene” whose key is secret, the horns are two. There is a kind of dialogue between the two. No answers, obviously. But there is a third sound character: reverberation. Space. Like in Alien –and as in Ives– space is the protagonist. There is a drama that the images are not telling yet. But music – and space – does.
“When we started corresponding with Jane about music,” Greenwood tells alex ross In an interview published by The New Yorker– I was reading to ted gioia and what he says about the orchestra mimicking instruments made from animal parts; their bones, their skin, their guts, real horns. One also thinks of ‘visceral’ music. And you want to make that as real as possible, get some kind of dirt. Using folk music, being literal, is not in my nature. It was, to a great extent, about using traditional elements and instruments but with something incorrect, with certain displacements. With Jane we talked about how that scene was the key to the emotional center of the film and the music had to try to be magical and complex at the same time”. But, just as the reverberation is what gives meaning to that pair of horns – of stylized cow horns, it should be noted – and the silences of the characters are what give meaning to their words, it is the economy of Greenwood’s score –and his reluctance to any hint of bombast; the same one of a group of actors that, rather, insists on not “acting”– the one that sustains its dramatic quality.