Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hearing Cronenberg: Eastern Promises

Below is my recent contribution to the excellent David Cronenberg Blogathon currently happening at the equally excellent Cinema Viewfinder:


(Howard Shore)

Have you heard the most recent David Cronenberg film?  I bet not.  You’ve probably only seen it.  But it’s worth hearing, too, as I would place Cronenberg in a very small group of directors that think about the sound in their work as much as they do the visuals. 

Working with Howard Shore for the twelfth time in Eastern Promises, Cronenberg once again proves that he and Shore have one of the most important director/composer collaborations in all of cinema.  Their only contemporaries that even challenge them, in my mind, are the Coens/Carter Burwell, David Lynch/Angelo Badalementi, and perhaps Tim Burton/Danny Elfman.

This time, Shore immediately sets the stage.  His music is symphonic, fairly big, with a deep sense of melancholy.  It announces itself forcefully in the beginning but then takes a backseat for most of the film, really only showing up to accompany the voiceover of the young girl’s diary. 

Shore’s music may not be noticeable in the same way as say a score from Bernard Herrmann, but it’s certainly a key component of the texture.  Its rhythms pulsate and churn and help create the feeling of Cronenberg’s cinema enveloping you.  Shore also likes to take short breaks between his themes, pause, and then re-start them.  This tendency aids tremendously to the sense of uneasiness Cronenberg is so adept at creating. 

And then there’s Cronenberg’s use of sound.  It’s not as complex or expressive as Lynch’s work.  But it subtly conveys his themes and helps to create and sustain the tense atmosphere in his work.  One of the things that I was most struck by here were all the offscreen sounds of cars.  Whether we’re in Semyon’s restaurant, inside Anna’s home, or even at the spa, there’s always the faint sound offscreen of cars going by.  This adds immeasurably to the tension in the film and does it in a way that is highly intelligent and nuanced.

Of course, we all already know about Cronenberg’s obsession with the human body, and machinery (Crash).  And here those are the sounds that are the most pronounced, whether it’s a razor cutting a throat, blood spilling out of a hemorrhaging girl, or the entire famous scene in the sauna.   As for machinery, just listen as Anna goes by on her motorcycle or the expressive mileage Cronenberg generates from a hair dreyer or tattoo gun.   In his hands, all of them are transformed into sounding like some sort of murderous weaponry. 

Next time you get a chance, stop and listen to one of the Canadian’s films.  Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, you guys can be very proud.


  1. This film did grow on me on repeat viewings Jeffrey, though among Cronenberg's work, I have always been most impressed by SPIDER, DEAD RINGERS, THE BROOD and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE the most. Your expansive review does frame the film beautifully.

    Yes, Leonard and Neil can be very proud!

  2. Thanks so much, Sam! Wonderful to have you here. THE BROOD is one I still very much need to see.

    Always a treat to have your perspective. Thanks, Sam!