by David Yearsley, December 11, 2013
Praised by some as the summation of Robert Redford’s distinguished acting career, his latest film begins without music, just the stillness of a calm sea at dawn, the wide-screen expanse bathed in myriad shades of blue reluctantly relinquishing the pink glow of a sun not yet visible above the horizon.
This is an array of colors spread across the unbroken natural world, a tableau worthy of Johann Caspar David Friedrich: a romantic vision that would perhaps be unthreatening if not for the title on the picture’s frame — All Is Lost. Except for water and sky, there is nothing to be seen, not even hope.
It is not quiet but disquiet that we sense in this scene, which could have been accompanied by Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem, “Meeres Stille.” In that song, the pianissimo piano chords are rolled as if from the fearful depths of the unconscious, the long notes of the voice intoning a doom that comes not from events but the lack of them. The composer indicated that the piece is to be sung and played “very slowly and apprehensively” as it surveys the same emotional tonalities found at the start of All is Lost:
“Deep stillness reigns on the water; motionless, the sea rests, and the sailor gazes about with alarm at the smooth flatness all around. No breeze from any side! It is fearfully, deathly still! In the enormous expanse not one wave stirs.”
Schubert’s song stems from 1815, the year after Beethoven set the same text for choir and orchestra in a small masterpiece of hushed anticipation that couldn’t be farther from the bombast of the 9th Symphony.
The poise of the film’s opening is not spoiled by an overbearing soundtrack; unlike the hulking freighters that shuttle through the nearby shipping lanes on their way to Asia, the movie is not overladen with the useless products of the Hollywood music factory. In the end, however, the alluring cinematic world of All Is Lost — sometimes frantic, often fittingly dull and listless, and always shadowed by the threatened extinction of its lone hero adrift on the endless sea — is nearly spoiled by sonic trash. No music troubles the opening — the ambient sounds of tiller and sail, wind and wave, bird song and human anguish — and these should have been left free of the interference of off-screen music even in the ensuing 100 minutes after the vast canvas is punctured by a container of sneakers floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean into which the sleeping Redford’s yacht rams, water gushing in and awakening him. But writer-director J.C. Chandor — or perhaps his producers — did not have the resolve to let the natural world speak and sing for itself.
Some movie genres bring more sharply into question the odd convention of having a soundtrack in the first place: Where is that orchestra I hear as I watch the Western hero ride the Sonora desert? In Sandra Bullock’s own lone star turn in the various space modules of Gravity, the crackle and hiss of dangerous debris morphs into frantic music that energizes the inevitable inertia of survival movies. Never mind that there is no sound in space and all those explosions and crack-ups would be silent: these sonorous collisions are as much fiction as the celestial synths and strings piped in from Hollywood’s shores.
Whether astronautical or merely nautical, a film’s soundtrack is willingly accepted by audiences without any questions asked about where the hell the orchestral sound is coming from: The harmony of the deep or of the spheres? Studio musicians in a nearby space station or submarine?
The cinema is the descendant of the magic lantern shows of the nineteenth century that were accompanied by melodramatic music, most famously in the Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s Freischütz. The nervousness of filmmakers about letting action remain unaccompanied by orchestral sonority has a long cultural lineage. In his 1944 film Lifeboat, Hitchock rejected this tradition and instead dispensed with music in pursuit of a drama that was tighter and more harrowing, as many contemporary critics agreed. Soundtracks may help to amplify action scenes, but more importantly they soothe an audience’s desperation and fear, like a mother singing a baby to sleep.
Chandor has hired a fellow named Alexander Ebert of a band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes to add what can only — and sadly — be called a mystical aura to his epic of resourcefulness and, finally, resignation in the face of ever-diminishing chances of rescue.
One can well understand the impulse behind reaching for this life-giving sound: and it is no coincidence that Ebert’s first musical intervention comes when nourishing rain (rather than the ferocious deluge of later storms) comes down to moisten Redford’s wizened lips: like this life-giving fresh water, the music falls from heaven.
A storm-battered sailboat and an inflatable life raft are avowedly slow star vehicles for Robert Redford, now in his late 70s; he never gets to rip along with the tradewinds with his thickly textured red hair styled to perfection by the sea, sun, and breeze. These are not the rates of speed preferred by his old running-mate Paul Newman of the race car movie Winning and his own weekend obsessions as a driver himself. All Is Lost is a movie about an old man, fragile but resilient, unwilling to go down without deploying every bit of technology and wit he has at his disposal: the galloping lad of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the careening chutzpah of Downhill Racer are distant cinematic memories, as the beleaguered Redford hoists his creaking bones and sunbaked skin up the mast or out of the shark-infested Indian Ocean.
As if unable to help itself, the music unmutes itself to boost action scenes with thunderous choirs and marks change in the weather and other events with bits of sonic ephemera, Ebert adopting a style that mixes the ethereal harmonies of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score with the crazed jangles of John Corigliano’s Altered States. The music in All Is Lost comes from an off-screen, indeed (cf. Blade Runner) an off-world, realm that promises and ultimately delivers salvation.
For it is not only Redford who needs to be saved, but also the planet. In the aftermath of the recent Asian typhoon it is hard not to see the extreme climactic events in All Is Lost as presaging not only individual doom, but collective environmental damnation. Redford is sunk by the useless junk that symbolizes the destruction of the world. Redford, the aging poster boy of the National Resources Defense Council environmentalists, may not go down right away with the ship, but given the dire state of the world he’s sure to follow it. Will the hand of God pull him from the deep just as it will save us from our looming environmental catastrophe? In the fantasy-land of the movies, one hardly needs three guesses to know whether all is really lost or not.
It is therefore fitting that the soundtrack climaxes in a ponderous benediction at the close of the movie, Ebert intoning the word’s “Old man hypnotized” — a line that could be taken as a reverent reference to Redford’s mind-over-matter battle with the elements, his own body, and the industrialized world’s indifference to his fate. Ebert has a grainy, meandering voice, willfully eccentric, and along with his band accompanies himself with Tibetan prayer bowls, the New Age sonic counterbalance to the mass-produced sneakers that swamped Redford in the first place. This final piece of the soundtrack is heard as the credits role — credits that culminate in a list of the crew’s favorite Baja restaurants — and is entitled “Amen.” This music of redemption faithfully following the Hollywood rite offers the final proof that All Is Lost is one long prayer; it is only in the movies that such a prayer could ever be answered. ¥¥
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)