Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Transcendent Blankness

[Originally posted on the Melbourne Writer's Festival blog:]

The film Morvern Callar by Lynne Ramsay is based on a book by Alan Warner (although the source novel has a completely different tone to the adaptation). The title character is a young woman whose boyfriend has committed suicide as the film opens, leaving behind the manuscript of a novel, which Morvern then submits to publishers under her own name, successfully, as it eventually turns out.

The clip above is the final scene. It may not be apparent that Morvern is actually wearing earphones connected to a Walkman (this is pre-iPod), which provides an implied diegetic source for the soundtrack, even if the version we hear is obviously overdubbed. This theory is subsequently confirmed by the final few seconds of the clip, in which the sound is ‘overheard’ through earphones turned up too loud, although by that point there is no accompanying image, so that the sound only becomes literally diegetic after it has ceased to make sense in diegetic terms.

Clearly there is something else at stake besides narrative logic by the time we get to the black screen.

I remember going to a concert with friends when I was a teenager, when one of our group also insisted on wearing a Walkman, through which he listened to heavy metal, to register his disgust at the sappy Christian folk being performed on stage. This has always struck me as a peculiarly eloquent and perverse gesture, which expresses both the need to belong to a group and the inability to reconcile oneself to that need. I think that this same gesture, whose perversity goes unremarked in the clip, except insofar as its eloquence is amplified by the sound design, means something more in Morvern Callar, as the title of this post implies.

The sequence also works visually of course. It is not merely moving bodies filmed under a strobe. Rather, it is a tour-de-force of choreography and editing, in which a series of jump cuts disguise abrupt focal shifts as well as changes in the lighting.

'Transcendent blankness' is actually a pretty good description of the effect obtained in the films of Robert Bresson, who is one of Lynne Ramsay's influences (and on whom, more anon).


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