Beltrami’s Dream Machine and The Wolverine

Marco Beltrami has been around for a while now. Nominated twice for an Academy Award, first in 2008 for 3:10 to Yuma and then in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, he got his big break with the first Scream film leading to a wealthy collaboration with Wes Craven as well as to one of his most recognized scores for Mimic in 1997 under the leadership of Guillermo Del Toro. Since then he’s worked his way through genre cinema unlike any other in his field, embracing the qualities and upholding traditions while also being involved in various projects outside these realms that have expanded his range of sensibilities, such as The Sunset Limited, Soul Surfer, and the television series V.

I’m a big fan of Marco Beltrami. In the last few years he’s taken his treatments into a whole other dimension while communicating the care of visual connection his cues attempt to pull. Turning unnecessary fodder like the remake of The Thing (though it is beautiful to look at abstractly) into a training school of image and sound connection, he crafts unyielding strength and intelligence through an otherwise forgettable money grab.

It’s here where I find him most impressive and valuable. Presenting insight to the constraints and freedoms offered as such. The last few years have shown his work to go far beyond expectations, incorporating various techniques of sound design and experimentation to lift the image off the screen and into the viewer’s body.

A key element of this is percussion. It’s always been a predominant feature with compositions often heavy on instruments such as drums, cymbals, pianos, and bells providing a dramatic sense of rhythm and cataclysm. Pieces break together in spasms of sound. Rather than simply supporting ideas, percussion leads the attack with caustic arrangements that often have a certain tribal quality, additionally utilizing the resonance after percussion attacks quite heavily and designing the brass and strings to operate in a more percussive manner. The work is open and has a certain jazz that brings the mechanics of each instrument into play. It becomes the ties that bind us together, never wanting to sit below the frame, but never wanting to commandeer it either.

It’s a styling quite unique to Beltrami and his cohort in crime Buck Sanders. While it could be easy to lump the work into the deluge of other percussive-minded composers, the compositions carry a stronger connective fiber. It always feels like there are people at the helm. Often times, the personal seems driven out of bombastic composers. They take the sacred out of the work. Beltrami instills his with the muscles taking part. It’s a character of the sound, a piece of the puzzle. And it’s not a rock star move. It’s not just about pounding drums and making everything loud. It’s about time, the provocation of its existence, and the irascibility of its rhythm.

As a result, clocks have become a heavily used device for propulsion and substance. Beltrami regularly brings them into the dialog. Not always by directly having a clock ticking (though this is not beyond him and he has done so), but by often having the percussive elements, especially while utilizing more atmospherics for scenes, take on a clock-like sensibility. They carry time. They bring the passage of it to the forefront of the machine, matching the heartbeat that is indelibly there.

With Scream, he brought in bells that sounded like a clock tower and an arrangement to the rhythm that kept time at the forefront. All of his work with Del Toro has especially utilized this motif as Del Toro himself is in love with clockworks and his films tend to make use of them not only as a visual styling but as a component of sound. Del Toro’s films are all about time and its passing.

Maybe Beltrami has simply been lucky in films that can make use of this idea, but I’d say it’s also partly about working heavily in genre-oriented material. Genre films are all about time. They are all about process.

It may at first sight seem as though repetition and sameness are the primary hallmarks of genres: as though, therefore, genres are above all inherently static…genres are, nevertheless, best understood as processes. These processes may, for sure, be dominated by repetition, but they are also marked fundamentally by difference, variation and change.¹

The clock has allowed Beltrami something more, something richer. With some of his later work like 3:10 to Yuma, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and The Woman In Black, the clock is a major figurehead. How we measure the progression of our lives is important to the whole. His compositions add to the discussion and query our understandings, bringing humanity and the weight of existence to material otherwise discarded as B-cinema jargon. It transports the music into scenes and mixes with the images and sounds as the collaborative nature of life rolls on.

This plays with the audience. Expectations of the film and its genre placement are always met, but in a way often different from what was previously understood, leading to an evolution of the audience and the art.

…genres are not simply bodies of work or groups of films, however classified, labeled and defined. Genres do not consist only of films: they consist also, and equally, of specific systems of expectation and hypothesis which spectators bring with them to the cinema, and which interact with films themselves during the course of the viewing process. These systems provide spectators with means and recognition and understanding. They help render films, and the elements with them, intelligible and therefore explicable.¹

From the beginning, Beltrami has understood that genre films typically thrive on music. Themes and cues meet the image and code the production with history’s structure. Parameters are endowed, allowing for a certain comfort in the road ahead.

He’s also understood that they are a place for experimentation because of said parameters. They have the benefit of narrative boundaries tethered to establishment. This is especially true for horror or action films where the essence of “in good taste” does not necessarily apply and so one is able to play with the conventions quite dramatically while still adhering to a certain set of principles that were established long ago.

His music is curious. There is history attached to these sorts of films that one can draw upon to help fuel the essence of the material, but in the same breath one can use that history to clear another way, establish another sequence in the line and push ideas further than ever before. It can establish another set of rules that allows the narrative to sidestep certain ideas imbedded in the material and allow them to live as ghosts amongst the primary objective.

This summer he’s had a good run with, among others, Warm BodiesWorld War Z, and The Wolverine, the latter of which is a return to the worlds of James Mangold, and the western setting. They first got together with the 3:10 to Yuma remake, which not only solidified Mangold’s talents as lying in the western permutation, but exhibited the beginnings of what has become Beltrami’s second act.

The Wolverine is a terrific work. An old story capturing much of the quality found in 3:10 to Yuma, yet extended to new territory and sound considerations. A product of time connected by anxiety and fear, it unites the two works, if only minimally, and instigates a conversation amongst their narratives, stylings, and the thievery within modern cinema. Percussion plays the role of country and history here, providing location relevance to the sound. United with the other elements of more western genre schematic, it confirms the conversation incited by Mangold’s comments of influence and styling put in place. Something classic but new, taking advantage of the threads of genre history without disregarding the time and audience currently at the fold.

In 2011, with the release of The Thing, I started to see something more in Beltrami’s work. His music is front and center, but not dominating. It’s the driving force behind scenes without taking power away from the rest of the expression. Images are cut together in a way, matching cues and movements of cameras, creating synergy amongst the entire palette, but the engagement presents it all working together rather than having one take precedence over the other. His projects have started to feel like they were pulled out of the ether of creation fully formed. They have a certain quality to them like it could not have been put together by human beings while concomitantly attaching each project to the reality of creation and the hands behind the mechanisms.

It’s quite beautiful to watch. There can be an art within the confines of big budget B-movie, mattering more because of the craft that went into its making. No matter the outcome, the fact that people tried, that the film feels like people tried to make something worth watching resonates beyond the rest of the frame.

“I think music should enhance the film and at the same time, in order to be a good film score, it needs to have its own original voice and work as a unified piece, so it’s not just a question of one thing, but it involves a few elements.”²  Beltrami’s emphasis on unification is what I find very important here. Though he is directly speaking about the unification of the score, he is indirectly speaking about the unification of the film. It is about more than simply enhancing the film. It is about having a conversation with it, helping develop ideas that transfer the film’s heart and soul to its front line.

1Steve Neale, Questions of Genre, Screen 31, Spring 1990
2Rudy Koppl, The Hurt Locker: Mainlining the War at Death’s Door – Feature 1: The Hurt Locker Composers, Music From the Movies

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