McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen is sometimes described as the invisible narrator of Robert Altman’s radically reinvented Western. But given that his lyrics are even more oblique than the storyline, Cohen doesn’t emotionally elucidate the action so much as glaze it with a layer of symbolism and parable, lending a mythic gravity to the travails of these flawed and ornery characters. Only three Cohen songs appear: “The Stranger Song,” Sisters of Mercy,” “Winter Lady”. All are from the first side of his 1968 debut (a record Altman played so often that he replaced the worn-out vinyl repeatedly). But they recur, weaving in and out of the action, staining it with rich mood-tones of tenderness, regret, gratitude, and unbridgeable apartness. They also work as aural markers for the main characters. “The Stranger Song”, first heard over the credits, is McCabe, the restless surge of its tremolo acoustic chords suggesting a man doomed to drift, uncertain behind his bravado, his existential foundations shaky. Although the title comes from an Catholic organization of nuns, “Sisters of Mercy” is about a different kind of succor: it accompanies the arrival of the prostitutes, with the psychedelic band Kaleidoscope adding tinkly turn-of-century textures in the expanded movie version of the song. “Winter Lady” is Mrs. Miller’s theme but also the heartsick voice of McCabe’s thwarted longing for her. Although lines like “I’m just a station on your way / I know I’m not your lover” speaks what the characters cannot articulate, Cohen’s songs work not so much as commenting text as complementary texture. His music sounds just like the misty-memory look that cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond achieved by “flash”-treating the film negative. Cohen becomes an inseparable formal element of the film, as unexpected and thrillingly innovatory as Altman’s overlapping dialogue and low-key naturalistic direction.
Solaris (Eduard Artemiev)
Walkabout (John Barry)
In Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film, two British children stranded in the outback are rescued and guided back to “civilization” by an indigenous Australian boy. Scare quotes around the C-word, for Walkabout is a rhapsodic elegy for Nature and our lost innocence. Because there’s only sporadic dialogue (Roeg described the script as “a fourteen-page prose poem”) and the 6-year-old brother and his teenage sister have been brought up in typically post-imperial stiff-upper-lip fashion, nearly all the emotional eloquence in the movie is supplied by the score. Waltjinju Bandilil’s eerie didgeridoo and Stockhausen’s disorienting tape-piece Hymnen conjure the unknowable majesty of the arid landscape and its scorching extremes of weather. But it’s veteran film composer John Barry who establishes the prevailing mood with his piercingly poignant orchestrations. A stirring choral theme redolent of a school song, “The Children” evokes the simple-hearted hope and accepting obedience with which kids face the world. The horn fanfares of “The Journey” conjure a storybook adventure air, mirroring the way that the youngest child in particular processes their predicament. Above all, there’s the recurring main theme, a patient pulse of plinky harpsichord over which wistful woodwinds pipe and tender violins soar and swoop, like a kite whose strings are tugging at your heart not your hands.
Blade Runner (Vangelis)