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THE CELL – Howard Shore

thecellOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Writing a review of a film score like The Cell is a very difficult thing to do. The music is so challenging and abstract it almost defies conventional description, and unless you have seen the film it is difficult to appreciate Howard Shore’s scoring techniques which, away from the screen, seem to be made up of mere random noise and ear-shattering dissonance. It’s also a very difficult score to “enjoy” on any kind of emotional, or thematic level, simply because the music is so consistently harsh. Instead, where The Cell’s brilliance lies is in its complexity and structure, and for the thought processes that went into its creation.

The Cell, directed by debutant Tarsem Singh, is a deeply disturbing movie. It is based around the premise that, in a Californian research facility, a technique has been perfected whereby someone can enter the subconscious mind of a comatose person, and interact with them, albeit in a staged fantasy world of the comatose person’s creation. Psychotherapist Dr Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is one of a team of researchers investigating this new technology, and who becomes drawn into an FBI investigation concerning Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), a serial killer. Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughan) has finally captured Stargher, who was found having suffered an irreversible neural breakdown, and is who now in a deep coma. The problem is that Stargher’s latest victim has been placed in a small glass cell slowly filling with water, but don’t know the whereabouts of the cell. The FBI know that, if the victim is not found within a certain period of time, she will certainly be killed – and they want Deane to enter Stargher’s mind and try to find out her location. Reluctantly, Deane agrees, and so follows a journey into the farthest recesses of the killer’s psyche, from which she might never emerge…

Viewers of a nervous disposition may well find parts of The Cell almost unwatchable. In many ways, the film is a feast for the eyes, a visual collage of the darker side of art and literature, where Dante meets the Marquis de Sade, and Damien Hirst meets M.C. Escher. The photography, art direction, costume design and editing in The Cell is some of the most brilliant – and shocking – stuff I have ever seen committed to celluloid. Plot-wise, The Cell is familiar (“get on the good side of a psycho and beat the clock to save the girl”), and much of the acting is no more than adequate. But such is Tarsem’s awesome mastery of sights and sounds that the narrative is almost unimportant. When 100-foot long purple cloaks that surround the room, endless sun-kissed sand dunes, and corridors full of fetishistically manipulated women fill the screen, it’s hard to take notice of anything else.

Similarly, film score listeners of a nervous disposition may find Howard Shore’s work here to be a totally unpalatable headache. Shore has, of course, tackled subject matters concerning murder and hyper-reality before: The Silence of Lambs, Videodrome, Existenz and Seven all featured the dark, oppressive scores with which he has become synonymous. For The Cell, Shore has combined the familiar tones of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the totally alien sonic world of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a 1,200 year old group from the mountains of Morocco who are almost spiritually revered in their home country.

Trying to decipher Shore’s intentions on a superficial level is a tough task. The score’s orchestrations are so thick, and the music is so overwhelmingly loud, at times it seems as though you are being bombarded with a massive wall of sound. The opening track, ‘The Cell’, sets the tone for pretty much the entire score: beginning softly, with the ancient woodwinds of the Jajouka, before being joined by the entire orchestra that builds and builds and builds to such a cacophony that is almost makes you want to scream. Cues such as ‘Trauma’, ‘FBI Pathologist’, ‘Normal Psychotropics’, the immense ‘Stargher King’ and the completely overpowering ‘The Drowning’ leap out at you like startled animals, growling and wailing and gnashing their musical teeth. Stylistically, The Cell’s closest relation could well be Mychael Danna’s 8MM, mainly for its offbeat instrumentation and overall tone of darkness, but also for the way in which alien cultures and the psychological aspects of human sexuality are musically conveyed in non-traditional ways.

What makes The Cell so amazing, though, is the fact that, despite appearances, the music is incredibly intricate. It seems random and improvised (a theory seemingly supported by the fact that Ornette Coleman is thanked by Shore…) but every nuance and subtle texture of the music has plainly been conceived in great detail. The combination of the two polar styles of music is technically brilliant, as Shore had to write them in two aspects completely different styles: the Jajouka could not read standard Western notation, whereas the symphony orchestra could read nothing else. Just making them perform in the same key must have been a gargantuan task for the Canadian.

But there are quieter moments, too. ‘Carl Rudolph Stargher’ is an atmospheric piece for Jajoukan woodwinds and the orchestra’s lower registers, and ‘Catherine’s World’ offers a brief sojourn into the light, while parts of ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ and ‘Vital Signs’ are positively beautiful in comparison with the rest of the score, the latter especially presenting one of the score’s few traditionally melodic moments. In addition, there are several identifiable “Shoreisms” in some of the performances, especially in the way the brass section continually repeat single chords in deep, low clusters, a compositional technique carried over from The Silence of the Lambs, Cop Land and others. Other moments in the score, such as the use of percussion in ‘FBI Pathologist’ and ‘Chlorine and Rust’, the high scraping strings and dreamy textures in ‘Tide Pool’, and the eerie soundscapes in ‘The Seduction’ are also worth noting.

Ultimately, your capacity to tolerate extreme dissonance and prolonged sections of white noise will determine whether or not you take anything away from The Cell. It’s a long, tough album to absorb and, at just under an hour, may well prove too bleak and upsetting for the romantics. However, as an intellectual exercise in film scoring, and as a creative experiment in combining two vastly opposing musical cultures, it makes for fascinating listening.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  •  The Cell (3:19)
  • Carl Rudolph Stargher (2:01)
  • Trauma (1:40)
  • 92 Aqua Green Ford (1:30)
  • FBI Pathologist (2:40)
  • Whalen’s Infraction (2:03)
  • Tide Pool (5:00)
  • Sing a Song of Sixpence (4:09)
  • Valentine (2:49)
  • Chlorine and Rust (1:31)
  • Only Girls Play With Dolls (2:20)
  • Normal Psychotropics (1:49)
  • The Seduction (2:58)
  • Four and Twenty Blackbirds (0:57)
  • Stargher King (6:13)
  • Catherine’s World (4:32)
  • The Drowning (7:15)
  • Scavenged Dolls (0:48)
  • Vital Signs (2:02)
  • You Can Find the Feeling (Radio Edit) (written by Bachir Attar, Talvin Singh and Brad Somatik, performed by The Master Musicians of Jajouka)  (3:47)

Running Time: 59 minutes 23 seconds

Silva Screen FILMCD-346 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra and The Master Musicians of Jajouka. Orchestrations by Howard Shore. Features extracts from “El Medahey” and “Memories of my Father” written by Hadj Abdesalam Attar and Bachir Attar and “Mairzy Doats” written by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingstone. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Suzana Peric and Nancy Allen. Album produced by Howard Shore and Suzana Peric.

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