If you’re a composer of experimental music, it’s more likely than not that you’ve heard a variation on the following (typically uttered at post-concert receptions): “I liked the piece, but I didn’t understand it.” It’s usually a family member or the person you’re dating at the time fishing for some kind of compliment or something to say to you after what has been, for them, another unfamiliar, perplexing concert experience. Coming from an artistic standpoint that there’s nothing to “get” or “understand” about my music, I never thought of these sorts of statements as the praise they were intended to be. I don’t need music to tell me anything in particular. I’m beginning to think the same way about cinematic forms as well.
The other night I watched Richard Kelly’s quasi-straight-to-DVD Southland Tales, a film I’m curious to watch again sometime in the future, mainly because it made no sense to me whatsoever. I guess I was too busy laughing at certain passages of dialogue and the ridiculous premises to actually follow the loopy narrative. I certainly didn’t need to fully grasp the plot to enjoy the experience, which is a weird notion when you consider your typical big Hollywood films. Perhaps the discursive nature of the film explains why it tanked at the box office, but I’m inclined to think that the film will reach some sort of cult status akin to Kelly’s previous opus Donnie Darko. Reason being that it takes multiple viewings to parse out the real story being told.
It’s a smart approach to building a repeat visit into something. M. Night Shyamalan guaranteed a second viewing with the surprise ending to his film The Sixth Sense, but I think Kelly tops this feat—I can see enjoying Southland Tales several times, like Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. If the surface of the film is enjoyable and several elements of the narrative can have multiple interpretations, it seems like a good formula for multiple screenings, providing viewers with a close, personal relationship with the work. Now, how does this sort of approach to un-clarity translate into crafting a musical composition?