Portishead Week – Day 3: In Film

In honor of RJ Wheaton’s 33 1/3 on Portishead’s Dummy as well as the 20th anniversary of the album, we bring you the third installment of Portishead Week.

It’s helpful to listen to Dummy backwards, as it were, through Portishead’s subsequent career. 2008’s Third was, for many listeners, aggressive, almost an avant-garde assault. Portishead, the sophomore album that appeared after what was in hindsight a short three years after Dummy, came across to some as taking their original sound and refining it to the point of aggression.

Those reactions suggest how many listeners heard Dummy as background music. For all its formal experimentation, distorted drum sounds, pneumatic bass figures, and compressed vocals, below a certain volume threshold the album’s aggression recedes; the sharp edges of Beth Gibbons’ voice slide into irony or detachment; the rhythm facilitates mood rather than disrupts it.

It was those tendencies that the band sought to correct with Portishead and Third

There’s a moment in Richard Donner’s exerable 1995 movie Assassins — a Sylvester Stallone / Antonio Banderas vehicle — when the Banderas character prepares to attack the heroine from her neighbours’ apartment. The neighbours — just having had a ferocious domestic argument for the purposes of nothing but foreshadowing — are about to become collateral damage in the service of the meaningless narrative. “Sour Times” is playing in the background, its jangling cimbalom effectively telegraphing the disorientation that is to follow. At the same time, though, it is clear that this music is just that: background music.

The best uses of Dummy‘s songs in film, though, embrace the music’s ability to create rather than merely support an emotional state.

A minor example, perhaps: a remix of “Glory Box” was used on the soundtrack to the 1996 teenage witchcraft movie The Craft. The remix — “Scorn” — takes the abstract, bass-heavy, dissented break that appears towards the end of “Glory Box” and stretches it across the bottom of the entire song, only briefly reverting the smooth Isaac Hayes loop at the end. The song sounds, feels, as it did then, subterranean; the scratches dissented, alien. The song’s presence, lurking at the back the scene, an attempted date rape, carefully disorients the viewer from the outset.

Elsewhere, Dummy‘s use in film fundamentally changed the scenes in which it was present. Director Rachal Talalay, who used “Roads” in her 1995 film Tank Girl, remembered that:

Ironically the scene in the dry showers in Tank Girl was written as horrifying — the powder rough and just another no-water indignity. However, in my (sometimes failed) attempts to move away from cliché, I decided that Tank Girl was tough enough to enjoy the pain. So I shot it as something pleasurable — a calm interlude from the misery of the slavery. This doesn’t really come out in the film but the sequence turned into a little respite from the violence. We then put “Roads” against it and it was perfect tonally, then tweaked the sequence to work rhythmically to the song. It’s one of my favorite sequences and the Portishead song is perfect — beautiful but haunting — and works well with the wide slow motion interlude. There are some moments when music simply has synchronicity with the time and place.

Two songs from Dummy appear in Michael Almereyda’s Nadja, a 1994 vampire film set in contemporary New York. Almereyda was conscious of the strength of the music: “In my memory, the songs threatened to overpower the scenes or, rather, to vampirically fasten onto them, to take possession of the images and never let go.”

The aesthetic similarities of the two works — film and album — were not lost on the director:

It’s fair to say that the throb and glide of the music felt close to the heartbeat of the movie… The lo-fi element, the collage of old and new sound, the record-player hiss riding beside fat electronic beats, corresponds in some way to blurry Pixelvision paired with black-and-white 35 mm.  And yes, there’s a shared sense of playfulness, of quotation, a kind of reverse retrofitting — familiar archetypes and atmospheres applied to reflect a particularly intoxicating form of modern loneliness.  The ominous orchestration gives way to the ache in Beth’s voice, nearly every song disintegrates into a confession of longing — sure, yes, this all felt, still feels, related to my movie.  And that’s how the excerpt of “Roads” was intended — as an inner voice rising up out of the drone and dance music supplied by Simon Fisher Turner, a cry in the dark eclipsing all other sound, enveloping Nadja as she walks, smiles and cries in the snow.

A few years later, Almereyda had another opportunity to cross paths with Portishead:

I can supply a curious footnote, another close encounter with the band.  When David Lynch declined to direct a video for Only You (from their second album, of course), he recommended me, and I promptly came up with a treatment.

As I imagined the video, we’d see a ten-year-old girl wake up and get out of bed — revealing that she’s been sleeping beside a full-grown lion.  As the song continues, the girl goes through a series of domestic rituals — pouring tea, eating breakfast, washing dishes, brushing her teeth — with the lion calmly present, padding from room to room, stalking her.  Eventually, cutting back to the bed, we’d see that the sheets and mattress have been ripped to shreds.

I remember a trans-Atlantic phone conversation with a production manager, a woman with a pleasant British voice, who explained that, yes, she had worked with lions before, and the good thing about working with lions is that everyone gets very focused and very quiet.  It’s necessary, she continued, to have good air conditioning.

There was no talk about what the imagery might mean, only how to execute it, how to make it happen.  Dates were discussed; I would fly to London for the shoot — but the arrangement was, mysteriously, aborted.  Somebody got sick, I seem to recall, and that was the beginning and end of my career as a director of rock videos.

– RJ Wheaton

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