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“I Can Hear the Guitar,” the series I programmed for BAM, was inspired by an interview I did with the French magazine Télérama. This piece is loosely based on that interview, in which I tried to describe my own idiosyncratic relationship to rock music and how it connects with my idiosyncratic relationship to cinema. It’s not about the music you use in your films but the way you use it. Films that don’t have rock in their soundtracks can be more “rock” than movies with wall-to-wall hip scores.
Godard and Garrel
One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil) (1968) was the first Godard film I discovered in the theater—the first I experienced in the present tense. You see the Stones at their peak, recording Beggars Banquet. London was a city in total rebellion, and I went there every time I had the chance. One Plus One captures the fever pitch of that era, and it’s also a rare attempt at bringing together European left-wing politics and the rebellious ferment of rock music. Philippe Garrel’s work captured the time with a poeticism that was hallucinatory and visionary. In his The Inner Scar (1972), starring Nico, art was inseparable from the revolution, drugs, and a kind of “lived poetry.” Years later, he made a magnificent film about the nostalgia for those years, I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991).
The ’60s: New American cinema
Every time I see Easy Rider (1969), I’m afraid of being disappointed. But with each viewing, I find it more interesting. It’s a movie that affected my generation: the feeling that cinema had finally found the perfect note to portray our reality. In a sense, it’s the last western, and Dennis Hopper is the last cowboy. The more Peter Fonda’s Captain America grows older, the more he stays the same. Easy Rider paved the way for Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973). At the time, American cinema believed in a lightness of spirit and not in money or seriousness. It dreamed of losing itself in big open spaces; it traveled the country in search of itself; it preserved the spirit of Whitman and Ginsberg. In these pre-Dolby films, I like to listen to the music mixed at a realistic level. Today, rock dominates the soundscape. Then, music came on tiptoes, often by car radio, slipping into the scenery.
The ’70s: Punk rock and horror
When I first heard the Pistols and the Clash, it was as if the world was being toppled: Nothing could be the same again. They returned to music a certain violence that had been watered down in progressive rock. I realized that it was the language of my generation, that it could provide an escape from everyday torpor. I started writing screenplays around this time and was asking myself: What is the cinematic equivalent of punk? I found it in horror films: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977), Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977)—genre movies made on a shoestring, with an anger, intensity, and sense of transgressive freedom. Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome (1983) is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.
I read somewhere that Scorsese considers himself a failed rock musician. I think he’s a successful rock musician who has found his instrument in sound editing. You can sense it as far back as Mean Streets (1973). New technology was allowing filmmakers to create subtler and more complex sounds. Scorsese used it to develop a technique involving the assembling of different layers with different levels of intelligibility—his own personal jukebox, in a sort of continuous commentary. As with all innovators, he opened the door to less inspired imitators—a culture of films in which rock music is a glaze that obscures everything.
Few filmmakers have had such a profound influence on the use of sound. The sound designer on many of his own films, Lynch revised the boundaries of what was allowed. He deploys different layers of sound editing as if they were instruments: A noise has as much importance as a high-pitched frequency; a faraway rumble is as important as a song that suddenly takes over the foreground. Sound design used to be a question of mixing; since Lynch, it has become inextricable from the image and the narrative.
My own films
When I began making films, I was inspired in part by the desire to share what I feel when I listen to rock music. Paris Awakens (1991), for which John Cale wrote the score, was made in this spirit. I was thinking about what Phil Spector called his songs: “Little symphonies for the kids.” To make a movie with the childlike simplicity of a song, that would address adolescents who have a tendency toward alienation. Cold Water (1994) was a way of paying homage to what music meant to me during my adolescence. I tried to show how it was music more than cinema that gave me the most intense artistic emotions, that showed me my own path, that gave me certain invisible keys.
On demonlover (2002), Sonic Youth composed the bulk of the soundtrack—the melodies and also the rumbles and frequencies that would be integrated into the sound montage. They gave us their tracks, which I then reshaped, with Olivier Goinard, the sound designer, to fit the images. That’s a rarity—musicians are typically in charge of their own mixing and don’t often adapt it to the soundscape of the movie. In the studio, Thurston Moore asked me to play the guitar and produce the sounds myself. I didn’t dare, and I regret it a little. It wouldn’t have amounted to much, but I would’ve contributed a little to what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: create the music for my own films.
Olivier Assayas is the director of, most recently, demonlover, which will be released in a director’s cut DVD next month, and Clean, which premiered at Cannes in May.
Translated by David Ng