Totality of experience: sound, music and mythology in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Quartet”

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Shine, Jessica
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University College Cork
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Reflecting on Gus Van Sant’s films Gerry (2003) Elephant (2004) and Last Days (2005), the director’s long-term sound-designer Leslie Shatz observed that “You have to get into the totality of the experience and not just the dialogue”. Shatz’s comment expresses something fundamental about the experimental approach to cinema and to soundscapes undertaken by Van Sant in these three films, unofficially known as the “Death Trilogy”. This thesis contends that Van Sant makes deliberate aesthetic choices which do indicate a distinctly “auteurist” leaning. However, I also argue that intertextual elements, prior knowledge, and audience participation in meaningmaking enhance the experience of, and reveal the nuances in, the soundtracks themselves. This thesis aims to contribute to a growing body of work within filmmusic scholarship concerned with resisting a traditional bias in the field: that film music should be understood as a means of characterisation and as emotional signifier. The films of the “Death Quartet”, which includes Paranoid Park (2007), I believe, offer fertile ground on which to explore these new approaches. It is my contention that these films deconstruct the traditional approach to soundtracking and the relationship between soundtrack and character, and that only an approach sensitive to the aesthetic and philosophical functions of music and sound can adequately acknowledge their unique cinematic qualities.
Film music , Gus Van Sant , Film , Music
Shine, J. 2015. Totality of experience: sound, music and mythology in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Quartet”. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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