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Monday, July 7, 2014

What the band the Walkmen taught me about watching movies

Posted By on 07.07.14 at 03:41 PM

From Olivier Assayass Les Destinees, released a couple years before the Walkmens first album
  • From Olivier Assayas's Les Destinees, released a couple years before the Walkmen's first album
I'm still mourning the loss of the Walkmen, one of my favorite rock bands, who went on "indefinite hiatus" earlier this year. Few musicians have done more to increase my enjoyment of movies. That might sound odd, considering the band never recorded any music for films and that their albums lack those qualities (orchestration, sound effects, spoken interludes) that inspire people to describe certain albums by, say, Pink Floyd or Scott Walker as cinematic. The Walkmen's connection to cinema lies in their selection of detail, both lyrical and sonic, and their ability to conjure complex emotional states through atmosphere.

I still don't know all the lyrics to most of my favorite Walkmen songs. I don't think that matters—the ones I do know communicate plenty. "Yesterday I remember driving with no headlights," from the first verse of "Rue the Day," is a particular favorite. Set against the growing tension in the music and the song's evocative title, the line evokes a relatable mix of bitterness and longing that's difficult to express succinctly in words. "A handful of strangers, all friends of mine," in "Donde Esta la Playa," achieves something similar, conveying (in conjunction with the low-boiling music beneath it) the simultaneous excitement and terror of losing sense of yourself. These moments, and others like them in the Walkmen's discography, make one realize that our feelings are always in flux, that they're constantly being shaped by memories and new experiences.

I started listening to the Walkmen around the same time I started watching films by Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis, and I still tend to think about all three interchangeably. The films of Denis and Assayas display the influence of music in their fluid camerawork and ever-shifting moods—one often feels what they're about before understanding them as narrative. By the same token, the Walkmen worked with images and space much like filmmakers do. Consider the unexpected allusion to French doors just before the triumphant first chorus of "Emma, Get Me a Lemon." The domestic reference sounds odd against the open-sounding production and the band's driving performance—the line seems to trigger an eruption. Having read the full lyrics sheet online I gather that the song is "about" getting drunk at the home of a friend, but the overall impact of the recording suggests an experience much grander and more liberating.

"A novelist could give us some kind of equivalent for this sequence, could make us react along the same general lines; but he couldn't make us react in this direct, immediate way, as image succeeds image—he couldn't control our reactions so precisely in time." So wrote Robin Wood in his introduction to the first edition of Hitchcock's Films (1965), which I recently reread. That sentence provides one workable definition of cinematic art, and it could double as a potential epitaph for this extraordinary group.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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