Film is a visual artform, but music radically alters the tone of those flickering images. In the first edition of Scenes in Sound, we look at Uncut Gems, and how winning is never as simple as getting what you want.
What does winning sound like? Is it the rolling thunder of hands beating together; the final beep test *beep* after everyone has collapsed; the ding of a microwave containing molten leftovers? Victory, of course, doesn’t have one tone, but sounds do hold an uncanny power to trigger deep seated feelings of validation. There’s a reason mobile developers spend years perfecting the sound a treasure chest makes, hoping to trigger precious endorphins and lock you into another cycle of delayed gratification. Humans crave catharsis.
That’s what makes Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), morally scrupulous jewellery dealer and focal point of Uncut Gems, such an interesting character study. For him, there’s no such thing as a climactic soundbite. Howie, as he’s known to friends, lovers and debt collectors, rides the prospect of winning to the very end, edging himself on the thrill of potential victory for as long as possible. The moment of release that most people seek after completing a task is something Howie recoils from; he gets all the glory he needs from constantly wringing his adrenal gland dry.
If you’re unfamiliar with Uncut Gems, the perversely dark comedy/heart attack-inducing thriller directed by Josh & Benny Safdie, the set-up is simple. Howie works in New York’s infamous Diamond District, hawking gaudy memorabilia and overpriced watches from the cramped confines of his dazzlingly tacky jewellery store. As the film opens Howie has just acquired a fist-sized uncut black opal, the supposed answer to all his gambling-induced woes. Somewhat predictably, events don’t end up sliding into place quite so easily.
Like all of the Safdies’ works, Uncut Gems is about as New Yoik as it gets, chocked full of throwback ‘70s grit, and grime. What stands out as anachronistic, however, is Daniel Lopatin’s (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) cosmically surreal score. In contrast with his nauseatingly intense work on the brothers’ prior neo-noir thriller, Good Time, his work here is soft and light; Lopatin himself differentiated Gems by saying the soundtrack was “more beautiful, ethereal, it's more orchestral, it’s goofier”. It’s uneasy too, sure—unsurprising from one of the forerunners of vaporwave—but removed from its grungy context it sounds remarkably hopeful. It sounds like winning.
That’s because the Safdie brothers are obsessed with Howie’s perception of the world. Most filmmakers pin their camera to one primary character, but few feel as absorbed in every minor idiosyncrasy as the Safdies are with Howie. Their love of Sandler as a performer is well documented, but there’s more to it than that. Howie’s an old school cornball, but an effortlessly charming one, much like Sandler himself. This blend of sleaze and cheese make him empathetic even as the consequences of his single-mindedness are everywhere; the collapse of his marriage; the erosion of his professional reputation. And yet it’s hard not to pray for his lucky numbers to come up. The fact that they do repeatedly, only to be frittered away without even a moment’s thought, is what makes Uncut Gems such a trying watch.
What tempers that stress, in part, is the playfulness of Lopatin’s sound work. We’re forced to watch on as helpless onlookers, enduring Howie’s repeated bad choices, but the loftiness of the ‘80s synthesisers help guide us into Howie’s mindset, tempting us to give in to his chaotic logic. The Safdies’ penchant for using long anamorphic lenses to hold each character shakily in centre frame as they move through crowds pulls Howie close, but it’s Lopatin that submerses us into his cycle of addiction.
The sequence that best captures this bullish energy is the film’s extended introduction to Howie, as soundtracked by “The Ballad of Howie Bling”. Less a scene than a tumbled timewarp through condensed space, it follows on from the film’s opening proper, a stark contextualisation of the human cost of precious stones. Enter: a grizzly accident in a mine in Ethiopia, a scream lost in directionless yelling, dust, thick blood. Two workers share a knowing glance, before setting off for the tunnels, an ominous low drone mirroring the pair’s surreptitious actions. Their chipping reveals a kaleidoscope of light. It stands out startlingly against the dank environment.
This sudden reveal of opulent beauty is matched perfectly by Lopatin’s shift from low bass tones to cautiously soaring synths. The contesting colours at the heart of the stone seem to flash, impossible greens and blues, and in turn the score swirls and turns, promising riches to sate the body and mind. We then tunnel deeper into the gem, witnessing celestial events; stars being forged, unstable compounds forming and reforming; c-beams glittering in the dark. And then, we emerge from Howie’s colon. It’s a crude visual gag, but one that ties the draw of otherworldly treasures straight back down to earth. The fact that Lopatin continues unabated in emphasising the majesty of a colonoscopy says it all.
Tellingly this is the only moment of true tranquility we see for Howie, anaesthetised and peaceful with a camera up his arse, yet always with his mind pointed toward the divine—in his case the mythical Big Win. From here on he’s restless, agitated, relentless, but that cosmic shine never leaves his eyes. The Safdies hit the ground running with a hard cut to Howie on the street again, his natural habitat, and he’s straight on the phone wheeling and dealing, always pursuing that gem calling to him from the inside out. It doesn’t do a miner much good to simply meditate on the prospect of unearthing ore.
What’s important is how Lopatin’s music shifts to match Howie’s barrelling momentum, or rather how it doesn’t. In Good Time the music matched the intensity of the situation, pounding forward at a horribly rapid pace and regularly descending into totally distorted mania. Here, the tone is much calmer. Before Howie wakes up the score feels spacious, but even when he begins swearing blind at his employee Yussi, the tempo remains much the same. An abstracted human choir joins the fray, adding a layer of religious disquiet, but if anything they just add to the sense of Howie being on a holy crusade.
The main source of audio anxiety comes from the Robert Altman-esque manner in which everyone incessantly talks over one another, and how it contradicts Lopatin’s serene score; a reflection of Howie’s blind purpose. When he’s cornered by two heavies in his office, the anxiety edges in, and the score reaches a minor crescendo, but it quickly fades away. Howie’s spikes in stress are always funnelled back into forward motion—there’s no time for panic with the prospect of the Big One on the horizon. As if to prove that, just as he’s having his watch shorn from his wrist for money owed a slinky jazz saxophone comically saunters into the equation; you can’t touch a man with his eyes perpetually set on bigger fish.
Over the 8 minutes and 26 seconds of “The Ballad of Howie Bling” Howie never stops moving, feeding off of the sort of distressing situations that would leave most doubled over in dread. He pawns, he bets, he snuggles, gliding past everything like a duck on water, all in the service of chasing another hit, another win, another orgasm. The fact that when he finally fishes his precious opal from within some fishy innards he says “Holy shit I’m gonna cum” rather than “Holy shit I’m cumming” underlines just how much Howie loves the thrill of the chase. There’s no pot of gold big enough that he wouldn’t throw it all on red.
It’s Lopatin’s music that really emphasises the absurdity of Howie’s inner machinations, that ricocheting between ill-advised cash grabs is just another day at the office, and that it all fails to divert him from his higher purpose. In the end (spoilers) Howie only stops because he’s forced to by a bullet to the head, and even then the score doesn’t skip a beat. As we tunnel back inside Howie once more, this time through a bullet hole, we see the same primeval materials taking shape, forming beauties untold beneath his very skin. In inertia, perhaps one of his victories finally crystallises.