The Poppies of Terra #11 - Animalia Farm
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
I cited work in the very first of these columns showing that big box-office films have been getting longer. Data (about a decade old at this point) furnished by Cornell University psychologist James Cutting, perfectly named for the study, also suggests that the length of shots in movies is decreasing, with an average film shot going from 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds in 2014. So we have increasingly longer movies, with shorter shots; and anecdotally, at least, also shorter scenes on average.
Film music often, though not always, tracks with scenes. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that if scenes, along with the shots that comprise them, are getting shorter on average, film scores might see more tracks of shorter duration. Comparing film score releases for movies released today with those from ten and twenty years ago seems to confirm this. Bobby Krlic’s score release for Blue Beetle, for example, a superhero/action picture currently playing in theaters, is comprised of 29 tracks adding up to about 80 mins. The Wolverine, a summer superhero movie released in late July 2013, had a score release by Marco Beltrami made up of 23 tracks adding up to about 60 minutes. Ten years earlier, in 2003, the summer superhero movie Hulk, for which Danny Elfman composed the music, also came in at around an hour, but with only 18 tracks.
Many modern-day “big” genre or genre-adjacent movies feature scores with loud, rousing tracks and aggressive orchestrations and production values designed to punch through the mix of special effects and sound design. A number of them contain generic, filler action material that doesn’t stand up well when divorced from the movie. Even more cerebral fare, like Ludwig Goransson’s music for Oppenheimer–the score release of which is made up of 24 tracks adding up to a whopping 94 mins (admittedly, it’s a very long movie)--can dial up the tension and invoke strong emotions during key moments, but contains comparatively little slow, melodic material. (Alex Ross, by the way, has some interesting comments in this New Yorker piece.)
All of which is to say that when looking for film music that might be elegant and pleasing on its own, music that might create an inviting ambiance for reflection, or even, depending on one’s working methods, for creativity, a lot of the most useful material these days can be found outside of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Once in a while, there are welcome genre exceptions. Jon Hopkins’s music for Monsters (2010), for instance, Jimmy Lavalle’s score for Spring (2015), Max Richter’s work, along with additional material by Lorne Balfe and Nils Frahm, on Ad Astra (2019), and more recently, Dan Levy’s score for Vesper (2022), all contain moments of stirring poignancy and wondrous beauty.
Which brings me to Amine Bouhafa’s score for a new French-Moroccan science fiction movie titled Animalia (the original-language title is Parmi Nous). The movie screened at the 2023 Sundance festival and has been released theatrically in France, with very strong reviews. It’s not yet available in the U.S.--but now its music is, digitally.
Bouhafa’s work first came to my attention with the 2014 drama Timbuktu, which contained some arresting compositions. His brand new score, in the service of Sofia Alaoui’s feature directorial debut, is presented in a refreshingly concise–13 tracks clocking in at 30 minutes–and cohesive form. Several key ideas are elaborated in the two “Main Title” and two “The Astral Journey” cues. The opening “Ouverture” uses strings and piano to suggest emotional intimacy. Later pieces, with more strings, organ, and textured loops with synth elements, offer conceptual grandeur stretched by subtle forms of estrangement. Track names like “The Journey,” “The Young Boy,” and “The Weird Dog,” are vague enough to give flight to our imaginations as listeners. Even the more concretely titled piece “Alien Attack” is characterized by a kind of delicate, questing restraint, rather than the expected accelerated tempos or blasts of percussion.
In a hot summer full of pounding action music and generally overstuffed sonic roadtrips, Amine Bouhafa’s Animalia, exploratory but tender, remarkably free of padding and bombast, is a refreshing musical oasis. Unlike so many other recent film scores, this one doesn’t overstay its welcome.