Skip Lievsay, sound genius. (photo: Mix Online)
Meanwhile, I'm happy to see several mildly surprising nominations: Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises"; Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement"; Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild"; "Persepolis" for animated feature. No surprise, and absolutely proper: Roger Deakins for shooting both "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (though I hope they don't cancel each other out). But nothing for "Zodiac"? At the very least it should have received a nomination for its amazing visual effects. But unless you've seen the Director's Cut DVD (or some Digital Domain clips on YouTube) you probably wouldn't have known they were effects. That's how good they are.
Looking at the odds, "Atonement" is an unlikely best picture because its director (Joe Wright) wasn't nominated. "Michael Clayton" and "Juno" lack an editing nomination, which (statistically speaking) is are crucial to winning the top prize. On the other hand, "Michael Clayton" is honored in three acting categories, for George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton -- and guess which branch of the Academy is the biggest? "No Country for Old Men" didn't claim a lead acting slot, perhaps because it's an ensemble piece. If you go strictly by statistically significant nominations, only "There Will Be Blood" has 'em all -- an old-fashioned Hollywood epic built around a big performance (by a previous Oscar winner). But will its unremittingly bleak nihilism (and the bizarre ending that alienated even some admirers) prove too bitter for Academy voters? I dunno.
I just want to take a moment here to acknowledge my favorite nomination. (This is where I congratulate myself on my foresight -- hey, I predicted Tom Wilkinson, too -- even though I'm a lousy Oscar guesser.) Back in September when I first saw "No Country for Old Men" in September, I wrote:
And among the nominees for Best Sound Editing are: Skip Lievsay (also for Sound Mixing), Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland. (Of course, Burwell's score wasn't nominated -- way too subtle.) Incredibly, Lievsay ("Do the Right Thing," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "The Silence of the Lambs," "GoodFellas," "City Of Hope," "Fargo," "The New World" (2006)) has never before been nominated for an Academy Award. This, in my view, has been one of the most egregious oversights in Oscar history.
A moment here to celebrate the genius of one of the greatest talents in motion pictures, supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay, who has worked with the Coens (and Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and others) since way back before the mosquito buzzing and peeling wallpaper of "Barton Fink." Since the bug zapper in "Blood Simple," in fact. Also, composer Carter Burwell ("Psycho III"!) has been associated with the Coens for just as long. He's credited with the music in "No Country," too, but it's to his merit that I don't even recall any music in the picture -- except for one memorably Coen-esque appearance by a mariachi band.
As I've noted before, the attention to sound in the Coens' films gives them a vivid dimension that most films don't begin to explore. And, in "NCFOM," the music and the sound design are one. Earlier month, Dennis Lim wrote a piece on Lievsay, Burwell and colleagues for the New York Times that's one of the best "awards season" pieces I've ever read ("Exploiting Sound, Exploring Silence"):
Score one for the sound artists.
What is unusual about “No Country for Old Men” is not simply the level of audio detail but that it is a critical part of the storytelling. Skip Lievsay, the sound editor who has worked with the Coen brothers since their first feature, “Blood Simple” (1984), called “No Country” “quite a remarkable experiment” from a sonic standpoint. “Suspense thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with music,” he said. “The idea here was to remove the safety net that lets the audience feel like they know what’s going to happen. I think it makes the movie much more suspenseful. You’re not guided by the score and so you lose that comfort zone.” [...]
That decision was made with the help of Carter Burwell, the Coens’ regular composer, who has also been part of their stable since “Blood Simple.” (Mr. Lievsay introduced him to the Coens.) “My first suggestion was that if there’s music, it should somehow emanate from the landscape,” Mr. Burwell said. He tried a few “abstract musical sounds, just the harmonics of a violin or some percussive sounds,” but found that even these small touches “destroyed the tension that came from the quiet.”
Like film editing, film sound remains a somewhat misunderstood craft, partly because at its best it tends to be imperceptible. “The better we do our job, the less people realize what’s going on,” Mr. Lievsay said. “I think a lot of people think the sound just comes out of the camera.”
(PS: Great line from Mix magazine: "The strongest influence Skip has had on me isn't how to marry a dog bark with a chin sock, but how to fish with a fly.")