MIFF 68½ – Last and First Men (2017) / MIFF Talks | Art of the Score: The Film Music of Jóhann Jóhannsson (2020)

Tilda Swinton narrates an elegiac future history pseudo-documentary adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s influential golden age science fiction work, accompanied by a live performance of the score by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930) is not an obvious choice for adaptation to film. Charting an imagined future history of humanity spanning 2 billion years, it charts the rise and fall of civilisations from First Man (us) to Eighteenth Man on a broad historical scale without any easily dramatised narrative hook following the path of individuals.

Film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, in his first and only directorial work before his untimely death in 2018, has addressed this difficulty by translating the novel into a documentary of sorts. Where Werner Herzog recontextualised footage of fire-fighting on the oil fields of Kuwait to construct a documentary framed as an exploration of an alien culture in Lessons of Darkness (1992), Jóhannsson has transformed the brutalist architecture of the Balkans into the remnants of a future civilisation. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen films these structures in black and white using glacially paced tracking shots moving across the landscapes or into the images, selecting unusual angles to accentuate the impression of an alien culture tenuously connected to our own. The strategic addition of film grain, scratches in the film and hairs in the gate at scattered moments later in the film adds to the illusion of imperfectly stored material documenting a time gone by.

Jóhannsson’s score, composed and performed in collaboration with Yair Elazar Glotman, matches the pace of the cinematography in its slow glide of orchestrated electronics, choral voices submerged in the mix but occasionally bubbling toward the surface before finally breaking forth towards the end. The music conveys an almost spiritual sense of yearning for the beyond, whether the physical horizons beyond our world or the future, mixed with an elegiac mourning for the eventual fate of the human race, distant but inevitable.

Tilda Swinton’s narration provides an extremely compressed expression of Stapledon’s future history. Jóhannsson and co-screenwriter José Enrique Macián have distilled the source material down to scattered sentences providing fragmentary descriptions of different epochs of future history, which are separated by narrative bridges visually accompanied by the green dot of an oscilloscope depicting a distorted impression of Swinton’s vocal imprint. The narration is scattered sparsely throughout the film, and I found it easy to lose track of what had been said at various times as I disappeared into the combination of sound and image, only to be startled back into verbal awareness when the swelling music cut out and the image jolted back to the green dot.

Acceptance of the ultimate extinction of the human race might not seem like the most uplifting place to end, but the film retains a sense of striving beyond the limitations of imagination coupled with a contemplative appreciation of unfamiliar beauty found within the familiar.

The MIFF Talks strand of the festival included a panel from the team behind the Art of the Score podcast, discussing Jóhann Jóhannsson’s composition in general with a specific focus on his scores for Arrival (2016) and Last and First Men (2017). Guest panelist Seja Vogel provided a fascinating insight into the theory and practice of electronic composition through her attempt to recreate a section of Jóhannsson’s score for Arrival. After explaining how she created the final sounds, her piece was contrasted with the original untreated music from which she started, a much simpler sound which was barely recognisable in the finished piece.

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