Students all ears for ‘Baby Driver’

For the protagonist of 2017 hit “Baby Driver,” music is central to existence; it allows him to drown out the omnipresent ringing in his ears that results from tinnitus. Courtesy of BagoGames via Flickr.

In the era of Netflix and Hulu, the idea of leaving the comfort of home and watching a movie with a room full of strangers can feel daunting and unnecessary. On Friday, Feb. 1, however, Vassar students found themselves doing just that, having been lured out of the online-streaming havens of their dorm rooms for a screening of “Baby Driver” in the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film.

The event was part of Vassar’s annual music and film festival, Modfest, which, this year, centers around the concept “In Motion.” It was that theme which prompted one of the series’ organizers, Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for the Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative Tom Pacio, to include a movie screening in the festival’s lineup: “It felt like, when we decided on ‘In Motion,’ that maybe [we should extend] an invitation to the film department or incorporate film in some way.”

Pacio began by reaching out to Assistant Professor of Music Tahirih Motazedian, whose area of expertise includes movie soundtracks. He explained, “Through some conversations she picked ‘Baby Driver’ because it both has the theme of a journey in it, and also the music is really important to the plot.”

In an email interview, Motazedian reiterated this sentiment: “Music is the driving force in this film, quite literally. Baby (the main character) is an inert shell without music, and he relies on music to animate and orchestrate his life. He must remain in constant motion to feel calm, so being behind the wheel of a car with an iPod is Baby’s ideal state.”

The film received critical acclaim for precisely this reason. Baby makes his living by driving criminals to and from heists. He suffers from tinnitus, a common symptom of aural conditions in which a person perceives constant ringing in their ear. In order to drown out the hum, he plays music loudly and constantly, timing his life so perfectly that the world around him almost melds into the soundtrack that plays in his ears.

Modfest featured a screening of “Baby Driver, introduced by Assistant Professor of Music Tahirih Motazedian, who described the key role of the film’s soundscape. Courtesy of junaidrao via Flickr.

In her introduction to the film, Motazedian referenced several prime examples of instances that exhibit this effect. In one scene, Baby starts playing a song at precisely the right time so that the brass solo will hit while he passes a music store, creating the perfect opportunity for him to play air trumpet with the instrument in the window. Later, Baby commands several armed criminals to wait for a certain part of a song before he allows them to leave the car to rob a bank, just so the music will have reached a crescendo by the time they return.

This obsession with timing extends past Baby and into the world around him. Honking car horns and screeching wheels are impeccably rhythmic throughout the film, falling at just the right time to accentuate the beat of whatever song is playing. Motazedian commented, “You’ve never heard such melodic gunfire,” because the shoot-outs blend seamlessly with the soundtrack. She continued: “The sound effects in this film interact with the music to form a rich sonic tapestry. Paying attention to the music-sound interaction reveals fascinating insights in the narrative and allows you to understand the characters on a deeper level.” Essentially, the world is Baby’s music just as much as music is Baby’s world.

Event attendee Elizabeth Johnson ’21 related to this aspect of the film: “Music can be a really individual or universal experience, and the movie emphasized the universalness.” This observation rings true when Baby partially loses his hearing and must rely on feeling the vibrations of speakers with his hands (a skill he learned from his deaf foster dad), meaning he can no longer listen to music in isolation; he must play it out loud and allow others to share in his experience.

On Friday, Baby’s new method was mirrored in the public screening format. Rather than watching the film alone or with a few people at home, Modfest attendees were afforded the opportunity to do so while sitting in a luxurious theater, gasping and laughing at the on-screen antics with approximately 100 other people. Pacio described this effect as a key reason why this event was important: “There’s not really a place in Poughkeepsie to see a movie unless you go to the Galleria or to Hyde Park, so why not see a movie here? … I think if it’s successful…there are so many places on campus for screenings to happen … it’s such an easy way to build community.”

That community extends beyond the screening’s attendees to its organizers. As Pacio recounted, “[Modfest] really became an opportunity to connect parts of campus that don’t normally work together or aren’t aware of each other’s work.”

This event fell squarely at the intersection of Vassar’s music and film departments, and, just like the movie itself, raised questions of where one discipline ends and the other begins. For Baby, they overlap in vibrations; for Vassar students, in The Rosenwald Theater.

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