By: Jennifer Parker
An in-depth look at Michael Dweck’s The Last Race, a documentary about a small-town stock car racetrack striving to hold onto an American racing tradition as the world around it is transformed by globalization and commercialization…
When I first saw the trailer for The Last Race, a few questions (forgive me) raced through my mind. WTF? Do I want to see a documentary about the last stock car race track on Long Island? Why should I care? You know something? This film changed the way that I watch documentaries. The shift that I experienced wasn’t exactly a moment. It has been something that as a film critic, I’ve been considering for a long time. I spend hours of my day thinking and writing about what makes a film objectively good. We are in the age of content overload. Like a first kiss, a film should make time stop and make me open to new possibilities. If I’m not feeling struck by a film, why bother?
Norman Bates, Indiana Jones and Jaws walk into a bar…
Film is a visual medium but sound is what can make a scene have dramatic tension or suspense. What would Psycho be without the unforgettable Hitchcock Chord? Or Raiders of the Lost Ark without the boulder rumbling like an earthquake chasing after Indiana? Or the repetitive dun dun bottom-heavy instruments that accompanies the shark-less shark attacks in Jaws? I can’t envision one without the other. The artists responsible for making these films indelible in our consciousness are sound designers. Before you point out that I’m talking about narrative films, I’ll come right out with the concept that documentary films, like a narrative film, must tell a story. Sound design is a part of documentary filmmaking, but like great editing, it is sometimes an unfortunate afterthought — but not when Michael Dweck directs.
Dweck used at least twenty cameras and fifteen microphones to capture the 300 hours of footage he needed to begin to tell the seventy-four minute story of The Last Race. If you happen to be into stock car racing and the people who race stock cars, you’ll undoubtedly love the film. If you appreciate conceptual art, are concerned with urban sprawl, fret about the death of culture, or can lose yourself in Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor while you’re worrying about what it means — on a macro level — for an endangered society to disappear, then give yourself over to The Last Race.
The film begins with a beat-up stock car bumbling towards a grove of dead trees and abandoned race cars. It promptly collides with one of the forgotten cars lying about and becomes caught, spinning its wheels in the mud. No matter how hard the driver thrusts his foot on the gas, the wheels spin, the mud sputters, a hole under the tire grows deeper, and the car goes nowhere. The shot is held just long enough for us to wonder why, to make us feel uncomfortable, maybe to make us not trust what is going to happen next. Stock car racing is all about speed and endurance. The Riverdale Race Track, the last quarter mile track left on Long Island, has survived countless races of 4200 pound vehicles. These cars are a testament to a time when American vehicles were built to be solid machines. By 2018 standards these stripped-to-their-skeleton cars look almost like The Terminator once he lost his humanoid skin. They are menacing angular boxes designed to go fast, survive collisions, and turn everyday men (and the occasional woman) into neighborhood legends.
I’m obsessed with music and sports in documentary filmmaking. If fused together, the interplay tells a story that separately are just parts. Together, if constructed to tell a story, they are able to make me care about a quarter mile beat-up oval racetrack on Long Island. In a world where we are almost drowning in content, where anyone with a phone can make a movie, it is easy to forget that when we watch a documentary we are seeing something that is processed. We almost never think about what makes one film sing and another like watching paint dry. The people who made me care about a noisy, smelly, race track that is home to a grouping of people who at the minimum have different politics than me, were editor Charlotte Munch Bengtsen and sound designer, Peter Albrechtsen. I’ve talked to producers and directors of documentaries on many occasions, I’ve never asked to talk to the editor and sound designer before. Maybe that is because no subject could have interested me less than stock car racing, and I wanted to understand why I suddenly cared.
When Michael Dweck began conceiving The Last Race, it was a still photography project that over time morphed into a documentary film. This was hardly surprising as Dweck is best known as a visual artist. In my head “project” feels like an inadequate word to describe Dweck’s endeavor, and even describing him as simply a “visual artist” doesn’t fully capture the magnitude of the the gestalt of his work. What can I say about a director who tried to capture the milieu of an ecosystem and then entrusted it to an editor and sound designer to breathe life into the inanimate — and succeeded? To understand Dweck as a filmmaker, I talked to the artists that Dweck worked with on The Last Race.
When I told Peter Albrechtsen that I love the absence of car sounds juxtaposed with Charlotte Munch Bengtse’s dreamy choreographed entrances onto the track Peter said, “Michael was really interested in using sound in a much more abstract poetic way than what you usually do in a documentary and especially in a documentary about race car driving. So he wanted to play around with the atmospheric aspects of sound.”
Not wanting to miss anything— Dweck recorded sounds on the race track inside the cars, near the driver’s faces, and inside the engines because “the intention was for every car and every race sequence in the film to have a unique personality expressed through the audio,” Dweck said. This allowed them “to take the chains off of structure and format to create a blur of music and crowds, and transition the sound design from scene to scene in a dreamlike fashion. Certain sounds, such as the voice of the track announcer, were captured from numerous different recording positions to reflect the many perspectives that the audio could be perceived from locations in and around the track.” With this in mind, Albrechtsen watched the racing sequences and thought “we can do so many amazing things with this film.” He started sketching out his approach “because when you do a movie that is so atmospheric then it’s hard to say, okay how long does this scene have to be to get the effect that we’re looking for? Because it’s not told in a classic kind of story telling way, it’s told through emotions and through textures, sound and visuals.”
The editor, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen interpreted Dweck’s approach “as an examination of place, almost as an anthropological study of the cars, beautifully composed shots and abstract angles from the different mounted cameras.” Bengtsen said from the time she saw the rushes she knew she, “wanted to be part of composing the film — composing is the right term for The Last Race, because you can’t separate picture from sound reaching to the film’s final form. From the beginning we treated the film as an art film, where Riverhead Racetrack would be the main character.”
Killing your darlings
Editing is decision making — what stays, what goes, order, length, sound, fade, dissolve, slo-motion. Dweck printed out hundreds of his favorite shots, Bengsten said, “that covered all the walls in our editing suit. We had endless ways of how to approach the material. Michael gave room for experimentation, and we tried out different pieces of music [including Roger Goula’s “Overview Effect“] along with the raw uncut race footage. I too was fascinated like Michael with what the different camera angles did to the race cars, they became their own characters and each angle angle possessed an emotion from fear to beauty. I understood from the beginning that we had to preserve those original inherited emotions from the way they had be conceived to how they would be assembled for the film. Traditionally, one would take different camera angles to piece together a race scene.”
On its surface The Last Race might seem to be a film about stock car racing in its decline on Long Island. Yet, it is as much about the death of a culture, a descent in the health of the fragile ecosystem of a community, the destruction of an octogenarian couple’s life’s work, and the disregard for people who live to race and the spectators who simply yearn for a night at the track. Peter Albrechtsen noted, “It’s much more spirited and much more difficult to predict what works and what doesn’t work, when it comes to assigning sound to disparate parts of the film, so I start out doing some sounds and then Charlotte was really great at trusting me when I said, okay just keep this scene going for at least a minute more because we need to have the sound just play out here.” The decision to let a scene run an entire sixty seconds longer than what is music-video comfortable made me care more about the film overall and, more importantly, it made me desire more. Peter said,” I guess it’s called poetry. Michael as a director was really brave to do it this way. I think, it goes back to him being very bold and brave in his choices doing the film.”
The composer, his music, the racetrack and The Overview Effect
I’m gonna walk it back a step here because untangling the music from sound, or what we think we hear, and from the film, or what we think we see, alters our perception of the documentary as a whole.
Composer, Roger Goula and the editor of The Last Race, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen met in film school and remained friends. It was Bengtsen to turned Albrechtsen on to Goula’s music who further deconstructed it by splitting it up into “what’s called stems where you isolate the different instruments. The result is you have the guitars, the strings and the textures on their own so then I could bring that into the sound and melt it together with the [music].” Take a moment to think about what it means to melt sound and music together. It is something that has been sitting with me for weeks, making it so difficult to find the expressive language that explains why I can’t get the sound out of my head or is it the music? Albrechtsen continued, “there’s lots of places now when I see the film, I can no longer really say what is music and what is sound and that is something that was very important to me in this film — the sound became music and the music became sound.” I’ll admit that the circuity of Peter’s statement got to me. Egg. Chicken. Chicken Egg. You can’t have one without the other. Or can you? We get so bogged down in details that we fail to see that maybe what surrounds us is what is important. Can one exist without the other?
Goula’s Overview Effect gives the illusion of time wrinkling: instruments slow then speed up, notes linger, instruments mute, ambient sounds become part of the fabric of the background and less about the literal noise of the engines. At times I hold my breath. I listen and then I see. No longer able to unweave the cars dancing onto the track from the different string instruments that blend together yet stand autonomous in their own right, I became curious if Overview Effect would work for me outside the context of the film. It’s on my playlist and when I share it with friends my pitch is always the same in that it speaks to me like Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason does. Listening to Goula’s composition while skittering around the streets of Manhattan both in the daytime and in the evening transports me to another place. And if you know me, you know that I had to talk to Roger Goula too. The Spanish expat composer spoke with me on the phone from his London studio and it became clear to me why he was the missing piece. The film could have been titled, Overview Effect because no part of the film could function without the other. Perhaps this is true for films in general or at least the movies that suspend our disbelief, disavow the reality of time and space and yes, my friends, documentaries can be magical. Goula said, “The overview effect is a cognitive shift in your brain, in your psychology, in your psyche when [astronauts] leave Earth and they see Earth from above. And you somehow have the idea that the world is all the same and we all belong to the same home. You don’t see Earth the same way when you come back and you don’t understand why war exists and why there’s all these problems on Earth, because we are all together basically. And it’s the only place we live, and we can so far live. So the idea behind the whole album is that — All the tracks there are somehow a journey through this. And there it was: I couldn’t see racetrack and the cars the same way because none of it matters yet all of it matters. Egg. Chicken. Chicken. Egg. Mr. Dweck, I was spellbound in darkness.
Peter Albrechtsen is an award-winning Danish sound designer, mixer and music supervisor working on both feature films and documentaries. Recent credits include festival favorites The Distant Barking of Dogs, Blind Spot, Generation Wealth, Thelma and sound effects recording for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Last year, Peter was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is also an overseas member of both the US association of sound editors, MPSE, and the UK association, AMPS. Earlier this year, Peter was nominated for three MPSE Golden Reel Awards – one of the most prestigious US film sound awards. As a music supervisor, Peter has worked with highly regarded names like Jóhann Jóhannsson, Antony & the Johnsons and Efterklang. Peter has written about music and movies for different Danish and international magazines and has been lecturing about sound design around the world.
Coming from a background as a dancer and photographer Charlotte Munch Bengtsen edited her first documentary AMERICAN LOSERS by Ada B. Søby in 2006. Bengtsen soon realized that she could bring all her tools together in this craft and decided to pursue solely the editing path at the National Film and Television School in England 2007-2009. Soon after graduation she became editor on the Oscar nominated documentary THE ACT OF KILLING by Joshua Oppenheimer in London 2009/2010. Back in Copenhagen, she has been so lucky to work with the most exciting film people from home and abroad. Latest credits are THE LAST RACE by Michael Dweck, with its world premiere at Sundance 2018, HUMAN SHELTER by Boris Bertram and LYKKELÆNDER by Lasse Lau, winner of CPH:DOX’s Nordic:Dox Award 2018.
Michael Dweck is an award-winning American filmmaker and contemporary visual artist. Best recognized for his evocative narrative photography, Dweck artistically investigates the on-going struggles between identity and adaptation found within endangered societal enclaves. Dweck’s works have been featured in solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries worldwide, and are part of prestigious international art collections, including the archive of the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where two of his long-form television pieces reside. In his first feature-length film, “The Last Race” (Sundance US Documentary Competition 2018), Dweck extended his exploratory repertoire by combining observational documentary, stylized imagery, and a symphonic merging of motion and sound.
Roger Goula is a London based composer and multi-instrumentalist whose range of original works spans across albums, film scores, music for dance, TV, theatre and art installation. Coming from a contemporary classical background, Roger’s work has developed into an experimental approach of classical chamber and orchestral music blended with electronics. Inspired by renaissance and baroque music, as well as by minimalism, and looking at the language of electronic music and sampling, his compositions perform complexity through repetition of minimal elements and emotional transporting textures. Roger’s solo debut album Overview Effect was released in 2016 by Cognitive Shift in partnership with One Little Indian.