Saturday, August 2, 2008

Just Listen

I'm completely deaf in my left ear. Besides giving me a reputation for being "aloof" or "shy" at cocktail parties and noisy restaurants, my shoddy monophonic hearing has inspired in me a peculiar fascination with cinematic sound design. Perhaps it's only in movies that I can actually hear everything I need to hear. Maybe having only one working ear has made me more aware of sounds and how they color my emotional responses to what I see. Both my parents are musicians, so it might be that I experience all cinematic elements - color, movement, shape, plot, dialogue, effects, and so on - as a kind of music. For whatever reason, I don't just like to watch; I like to listen.

David Lynch is often praised for his surreal imagery. But, the next time you are watching one of his films, try closing your eyes. You will hear ominous roars, churning machines, the laughter of children, gushing liquids, and ripping metal. Now open your eyes and see how these disturbing sounds are juxtaposed with with images of a family dinner, a parking lot at Denny's, a smiling starlet, or a simple cup of coffee. Lynch's pictures are strange, but they are genius, in my mind, because of the sounds he marries them to.

The opening dream sequence in Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" is built with long moments of eerie silence punctuated by the shrill cry of a horse or the creak and snap of breaking wood. Remember the scene in which Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and the Police Captain? Watch the scene again and listen to how Michael's growing anxiety about the murder he is about to commit is revealed by the squeal and thunder of a nearby elevated train.

The image is presented to our conscious mind, but sounds work on the unconscious. This is why bad sound can ruin an otherwise compelling independent film - it's the annoying buzz that won't let us sleep when we aught to be dreaming. So, with this in mind, when I make films I spend a lot of time thinking about sound, even while writing the screenplay.

"Melancholy Baby," my short playing and this year's Visionfest tells the story of an agoraphobic man who falls in love with his neighbor by listening to her movements through their shared wall. The film is still in process at the time of this writing, but for me, it will be all about what the audience hears. Through the wall, he listens to her crying, coughing, walking, pleading, singing, and having an orgasm. We experience his loneliness through the groan and churn of an air conditioner. the gurgling pipes, the ring of tiny objects sorted into jars, and his nervous fingers tapping out a rhythm as loud as a drumbeat. These sounds are not "realistic." For him the world outside is an intimidating roar of birds, crows sounding off like air raid sirens. The audience hears the sounds as the main character feels them.

In order to get the sounds I wanted, I spent an entire production day "shooting sound" on the locations, recording everything from dog barks to footsteps, laughter and weeping. It was my only day as a director that I called "action" with my eyes closed.

Most of the time, of course, sound is just there to support picture, like Tonto or Sancho Panza. Most people think the sound is good if the dialog is clear, the music is catchy, and the explosions are loud. But for me, it's more than that. For me, one of the best parts of experiencing the most dynamic and power visual medium of all time... ... is listening.


Anonymous said...

Sean, you are the man! Despite my love of silent movies, sound is an amazing thing in motion pictures, literally half of the movie viewing experience.

Most sound these days is utterly overblown (when two people shakes hands it does NOT slap like a sucker-punch across the jaw) but there are some masterpieces that know how important their sound is to the story; you example of Wild Strawberries is spot on. Another would be all of David Lean's Oliver Twist, and the sound work in Lean's last film, A Passage to India is down right artistic (Just before Mrs. Moore sees Godbole saluting her from the train depot, the surrounds kick in on the locomotion and begin to sound otherworldly, as if hearing it she looks out the window to see what's up and there is Godbole in a prayer stance). Great stuff.

There are other great examples, Flora's singing and the birds chirruping cutting off just before Miss Giddons has a vision in The Innocents, or a far off train whistle in Brief Encounter, all mean more than a thousand words.

I recently wrote a blog on my MySpace about Visual Poetry, and now feel it needs amending. Even I, who love sound so deeply, took it for granted while writing the blog!

Anyway, I'm very glad you brought this up. When I was in film school, one of the intructors, JP Geuens, a great teacher with a dry Belgian sense of humor, told me I should get into sound when he saw or heard what I'd done with my short film. At the time, I was as dumb as everyone else and thought Nobody sees sound, it's the picture I'm interested in. I often wonder where I'd be now if I'd taken his sage advice.

Perhaps I should have listened.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Sean...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sean! It was great fun to work on Melancholy! It's a real treat to find people like you who have such respect for what we do!
Tom Curley, CAS

Anonymous said...

I just got done reading the blog, "Just Listen". I can truly relate to this blog. As a musician myself and film fanatic, I have thought about what you stated many times in the matter of not only watching, but listening as well. This has helped me in the past compose interesting sounds, to say the least, because it shows me another dimensional aspect of a sound in my mind. However just recently I have thought about this even more, especially when recording/composing new sounds/songs, based on a recent experience w/ my son.

Since living in the Netherlands over the last year, my 11 year old son now watches cartoons in Dutch. Although he is learning Dutch in school now, he is still not fluent. Well to get to my point, one day he and I were watching a cartoon called "The Fairly Odd Parents". While we were watching this cartoon, both of us could not understand what they were saying, however, our interest grew stronger as we saw it to be more interesting with the Dutch language.

We basically grew a stronger appreciation for the cartoon as we were literally forced to try and understand what they were saying by their movements, tone of the Dutch language spoken, and the environment around them. Getting back to my point, I too concur with your fascination with "cinematic sound design". Without a true understanding of this topic, a film could truly miss a spectacular addition to its already visual appeal. I would say my son and my wife have a stronger appreaciation with movies/tv now, because of our enhanced attunement of sound and visual images, as we attempt to understand the Dutch language daily while watching our basic TV. Sorry if this was too long.. :)