26 July 2010

The Sound of Movies

The wonderful online film magazine Reverse Shot has just released an entire issue devoted to sound, with essays on the sound of specific and quite varied films:
If one shot can contain an entire film in essence, then can a sound? And if the instantaneous break between two images contains shifts in perception that are the exclusive domain of cinema, then what happens when the aural element is added? Since the late twenties, sound has been as essential an ingredient as the shot or the cut in film’s construction, yet more often than not it isn’t discussed in film criticism, with all elements of mise-en-scène making it take a back seat.
I'm very sensitive to sound in general, and whenever I used to direct plays I spent nearly as much time on the sound design as anything else.  For the past eight months or so, I've been working as the sound recordist for an independent film some friends of mine are making, and that's made me even more aware of film sound than I was before.  Movies are often said to be "a visual medium", but this isn't entirely true -- they are, certainly, a visual medium, but they're not just that.  Part of the magic of cinema is that it uses so many different art forms at once, and sound is a central part of our experience of any movie.  Even silent films weren't actually silent.

There are lots of good essays at Reverse Shot, though a couple of moments stood out for me.  First, I was glad to see Matt Zoller Seitz writing again about The New World, since he's been one of the film's most intelligent champions ever since it was released.  (BFI should hire him to write one of their Film Classics monographs about it.)
Taken together, Malick’s multiplicity of mirrored images and situations, repeated music tracks and sound effects suggest that the story of The New World isn’t meant to be interpreted as self-contained and linear—locked-off from the rest of time and space—but as a microcosm of a larger cycle, a lone rotation of a clock’s second hand. When spring and fall arrive, we open our windows. The sound of wind moving through hallways and rooms reminds us that one phase, one chapter, is ending, and another is beginning (or vice-versa); that we’re forever leaving one place, one space, and entering another. 
I was pleased, too, to read Elbert Ventura's essay on Heat, because one of my strongest memories from first watching the film (which I saw three times in the theatre on its first release) is of thinking, "Wow -- that's the most realistic gunfire I've ever heard in a movie!"  I was nineteen, still living in a gun shop when I wasn't at college, and I knew what those weapons sounded like.  I also knew, to some extent, how hard it is to capture the sound of guns, having taken a video camera to a couple machine-gun shoots (the noise totally overwhelmed the puny mic in the camcorder and almost liquified the tape).  There's a resonance to gunfire that is difficult to replicate.  Michael Mann cares about the weapons in his movies, he's fanatical about accuracy, and in the "Battle of Los Angeles" scene, he and the sound designers ended up choosing to use the live production sound of the guns firing.  There is a meaning more important than verisimilitude, though, as Ventura notes: "Beyond its authenticity, the bruising boom feels definitive, taking us beyond the disposable sounds of mayhem in other movies."

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