Forum 1: Favourite Moments of Film Sound

Celebrating 80 Years of the Sound Film

by Jim Batcho, Aden Evens, Claudia Gorbman, Andre Habib, Thomas Phillips, Martin Shingler, Donato Totaro, Elisabeth Weis, William Whittington, Benjamin Wright Volume 11, Issue 8-9 / September 2007 34 minutes (8274 words)

Editor’s Intro:

This issue begins with a celebration of sound in film, bringing together ten short essays by a variety of film scholars detailing auditory moments from the history of cinema that they have found to be worthy of discussion. From The Jazz Singer through to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with a number of stops in North America and Europe along the way, this collection reflects a variety of interests in film sound: Evens, Gorbman, and Phillips each appreciate the role of silence in their chosen excerpts; Batcho, Shingler, Totaro and Whittington offer selections which establish alternate realities through elaborate soundtracks that play with the boundaries between interior and exterior experience; Weis considers three distinct approaches to audiovisual relationships as demonstrated by her selections from three acknowledged masters of the art; Habib discusses the profound role that listening plays for the characters in his chosen film; and Wright rounds the forum out with some thoughts on a very particular sound effect that transcends the boundaries of a single work and can be heard as a motif spanning the past fifty years of Hollywood sound design. Taken as a whole, this forum reflects approaches to filmmaking that consider sound to be an integral part of their overall design. As such, this set of essays serves as an ideal opener to this special edition of_ Offscreen _dedicated to the pursuit of audiovisual integration in the cinema and beyond. -RJ


Overlapping Levels of the Diegesis

Jim Batcho on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The soundtrack for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is remarkable in its ability to stretch the concept of the diegesis to the extreme. The film employs strategies of creative ambiguity regarding the line between the inside and the outside of the diegesis by incorporating what might best be thought of as two distinct, overlapping and often simultaneous levels of diegetic sound. The first (D1) is the more objective world of the narrative’s unfolding, including the romance of Joel and Clementine and the events revolving around support characters. The second (D2) is the completely subjective, internal, experiential “story” of the romance, and the threats by science and psychological insecurity to dismantle their blossoming relationship. But it isn’t simply a matter of two separate attributes of the story told in juxtaposition (although that does occur). The real magic is the way in which the two realities blend and even interact with one other. This magic lies within the realm of the aural.

The simultaneous co-existence of the two layers of the diegesis is best exemplified by a three minute sequence in which two medical assistants are in Joel’s living room erasing his memories of Clementine. The objective representation of the medical procedure can be thought of as the first level of the diegesis (D1). As this plays out, we are also offered the subjective diegesis (D2) which presents us with Joel’s mental experience of the erasure process. Inside D2, we are given the story of his romance with Clementine and his efforts to stop the process that he now regrets undertaking. But these conditions do not happen in isolation. While Joel interacts with the memories being eliminated in D2, he can also hear the events taking place in D1.

Objective reality is represented using the standard Hollywood aesthetic code: clean, monophonic dialogue complemented by unobtrusive room ambience, a dog barking outside, and literal, onscreen sound effects like paper shuffling, a computer keyboard, beer bottles, and footsteps. Joel’s internal experience of these same events, on the other hand, is suggested through offscreen, unlocalizable dialogue that is reverberated, flanged, and spread out across multiple channels. At the same time, he is reliving his memories, the sonic treatment of which varies depending on the situation. When his memories are clear and tangible, the soundtrack is dry, free of noise, and perfectly intelligible. But as a memory is removed, these same sounds are degraded using techniques that suggest loss. At one point, Clementine’s dialogue becomes fragmented and distorted. Concurrently, the music that we assumed was the non-diegetic score follows the same process through its gradual eradication. Finally, we are given subtle non-diegetic sound effects to enhance the sense of erasure. As a memory is being eliminated, we hear either tape rewinding at high speed, or a pyrotechnic fizzle as it disappears. These sounds are not to be found on any level of the diegesis; they are not a part of the objective diegesis, nor are they to be found within Joel’s memories. They exist simply for the audience as a means of intensifying the idea that such erasure has occurred. It might be said that these non-diegetic sound effects constitute a third level of the diegesis: that of audience’s perception of the events presented within the other two. It is on the point of erasure that these three levels merge, and it is here that film’s soundtrack is most interesting.

The soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine not only offers a clever means of telling a story, it is also one of the most courageous I’ve ever experienced. A particular concept of fidelity (based on intelligibility) is the guiding principle of Hollywood sound, and here this principle is radically disregarded in order to support the concept of erasure. The film literally destroys clarity, yet this is not done arbitrarily. Rather, the creative minds behind the film realized how such treatments would evoke strong character empathy and the narrative progression of a story about loss, both on the level of personal relationships and the loss of the line that separates levels of the diegesis into neat categories for our unquestioning consumption.


Senseless Violence

Aden Evens on Patriot Games

What renders the scene truly terrifying, magnifying its moral weight, is the lack of sound. One sees the bodies startle then fall still onto the invisible sand of the desert, but there are no gunshots and no explosive concussions when the guided missiles from nearby helicopters make sure the job is properly finished. Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games (1992) stands in silence, ashamed and impotent, watching from some control room at The Pentagon as wall monitors depict an event taking place halfway around the world: the surreptitious elimination of a terrorist training camp. Two brief and rather dim establishing shots — low flying helicopters, and commando troops moving through the desert — are the only views we get “from the ground,” while the remainder of the scene is presented to us (and to Ryan) from the perspective of a spy satellite. Infrared registration and computer enhancement offer a bird’s-eye view, the pure motion of blurry white figures entering the camp at night, killing everyone there in a matter of seconds. Standing and running figures crumple, others crawl half way out of bed before they are aborted. From the eye in the sky, it seems all too surreal, as the only visible forms are person-shaped blobs whose fuzzy motion leaves ghostly traces across the low-resolution, grayscale image. (Bush, Sr.’s war hovers clearly in the background.)

The tension in the scene derives from its moral ambiguity, itself produced by pervasive visual ambiguity. Jack Ryan only suspects, but cannot be sure, that this terrorist camp is where the “bad guys” are hiding out; the satellite images that would confirm their presence are not high enough in resolution to do so. Ryan attempts to ascertain the identity of the terrorists by playing a computer version of Antonioni’s Blow-Up game (which finds Ford reprising a scene he had famously played ten years earlier in Blade Runner). But he can do no better than to isolate the image of a t-shirt apparently filled out with “tits,” as he exclaims on seeing a computer-enhanced image of the desert camp in a previous scene. The presence of these tits (one of the bad guys is a woman) and a few other corroborating factors are enough to persuade Ryan’s superiors to green-light the operation. Ryan ends up looking on at the distant silent murders in bewilderment and shame, having withheld judgment only to be overridden by rasher minds.

Vision’s inadequacy is emphasized many times over: the satellite initially offers no information at all about the occupants of the camp, who hide whenever it passes over. The spy cameras therefore must be “re-tasked” at great expense to allow an oblique view of the camp when the occupants are not aware of being watched. The killing scene itself interjects ASCII computer terminals flashing “Live Feed,” highlighting the mediation between the event and its display (the remoteness of the killers at The Pentagon) and signaling with heavy-handed irony that this “live” shot is all about dead people.

Without sound, the scene horrifies, for the distance at which the killing is being carried out becomes morally infinite. Spectators at The Pentagon do not recognize themselves as occupying the same world as the one where the killings are happening, for no human cry crosses that chasm. The surveillance at a distance is certainly ominous on its own, but only the absence of sound finally severs the phenomenal embrace that would tie the murderers to their actions. Ryan’s own silence is powerfully set off by the smug remark of a nearby bureaucrat, who apparently lacks Ryan’s moral qualms: “That … is a kill.” Ryan responds with a look of fear and pain, a tiny version of that lopsided smirk that Ford uses whenever a scene calls for a mixed emotion. In Totality and Infinity, Lévinas says that the face of the other imposes upon us our ethical obligation to that person. Patriot Games shows that in this age of mediated vision, it is rather the voice of the other that calls to our humanity, so that we must tread carefully when that voice cannot be heard. As it turns out, the intended targets of the killing are not in the camp at the time of the attack.


The Return of Silence

Claudia Gorbman on The Jazz Singer

Something about the second talking interlude of The Jazz Singer (1927) compels me to show it to film studies classes whenever possible. I like to start the film running a good ten minutes before that scene so students can get the feel of the silent film with recorded scoring. Jakie Rabinowitz / Jack Robin finds out that after years of exile, he’s been hired to star in a show back home in New York. “New York!” the titles exclaim for him. “Broadway! Home! MOTHER!” Crosscut between Mama (preparing for father’s birthday) and Jack excitedly striding through the pushcart-filled Jewish neighborhood towards home. Move to the tearful reunion with dear mother, where there is a pointed absence of Jakie’s childhood portrait from the wall. The live microphone turns on, and the irrepressible Jolson takes over. Sitting down at the piano, Jack sings “Blue Skies” to his beaming mother. Then, the mic still on, he vamps with one hand on the piano:

Jack: Did you like that, Mama?

Mama: Yes.

Jack: I’m glad of it. I’d rather please you than anybody I know of. Oh, darlin’ – will you give me something?

Mama: What?

Jack: You’ll never guess. Shut your eyes, Mama. Shut ‘em for little Jakie. I’m gonna steal something [he kisses her and then laughs]. I’ll give it back to you someday too – you see if I don’t. Mama darlin’, if I’m a success in this show, well, we’re gonna move from here. Oh yes, we’re gonna move up in the Bronx. A lot of nice green grass up there, and a whole lot of people you know. There’s the Ginsbergs, the Guttenbergs, and the Goldbergs, oh, a whole lot of bergs. […] And I’m going to get you a nice pink dress that will go with your brown eyes.

Mama: Oh, no, Jakie, no. I – I…

Jack: What do you mean, no? Who, who’s tellin’ ya? What do you mean no? Yes, you’ll wear pink or else. Or else you’ll wear pink…

How much of this Jolson improvised is almost beside the point. Eugenie Besserer, the mother, is thoroughly flustered in such a lovely way, gurgling with confusion and laughter at Jolson’s doting logorrhea. This is by no means the first time the public heard recorded dialogue: sound shorts had showcased famous people like George Bernard Shaw and Calvin Coolidge and performers both sublime and ridiculous (e.g., one Gus Visser and his singing duck). But Jolson of the gigantic ego, long known for show-stealing on stage, was treating this feature movie like yet another live revue. His riffing about the Bergs in the middle of his song must have proved exciting for audiences indeed: after over thirty years of a certain cinema, this avalanche of chatting felt like a new form of life itself. Mordaunt Hall marveled in his New York Times review of The Jazz Singer,

possibly all that disappointed the people in the packed theater was the fact that they could not call upon him or his image at least for an encore. They had to content themselves with clapping and whistling after Mr. Jolson’s shadow finished a realistic song. (10/7/27)

The “Blue Skies” monologue still stuns, eighty years later, in its contrast to the silent-film-with-music baseline regime of the movie. Not only had the cinema been voiceless, Jolson’s voice, when it springs forth, is such a specific one—playful, melodic, elastic, as Jewish as pastrami on rye. The scene becomes increasingly silly when he reprises “Blue Skies” as “jazzy”: his eyes bug, his hands slap the piano keys, and his voice lets loose with hepped-up tempo, ever more rubato, sliding, syncopation, lyrics spoken and sung, and added syllables.

But this isn’t all. As Jack sings his jazzy “Blue Skies,” the stern bearded father enters in the background—a creepy use of deep space to be reprised in Psycho’s shower murder by Norman’s mother. The Cantor sees the transgressive spectacle of mother and son. His shout of “Stop!” indeed stops the song dead. Talk about the non-du-Père. The synch microphone cuts out, and no fewer than seven shots follow in a total silence dominated by the father’s castrating stare—Jack, Mama, Jack and Mama, father, and so on—before the film returns to its “silent” regime with canned orchestral music. The child was caught with his pants down, kibitzing with mom in the playground of sound.

Already, in this first step into the talkies, silence has become a powerful weapon.


Time In and Out of Synch: The Sound of Melancholia

André Habib on La Maman et la putain

One can argue that Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain (1973) is a film about listening. Listening to records, to the radio, and to one’s partner in conversation are the principal activities of this exceptional film. Smoking, love making and drinking are also important, yet these activities are often combined with various modes of listening as well. Throughout the film, we are in situations of seeing and hearing someone listening to a song or a long speech, in a domestic room or a public café. When records are played, the songs are usually heard from beginning to end in long sequences with minimal editing, as is the case with the closing scene of the film’s first half.

After two hours of screen time (and with still more than 90 minutes to go), we are — as we have been and will often be again — in the early hours of the morning, sharing the intimacy between Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Véronika (Jeanne Lebrun), “squatting” in the apartment belonging to Marie (Bernadette Lafond), a friend who is away on a trip. The light is a soft and natural grey, the shots consist mainly of close-ups, and every sound is recorded direct. At times the sound is also “improperly” mixed, with frequent distortion and sudden shifts in level, adding another layer of “purity” to the film’s auditory dimension.

The scene begins with a shot of a vinyl record placed on a turntable. The sound of an accordion, enveloped by the crackling of the record’s grain, begins to resonate. A female voice follows shortly after, enunciating with the rugged rolling of the r’s typical of French singers of the 30’s. The song that we hear, “La Chanson Des Fortifs”, recorded by Fréhel in 1938, is a nostalgic evocation of the Paris of La Belle Époque, the Paris of Aristide Bruant, of Casque d’or, of the songs of pre-WWI (“les rrrefrrrains d’avant guerrrre”) and les “p’tits bistrots des barrrièèèrrrres.” As the song plays, Véronika listens, smiles, smokes. Alexandre hums and clumsily tries to sing the words, laughs and whistles the tune, beating the rhythm with his index finger: “Il n’y a plus de fortifications, mais y’aurrra toujourrrs des chansons.” The song talks of the charming décors of yesterday that have disappeared, but also of the ones which will tomorrow appear, and disappear as well, “à chacun son temps.”

The nostalgia in this scene plays on at least two levels: the song is a typical tune which evokes the Belle Époque (1895-1914), that a French singer of the late 30’s can reminisce upon with distance and regret; on a second level, the song and its acoustic particularities (the sound of the recording technology of the time, the grain and accent of the voice, etc.) in this post-May 68 film, melancholically recalls a past that has now disappeared, a sentiment of a fleeting present shared by many in the 70’s. Thus, the song by Fréhel is transformed into a complex time-capsule: it not only evokes, but has itself become, a “joli refrain d’avant-guerre” (WWII). The “fortifications” now immediately parallel the “barricades” of May 68 that have also disappeared (and with them, this romantic revolutionary spirit of the 60’s). Eustache transforms this banal “old French song” into a self-reflexive “objet trouvé”: it evokes a long-lost past and encapsulates a present while projecting itself into a future. And in the same way, the song is a “mise en abyme” for what La maman et la putain achieves using the technology of film: it is in itself a melancholic film about time’s fleeting; at the same time, by the way it bears the imprint of its own present, it appears to us today as a fleeting collection of fragments of a reality that has now disappeared.

When the record ends, Véronika sings an “old song” of her own, her thin and high pitched voice delicately interpreting a love ballad which reflects the situation between her and Alexandre: “Mon Coeur est une fleur d’automne/Sans savoir pourquoi ni comment/Vous l’avez pris/Je vous le donne/Tout simplement”. Alexandre listens patiently. When she is finished, the camera remains a long time on her face, until she says: “Vous me gênez…” (“You’re intimidating me”). Alexandre looks at the time and says: “Ah! C’est l’heure du prédicateur du petit matin” (“It’s time for the morning preacher”). He puts the radio on, finds the station, and we hear the voice of a man with a thick accent, preaching about the decadence, laziness and moral decay of modern civilisation, ultimately soliciting subscriptions to the magazine The Pure Truth. At the end of the broadcast, Alexandre shuts the radio off and begins to explain how he is fascinated by the pronunciation and rhythm of speech of the announcer. He tries to imitate his voice, repeating the last sentence: “Alors, mes amis, c’est Dipar Apartian qui vous parle et vous dit: au revoir et à bientôt.” This man, as Alexandre puts it, is nothing but a voice to him. He has no idea what he looks like. He is like “the man of the 18th of June” (i.e. Charles de Gaulle, who’s famous speech on June 18th 1940 consolidated the spirit of the resistance) who, for four years — during the occupation of France— was only a voice, the very-voice of “la France libre,” broadcasted from London.

If the vinyl record evoked this double relation of presence of and distance to the past, the radio broadcast of Ditar Apartian invites an association with another relationship to the “sound of the past” which is no less complex: the sound of De Gaulle’s voice. This voice is at the same time the very embodiment of Resistance and Liberation, but also the paternalist voice that represented the repression during the months of May and June 1968. (It is worth noting, in this respect, that it was through the radio, and not a television broadcast, that De Gaulle addressed himself to the people of France on the 30th of May 1968, during which he dissolved the parliament and announced the ensuing elections). The following moments in La maman et le putain will confirm this association.

Alexandre, right after talking about “l’homme du 18 juin,” all of a sudden begins to speak of a little café on St-Michel, which opens at 5:25 and where they could go for breakfast. He talks about the people one encounters there, imitating their voices, repeating their sentences, trying to speak, as he says, “avec les mots des autres” (“in the words of others”). As Alexandre evokes the movement and agitation, anecdotes and diverse accents which form the rich sound tapestry of the café, its vibrancy begins to burgeon and take shape before our ears. After a pause, he begins to recall a particular day during May 68. The café was full of people. Everyone was crying: “It was very beautiful, he adds. A teargas bomb had fallen in the café…” After another pause, he continues: “If I hadn’t gone there every morning, I wouldn’t have seen any of this. Whereas there, before my eyes, a breach had opened in reality.” His voice becomes worried and he begins to shake his head, saying, “it’s too late, let’s not go there. I’m afraid I will not see any of it anymore. I’m scared. I’m scared. I wouldn’t want to die.” And here the image fades to black…

This 9 minute sequence is emblematic of the way Eustache explores and intertwines issues of temporality and memory (individual and collective) with sound technology (phonographs and radio), creating an intimate portrait of a generation (his own) caught between the glorious myths of the New Wave and the depressive aftermath of May 68 (the presence of Léaud being crucial for both). This is a generation in search of lost time, regained only by working through the complex layering of time’s various tenses: the sound of melancholia, in this film, is situated precisely here, in the oscillation between past and present, condemned to be simultaneously in and out of synch with the sound of its own time.


Particular Silences

Thomas Phillips on The Haunting

In his recent collection of essays, Minute Particulars, percussionist and improviser Edwin Prévost suggests that “moments of significant silent serenity are only ever achieved after some kind of catharsis” (38). In relation to music as a stand-alone medium, I could not disagree with this claim more vehemently. Such silence need not necessarily be preceded by the howling voices of metallic scrapes and electronic feedback in order to engage the listener in a profound musical or even spiritual experience. I find more common ground with Prévost when sound and image are combined within the cinema. My chosen cinematic moment exemplifies the conversation (to use a term familiar to improvisers) between silence and precisely the kind of catharsis to which Prévost refers – a rewarding reciprocity indeed.

Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) utilizes both silence and percussive noise to generate horror (especially effective in the space of a theatre) that is relatively independent of any visual manifestation of the abject. I say “relatively” because Davis Boulton’s cinematography provides a striking collection of images that clearly support the sound. Normally in such films, that which haunts is revealed as a more or less human object to be seen: a killer, an alien, a monstrous Other (with an obvious exception being the absent witch of The Blair Witch Project). In the Wise film, however, the abject is produced most prominently as an auditory experience.

We first encounter the sonic force of this absent presence along with two female characters who are highly sensitive, and thus vulnerable to infection by the uncanny. Huddled together in a bed, they are literally surrounded by the mounting volume of a pulsing, rhythmic bang issuing from Hill House. The sound begins at a distance from the bedroom and moves closer and closer until it reaches the door, at which point it has become uncomfortably loud. “It was looking for the room with someone inside,” says Eleanor, the weaker of the two. This is a moment of filmic suture, or conferred subjectivity; we as spectators, and more importantly as listeners, join her and are compelled to occupy the same space as the “someone” for whom “it” is searching. Like Eleanor, we are suddenly submerged in existential absence in the process of being addressed by that which is itself a terrifying but empty signifier. And yet, Eleanor’s voice-over narration, accompanied by conventional string music, subverts this identification; it reminds us that it is the well-being of an individual psyche, not our own, which is at stake in this confrontation between the human and the supernatural. Her enunciation and its soundtrack, I would argue, are the weakest elements of the film. One may be reminded here of Tarkovsky’s Alexander in The Sacrifice who complains of the ineffectual “words, words, words!” polluting modern life.

I suggest that what salvages The Haunting, and this scene in particular, is the interplay between noise and silence. Once “it” finds us, we are accosted by a stark tension that develops during “its” explosive blasts and in the mute wake that follows. In “its” silence, lasting as long as nine seconds, anticipation of the next attack becomes the real monster. This silence generates simple fear as process, territorialization, and catharsis: our fear. Upon reaching the door, the noise reverts to a clicking sound and the knob begins to turn. Jump-cuts move from object to object. The house itself is searching; an objectification that in no way delimits our experience of the abject, given that we are positioned within “its” own nightmarish space and action (again, most effective in a theatre). A ghostly cackling follows, drenched in reverb, with only vague connections to the narrative.

As the resonance of this final sound fades into a drone, and then back to silence, a period of calm descends. The second woman responds with the realization that “it’s over.” The haunting has ended, for the time being. The monster has absconded to “its” place in the depths of the unconscious, temporarily shrouded by familiar forces, the buffers of defence mechanization. A “silent serenity” is achieved post-havoc that is well deserved for characters and viewer alike.

I enjoy horror films. I relish the sensation of having my own monsters let out to play. The more time I spend with both film and music, however, the more inclined I am towards a silence whose cost is a little less vocal.

Source Cited:

Prévost, Edwin. (2004). Minute Particulars. Essex: Copula.


Incessant and Inescapable Torment

Martin Shingler on Love is the Devil

I remember seeing John Maybury’s Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon at the time of its initial UK release, at the end of 1998, lured to the cinema by the fine performances of acting luminaries Derek Jacobi and Tilda Swinton, as well as the spectacle of Daniel Craig in and out of his underpants. I was intrigued to discover more about one of Britain’s most fascinating artists, the creator of compelling angst-ridden paintings, a man addicted to the delights of sado-masochism, the demon drink and rough trade. Reviews indicated that all of these would be well represented in this film, with its focus on the seven year relationship of Bacon (Jacobi) and his butch East-End bad-boy lover George Dyer (Craig), much of it set at the very heart of Soho’s demi-monde in the infamous Colony Club, run by larger-than-life lesbian Muriel Belcher (Swinton). Reviews promised an extraordinary visual feast emulating many of Bacon’s most famous works. Consequently, I was ready to be astounded by what I saw on the screen. I was, it’s true; but the big surprise was the film’s mind-bending soundtrack. Its “in yer face” (or “in yer ear”) Foley made a huge impact, while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score was disturbing and hypnotic. Together with Sound Designer Paul Davies, Sound Recordist Ken Lee and Foley Editor Bernard O’Reilly, Sakamoto created an astonishing soundtrack, providing an aural counterpoint to the film’s impressive imagery. The fractured, obscured and frequently distorted images were accompanied by crystal-clear sounds, close-miked and highly resonant. A cigarette lighter performed a minor explosion and the first drag produced a sustained crackle as the fag-tip glowed red, culminating with the exhaled smoke emitted with a roar. Elsewhere Sakamoto’s score heralded disturbing, mysterious and unfathomable sounds, mixed with low-level industrial and electronic noise, with the occasional intimation of animal cries. Droning and clanging sounds made for an air of menace, meditative but unsettling: an ambience of anxiety.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the film’s climactic scene, Dyer’s long-awaited suicide. Melding two discrete scenes of action, a Parisian hotel room and the Grand Palais, the soundtrack creates a third space, bizarre and mysterious, that could either be the inside of Dyer’s disturbed, drunken and drugged mind or the sound of Bacon’s pictorial universe. While Bacon attends the private view of his exhibition, his lover/muse is left alone at the hotel to drink and drug himself into oblivion. Beginning in a realistic mode, the soundtrack soon becomes much more expressionist. Images of Dyer glugging down pills with booze are accompanied by sounds from the Grand Palais. As the sounds of the museum infiltrate the hotel room, a strange sound emerges like an unnatural wind, rising in volume and pitch to become a squealing roar as Dyer staggers towards the bathroom to vomit. Clanging gongs accompany his distorted reflection standing over the toilet, while notes of a piano glisten over the sound of vomiting alongside the ongoing noise of rushing air, deep bass drones and metallic crashes, beautifully overlaid at one point by the exquisite patter of tiny pills landing upon the tiled bathroom floor. Random notes of a piano close the scene where Dyer’s broad pale back is transformed into an aesthetic composition that approaches abstraction but remains rooted in a horrible reality. The strange airy noises, like unintelligible ghostly voices of tormented spirits, swirl and then fade as the image dissolves into a stylish Parisian restaurant where Bacon is being fêted. This is a soundtrack designed to make your head swim, to unsettle and alarm, sustaining a low-level sense of menace and anxiety rather than punctuate the vivid contrasts of pleasure and pain: the soundtrack of an incessant and inescapable torment.


Into the Zone

Donato Totaro on Stalker

The trolley scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is a pivotal moment, which transports the three central characters from the edge of the city to the rural outskirts. The titular Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) guides two men, known only as the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Scientist (Nikolai Grinko), in search of a wish fulfilling room at the heart of a government-imposed restricted area referred to as the “Zone.” Perhaps most striking in this scene is its remarkable treatment of time: with five shots lasting a total of 3’42”, the sequence is experienced as ‘short’ in relation to the physical space traveled in the narrative, yet ‘long’ in relation to the psychological time as experienced by the characters. This effect is achieved, in large part, through the use of sound.

After they fire up the engine and head out along the track, a cut brings us to a close shot of the three men seated on the trolley. Along with this change in the image comes a stark change on the soundtrack: from the distant whirring of the loud trolley engine we move to the close-up clanking sound of the wheels on the tracks. This abrupt cut foreshadows the unreadable temporal intervals between each shot that serve to “elongate” the sequence’s representation of time. In the next shot we still hear the diegetic sound of the wheels on the train tracks, but here a non-diegetic sound is subtly introduced: an “unnatural” series of percussive electronic tonalities akin to the sound of bending sheet metal. By the end of this long take (1’37”) an aural balance has been established between the diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The shot then cuts to a close-up of the Writer in profile with his head tilted downward and then again to the Stalker in close-up, standing upright and looking steadfastly ahead. By this point the diegetic trolley sound is overwhelmed by the non-diegetic electronic sound. An effect of this shift in sonic balance is that the sound of the trolley wheels seems to take on the properties of the electronic sound, thus providing a point of cross-over between the inside and outside of the diegesis. The wheels no longer clank but appear muffled, distorted, and varied in pitch, much like the gyrating qualities of the electronics. This merging of diegetic and non-diegetic sound plays a great formal role in elongating and manipulating our understanding of time; the bending of pitch on both sonic planes creates the aural equivalent of “stretched” time.

The final shot of the trolley journey cuts from the black and white aesthetic used up until this point to a colour image of a lush, wooded landscape. The dramatic change to colour helps to increase the sense of geographical space covered (and hence affects our estimation of time). As the journey nears its end, the unnatural, non-diegetic sound abruptly stops and is replaced by a return to the diegetic sound of the wheels and tracks. The trolley then comes to a halt and we rest for a moment in absolute silence. Thanks in large part to the modulating, changing soundscape — combining the real with the unreal, natural with unnatural, diegetic with non-diegetic — the trolley journey registers a temporal vagueness, which symbolizes the spiritual journey that the three travelers are about to embark upon. In so doing this journey also foreshadows the very same shifting, “unreal” time-space properties of the “Zone,” a space that is perhaps miraculous, perhaps imaginary, and entirely perfect for exploring alternative possibilities in the relationships between sound and image on film.


Three Approaches to Sonic Creativity

Elisabeth Weis on Tati, Hitchcock, Antonioni

When thinking about the moments of film sound that appeal to me the most, it quickly becomes clear that no single approach to sound/image relationships can do justice to the heterogeneity that is necessarily found across different films. So I’ve settled on not one but three examples, which illustrate contrasting approaches that explore equal but very different avenues for the expressive power of sound in the cinema: the observational, the subjective, and the epistemological.

Tati’s Playtime (1967) is set up to let us hear sound afresh thanks to its minimal plot, dialogue, and underscoring. In this cinematic environment, the simple “thwup” of a vinyl chair returning to its original position after its seat has been depressed provides great comedy as well as insightful observation. Little moments like this make Playtime an observational masterpiece on the sounds and images of artificial materials and modernity. Tati is one of the few artists whose critique of modern society depends as much on what we hear as what we see.

While Tati wants us to recognize aural experiences common to us all, Hitchcock often wants his audience to share his protagonists’ misperceptions of reality—so that we can recognize how easy it is to perceive things subjectively. To convey a character’s guilt, Hitchcock often distorts sound in ways that would seem much too unrealistic for his aesthetic in other situations.

There are some remarkable instances of subjective sound in Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent (1936), a film in which the potential for social order to be overwhelmed by chaos is conveyed aurally through constant shifts from music to noise. In so doing, Hitch taps into the fact that what we generally call music is nothing other than sounds that have been ordered in space and time as harmony and rhythm. The shift from music to noise, presented as a character’s perception, conveys that character’s descent into the world of the irrational.

In The Secret Agent, Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) and Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll) are hired by British intelligence to kill an enemy spy during World War I. Edgar and the General (Peter Lorre) take the putative spy on a mountain hike (where they plan to stage an “accident”), while Elsa stays behind in a hotel with the victim’s wife and their dachshund. Hitchcock crosscuts between the hikers and the hotel room, where the dog, which has been associated with the spy throughout the film, whines, paws and then howls at the door, as if to warn its master. As the dog’s anxiety escalates, Hitchcock carries its noises over to the shots of the hikers. When Lorre pushes the victim off a cliff, we hear the heartrending baying of his dog, a slow, descending howl that suggests the plunge of the body, which we never actually see falling. The sequence ends with howling laid under a close-up of Carroll’s guilty face.

The next scene is set at a dockside café, where Edgar and Elsa find out that they have killed the wrong man. Once the couple has learned of their mistake, yodeling folksingers in the background sound as much like a dog howling as music. Under a delirious visual montage linking Elsa’s stricken face with the film’s ongoing motif of spinning objects, Hitchcock escalates the sound to a punishing level; the aural montage includes yodeling, coins whirling in the performers’ bowls, and the sound of the (absent) dog’s whining, which, while not subliminal, does require conscious effort to be noticed by the audience. Writing subjectivity into a scene’s design allows a filmmaker great leeway to exaggerate or otherwise exploit sound in a medium that usually valorizes seamless illusionism.

In Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni moves beyond subjective perception; he questions whether objective reality can be perceived at all. When the photographer revisits a park where he may have witnessed a murder, we hear a click that lacks definite attribution. The click can be interpreted as a snapped twig, a clicked camera shutter or a cocked gun. Each possibility suggests a different reality and interpretation, a multivalence that extends the film’s epistemological themes. Of course, the issues of subjectivity and interpretation are also raised by the photographs that have been sequenced to create what may or may not be evidence of a murder. These extreme blow-ups provide a display of visual ambiguity in a medium where images are usually more concrete and identifiable than sounds. So Antonioni manages to establish an all too rare equilibrium between sound and image based on their mutual lack of specificity.


Sound, Silence and Horror

William Whittington on The Exorcist

The arrival of the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to the home of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blare), a young girl possessed by the devil, is one of the most resonant scenes in horror film history. It is the haunting lull before the terrifying ritual of exorcism that is performed to purge the demon from Regan’s body and save her soul. Yet woven into this struggle is the battle for another soul, that of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and psychologist who fears a loss of faith brought on by mounting personal doubts and augmented by a family crisis. In the end, Father Karras finds that his ultimate redemption may lie in the fate of this young girl.

Though I’ve seen this film more than a half a dozen times, I still find it both provocative and terrifying, primarily because of the sound design (for which it won an Academy Award along with Best Screenplay). On initial viewing, the narrative appears somewhat fragmented as it moves from a dig in Northern Iraq to the domestic setting of a home in Georgetown. But the sound design for the film binds the narrative in subtle and idiosyncratic ways, clarifying the thematic opposition of good verses evil. More importantly, the film also demands a reading strategy that is highly invested in understanding how the story is structured by the sound.

For me, the most compelling sequence of the film is the opening set in Northern Iraq. Here, sound is used to establish the various conflicts that will recur throughout the film. Most notably among these conflicts is the tension between life and death that culminates in the transfer of the exorcism ritual from Merrin to Karras upon the former’s expiration near the end of the film. The inevitability of Merrin’s death is established from the beginning of the film as we find the priest on an archeological dig. Our initial impressions are formed by the wail of an Iraqi’s song against the blistering sun followed by the sounds of axes picking away at the earth. Yet an ominous tone linked with the discovery of a small demonic statue with a fierce expression indicates this will be a story of contrasts. As Merrin dusts off the figure, the metered rhythm of nearby diggers suggests a heartbeat. This rhythm is picked up in the next scene as we hear the sounds of steel being pounded at a nearby foundry and the drumming of local musicians, while Father Merrin sits at a street side café. This motif reflects Merrin’s heart condition suggested by the pills he takes with his tea. His hands shake and his face is drawn as he contemplates the dangerous spiritual task that he knows he must undertake in Georgetown. The pounding then becomes more pronounced as he makes his way through the streets next to the foundry, pausing only briefly to reveal a metal worker who has lost an eye, presumably from his work with the molten metal. The uncanny image suggests that perhaps all efforts in life take their physical and emotional toll. Meanwhile, the chanting and music within the sequence offer a variation on the motif of anxious flutters.

Moments later this sequence builds to a frightening crescendo inside the study of a fellow archeologist, yet it is a culmination founded upon the absence of sound. An abrupt cut takes us to the image of a wall clock, accented by the click of the pendulum mechanism. The sound of the street is now little more than a murmur. The close recordings of the Foley effects of a pen writing and Merrin examining the artifacts of the day bring a sense of intimacy and calm, reflecting perhaps the relationship between the two colleagues. But the calm is broken when Merrin’s associate mutters, “Evil verses Evil” as Merrin examines the figure he found earlier. The ticking clock suddenly stops. Silence. The moment is chilling. This abrupt end to the sound foreshadows Merrin’s eventual heart attack. What makes the sequence so rich for me is that, in this instant, the sound design accesses the metaphysical discourses around death and the afterlife, which sets the tone for the rest of the film.

When Merrin then says, “There is something I must do,” his character is illuminated even further. This is a man who knows he will die in a struggle that has gone on for centuries. His battle is only one in a long series. The Iraq sequence ends by reinforcing this notion through another sonic metaphor. This final sound spectacle occurs when Merrin goes to face the statue of the laughing demon. Suddenly, the sound of two dogs fighting blankets the soundtrack. The sound design begins as a realistic accompaniment to a shot of nearby dogs at each other’s throats. But then the sound becomes amplified and processed, exceeding its grounding in the tangible world and assuming a privileged position beyond. This mixing strategy reveals the endless battle between good and evil that will find echoes throughout the film (such as when the butler and the film director fight and snarl at one another during the MacNeil dinner party). Most important among these echoes is when the possessed Regan growls and attacks the two priests during the exorcism, bringing Merrin’s experience in Iraq full circle with the moment of his impending death in Georgetown, just before passing the battle on to the next in line. The film depends on such echoes to tightly weave together the narrative and themes of the film. The effect is sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, yet these variations function skillfully to structure the storytelling and draw us into this world of sound, silence and horror.


The Wilhelm Scream

By Benjamin Wright

Let me set the scene. A stormtrooper falls to his death aboard the Death Star; a Nazi henchman is thrown off a speeding truck driven by our hero; a wild gunfighter is shot in the face during an opening battle; and a space-age toy is tossed out a window by a swiveling desk lamp. These fleeting cinematic moments of desperation and distress share something so sonically elemental that an untrained ear would miss it entirely. Amoung the dense layers of sound effects, music, and dialogue of these films is a stock vocal effect that has transcended its status as a bygone relic of Old Hollywood to become a fixture in contemporary cinema. That is, a fixture in the world of sound editors and movie geeks. I am, of course, talking about the Wilhelm Scream. To Hollywood sound editors the ubiquity of this nimble scream has become an iconic symbol of professional craft and humor.

You might think that one male scream is like any other, particularly if the shriek lasts less than two seconds. Indeed, the sound department at Warner Bros. in the 1950s had the same very thought when a stock scream effect was added to the studio library after its initial use in the 1951 western, Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper. As a group of soldiers wade through a Florida swamp, attempting to evade a slew of Seminole Indians, one unlucky private is dragged under the water and consumed by an alligator. As with most other sound elements, the vocal effects for this scene were added in post-production and performed by an actor other than the one portrayed on screen. The precise name given to the scream was “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six recordings were made of varying pitch, intensity, and duration; the fifth take was ultimately used for the poor private’s dying cry.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the scream and its six variants were used in a number of Warner Bros. productions, including The Charge at Feather River (1953), Them! (1954) and The Wild Bunch (1968). In the 1970s, legend has it that budding sound editor and USC film student Ben Burtt recognized the stock scream and later sought out its origins at the Warner effects library when researching sounds for George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). Nicknaming it the “Wilhelm scream” after Private Wilhelm from The Charge at Feather River, Burtt continued to use the takes throughout the 1980s in films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Willow (1988), and each and every Star Wars sequel and prequel. Soon, a group of other sound editors including Richard Anderson, Gary Rydstrom, and Randy Thom began using the Wilhelm scream in features as disparate as Poltergeist (1982), Toy Story (1995), and Monster House (2006).

Having caught my ear only a few years ago, the most iconic of the Wilhelm screams is actually take four, which is best explained as the sound that Weequay makes when he falls into the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi (1983). After discovering the long history of Wilhelm’s journey from stock effect to popular icon, the search for new uses of the scream has become a novel pastime.

As a sonic signature, the Wilhelm shriek binds together decades of film sound history, even if its effect is smirk inducing. While the scream is not memorable for its intensity, drama, or timbre, it has resonated with sound practitioners who continue to breathe new life into what should be a stale and clichéd sound effect. Not quite homage or even parody, Wilhelm is both a paean to the studio era and a testament to the art of sound effects editing. It may qualify as esoteric Hollywood trivia, but it more aptly describes the continuities in film sound practices over the last eighty or so years.

In the end, then, a scream by any other name is still a scream. Along with the Universal wind and rain effects of the 1930s, the Wilhelm scream offers an aesthetic sensibility that is equally at home on the scratchy analog soundtracks of the studio era and on the Dolbyized soundtracks of the post-classical era. To be sure, whenever a villain is thrown from a car or a hapless character tumbles to his unfortunate death, Wilhelm can’t be too far behind.

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  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jim Batcho
  • Patriot Games by Aden Evens
  • The Jazz Singer by Claudia Gorbman
  • La Maman et la putain by Andre Habib
  • The Haunting by Thomas Phillips
  • Love is the Devil by Martin Shingler
  • Stalker by Donato Totaro
  • Tati, Hitchcock, Antonioni by Elisabeth Weis
  • The Exorcist by William Whittington
  • The Wilhelm Scream by Benjamin Wright
  • Jim Batcho is a San Francisco-based writer, sound editor, and musician. He has also taught courses in audio-for-video and aesthetics at San Francisco State University, and is currently Visiting Professor of Sound Studies in the Digital Contents Dept. at KyungSung University in Busan, Korea.

    Aden Evens is Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, specializing in new media. His current research explores the creative possibilities and limitations of digital technologies, starting from a theory of digital ontology. His first book, Sound Ideas (University of Minnesota Press 2005), is a phenomenological study of the effects of technology on the aesthetics of music and sound. Under the project name, “re:,” Aden has released two records of electroacoustic music on the Constellation label based in Montréal.

    Claudia Gorbman is professor of film studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She is the author of Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana and BFI, 1987), and has translated several books from French, including three by Michel Chion and another in the works. She is also currently working on a book on the films of Agnes Varda for the University of Illinois directors series under James Naremore.

    André Habib somehow became professor of film studies at the Université de Montréal after working as a videostore clerk, while remaining a cinephile and critic, and without ever having been able to direct a movie. He joined the team of Hors champ in 2000, with Simon Galiero, Frédérick Pelletier and Nicolas Renaud. Since 2016 he is chief editor of the journal (with Renaud Desprès-Larose, Nour Ouayda and Olivier Godin). He has published over 250 articles and organized more than 30 public events. He is the author, among others, of La main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud (Boréal, 2015) and L’attrait de la ruine (Yellow Now, 2011).

    Thomas Phillips (b. 1969) is a composer, novelist, and teacher whose sound work focuses on improvisational performance and minimalist through-composition. He began composing electronic music in the early 1990s, releasing limited edition cd-rs under such monikers as Sea Optic, Lisbon and Eto Ami (with Dean King), and has since released music on such labels as Trente Oiseaux (Germany), Non Visual Objects (Austria) and Line (USA). Additionally, he has created music for installations and collaborations in dance and theatre. Thomas has taught in the disciplines of literature and fine arts at various universities in the US, Québec, and Finland. In 2007 he completed a PhD at Concordia University in Montreal. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC, where he teaches literature at North Carolina State University.

    Martin Shingler is Senior Lecturer in Radio & Film Studies at the University of Sunderland (UK) having spent fifteen years lecturing on film and media courses at Staffordshire University (UK). He has specialist expertise in melodrama and the woman’s film, screen acting, the star system, film sound, radio drama and comedy. He is the co-author of two books, On Air: Methods and Meanings of Radio, with Cindy Wieringa, (Arnold, 1998) and Melodrama: Genre, Style & Sensibility, with John Mercer (Wallflower Press, 2004). He has also published a number of essays on the Hollywood film star Bette Davis, which appear in the books Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences, eds. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (BFI, 2001) and Screen Acting, eds. Alan Lovell and Peter Kramer, (Routledge 1999), and in the journals Screen, Journal of American Studies, Journal of Film & Video and Theatre Annual.

    Forum 1: Favourite Moments of Film Sound

    Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

    Elisabeth Weis is Professor of Film and Head of Film Studies at Brooklyn College and on the faculty of CUNY’s Graduate Center. Her books include Film Sound: Theory and Practice (co-editor, John Belton) and The Silent Scream: Alfred Hitchcock’s Sound Track.

    William Whittington is the Assistant Chair of Critical Studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and the author of Sound Design and Science Fiction (University of Texas Press, 2007). He is currently working on a book on Sound Design and Horror.

    Benjamin Wright is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University. His dissertation addresses the aesthetic and cultural implications of sound technology in contemporary Hollywood cinema.

    Volume 11, Issue 8-9 / September 2007 Essays   sound