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The process of amplification can expand the realism of the film to embrace emotional as well as physical realism, or it can alter the meaning of the visuals to suit the intended vision. The process, then, is not so much emphasis as it is expansion or alteration.

amplification to expand meaning

Perhaps no task of the sound editor is more important than the decision about physical realism versus emotional realism. The opposite extremes are present in two cinema verite documentaries. Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig's Lonely Boy (1962) uses natural sound and music to reinforce the credibility of Paul Anka and his audience and to suggest that Anka is an ongoing phenomenon in the North American entertainment industry. Clement Perron's Day After Day (1965) features an exotic narration voiced by a character who pretends she is a flight attendant on a plane to Montevideo as well as a poet reflecting on children's nursery rhymes. The physical world that is presented visually is a Quebec paper-mill town in winter. The sound track alludes to the spiritual desperation of the citizens of the town rather than to the physical world that they inhabit and that we see. These two examples present the spectrum of options for the amplification of the sound. It is in nonsynchronous sound that asynchronism is most creatively applied.

The same sound can serve both the physical and the emotional meaning of a film. Akira Kurosawa's use of the noise of a subway train in Dodes'Ka-Den (1970) is one of the best examples of a sound that comes to have more than its literal meaning.

Editors and directors are usually more modest in their goals. In The Train (1965), for example, John Frankenheimer was content to use the sound of the train to support the action/adventure elements of his story. Set in France during the last days of World War II, the film details the efforts of a German colonel (Paul Scofield) to move the great paintings of France from Paris to Berlin. A French railman (Burt Lancaster) thwarts his efforts. Because almost all of the action occurs on or around the train, the noise of the train is one of the critical sound effects in the film. Although great emotion is expended on the attempt to stop the train, those sounds are never used for anything other than physical realism. This is appropriate in an action/adventure film.

For an example of an action/adventure film in which the sounds of the train take on another meaning, we need only look at Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935). The coupling of a visual of a woman screaming as she finds a corpse with the sharp whistle of a train as it passes through a tunnel gives the train a very human quality. Indeed, from that point on, it is difficult to experience the train purely as a mode of transportation. Other filmmakers have used trains and the noise of trains in this expansive way. David Lean with Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Andrei Konchalovsky with Runaway Train (1985) are two examples.

In the action genre, John McTiernan used sound to support the physical realism of Die Hard (1988). This police story, set in a modern high-rise in Los Angeles, pits a New York policeman (Bruce Willis) against a group of international terrorists. The action scenes are presented dynamically, and the sound always supports the physical character of the action. When a terrorist blasts a window with automatic-weapon fire, the sounds we hear are the gunshots and the shattering glass. We rarely (if ever) hear the breathing of the characters. The sound throughout the film confirms the most obvious physical action that takes place. The emphasis is on physical reality, and the goal of the sound is to amplify that reality.

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) suggests a different goal for the sound. Like Die Hard, Straw Dogs is a film with a great deal of action. An American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife, Amy, are spending a year in her hometown in England. The townsfolk are a troubled bunch. Taunted and teased, the mathematician is finally pushed to defend his home against the attack of five men from the town. The local five ne'er-do-wells include an elder, Tom Venner; his son, Charlie; Norman Scott; and Chris Kawley. The attack on the isolated house is the long action sequence (25 minutes) that concludes the film. Earlier in the film, one of the men, Charlie Venner, raped Amy, Sumner's wife (Susan George), and now the men are on the hunt for Henry Niles, the slow-witted member of the community (David Warner) who they fear has molested Tom Venner's daughter.

Peckinpah included sounds of gunshots and shattering glass in Straw Dogs, but he was looking for more primal feelings than excitement about action. Two scenes are notable for their use of sound to expand the sense of realism within the scene.

Before the violent confrontation at their farm, the couple attend a church social. All of the main characters attend: the couple, the Venners, their friends, Henry Niles, the young girl whose disappearance will cause the action, the town magistrate, and other residents. For the mathematician's wife, the scene is fragmented by a cutaway to her memory of the rape, and she is so overwhelmed that she and her husband leave early in the evening. The young girl and Henry Niles do likewise.

Aside from the rapid editing of this sequence and the destabilizing camera angles that Peckinpah chose, there is also a special sound in the extended introduction to this scene. Peckinpah carried the sound of children's noise-makers through the scene. No matter what the visual is, the sound of the noisemakers pervades the scene. The shrillness of the sound gives the opening segment of the church social a relentless, disturbing quality.

If physical realism were the goal, the sound would be very different. Peckinpah was more interested in expressing the woman's emotions about being in the same room as the men who raped her. Peckinpah was also interested in using sound to foreshadow the emotional and physical violence that would follow. The pitch and tone of the noisemakers play a critical role in establishing this emotional plane.

Later, once the attack at the farm has begun in earnest, Peckinpah relied on rapid cutting less than he did in the church sequence. Instead, Peckinpah relied on a counterpoint of sound and visual action to deepen the terror of this extended sequence.

The sounds are the sounds of attack and defense: gunshots, shattering glass, the squeal of a rat thrown through the window to frighten the couple inside, and, of course, screams of terror and pain. These are the expected sounds: the sounds of the physical reality of the sequence.

During this extended scene, the main character is metamorphosed from the mathematician-coward of the first two-thirds of the film into a man who defends his home with all the guile and will he can muster. Peckinpah used the sound to announce this emotional transition. Peckinpah amplified the sequence by superimposing this emotional realism over the physical realism of the scene. Part way through the scene, the mathematician puts on a record of bagpipe music. This music plays continually over the next third of the sequence. The introduction of the orderly bagpipes into the chaos of the action signals his intentions to take control of the field of action. No longer the coward, he uses his intelligence and will to defeat a superior number of armed adversaries. The bagpipe music amplifies the emotional reality of the main character and of the scenes that follow. By playing against the tone of the visual action, the sound makes the visuals that much more powerful.

In nonaction sequences, the issue of physical realism versus emotional realism is no less compelling. In L'Enfant Sauvage (1970), François Truffaut recounted the true story of the Wild Child of Avignon. The child does not speak or relate to humans normally. The film describes the capture of the 10-year-old and his induction into civilized society in the late eighteenth century. As the film opens, we see the child in the woods, scavenging food from an abandoned vegetable basket. He eats and drinks by a stream and then is pursued by a hunting party and their dogs. His efforts to elude the dogs and their masters suggest that he is more animal than human. The sounds of this opening are entirely natural: the sounds of the woods and of the chase. Nothing on the sound track implies more than the physical reality of the scene.

Bertrand Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country (1984) illustrates the expanded use of sound. The scene is rural France before World War I. An elderly painter lives in the country where he is attended by his middle-aged housekeeper.

The scene opens with natural rural sounds, particularly of the fowl in the yard and beyond. As the camera tracks, we hear an old man, Monsieur l'Admiral. We hear him singing before we see him. He hums a tune as he opens the curtains. He continues humming and singing as he opens the shutters. He walks about and puts on his shoes. The camera tracks, observing his paintings, and his movements. When he hears a female voice, the point of view changes to the base of the stairs that he will descend. The woman's voice, we soon learn, belongs to his housekeeper, Mercedes. She sings, too, and the camera shifts to follow her movements in preparing breakfast and cleaning. They speak only when he asks where the shoe-cleaning kit is.

Before the dialogue begins, we are introduced to the place, the time, and the characters through the tone and pitch of their voices. Their voices are relaxed and steady, confident in greeting the day. They establish an emotional character beyond the physical reality of the awakening in the country. Their voices imply that all is well. The informal singing and humming set the tone for the film and establish an attitude more complex than the feeling we have for the child in the opening of Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage. A different sense of realism is established in Tavernier's film. Sound and camera movement are the key elements in guiding us to two vastly different film openings.


Occasionally, the realistic sound will not do justice to the effect that the editor and director seek. When this is the case, they resort to a sound effect that challenges the implication of the visuals. By doing so, they do more than challenge the scene's sense of physical realism; they also begin to alter that sense of realism.

The alteration can be simple. In James Cameron's Aliens (1986), not only are the monsters visually grotesque, but they accompany their attacks with a high-pitched squeal. Whenever the aliens are present, the squeal can be heard. Late in the film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) rescues a young girl and fights to escape from the aliens. A deep rumble foreshadows her introduction to the mother alien. Ripley and the girl have inadvertently stumbled into the breeding area. The rumbling signals danger, but it's a vastly different danger than Ripley faced from the aliens. The shift from high-pitched squeal to deep rumble foreshadows a change and alludes to the different magnitude of the danger.

This example provides a simple illustration of how a change in sound effects can alter meaning. Another science-fiction film demonstrates how the quality of tone and pitch can alter our response to a character. At the beginning of Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), E.T. is visually presented as a mysterious, even foreboding, character. The response of the human characters suggests a danger. However, the sounds that accompany the images—E.T.'s hand, for example—are childlike. Rather than a dangerous killer, E.T. sounds like an out-of-breath cartoon character. Instead of feeling threatened, we feel sorry for him. The friendly replaces the dangerous perception of the extra-terrestrial in Cameron's Aliens. The shift in our perception of E.T. is accomplished strictly through sound.

Another approach to using sound to give the visuals new meaning is to withdraw the realistic sound and replace it with sound that achieves the intended meaning. In John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), King Arthur's struggle to bring idealism and power into balance is given a screen treatment that includes physical realism, and the world of magic and superstition. In fact, the physical realism is superseded by the influence of magic and the power of superstition. Aside from using a vivid visual style, Boorman had to find ways to evoke with sound the pivotal events in the legend of King Arthur. For example, when the magical sword Excalibur is yielded to Merlin by the Lady in the Lake and when it is returned to the lake by Percival as Arthur dies, Boorman lowers the volume of the obvious sound effects: the water, a hand rising out of the lake, metal rising against the resistance of the water. These would be the obvious sound effects if the scene were intended to emphasize naturalism. However, it is the supernatural that the scene needs to create. Boorman chose to emphasize the music, in this case, Wagner's version of the Arthurian legend, "Parsifal." The music and the images transcend the physical reality of the action.

The replacement of the expected sound with a sound effect that shifts the meaning of the visuals to the opposite extreme alters the effect of the visualsound juxtaposition. Examples mentioned earlier in this chapter include the polar bear in The White Dawn. It is transformed through nonrealistic sound into a supernatural force when it appears in the village. Another example is the use of a humanlike voice for HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this film, HAL becomes an excessively human computer that works with humans who are devoid of signs of their humanity. In both The White Dawn and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the unexpected sound quality enhances the contrast that is sought. The principle of asynchronism, or counterpoint, strengthens the dramatic impact of the scenes described.

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