Innovations of Sound

In the era of digital Dolby sound, a logical question to pose is whether the technical innovations in sound, which have been considerable, have led to a new aesthetic, or at least to a number of innovations that broaden the sound repertoire. The answer is no and yes. Before we discuss those innovations, it's useful to look at how we have gotten to where we are in sound.

As mentioned earlier, the earliest use of sound in film quickly progressed from novelty to creative deployment in the work of Alfred Hitchcock (Blackmail), Rouben Mamoulian (Applause, Love Me Tonight), and Fritz Lang (M). Sound was used to create a sensory feeling about different environments and to provide insight into a character's state of mind. It was also used more simply to transition from place to place, or to allude to changes in time and place. Finally, sound was used to provide continuity in complex narratives—the police search in M, for example.

Working with narration, sound effects, music, and dialogue, Orson Welles advanced the creative use of sound mightily in Citizen Kane to tell the 75-year-long story of Charles Foster Kane in 120 minutes. Consequent to the creative use of radio techniques Welles used in Citizen Kane, the idea of the use of sound in film broadened along two general pathways—to deepen the sense of realism, and to recast the use of sound not so much to challenge realism, but rather to create a deeper pathway. This might mean the portrayal of the innermost thoughts of the character (the narration in Apocalypse Now), or it might mean the use of differing musical styles to suggest the inner life of two very different characters, as in Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged. The key here is inner life, and the contradiction of inner, or private, life and outer, or public, life introduced a whole new palate for directors. It wasn't so much about motivation or creating conflict as it was about deepening the audience's relationship with a character. Federico Fellini (8%), Michelangelo Antonioni (L'eclisse), John Boorman (Point Blank), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation) were interested in deepening our feeling for and understanding of their main characters. Sound effects, music, and narration became the sound pathway to that more internal sense of character. At the same time, Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), Thomas Vinterberg (Festen; in the U.S., The Celebration), and the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta) all used sound, and its absence, to enhance the sense of realism of their films.

Worth noting is those filmmakers who were less interested in our relationship with their characters than they were in the amplification of their ideas about the narrative—in short, their voice. These filmmakers would shock us out of a relationship with their character and coax us into a relationship with their ideas. They include Neil Jordan in The Butcher Boy, in which the narration is charmingly creative while the visual life of a boy who kills is alarmingly depressing. Another example would be Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which the destructive narrative is articulated in dialogue while effects and music are left to create a spiritual scale to contrast with the obsessive material goals of the characters.

The selection of effects, the pitch of those effects, the nature of a narrator, the words they speak, how they say those words, the deployment of differing music for each significant character (thereby "tagging those characters"), the use of music to create a sense of time and place, the use of music to set the tone for the film, and, of course, the use of sound as transitional editing device, or as continuity device, all have become part of the repertory of sound as a tool of editing. So much, in fact, has gone on in sound work that we use the balance of this chapter to cite specific examples and to suggest how these innovations have widened the range of sound choices in the edit.

Perhaps a useful way to begin our exploration is to use specific examples of a new or different use of the three primary sound options—effects, music, and dialogue—and to show how each has been used in a novel or new fashion. We begin with a simple idea, that cultures are different from one another. In Black Hawk Down (2001), director Ridley Scott is dealing with the 1992 invasion of Somalia. The country had fallen into anarchy in 1991 and warlords fought for control while the general population suffered the consequences of that anarchy. The American forces invaded in order to stabilize the country, but the invasion failed when 18 American soldiers were killed attempting to capture the most prominent warlord in a raid on central Mogadishu. The failure of the most powerful country in the world to execute its goal was a stark reminder that power has its limits.

Ridley Scott uses sound to create that sense of power. The American marines and Delta force are presented by representing their technological might—the whirring of Black Hawk helicopters and their steady drone in unison preview that technology. The sound of helicopters gives way to awesome firepower from an array of weaponry. The sounds of technology represent the American power. In contrast, Mogadishu and its inhabitants, including the members of the warlord's army, are represented by the Eastern music of the bazaar and the sounds of the souk (the marketplace). This con-trast—of music and the sounds of commerce in the souk against the sounds of technological power—creates a culture clash, pitting against each other the primitive and the modern, the past and the future. What is interesting about the use of sound in Black Hawk Down is that it explores that clash of cultures and raises the question that the modern doesn't always prevail over the primitive, particularly in a native primitive environment that is removed in every way from the habitat of the modern.

Working again with this idea of two worlds clashing with one another, Catherine Hardwicke uses the adolescent/adult worlds as the contrasting fault line in her film Thirteen. The film chronicles the descent of a 13-year-old into the dangerous world of sex, drugs, and criminal behavior. Befriending an older, bolder, popular girl, the main character seeks out experience and acceptance that puts her in harm's way. Her mother, the narrative's adult representative, is caught up in her own difficulties and is incapable of protecting her daughter.

The adolescent world in Thirteen is represented by the provocative, in-your-face lyrics and music of hip-hop. Taunting and provocative, the music portrays the adolescent world as angry and active in challenging social norms in the areas of sexuality, drugs, and personal behavior. The presentation of this world is presented loudly, almost over-modulated, to represent its intensity and its overwhelming nature. It is a world that is attractive to and dangerous for Tracy, the main character. The adult world focuses on Tracy's mother, her clients, and her lover. As a single mother trying to cope with two teenagers and desperately enmeshed in a life in which she is drawn to poor choices, this adult needs as much support and guidance as her daughter does. Nevertheless, the adult world is represented by natural sound—quiet, almost despairing. None of the excitement of the music track is here. The relative quiet implies the quiet despair of the adult world, hardly a magnet for the 13-year-old Tracy. In fact, Tracy sees her mother's poor choices and is angry that her mother makes them. The adult world, then, is anxious and desperate. The sound design leads in the creation of that world. What is important here is how sound and its differences create the two worlds—the adolescent world and the adult world.

The two worlds are embodied in a single person in David Cronenberg's Spider (2001). In the present, Spider is released from a long stay in a mental institution. Being out in the world, Spider revisits the neighborhood in which he grew up. That world and that time (his childhood) represent Spider's past and his problem. Whether these two worlds will fuse, casting Spider back into a mental abyss, is the subject of the narrative in Spider. For us, the issue is how the sound is used to portray the two worlds—Spider in the present world, and Spider's internal world as he grew up.

Initially the world is presented in an idealistic melody over the credits. Howard Shore relies on piano and voice to elegize a state of childhood that never existed for Spider. Spider's contemporary world is a world of whispers, inarticulate sporadic sound, and atonal simple instrument music, unresolved, seemingly going nowhere in a dramatic sense. The past world, the world of Spider's childhood, is presented with minimalist sound, initially no music, sharp effects presented sporadically, and sharp dialogue clearly understood. As this past world begins to come together with Spider's contemporary world, his understanding of past events suggests a fusion. Music continues from present sequences into past sequences. And it becomes multi-instrumental and directional in the sense that the music becomes increasingly dramatic. As Spider begins to realize that he, not his father, is responsible for the death of his mother, this becomes even more the case. The idealistic music score is reintroduced (idealism) together with darker strains (atonal), and in this sense the music illustrates how Spider the adult and Spider the boy fuse. This also prepares us, first for the fusion of his mother as a "mother" and as a "tart" and then for the fusion of his mother and the owner of the halfway house where the adult Spider lives. As Spider's understanding shifts from seeing his father as killer to realizing that he, Spider, is the killer of his mother, the sound focuses on his dialogue as an echo of, first, his father's accusation, and, finally, of the female owner of the halfway house and her accusation. As Spider is taken back to the mental institution, the visual image shifts from adult to boy, a shift already prepared for by the music. The two worlds have become one.

In David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005), the two worlds are Tom's current life—tranquil, predictable, ordinary—and Tom's former life as Joey Cusack—violent, unpredictable, and anything but ordinary. Since this is a film about a second chance but also about the enduring nature of survivalism as an operating principle in a world that is truly a jungle, Cronenberg's sound idea is that there is a surface, but that underneath that surface, all is different, even opposite.

Two scenes will illustrate this upside-down world. The film opens with two men leaving their motel and about to begin the next phase of their travel. All seems mundane until "the leader" asks the second man to fill the water jug from the motel office cooler. When he does so, we see that the staff of the motel have been brutally killed. The scene ends when the second man shoots the lone survivor, a young girl who has woken up. Initially the sound is strictly sound effects and dialogue. The languorous camera movement sets the tone—mundane and monotonous. The effects are natural, the dialogue ordinary. Only when the second man is in the office and we see the first body does the music begin. It is the music that suggests the world is different than it appeared to be. The same pattern is used four scenes later when the men enter Tom Stall's diner. He is just closing up. The two men are in need of money. It appears that they are interested in rape, killing, and money. When Tom throws coffee into the face of "the leader," the music continues as he kills both men and saves the situation. The predictability of the robbery and violence uses natural sound while the underneath or revelation, of Tom's own capacity for violence, is cued by the use of music. In Cronenberg's A History of Violence, the superficial world and the jungle, or violent, world are the two worlds.

We turn now to a different sound idea—the use of a narrator to create a new perception about the visuals. Exposition may be the goal, or the goal may be to convey a private insight about character or plot, but this differs from what we are seeing. Or the narrator may layer the narrative, adding complexity to the narrative. We begin with Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Supremacy.

Jason Bourne is a trained CIA assassin. He has lost his memory, perhaps a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. His very first killing took place in Berlin and the plot of The Bourne Supremacy emanates out of that killing. His handler was corrupt and the killing of a Soviet politician and his wife eliminated an obstacle for a Russian oligarch. Money changed hands, enriching two corrupt CIA officials as well as the Russian oligarch. Bourne will discover the truth about that killing in the course of the film and will try to make amends to the surviving daughter of those he killed in Berlin. As the film begins, Bourne is struggling to recover his memory, but at this stage it's a fragmented nightmare.

Greengrass opens the film with slowed-down visuals—the lights of a city, a pistol, much unclear movement. The meaning is driven by a sound montage of fragmented words, often repeated. The words—"It's not a drill soldier," "Live project," "You're a go," "Training is over"—are repeated, initially unclear and distant, eventually clear. The voice, authoritative, is not Jason Bourne's, but in all likelihood is that of his commanding officer. The sequence ends when, with a loud gunshot, the deed is done, and Jason Bourne is as marred by it as is the family of his victims.

This sound montage is presented as a memory fragment and this is how the sound is presented. In a minute, the exposition of what is lost is established. The "why" of it we don't understand. The explanation will unfold in the narrative that follows. Here, the fragmentary sentences serve as a poetic narration, urgently presented, but not at all clear. The mock presentation, unclear to clear with each repetition, sets up the idea of a memory lost; Bourne's (and our) effort to understand that idea, from the authoritative voice-of-God narration, is often central to the broadcast documentary.

A second example of narration is its use in Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin! (2003). The film is a personal story with a large political overlay. The main character, Alex, is a young adult who has grown up in East Germany (German Democratic Republic). His father abandoned the family for the West when he was a boy, and since then Alex's lifeline has been his mother. She represents family and family values to Alex. But his mother is ill. She suffers a stroke, just days before the Berlin Wall comes down and East and West become one Germany. When she awakens from a coma, change is galloping in her beloved GDR, and it no longer exists. But she is not told, because the doctor says that any change or shock may prompt a second, and this time, fatal, stroke. Alex is willing to do anything to prevent such an event. He organizes a fiction:, his mother's room, the TV shows, the food—nothing has changed. This requires quite an effort, but Alex wants to save the small family he has and so the effort is worth it. A great deal of family history is revealed, and how Alex feels about that history and how he feels about the GDR and life after the GDR. What drives this character is his passion for family, including the young Russian nurse who attends his mother in the hospital. Alex is not a political character. Work life before and after is focused on getting by. Alex is not a born-again capitalist or German nationalist. In this film he's mostly a son.

Becker uses the narration to give voice to Alex's priorities. He begins his narration with the day his father left the family for the West. Consequently, Becker will use the narration to bring the focus back to the family. In spite of everything going on around him, it's the family that is the most important to Alex. Here narration is used as a personal counterpoint to the political story—the fall of the Wall, Communism vs. Capitalism, and the German layer to this struggle, idealism vs. materialism. By using the narration to remind the audience that Good Bye Lenin! is the story of one family, Becker holds on to the sweetness of a young man's desire to keep his family intact in spite of the tidal wave of politics. The consequence is a layered story that keeps its emotional rudder. Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1960) comes to mind. In Wilder's story, it's all about politics, and the personal story of a Coca Cola executive is as much a source of satire as are Communism and Capitalism.

A third example of the dual use of narration is Terrence Malick's The New World (2005). Malick previously used multiple narrators in The Thin Red Line to give voice to the inner thoughts of his characters; confessional and poetic, the narration personalized this war epic. His use of narration in The New World echoes more closely the narration in his Days of Heaven, in which a young girl speculates upon hard times in a young yet optimistic United States. In Days of Heaven, the narration elevated the characters, made them iconic, almost mythical. In The New World, the myth of America as "Paradise Lost" is in the foreground of Malick's treatment of the arrival of Europeans to settle Virginia. Their settlement, Jamestown, is an encroachment upon the native population. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Malick examines the fate of Pocahontas, an Indian princess who turns away from her father, the Algonquian king, in order to save and later help a white man, Captain John Smith. The relationship between Smith and Pocahontas makes up the first two-thirds of the film and serves to exemplify how Malick fashions dialogue into narration, in turn making both of these characters, Pocahontas, and John Smith, bigger, iconic, and mythical, rather than simply a white man and his Indian lover.

The narration begins when John Smith, accused of mutiny during the Atlantic crossing, has been freed from incarceration after arrival in Jamestown. The Commander of the Jamestown expedition gives Smith a second chance. As a soldier, he will be given special responsibility to contact the local Indian king. In his narration, Smith speculates about life in this New World. He expresses his hopes that the economic and sociological fetters of civilized life can be reconsidered in this new setting. He expresses his hopes for a different future for him and his kind, the men under his charge. In this sense, Smith's narration speaks of an ideal, his wish for a different and a better life.

Smith is taken captive by the Indians; it is Pocahontas who asks for his life to be spared. This begins their relationship and Pocahontas is then the subject of the narration. After praising her rare beauty and spirit, the narration shifts to the other Indians. For Smith, they represent a new ideal—they are loving and know no jealousy or envy, no guile, only authenticity. For Smith, their nature is the ideal that men like him (Europeans) should aspire to.

Smith's narrative returns to Pocahontas, but now his narration speculates about love, and how rare a gift it is. Should one not take what is offered? The narration has become reflective, even uncertain. While the visuals illustrate that John Smith is becoming increasingly involved with the life of his Indian hosts, a second narrator, Pocahontas, joins the speculative meditation on her relationship with Smith. At first she is tentative, but shortly she commits herself to love Smith above all else. Her speech is simple but poetic.

At this point, Malick is using the narration to suggest that the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas is progressing. The sound advances the exposition, while the visuals create mood—tranquility, playfulness. And it is at this point that Smith and Pocahontas represent the merging of two cultures, the old and the new. They have become an ideal, a new beginning for Europe, a new chance to be pure and authentic, to represent love in Paradise. It is the narration that has to lift the individual story of a man and a woman to the iconic, the mythical. Malick is totally successful in suggesting the possibility of progress emanating from the love of an Indian woman for a white man. The balance of the film is devoted to how this chance was lost and how Paradise was transformed into the usual hell, the perennial effect of civilization.

Anthony Minghella provides us with our last example of a novel use of narration. Working with Walter Murch on the Civil War epic, Cold Mountain (2003), Minghella's goal is to suggest that Ada and Inman, the two lovers of the narrative, are the only people who exist, in their world. Of course, many others play important roles in this story, but balancing the Civil War, the most traumatic event in the country's history, with a personal story is the task of Minghella and Murch.

Although the principal time frame is the last year of the war, Minghella has to link the past—Ada's arrival in Cold Mountain, which is a shift from urban to rural life for her and her minister father—and the evolution of the Ada-Inman relationship, from their meeting to the chaste leave-taking as he joins the army to support the Confederate cause. In 1864-1865, the narrative follows Inman the soldier, his sense of the futility of the War, and his desertion and to return to Cold Mountain. In the town of Cold Mountain, he takes up with Ada, impregnates her, and dies defending her against the exploitative local militia members, who have become the enemy within for the townspeople of Cold Mountain.

Minghella and Murch use Ada's letters as the source of narration, the beacon for Inman and the only worthwhile reason for living. In a sense, Minghella uses the letters as the inspiration for Inman's desertion, a positive goal in a decidedly negative world, the world of war and death. Murch also uses the narration to suggest that in their worlds, Ada and Inman are the only two people. Everyone else and all other intrusions need to be contextualized as less important. This means that the battles that open the film are downplayed from a sound perspective. Consider the pitch and sounds of battle in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur as the opposite of the balance of sound in Cold Mountain. Although this makes for an eerie sense of the Civil War in the film, the director and editor's intentions are very clear. Here narration is used to personalize and to distance us from the intrusion of war. Ada and Inman are self-insulated and exist only in their world.

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Film Making

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