Again, listening to Björk opens up my mind to observation. Listening to her album Vespertine allows me the time to discover sound in a way that I wouldn’t before. Like those poets who manage to pinpoint the sounds of words and how they dance around each other, so Björk manages to give the detail of each sound space in which to breathe. The same can be said about certain films and their filmmakers. It’s no surprise to me that some of the films and directors who have impressed me the most have paid special attention to the way in which sounds engage their audience.
Night of the Living Dead (1968): It’s hard for me to remember much about that film that wasn’t amazing. But the defining factor of George A. Romero’s now most infamous political commentary is the detailed sound that crackles throughout the black and white backdrop. From the grainy crunch of gravel under tires in the very first scene, to the grisly sounds of bones being suckled and snapped between brain-dead teeth, the soundscape of Night of the Living Dead plays on the watcher’s sense of security, her feeling that there’s an imminent presence surrounding her in the dark seclusion of a cinema or her own bedroom.
The Exorcist (1973): Again, another film that’s as brilliant as it is breathtakingly frightening. The Exoricist was a study in the mental stability of humanity. The film’s original release in cinemas saw many people unable to remain conscious from scene to scene. However, the demonic power of Reagan’s possession wouldn’t have had the same impact if it weren’t for the masterful sound work of Lalo Schifrin – whose six minutes of background music was initially rejected because audiences were too overcome with the visceral sensations of the imagery and the sound to handle it. Of course, the most paralyzing aspect of the sound was the voice work of actress Mercedes McCambridge – whose already penetrating voice was deepened and given added scratchy dimension through incessant smoking, bouts of vomiting and violent screaming. McCambridge’s work as Reagan’s possessed self was the stuff of nightmares, a sound that was put in sharp contrast to the moments of silence in the film – no background music, no sudden movement... just silence and that voice. Moments of intensity were thrown into chaos with the added work of Krzysztof Pendercki. The music used during the cut scenes of the film made every single moment of The Exorcist a moment of extreme darkness and nightmarish intensity.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): I don’t want to suggest that sound is only impactful in horror film. As probably one of Steven Spielberg’s must underrated films, A.I. took the grit of the ever present robots vs. machine argument and gave it scope with the gorgeous landscapes and emotional vulnerability of his mecha-boy lead, David. The ethereal crest and fall of John Williams’ music gave the film an atmosphere drenched in the constant battle between the industrial and organic, the push and pull between programming and innate emotion. This added dimension was further heightened by the strain of communicating the conflict in David’s own being with his mechanical makeup and his learned emotional connection to his human mother. You can almost hear the whine and pop of gears shifting and rotors twisting inside each robot, but the crack and break of a heart is felt within each audience member rather than expressly pointed out... you hear it before you see it cross the blank palette of each robot’s face.
Japanese Animation: I find that the strongest proponents of subtlety are Japanese animators. Most films are devoid of any real soundtrack, relying on the beauty of the scenery surrounding the action; however, the use of sound is uncanny. I can’t recall many live action films that utilize the kaleidoscopic patterns of sound quite like Japanese animation does. Films such as Vampire Hunter D (1985) use the sounds of nature to bridge the gap between the human and supernatural world. Each bending blade of grass, each pop from a fire is elevated to a fine point and leaves the watchers’ nerves on edge. While films such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) make incredible use of silence to allow moments to stretch, have purpose and meaning. The inhalation of breath, the steady pound of a footstep is all a means to enhance the solitude and heartache of the film. Then you have more modern films such as Paprika (2006) and Tekkonkinkreet (2006) that use sweeping soundtracks to take the mind through distorted views of life. The sub-dream world of Paprika is marked with an almost haunting playfulness, throwing the watcher headlong into never-ending flights of fantasy. Tekkonkinkreet forces each audience member to bend as the animation bends in on itself, dodging corners, flying from building to building. The work of Japanese animation is a testament to the animators’ ability to better understand the sound and depth of a whisper in order to expand the universe around them and give the sounds their own space in which to play.
Spike Lee: I don’t think I’ve come across an American director who can make a soundtrack as pertinent a contributor to the film as the actors. Lee’s work is predicated on the idea that every moment has a song that’s playing especially for it. He uses music to paint his films in different shades, giving them an even more shocking depth than even his masterful camera work is capable of. Crooklyn (1994) uses the music of the late 60s and 70s to give each mood its own setting – essentially, every emotion has its own scene and soundtrack. Malcolm X (1992), on the other hand, uses a broad range of music – from the big band of the 40s to the heartache of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (written after Malcolm X’s death) – to outline the ever changing landscape of the iconic political figure’s life. However, Lee’s most harrowing works are his documentaries. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts takes the most heart-wrenching sounds of New Orleans jazz, all crying trumpets and pounding can-can drums, and gives the raging waters of Katrina, still stripping the soul of New Orleans, a deeper meaning. The pain laced in each person that Katrina affected is easily felt in their interviews. However, it’s Lee’s sparse use of sound, his attention to sonic detail – letting raindrops fall in silence, letting the emptiness of each street echo – that makes this documentary all the more entrancing. Using only local musicians, Lee showed the world that the story itself is only one dimension of the tragedy. The music that still drapes over each citizen of New Orleans is what pushes their spirits further, surges their stories to a higher plane of universal understanding. His use of music has always managed to fit the mood perfectly, never overshadowing the story, but instead giving the story a greater reach and more pertinent arc.
Whether it’s the sound of a twig snapping in absolute silence or the way strings and bode instruments crash into each other to heighten the intensity of a scene, there’s no denying that sound is as much an actor in a film as the actors themselves. Sound propels the players and their roles to stratospheres unimagined in the human mind, giving them depth and meaning. Sound is quite possibly the most important sense, giving the body warning and anticipation for what is about to play in front of an audience member’s eyes. What we see is not always what we get. But what we hear is what we thirst to find out.
Camiele White suffers from too much film information. In order to remedy her psychosis she’s decided to write about it. Right now, she’s trying something a bit different and writes has her own blog called Madasa Writing. If you want to engage in a little conversation (at your own risk) she can be reached at cmlewhite at gmail [dot] com.