Saturday, 19 May 2012

Gosh Darnit, be quiet for a second

At this moment, I am listening to Network, one of the most powerful films of the 70’s, and, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. As I listen to the audio I am only half-focused on my own words, the clicking and tapping of my computer keys intermingled with Robert Duvall’s heartlessness and Peter Finch’s prophecies. I have done this before, simply listening to a movie (one I’ve already seen, of course) effectively isolating the visual from the audio, but something has occurred to me this time: silence is dead.

Peter Finch wants you to stop the music and let him talk

Okay, that may be an overstatement, silence is not dead, but it certianly is being misused by contemporary directors. The use of musical silence seems to be something people fear today. The reason I say this is because I also recently watched another movie, Zodiac. This is not only a great movie, but also feels like it was inspired by the 70’s type filmmaking and storytelling present in Network and All The President’s Men and other investigative dramas. The one difference? Zodiac liberally uses musical cues to its disadvantage. The majority of the film is quiet, but the movement back and forth between music and silence creates a slight disjointing effect. I would much rather have rendered it as Network did, without any non-diegetic music.

One of the most bone chilling moments of silence in all cinema occurs at the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Murphy has just bestowed the party of all parties on the men at the facility and is ready to leave out the window. He sits down, looks around him and the camera keeps still on his face. The shot lasts for nearly a minute without a word or sound. Murphy smiles, which disappears eventually, returns and disappears again. In this uncut shot, every storyteller should learn that the human face is able to convey anything an orchestra can and more.

I think Conquest of The Planet of The Apes is one of the best of the series because of its use of silence. When Caesar is running through the streets, both alone and with his ape cohorts, we only hear footsteps. The effect provokes an aesthetic similar to horror films and suspense dramas rather than just a sci-fi “what if” story. Even the ending of the first Planet of the Apes hits its emotional peak when the twist is revealed, and no music is used. The audience gets to bask in the madness of the revelation without being guided how to feel.

There is a quality to the 70’s sound work that doesn’t create an emptiness, showing a lack of something that could be, but rather an eerie focus that elicits its own full emotions. The silence is huge, filling, sometimes overbearing. But the attitude today seems to be that if a scene isn’t powerful enough, or even cool enough, all a director has to do is create an onslaught of sound to back it up.

If we’re going to talk about silence I have to mention Samurai Jack. I think more action directors need to take a class just on the choreography of this show. While many viewers have criticised it for what seems like endless repetition (which it does suffer from) the experimentation with aspect ratio, pacing, and of course sound work was often outstanding – especially considering that it’s a children’s television show. Not every episode is ground-breaking, some are downright awful, but I’ve always wanted some of the techniques of Gendy Tartakovsky to be used in mainstream cinema. Sometimes the first five to ten minutes of an episode will have no dialogue and no music. And this silence is all done to build mood. Some fight scenes (such as the battle between Aku and Jack in the graveyard) cut between an onslaught of sound to complete silence, and the effect is divine. It’s such a quiet show when it needs to be, and there’s no fear that using silence will cause the audience boredom. And yet, it is a major risk every time it’s done. Mr. Tartakovsky knows how sound can dictate the viewer’s emotion, and that includes removing it from a scene all together.

Uncle                       Cousin                        Brother
And while I’m on the animation subject, go watch Adam Elliot’s three part short film collection: Brother, Cousin, and Uncle. These are some of the most emotional and imitate stories he's told, all done without the slightest introduction of music to sway the audience. Actually, although his more recent film Mary and Max is one of my favourites, I feel the use of music removes some of the intimacy that dominated its predecessors.

Now I’m not saying that the artificiality of using non-diegetic music is worse than just using diegetic music. I love both techniques as long as they are used properly. In Battlestar Galactica, the opening sequence to “Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 1”, when Passacaglia by Bear McCreary is used, is for me one of the best moments in the entire show. There is a scene in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer that the music elicits such emotion in me it leaves me perfectly still every time I see it. But it does seem that mainstream directors have a tendency to go straight for the musical jugular and let the orchestral cues spill all over their work. They know that the best in sound is easier to achieve than the best in silence.

So what am I really asking by writing all this? If you’re planning on doing sound work in films, take a note from the films and shows I’ve mentioned above. Sound includes as much of what you create as what you leave out. A lot of the time, music gets in the way of achieving a real intimacy with the audience, and while a score/soundtrack has limitless possibilities within the artificial construction that is film, the power of silence should never be ignored. I really just want to see more directors with the balls to do what Mr. Tartakovsky does with a kid’s show. Children were willing to go along with the madness of that show, I think adult movie goers can do the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment