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October 25, 2004

The Violence of Sound

Ask some people and they’ll tell you that films are way too violent these days. They’ll point out the blood, the gore, the guts, and reflect nostalgically on the days when Alfred Hitchcock depicted murder through clever editing and restraint. “Nowadays,” they’ll say, “they just have to show everything.”

There’s some truth in this, films are more bloody and violent, but there is also too much credit given to the filmmakers of the past. Political and technical restrictions played a big part in their restraint. However, what is mentioned less often, and due less to these two factors, is the shift toward violence in sound. In the same example from Hitchcock, it’s the sound of the gun shot that moves it beyond a doubt that someone, indeed, has been killed. And just like it can be argued that we’ve become desensitized to violence that would have been shocking fifty years ago, so too we’ve become used to the violent barrage of sound in today’s films.

Take a film like Howard Hawk’s classic Film Noir The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and compare it to a newer, but still well received, detective film such as L.A. Confidential or, a favourite of mine, Carlito’s Way. The classical orchestral score of the first and its masterful use of silence provides an ideal set-up to the gun shots that punctuate the film. When a gun is shot, you jump! In the newer films, there is always something going on, both on the screen and on the audio track. As a result, a gun shot is about as shocking as an increase in the tempo of the background music, or someone yelling across a room to someone else. By complicating and cluttering the audio part of the films, the filmmakers have robbed it of its power. The most complicated aspect of The Big Sleep is its plot, and that is arguably its weakest point as well.

Films, like other forms of art, should have a rhythm and flow. The story needs to have high and low points, moments of intense action and moments of introspection. There need to be close ups and long shots, and long takes and short takes. So why should a film’s sound be different? Assaulting a viewer’s ears for ninety minutes is tiring, lazy and boring. As great as the bombastic parts of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are, they are balanced by the beautiful, slower, quiet parts. For every Black Dog and Whole Lotta Love, there’s a Stairway to Heaven.

Great filmmakers understand the importance and power of sound, and they use it to create rich, memorable works. Who can forget the last scenes of Bonnie Clyde, and the journey from poetry, through rain, to whispers, to yells, to the playful banjo picking, to a terrible explosion of gunfire, and finally to silence? Even Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan understands this, and includes an instance of muted noise, through the ears of a stunned soldier, as a break from its long, loud opening sequence. But the majority of modern films have moved to extreme, unrelenting audio violence.

Film theorist Rudolf Arnheim controversially predicted that sound would destroy film. That turned out not to be the case, and sound allowed filmmakers yet another avenue of expression to explore, but maybe he was onto something. Silence is powerful. It shouldn’t be thrown away simply because it’s possible to fill every inch of film with sound. But silence is also dangerous. It exposes the visual image. And too many filmmakers use sound as a shield, instead of as a tool. It’s a distraction, not a complement or extension. It’s noise, which is much easier to make than music.


Blogger Steve said...

On a related note, my mother couldn't finish watching the end of "Audition". My theory is that the film's sound design is indeed so stark at that point -- no background music, no otherworldy pounding... just the hideous sound of metal on bone.

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