January 2016, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour: Sounds, Tones & Noises – Sound in Cinema


The sounds of audio tracks and an invitation to listen are at the heart of the first Magical History Tour of the year. Whether on-screen or off-screen sounds, diegetic or not, whether complex audio arrangements, an overwhelming sound or breathless silence, the audio track is an integral component of cinematic experience. It generates an atmosphere or irritates, anticipates or contradicts images, intensifies or smothers sound. It creates a world, a sonic space in which the spectator can immerse him or herself, depending on the movie theater's sound system or audio equipment. Since the mid-1970s, numerous audio-engineering innovations have facilitated the shaping of highly complex sound architectures. Alongside sound effects, multi-channel sound, surround sound, and Dolby stereo, multilayered, commanding audio tracks have been and are being created that deserve our attention and raise important questions pertaining to the relationship between image and sound.

LA CHIENNE (La Chienne aka Isn't Life a Bitch, Jean Renoir, F 1931, 1. & 2.1.) An early and equally passionate defender of direct sound, Renoir also experimented in his second sound film with the possibilities and necessities involved with direct sound recording in different locations. The noisy streets of Montmartre provide the grounding for Renoir's tragedy in guise of a farce about a well-behaved petit bourgeois Sunday painter, who is tyrannized by his nagging wife and falls for a prostitute. When he finds out that this latter, for whom he stole and lost his job as a cashier, is cheating on him, he kills her. The blame falls on her pimp, who is convicted and hanged. An artist without wanting to be, a murderer without wanting to be, the petty bourgeois becomes a clochard.

MEEKS CUTOFF (Kelly Reichardt, USA 2010, 3. & 8.1.) The sound of classic Westerns is shaped by war and conquest, by hails of bullets and battle cries, and the din of saloons and arguments. Kelly Reichardt contrasts this sound-myth with a quiet western and follows the sound of the prairies of the American Midwest, in whose silence a trapper and three families get lost while looking for a shortcut to Oregon in the mid-19th century. The painstakingly recorded sounds of nature - the hiss of the wind, the creaking of wheels, the crackling of the fire - evoke a soundscape as yet unheard in American Westerns.

M EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER (Fritz Lang, G 1931, 5. & 10.1.) Piercing screams, a whistled leitmotif, rhythmic dialogues and sudden silences again: In his first sound film, Lang consistently used this new technique as a dramaturgical element to expand the imagery rather than only accompany it. The key figure in this blend of thriller, gangster film and psychological drama is Peter Lorre, playing the role of the libidinous and cornered child murderer, who is first pursued by the police and then by crooks of the underworld. When "M" falls into the crooks' trap, he is forced to face a kangaroo court.

REAR WINDOW (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954, 6. & 9.1.) The German title of the film (DAS FENSTER ZUM HOF –"The window onto the courtyard") is one of precious few strokes of luck to have emerged from the German dubbing industry, referring as it does to the central sound location for the film: the courtyard. It is here that a broad range of different sounds and voices come together, making the various lives in the apartments which open on to the courtyard audible. Only one apartment remains silent - the one which belongs to the jewelry salesman Thorwald, whose intrigues draw the attention and suspicion of a temporarily wheelchair-bound photo journalist (James Stewart). He and his fiancée (Grace Kelly) follow up on each suspicious factor. 

WAVELENGTH (USA 1967, 7. & 14.1.) and SEATED FIGURES (Canada 1988, 7. & 14.1.). The two medium-length films by Canadian filmmaker, artist and composer Michael Snow are milestones in American avant-garde film and mark and reflect upon the boundaries between image and sound. While in WAVELENGTH,a rising sinus tone (as well as other sounds) gradually increases in volume and dovetails with a zoom onto a window wall in an apartment, in SEATED FIGURES (Canada 1988, August 15 & 23), Snow contrasts footage of street surfaces passing by at speed with the sounds produced by a cinema audience as well as by the projector. 

THE BIRDS (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1963, 12. & 17.1.) Ominous noises, whose source is not immediately revealed by the imagery - this was a classic Hitchcockian gimmick. This also applies to his ecological or mother-son horror classic, depending on interpretation, THE BIRDS: The collective cry of the birds, the pecking of their beaks against the house, in which the Brenner family and the recently arrived Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), have barricaded themselves, the sound of the fluttering wings; these are all audible but not visible. A sonic attack composed by the German sound designer Oskar Sala and realized on a mixtur-trautonium, an early form o synthesizer that he had himself developed, in no other place but Berlin.

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (Guy Maddin, Canada 2006, 13. & 23.1.) One of the highlights of the 2007 Berlinale Forum was the live scoring of Maddin's "silent film" BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! With Maddin and the composer Jason Staczek directing, a 30-person-strong orchestra, a boys' choir, the film's narrator Isabella Rossellini and four makers of noise, created a layer of sound that referred to the tradition of live silent movie accompaniment and defined it anew from today's perspective. The spectacular live event is now available on film - it is an expressionist detective film featuring young explorers in a whirl of emotions caused by first love, bossy, experimental parents, orphans with mysterious wounds and an island that has a lighthouse.

ENTUZIAZM (Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov, USSR 1930, 15. & 18.1.) Vertov regarded sound film as the pinnacle of the medium. "ENTUZIAZM demonstrates the possibilities of sound and music with such programmatic brilliance that even today the film is by no means obsolete as a lesson in image and sound montage. The beginning of the film, in which the songs of old Orthodox Russia are linked to shots of churches, people in prayer and alcoholics and the "song" of blast furnaces, pistons and harvesting machines that follow are some of the most fascinating in Vertov's oeuvre." (H. Tomicek)

THE ELEPHANT MAN (David Lynch, USA/GB 1980, 16. & 21.1.) The ubiquitous and menacing sonic environment of John Merrick, the eponymous "elephant man", is dominated by the wailing factory noises of and the hissing of gas-lamps in industrial Victorian London. He leads a life as a ridiculed, humiliated carnival attraction because of his deformed face. Dr Treves brings him to a hospital to conduct some research and soon realizes that he's dealing with a sensitive, intelligent man, who was mute for years because of his forced isolation. He attempts to help him lead a life without degradation.

APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1979/2001, 19. & 28.1.) For one-and-a-half years, dozens of sound engineers, sound designers and editors worked on the audio track, which was ultimately assembled from up to 200 tracks in a process lasting eight months. In the 2001 version of Coppola's Vietnam drama, which is 50 minutes longer than the original, in particular, a furious, independent monument of sound unfolds.

DOUBLE TIDE (Sharon Lockhart, USA 2009, 20. & 25.1.) The smacking sounds of tidal mud, birdsong and foghorns in the Gulf of Maine provide inspiration to the artist and filmmaker, Sharon Lockhart. For the viewer, they are the key parameters for an exciting and beautiful soundscape, a reliable, sensorial means of orientation at odds with the images. The noises of the poetic landscape encroach on the work of a clam digger, who twice a day, morning and night, at dawn and dusk, wades into the mudflats to carry out her painstaking work.

"Only the contrapuntal use of sound in relationship to the image will open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage." is how Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov put it in their manifesto on sound film (1928). Its practical implementation followed in 1933 in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s first sound film DESERTIR (USSR 1923, 24. & 29.1.), in which the soundtrack develops its own rhythm independently of the images. Partly shot in Germany, the film is about a harbor worker who becomes a strikebreaker and later receives a second chance from his Communist colleagues. 

KING KONG (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, USA 1933, 27. & 30.1.) The sound designer and author Dirk Schaefer called on Murray Spivack, one of the "first sound designers" in the history of film, to create the sound effects of this early monster/sound movie. If one listens carefully, the unconventionally produced sound effects and the compositions of Max Steiner, to which they were added in an early form of mixing, convey essential information pertaining to the unfolding drama about the king of an island with native floral and fauna, the giant gorilla Kong. A film crew discovers, captures and ships him to New York to be an attraction.