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August 2012, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour - Sound in Film


Early experiments with film sound and experimental noise-soundtracks form the focus of our Magical History Tour excursion into the world of soundtracks and sound in film, whose on- or off-screen, diegetic or non-diegetic variants, complex audio arrangements, scores designed to overwhelm and envelop the viewer or breathless silences form an integral part of the film experience. The soundtrack can generate atmosphere or confusion, anticipate images or contradict them, strengthen or stifle their impact. They create an entire world, an independent realm of noise, which always generates questions as to the relationship between image and sound.

M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER (Fritz Lang, Germany 1931, August 1 & 5) Piercing screams, a whistled leitmotif, rhythmically-conceived dialogue and sudden silences again and again: in his first sound film, Lang makes use of the new means of expression at his disposal in systematic fashion, employing sound as another dramatic element which expands upon the images rather than just accompanying then. The central character in this mixture of a gangster film, psychological drama and thriller is Peter Lorre in the role of the libidinal, driven child murderer.   

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Jonathan Demme, USA 1991, August 2 & 6) Generating tension from the opposition of image and sound by cross-cutting between a horde of FBI agents at an abandoned house and an unprotected FBI trainee at the serial killer's lair having switched round their respective soundtracks: the key moment in a film full of unidentifiable sounds and the noise of dozens of doors opening and closing in symbolic fashion. It is Clarice Starling who passes through them, defeating her own traumas before she can finally apprehend the killer. 

"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, August 3 & 7), in which the soundtrack develops its own rhythm independently from the images. Partly shot in Germany, the film is about a harbor worker who becomes a strikebreaker before receiving a second chance from his Communist colleagues. 

REAR WINDOW (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954, August 8 &10) The German title of the film (DAS FENSTER ZUM HOF –"The Window onto the Courtyard") is one of precious few examples of solid work on the part of 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 palpable. Only one apartment remains silent, that belonging to the murderer Thorwald.

ENTUSIASM (Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov, USSR 1930, August 9 & 12) Vertov regarded sound film as the pinnacle of the medium. "ENTUSIASM 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 the 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) – A print from the Austrian Film Museum will be screened.

PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, France/Italy 1967, August 13 & 17) Airport buildings, office skyscrapers, apartments, a restaurant, all (presumably) made from glass, chrome, steel and concrete, flawless and clean. The beautiful new world in which Jacques Tati alias Monsieur Hulot gets to know the downside of progress and uniformity is commentated on by a elaborate, excessive sound design and taken to ridiculous extremes. 

SWEETGRASS (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, USA 2009, August 14 & 24) Dong without music, interviews or a voiceover commentary, this documentary on the (vanishing) American West and its last shepherds and their herds develops into an elegy as unsentimental as it is monumental. The poignancy of the film is due in no small part to the soundtrack, for which sheep were also set up with microphones.  These "original recordings" were worked into a complex sound design, which breaks away from the images again and again. 

The two medium-length films by Canadian filmmaker, artist and composter Michael Snow are milestones in American avant-garde film and mark and reflect upon the boundary between image and sound. While in WAVELENGTH (USA 1967, August 15 & 21), a rising sinus tone continually increasing in volume and other noises dovetail with a zoom on to a wall of windows 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 along with the projector. 

AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (Robert Bresson, France/Sweden 1965, August 18 & 21) "One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear. When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer." writes Bresson in his"Notes of the Cinematographer", who went on to implement his ideas on sound in his films, including this one about the donkey Balthazar, whose story of suffering is closely linked to that of a young woman (Anne Wiazemsky).

DOUBLE TIDE (Sharon Lockhart, USA 2009, August 19 & 25) The smacking sounds of tidal mud, birdsong and foghorns in the Gulf of Maine became the inspiration for artist and filmmaker Lockhart’s film. For the viewer, they become the key parameters for an exciting and beautiful soundscape, a reliable, sensorial means of orientation at odds with the images. 

MEEK'S CUTOFF (Kelly Reichardt, USA 2010, August 22 & 29) A silent Western: Reichardt goes in search of the sound of silence in the mid-American prairie, as a trapper and three families lose their way looking for a shortcut to Oregon in the middle of the 19th Century. The elaborately recorded sounds of the surroundings – the rustling of the wind, the squeaking of the tires, the crackling of the fire - evoke a previously unheard Western soundscape.