Friday, February 5, 2010

Musical Steroids

"Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There's no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music--just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it's unhealthy for the organism in the long run."

I might have agreed with editor Walter Murch at some point. It's a way of looking at film, having to do with willing suspension of disbelief. I love some of the things he says about film sound. Record the desert and you get practically nothing. The desert is an experience, and recreating it with sound is more expressive than literal. There's a sound to that silence. A thousand details go into making it register. Things you wouldn't hear in reality, but the sounds make you feel. It's also a complete manipulation, and what Murch seems to be saying is that all of those mechanics must be invisible; the end result is that you feel the place was in fact recorded faithfully, along with the image. The objective is to fuse them together. I happen to like looking at those mechanics. I don't mind them announcing themselves. Some amount of separation doesn't bother me. It can be just as effective, depending on your interests and objectives, to use sound in a more openly manipulative way. An awareness of how you're being played isn't a lack of engagement with the film at hand. It's just a different form of engagement.

Roman Polanski talked about looking for "authenticity" in film sound. A dripping faucet tells you a lot about a character. A lawnmower does, too. You'd find the former in the character's house, the other in his yard. By Polanski's logic, putting the lawnmower in the house and the faucet outside is inauthentic. But music is often made to serve where a lawnmower can't. In Rosemary's Baby, composer Krzysztof Komeda uses music to signal Rosemary's discordant state of mind in and out of the Bramford/Dakota building. The music was permissible, presumably because it could be authentically linked to Rosemary's inner state of mind. This is a logic deeply ingrained in the thinking of modern sound design, the idea being that sound shouldn't draw attention to itself in the wrong way.

Editing my first film, I followed these rules without even being conscious of them. I used a dripping faucet myself. Nothing feels or sounds as lonely as that arrhythmic percussion. Every sound I used was logically sourced. My choices were imaginative in the sense that I thought exhaustively about any given environment and what might conceivably be found there. In the protagonist's house, the dripping faucet, the distant sound of airplanes, a dog barking relentlessly. All conspired toward a mood. None were original to the location. The character is a hermit. People arrive to conduct an intervention. I thought a lot about the sound of their footsteps, and chose a location to record them where the floors settled from disuse and creaked as if startled when walked on. Through various events, all with their own sound considerations, the character ends up at a wooded commune. The character lives with loss like a ghost who follows him places. The idea was that his own memories superimpose themselves on anything he looks at and hears. I wanted specific textures, and looked for wind chimes, trains, insects, dogs. Disrupting this tyrannical idyll involved sudden punctuation: a lawnmower which sounded like a growl or a wail, owls, hawks, dogs.

Editing Woman's Picture I find myself re-evaluating all these codes. While there are times I want to encourage the viewer to sink into the material unquestioningly, there are also places I'd like to remove that scrim and invite her in to play with the mechanics. The movie, for me, is a way of looking at the movies I've seen, how they're constructed, why they follow certain patterns, and how seductive they can be, a seduction I often love. Starting to think about sound design, I compiled a list of sounds organic to each setting. A week later, the list seemed naive to me.

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