Bradley Cooper’s voice in A Star Is Born: was it the right choice?
There are directors who know the techniques of filmmaking inside out and use them to make well-crafted films that do moderately well at the box office, and there are directors who understand the craft of filmmaking deeply and apply it inventively to create true masterpieces that withstand the test of time. Alfred Hitchcock was one such director, and one key factor that contributed to his success was his incredible attention to detail. The opening scene of The Trouble With Harry (1955), Hitchcock’s only dark comedy, serves as clear evidence of that.
Here, Hitchcock uses a very simple device to set the story in motion and to create mystery: three simple gunshots heard offscreen followed by remarks that suggest foul play. Not a big deal. But what is impressive about the way he’s arranged image and sound in this scene is that, as well as initiating the story, he achieves a number of other things simultaneously: he introduces the main comedic devices, establishes the thematic elements, and sets the tone of the film – all in one simple stroke.
One source of comedy in The Trouble With Harry is improbable coincidence. Through a number of coincidences, several characters in the story come to believe that they killed Harry accidentally. Through a number of coincidences, too, some of these characters turn out to have what in the eyes of the law might look like a motive for wanting the man dead.
Hitchcock introduces this comedic device in the opening scene by showing a little boy at play in an idyllic landscape, ‘his trusty space gun a deadly weapon to defend himself against the dangers of the unknown’, as the voice-over in the film’s trailer puts it. And then, by some bizarrely improbable coincidence, real gunshots are fired somewhere offscreen that suggest a murder.
The boy’s reaction to the gunshots sets the tone of the film and introduces the second source of humour by mirroring the general attitude the main characters will have towards the situation they face. Instead of panicking, the boy just goes along with the gunshots and makes them part of his pretend play. All excited that there’s actually some real danger out there, he ducks, hides behind a tree, and inspects the scene, ready to deploy his weapon if anyone dears attack him. The residents of the town will be equally nonchalant about the corpse.
With such selection and combination of auditory and visual details, Hitchcock also introduces the main thematic elements. The film explores the subject of ethics and morality by pitting the naive moral relativism of the townspeople against the utilitarian, one-size-fits-all, juridical system of the city, where a person tends to be considered to have done right if the outcome is good, or wrong if the outcome is bad, regardless of whether the action was intentional or unintentional.
In the film, the situation is that one of the town’s inhabitants has killed a man, but since it was an accident, the townspeople don’t see why anyone should go to jail for it. They still go to great lengths to hide the body from the deputy sheriff because they know that, although a local himself, he’s bound by the laws of the city and won’t see things the same way.
Hitchcock introduces these themes by imbuing the elements present in the opening scene with symbolic meaning. The boy stands for the innocent, childlike nature of the townspeople, who’ve been very much tempered by their idyllic surroundings. The gunshots are not a symbol in themselves but act as a link to the dead man, who represents the city. That’s where he comes from and the townspeople often make a reference to it.
What the gunshots do is to bring the two together through juxtaposition, which is how black comedies generate humour – through juxtaposition of contrasting elements that don’t usually go together but that are played out as if they were not incongruous at all. Such arrangement tends to be very satisfactory for audiences. It generates humour, it provides multiple layers of meaning, and it gives them work to do since they have to establish connections and discover the meaning.
This practice of trying to introduce as many as the concepts of the story from the very beginning by cinematic means has been part of Hitchcock’s thinking processes since very early in his career. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock explains how for the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), he had wanted to start the picture by showing an ice skater tracing numbers on a skating rink. With this, he wanted to suggest the idea of an espionage code. He ditched it, though, and this is the reason he gives for doing it:
”It simply had no place in the story. But the point I was trying to make is that from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor. That visual concept had to be embodied in the film.”
By the time he made The Trouble With Harry, he had perfected this technique and learnt that through careful combination of image and sound he could more effectively embody abstract concepts and create multiple layers of meaning. It’s undoubtedly the kind of thing that makes him remain among the most influential directors of all times.
It takes four people to create a soundtrack: a screenwriter, a director, a sound designer, and a composer
In 1934, Russian film director Vsevolod Pudovkin wrote this:
“There is a great difference between the technical development of sound and its development as a means of expression. The expressive achievements of sound still lie far behind its technical possibilities”.
Fast forward 85 years and the statement is as valid today as it was back then, probably even more so than in 1934, since despite having state-of-the-art technology, as far as expressiveness goes, sound has barely advanced.
Why this is is not very difficult to pinpoint. The general view in the industry is that sound is something you leave for the post-production people to deal with. No one involved in the earlier stages think it is their business. If you ask screenwriters, most will tell you that they avoid ‘meddling’ with sound because they feel that that amounts to trespassing into the director’s domain. If you ask directors, most will tell you that sound is the domain of the composer and the sound designer. Yes, as directors they need to decided what the music and the sound effects will do, but ultimately that’s something that belongs to the postproduction stage, and they have enough to take care of during production.
The problem with thinking about sound as a track where you throw the dialogue, sound effects, and music and then send to the post-production studio is that by the time attention turns to sound, the script has long been written, and the picture shot and edited. By now, there’s hardly any room left for creative manoeuvring. All that sound can do is the usual providing texture, enhancing the audience experience, adding realism, creating mood, and helping with evoking emotion.
Imagine for a moment that that was the attitude towards creating a symphony – that the composer said that the melody is the business of the conductor, and that the conductor said that it is the business of the performers. What would be the outcome? Of course, this is an exaggeration and the consequences in a filmmaking context are less severe, but it kind of captures the essence of were things are going wrong.
A more effective way of going about things would be to think of the soundtrack as having four different stages, each of which requires a different approach. Continuing with the analogy above, the roles of composer, conductor, and performers in classical music parallel in film with the role of the screenwriter as composer, the director as conductor, and the sound designer and the composer as performers. In this light, their approach to film sound would need to differ to a great extent. But how?
We all know what the sound designer and the composer do. Roughly, composers create music that guide the emotional responses of the audience and in some cases give a sense of time and place, and the sound designers bring sound from the field of potentiality (i.e. someone else’s mind) into physicality by selecting and manipulating sounds so that they align with the overall narrative and emotional purposes of the story, and with the stylistic and thematic ideas of the film.
What about the screenwriter and the director? In what terms should they think about sound?
I’ll start with the screenwriter. This is actually the stage that offers the most possibilities in terms of sound. The screenwriter has to create a credible world that provides an environment suitable to the action, the character, and the challenges he or she will need to confront to grow.
One of the first things the screenwriter needs to consider is the type of environment that will dominate. Is it predominantly natural, sociocultural, or both? Each has distinct sonic characteristics. Sound in a natural habitat will be subject to its geographical features, to its weather patterns, and to its flora and fauna. In a sociocultural environment, sound will reflect the economic, technological, cultural, and social conditions that characterise the community being portrayed. A town in a remote hill in Italy will have a very different sonic signature to a big city like London or New York.
The key thing to bear in mind is that the screenwriter has to create a soundscape – whether indoors or outdoors – that is rich in sounds that convey meaning, not that just sit there. Although things are different in our time, for the most part of our evolution, sound has played a very active role in shaping our communities. It has defined them culturally, it has contributed to their rhythms and unity, it has given them character, and it has given us character – think of how bells, one of the most archetypal of community sounds, has throughout time shaped people’s lives. These are all aspects that the screenwriter can use proactively to convey meaning, move the story forward, and in the process create a rich sonic experience for the audience.
Another area where the screenwriter can use sound purposefully is characterisation. Sound can communicate objectively many aspects of the character’s identity – his or her ethnicity, class, gender, and locality – or subjectively it can work as an extension of the character’s inner world, much like in Poe’s poem The Bells, about which you can read here.
The screenwriter can also use sound more at the story level, as a narrative device that helps move the story forward or that contributes to its structure, and also as a symbol or metaphor that points to the themes of the story.
What about the director?
The role of the director is to bring the story to life on the screen. That requires brain hacking skills. It’s what a film is, a brain hack, specifically of its perceptual and cognitive processes. What we perceive is not an objective world that exists out there independent of us. It is a construct that the brain has put together in order to guide our actions and keep us alive and well. The brain does so by selecting, manipulating, and combining sensory data, particularly images and sounds, in ways that draw attention to the right details and that serve the behavioural requirements of the emotions it has triggered in order to guide our responses. This is why our perceptions are different under different emotional states. If you were escaping a predator, you’d perceive a setting very differently than if you were having a picnic in that same setting.
The director hacks the brain by creating a percept, i.e. a movie, and then projecting it onto the minds of the audience, who in turn will react to it as if it was for real. Like the brain, he or she, by means of cinematic techniques, selects, manipulates, and combines images and sounds in ways that will draw attention to the right details and that will elicit the right emotions.
Key considerations the director has to make in regards to sound: how is sound going to work with the other elements – action, behaviours, character, movement, composition, editing, lighting, colour…? What unique contribution to the whole is it going to make? What will it do in terms of style? What strategy will bring image and sound together? Will sound set a contrast with the image? Parallels? Will it supplement the image? Anchor it? Contradict it?
The director needs to think of sound in perceptual, cognitive, psychological, narrative, and stylistic terms. The aim is to draw the audience both into the story’s outer world and into the character’s inner space, to direct their attention to the right places, and to subliminally manipulate their emotional responses, so that the audience can grasp the significance of the events unfolding on the screen.
When a screenwriter creates the right inner and outer soundscape and embeds it in the narrative, the director has a lot more to work with – more room for manoeuvre in terms of drawing attention, establishing identification with the character, creating a unique style, and providing a more satisfying audiovisual experience for the audience. In turn, this gives the sound designer a lot more material to work with and to create a richer sonic world. And the composer too has a lot more room for incorporating that rich sonic world into the music.
derrida and how to think about film sound differently
JOKE: In what way are film sound theorists like feminists? In that they talk about the image as if it was the man, and about sound as if it was the woman.
I used to do this myself. I used to go on about how filmmakers insist on relegating sound to the shadow of the image. But one day I had this realisation: it’s all very well to say that filmmakers are subordinating sound to the image and giving it a passive role, but what’s the alternative? How do you go about not doing that? If that’s the wrong way, how do you do it the right way?
Of course, it would be impossible to answer that in one simple sentence, but perhaps a good first step would be to shake the impasse a little by dismantling the assumption that took us here in the first place – that film is a visual medium, point-blank period. Therefore, the image must take centre stage. And that takes me to Jaques Derrida.
Derrida was an Algerian-born French philosopher who became famous – and infamous – for deconstruction. Infamous because his method was an attempt to ridicule Western philosophers and their metaphysical approach to life, that is, their quest for the truth of all truths and for the foundation that provides the ultimate origin of all things.
The problem Derrida saw with this approach was that “truth” was being constructed by means of binary oppositions such as good vs evil, reason vs passion, masculinity vs femininity, and so on. Binary oppositions work by giving the first term in the opposition a positive value and privileging it over the second term, and by giving the second term a negative value and subordinating it to the first. This privileged/subordinate dynamic is essential for this type of thinking to work. If the second term was not negative and lacking, the positive term could not hold its position as the ultimate truth. Good is an empty concept without evil.
The aim of Derrida was to undermine this type of thinking, which he saw as deeply flawed. By privileging one part over the other, we fail to see the value in the neglected part, and the aspects of the truth that it also holds. Both need each other. He thought that if we learnt to live in paradox, our experience of life would be much richer. Why does it have to be either one or the other?
Another way of putting it is that when we fixate on the norm, on the privileged position, and don’t question it, we tend to get stuck in the same old rut and we fail to see other things.
Look at this image for a moment. What do you see?
Random irregular and meaningless blocks? If that’s the case, look again. But this time don’t do the obvious thing of looking at the foreground. Instead, focus your attention on the background. Do you now see the word “WEST”?
So, if Derrida is right and we apply this to film, it means that we’re missing on a goldmine of new possibilities by simply thinking in visual terms and then adding sound as an afterthought, as if it was the lesser of the two.
What if we reversed the process for a moment? What if we thought the image in terms of sound – if we took sound as the starting point and figured the visuals, and even aspects of the narrative, from that perspective?
Sounds strange? Then think about this.
Citizen Kane (1941), after nearly 80 years, is still considered to be one of the greatest films of all times because of all the many innovative techniques it introduced in terms of lighting, montage, depth of focus, camera angles and more. But one thing that is less talked about (!!) is that the film also broke radically new ground in the area of sound – probably more so than any other film since sound was introduced in 1927. And who made this film? Someone who had never made a movie before but who had mastered the art of telling stories through sound, a radio guy. Surely not a coincidence.
Could it be that Welles thought about the film first in terms of sound and then figured out many aspects of the image and the narrative from that point? It’s quite plausible.
Another film that springs to mind is David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976). It’s the kind of film that makes me wonder about the thinking processes that led to its conception. What did Lynch have in mind? How did he think about this idea? David Lynch is a musician too, so I can’t help imagining him in front of a newly acquired sampler loaded with amazing sounds that blew his mind and then asking to himself, “What film can I make that justifies having these sounds play non-stop throughout the film? What would the film have to be about? What would it have to look like? I’m of course not saying that that’s how the film came about, but I can’t help imagining that that’s one possibility of how it might have.
Like Derrida says, the beauty of reversing the way we think about something is that it encourages us to consider things that we might not have considered at all otherwise.
The Bells, edgar allan poe’s subtextual acoustic extravaganza
In The Hero’s Two Journeys, Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler talk about stories being divided into an outer journey and an inner journey. The outer journey is the external plot, and the inner journey is what goes on inside the characters. In that sense, the function of the external plot is ultimately to reveal the inner world of the character – the unconscious drives that dictate his or her choices, actions, and decisions.
When we translate a story into film language, we turn the screen into the window that reveals the inner life of the character, and we create that inner space, to a great extent, by selecting the sensory details that mirror the character’s psychological condition. That’s our aim when we choose a type of lighting, when we select a specific camera angle or movement, or when we ask the sound designer to make that wind sound more mournful or those steps more harried and anxious. We’re trying to give physical form to an abstract inner quality.
In a way, then, good screenwriting and good filmmaking is knowing how to tap into the the audience’s perceptual skills in order to get them to experience the character’s inner life first hand. The Bells, which you’ll find at the end of this page, although not a film, is a perfect example of what we can achieve when we understand this.
Being a poem, it uses the many poetic devices that poets use, but that’s not what attracts me so much to this poem. The Bells is a sonic masterpiece. In it, Poe exploits acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena both to produce a rich sensory and emotional experience in the reader and also to create a sonic texture that evokes mood, emotion, and the psychological states of the poem’s speaker.
The poem is about the death of a wife in a fire (though there are other interpretations). It is a journey in four stanzas. The first one represents the courting stage, the second one the wedding, the third one the fire, and the fourth one the burial. In emotional terms, it takes us from merriment to rapture to fear to painful insanity. Poe creates the emotional and psychological effect of each stanza by manipulating the sound of the bells in a number of ways.
In each stanza, the bells are made of a different metal, each of which gives the sound of the bells a different timbre, which in turn has different psychological effects and connotations. He uses words rich in vowels that emulate this timbre and also the motion and rhythm of the bells. In the first stanza (courting), they’re sledge bells made of silver, and the stanza has lots of short i-sounding words like twinkle, jingle, tinkle. The second stanza (wedding) has golden bells and lots of o-sounding, swelling words like mellow, golden-molten, oh, on, swell, and dwell. In the third stanza (fire), the alarm bells are made of brass and it has lots of twisted a-sounding words that have a kind of disorderly ring to them – twanging, clanging, jangling, wrangling. In the final stanza (burial), the bells are made of iron and the stanza has a lot of fall-sounding words such as sound, tone, throat, ghoul, toll, and roll, suggesting not only a heavy, low-pitched sound but also a kind of descent (the wife’s body into the ditch and the husband into insanity?).
The poem takes place at night. In the first two stanzas, Poe uses atmospheric conditions – which do affect sound – to add ‘colour’ to the ringing of the bells. The first night is icy, giving the sledge bells a crispy sound. The second night is balmy, giving the golden wedding bells a warm tone.
In stanzas three and four he uses (vocal) personification to add character to their sound. In the third stanza, the bells ‘scream out their affright’. In the fourth stanza, ‘every sound that floats from the rust within their throats is a groan’.
Poe uses musical terms to refer to the tone of the bells and the emotional effect this tone has on those who hear the bells. In the first stanza, the melody of the bells foretells merriment. In the second stanza, their harmony foretells a world of happiness. These associations – melody/merriment and harmony/happiness – have a psychoacoustic basis. The two factors that make music pleasing to the ear are melody and harmony, which give sound a coherent structure that our brains like.
In the third stanza, where the fire happens, Poe says, “What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”. Turbulency in itself is not a musical term, but then he adds, “they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune”, which is a musical term. One requirement for alarm sounds to be effective generally is that they need to be discordant to make us feel distressed and to make us want to get away from them, and therefore from the danger. Our brain doesn’t like random, incoherent sounds. Poe is aiming for that effect in this stanza.
In the fourth stanza, their monody compels a solemn thought and makes the listener “shiver with affright at the melancholy meaning of their tone”. Monody has several meanings. It can refer to a poem lamenting a person’s death, a type of music consisting of only one melodic line, and it can also be used to refer to a monotonous or mournful sound. Genius choice of word, since all apply here.
Finally, there’s the rhythm. As well as most of the other words, Poe uses “bells” repeatedly at the end of each stanza to emulate the rhythmic ringing of the bells, but he does it in a way that adds subjectivity and subtext. The first stanza starts happy, but the constant, almost frantic, repetition of “bells” at the end creates a slight contrast and gives away a neurotic undertone that makes one feel that something’s not quite right. By the fourth stanza, the bells are so manic that they almost evoke images of ghouls circling around, hand in hand, and performing a satanic death dance. This is probably what’s going on inside the speaker’s head. The ringing of the burial bells seems to be making him go insane with pain.
Sound is a powerful communicator. It is in fact the ultimate form of communication, used by most species. If you think about it, we can’t really do with light what we can do with sound. We don’t have a dedicated organ that allows us to emit beams of light and bend them at will to communicate all the complex ideas and emotions that we do with sound, for which we do have a dedicated organ.
This is not a coincidence. Sound has dense levels of information encoded in it, much more than light. We can trick the eye easily. We can get away with recording images at 24 frames per second. But try recording sound at that rate. The ear won’t be fooled.
Accordingly, the brain is very adept at extracting information about the environment and about our emotional states from sound. Poe understood this very well. He knew how to bend sound to emulate the emotional and psychological states of the speaker of this poem, to create a window into his inner world.
I wonder what Poe would say if we asked for some advice on doing this. He’d probably say: “KNOW THY SOUND!”.
As an end note, if you’ve read the poem, did you notice how each stanza starts with the speaker inviting you to HEAR?
What is Poe up to here? Any thoughts?
Hear the sledges with the bells–
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Hear the mellow wedding bells
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!
Hear the loud alarum bells–
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!
Hear the tolling of the bells–
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people–
They that dwell up in the steeple,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone–
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls:–
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells–
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.