Don Juan wast the first film to have a synchronised musical score and sound effects, both of which were recorded using the Vitaphone sound film system.
Synchronised sound was a big first step towards the codification and standardisation of sound practices in cinema. Up this this point, accompaniment had been provided by a live orchestra or a piano player, depending on where the film was being shown. This setup was far from ideal, specially as far as distribution went, since there was little control over what music would be played and by whom. It could be a competent orchestra or it could be the local baker or carpenter moonlighting as a pianist and probably under the influence of alcohol.
The major stumbling blocks that had been getting in the way of synchronised sound were ineffective synchronisation, not enough amplification, and poor fidelity. Many attempts had failed and as a result major studios were not keen to make the switch to sound, nor did they think the audiences would be interested.
Warner Bros was a relatively small player in the industry at the time. They wanted to change that and decided to make a bold move with Don Juan. The marketing strategy the brothers adopted was to present the new technology as an opportunity to to make ‘high culture’ more widely available. This was also an attempt to raise the standing of the new medium and thus attract the higher classes, who saw the movies as vulgar and lowbrow.
In the opening night of Don Juan in New York, a short film was played before the film where Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, talks about the advantages of the new technology. These are the words he used to sell it as ‘high culture’:
The accompaniment to Don Juan, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, certainly delivered on the promise of ‘high culture’. The move paid off and it changed the course of the history of the medium – audiences loved it and other studios had no option but to convert.
Many ancient cultures – Egyptians, Chinese, Celts, Arabs, Native Americans, Hebrews, and Christians – spoke of sound as a divine principle. They held the common belief that the universe was created with “One Sound”. God said, “let there be light”, and with the Primal Sound of Being, Nada Brahman, the world was created.
Then Western science came along and with its typical air of superiority it discarded these accounts as myth and lore created by primitive cultures who had very little understanding of how the universe really works.
Very often, though, those who think that they know better than everyone else, tend to not know that much after all. And that turned out to be the case with a lot of Western science. Hundreds of years of advanced scientific methods and technologies led scientists to discover that the ancient cultures had been right all along and they wrong. They had derided the ancient belief in a divine entity and rejected it as superstition without any scientific validity. Then they discovered quantum physics and the likes of Einstein had to concede that there must be an intelligence, a God, behind the design and orchestration of the universe. It couldn’t be any other way.
So does that mean that, as our ancestors claimed, this intelligence sang us into existence with sound? Apparently, yes.
In 1967 and after 14 years of studying the effects of sound vibration on substances such as fluids, powders, and liquid paste, Swiss medical doctor and natural scientist Dr. Hans Jenny published a book titled Cymatics: The Study of Wave Phenomena. Here he explains how, by spreading substances on a metal plate and feeding a simple tone, he was able to bring matter to life, to give it forms and shapes that we invariably find all around us, in both animate and inanimate entities, on earth and in outer space. Here we can see some of these experiments:
The ancients said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”; modern science now says, “Into the great void of space came a sound and matter took shape”.
So yes, it seems that sound calls the universe to order – and beauty. It gives shape to living creatures, crystals, leafs, plants, geological structures, and celestial bodies. And that might explain our ancestors’ fascination with sound.
Sound to them was a means to connect with the universal intelligence. They revered the sounds of life and devotedly listened to its symphony. They produced sounds to enter into a relationship with a greater reality. They prayed, chanted, made invocations, sang, and drummed. They sought paces that emanated powerful sonic vibrations – mountains, caves, rocks, forests. They built sacred structures that recreated and amplified these sounds and went there to attune themselves and to be in harmony with the forces of nature.
They did so not out of superstition or fear of a punishing god. To them, this connection with the universe was vital and essential to their survival. After all, we’re a part of a whole, and if we are not connected and in harmony with it, our survival is threatened. Our ancestors knew this.
Today’s world is very different. We’re surrounded by very different sounds, most of them noise. But there’s one place, one “campfire”, which has been soundproofed, acoustically treated for excellence, and equiped with mightly Dolby systems. It’s a place where we city dwellers can once more experience sound in rich and meaningful ways. There’s much that we can learn from our ancestors about harnessing its power.
NARRATIVE FUNCTION OF BRADLEY COOPER’S VOICE IN A STAR IS BORN
Let’s suppose for a moment that Bradley Cooper is on TV promoting his latest film, A Star Is Born, and the interviewer suddenly puts him on the spot. She congratulates him on the incredible job he’s done on the voice but she tells him that she thinks that it’s incongruous with the character’s disposition.
She does have a point. Our voice is a mirror into the soul. When we speak, it broadcasts the type of person we are. If we’re a calm and secure type of person, we sound calm and secure. If we’re and anxious and fearful type of person, we sound anxious and fearful. This is because our mental and physiological states colour the sound of our voice much like the environment and architectural spaces do. Our breathing dictates the tempo of our voice and the level of tension in our vocal chords its pitch. In short, our bodies act like a resonant cave that gives our voice its characteristics.
A deep, gravelly voice like the one Bradley Cooper gives Jackson in A Star Is Bornbroadcasts a person who is solid and stable and who knows how to keep his cool in a time of crisis. And that’s where the problem lies, according to the interviewer. Jackson is anything but solid and stable. He has demons, he has alcohol and drug problems, and he’s far from in control of himself or his life.
So how can Bradley Cooper give this criticism a positive spin?
Luckily for him, there are elements in the story that he can use to justify his choice. He could argue that, yes, when it comes to the voice, psychophysiological factors are very important, but that’s not everything there is to it.
Our voice, to a large extent, is the result of the survival strategies we adopted as children. When we’re growing up, we embrace behaviours that make us acceptable to the people our survival depends on and repress those behaviours that don’t. The way we talked formed part of the repertoire of behaviours at our disposal. The only thing is that the more behaviours we have to repress as children, the more repressed and distorted our voice becomes when we grow up. Also, as children, we often model the voice of the significant people around us to create a deeper connection with them, to gain their approval, or simply because we look up to them and want to grow up to be like them.
In the film, Bradley Cooper argues, Jackson’s father was an alcoholic, so it fell on his elder brother, Bobby (played by Sam Elliott, who has a naturally deep voice), to take care of Jackson. The relationship between the two brothers is far from easy. Half way through the film, they have a serious argument and exchange the following words:
Bobby is the one who has the real deep voice. Even in a moment of turmoil like this one, his voice remains grounded. He’s the one with a solid personality and the one who’s been keeping his brother on steady ground – as much as it was possible given Jackson’s troubled personality. After this exchange, Bobby decides to quit taking care of his unappreciative brother. Things go downhill for Jackson from that moment on, and later in the film, he admits to Bobby that he copied his voice because it was him he idolised, not his father. So that’s how Jackson got to have his gravelly voice.
Of course, Cooper adds, when you model your voice as a survival strategy, it may help you tell yourself a story about who you ‘are’, but since in most cases it’s not a genuine self, the shadow aspects of the personality that have been repressed will find expression through the voice in moments of weakness. And this is what happens to Jackson in this scene:
His body is so possessed by his wounded child at that moment that physiologically the voice can’t possibly reproduce the sound of a fake persona.
Hopefully by now, Bradley Cooper will be out of trouble. Though if that wasn’t the case, he could always add that his voice is a symbol that works at the thematic level. Jackson adopted it to meet cultural expectations of masculinity that are falling apart in our time, although this is perhaps a weaker argument since there’s not much in the film to support it. Still, it’s an option.
This is, again, only a hypothetical situation. I don’t know how much of this line of thinking was in three screenwriters’ heads when they were writing the script. But what it shows is that the voice in cinema can be used for much more than carrying the dialogue.
We often forget that the voice is the human species’ most important channel of communication. Because of that, our brains have become experts at extracting information from the voice – not just the semantic meaning of words, but also none-verbal cues. In fact, when we communicate, 45% of the message comes through verbal language, and the rest from body language, but out of the 45% of verbal communication, only 7% of the information is derived from the semantic meaning of words. The other 38% comes through other vocal cues that can give us valuable information about a person – their emotional state, integrity, level of confidence, personality, intentions, cultural affiliations, and much more.
And we often forget too that the voice is the most prominent element in the soundtrack. A Star Is Born is a but a minute example of how non-verbal aspects of the voice can be put to good dramatic and cinematic use. Exploiting them gives the audience a means to put their expertise in this area to good use. Deciphering the mysteries hidden behind the voice and extracting the (often subtextual) story it tells about the person can be a source of great pleasure to them.
Offscreen sound in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s the trouble with harry: the devil is in the detail
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.