Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bleg: Subjective Sound, Mad Men and Apocalypse Now

I’m interested in the use of sound to emphasize one point of view in a film vs. other points of view. For example in the fifth episode (called “5G”) of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper is called out of a staff meeting to the reception area to see one Adam Whitman. Adam is his younger brother, from a past that Draper thought he’d left completely behind. This upsets him a great deal and, on the way back to and into the staff meeting, he withdraws into himself. The sound track underlines this (16:50 – 17:30) by eliminating all other sounds except for moody music. We can see other people talking in the staff meeting, but cannot hear them. All we hear is Draper’s moody mental music and a muffled “thk” as he knocks his cigarette against his lighter—to compact the tobacco, I suppose.

I have no idea how often this device has been used, but I first learned of it in a piece by Walter Murch in which he discusses a somewhat different version of the device in Apocalypse Now. This occurs at the Dolung Bridge sequence. In this case, it’s not what we hear, but what we don’t hear:
The scene begins with the realistic sounds of bridge construction. You hear arc welders, you hear flares going off, machine guns and incoming artillery. As the scene goes on, though, you’ll notice that the explosions and the machine guns are replaced by sounds of construction–the machine guns become rivet guns, for instance, so there’s already a subtle warping of reality taking place. ... Once the scene gets into the trench, the dilemma is explained: there’s a Vietnamese soldier out there, a sniper taunting the Americans, and they’re shooting wildly into the dark with an M-50 machine gun, but they just can’t get him. Finally, out of frustration the machine gunner says, “Go get the Roach.” “The Roach” turns out to be the nickname of a soldier who is a kind of human bat; he has precise echo-location instead of sight, so if he can hear the sound of the voice, he can then pinpoint his target, adjust his grenade launcher and, in the dark, shoot the sniper. As Roach approaches the camera, the rock music that has been echoing “in the air” of the scene, coming from all speakers in the theatre, concentrates itself in the center speaker only and narrows its frequency range, seeming to come from a transistor radio which Roach then clicks off, taking all the other sounds with it. After a brief rumble of distant artillery, there is now silence except for some kind of unexplained, slow metallic ticking. Visually you see the battle continuing–flashes of light, machine gun bursts, flare guns–that should normally have sounds accompanying them — but there is nothing else except the taunting voice of the sniper in the dark. You have entered into the skin of this human bat and are hearing the world the way he hears it.
The details are quite different from the Mad Men scene, but the usage and effect are much the same. Sound is used to bring us into the subjective world of a single individual in a scene where there are several players.

There’s another case earlier in Apocalypse Now, in the helicopter attack sequence. The helicopters are flying in over the ocean; we hear their rotors and we hear “Flight of the Valkyries.” There’s a quick cut to a square in front of the village school. The film goes silent, and then we hear the helicopters and “Flight of the Valkyries” coming up on the soundtrack. The silence is what would have been heard at the school before the helicopters got close. We are IN that world. As soon as we hear the helicopters coming in, THEY hear them; the teachers organize the students and get them out of the school. In this case we’re taken, not into the world of a single person, but into the world of a group, the children and teachers at the school.

So, we’ve got three examples of sound being used to bring us into the worlds of people in a film. Any other examples?

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