During the last week of class, my professor, Phil Solomon, showed a few examples of his work. I personally valued the films due to the high level of thought that went into their design. One of the films featured three pieces of footage being played side by side. Each clip related to the clips beside it and the juxtaposition of the clips added a personal narrative which highlighted the feeling of chaos felt by many Americans who were witness to some of the most turbulent times of the twentieth century. The events depicted ranged from the rise of Hitler and the nazi regime to the assassination of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggles of African Americans during the segregation era. He used often used shots which eluted to these historic events without overtly displaying images of the events. For example, during his chapter about nazism, Phil Solomon would display images of Charlie Chaplin performing a satirization of Adolf Hitler instead of displaying footage of Hitler. I believe this replacement of images adds more meaning to the piece. I believe that the likeness of Charlie Chaplin’s impression of Hitler is strong enough for the audience to clearly understand that Hitler was the subject of the portion of the film. By using an comedic representation of Hitler, the power of the figure in the eyes of the viewer is diminished. In our society today, images of Hitler still conjure powerful emotions in people. He represents the destruction of millions of innocent lives and is a human embodiment of evil. By replacing his actual image with an off kilter representation of Hitler, the power of his image is diminished and the viewer is left to ponder the ridiculousness that this character was one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century. This use of representational images was also used during the Civil Rights sequence. As we all now, the 1950’s was a hot bed a racial violence with the lynching of African Americans in the south being the epitome of the disgusting nature of the conflict. During this sequence, instead of viewing the actual horrid act, Phil Solomon shows a montage of trees missing leaves. This technique adds a complexity to the reading of the film. The tree can ‘literally’ be read as the location where some of these violent killings took place but the quality of the trees being shown can create a parallel with the reality. The trees lack leaves which could represent the lack of life or morality and humanity which ultimately allowed people to commit such heinous acts on other human beings by virtue of the color of there skin. I believe the use of representational images is emblematic of Phil Solomon’s approach to film making. “I’m something of an archaeologist in reverse, I bury things rather than excavate them.” – Phil Solomon (Aldouby 7). Rather than making the meaning of an image crystal clear, he buries a variety of meanings into the image allowing for a variety of readings and opinions on the message of each shot. This technique not only increases the complexity of the film but also makes the subject matter more interesting to watch.
The Thin Red Line by Terrance Malick features a subdued soundtrack which serves to create a strong sense of interiority and personalization. Though the film is based upon a fierce battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II, the sound of the film avoids much of the overpowering sound which is a feature of many films of this genre. I believe that Terrance Malick wanted to create an artistic but realistic view of the war from the vantage point of the soldiers had the misfortune of fighting it. The sound design of the film was an important element in accomplishing this endeavor.
The controlled combination of sound and silence helps the viewer understand the events from the eyes of those who experienced it. Eq is used to help highlight this interiority. As a voiceover reveals the philosophy of a young soldier who has experienced brutal fighting, the sounds of the environment surrounding the soldier are dimmed with the high-end of the frequency spectrum diminished. The low-end of the sound spectrum still exists at a reduced level which helps to place the soldier in the his environment but space remains for the voiceover to deliver a powerful message. This technique makes us feel more connected with the thoughts of the soldier therefore producing a stronger relationship between the audience and the character. This technique is prominent in the aftermath of a battle between the Americans and Japanese. As Private Witt stares into the face of dead Japanese soldier, the sounds of the surrounding chaos is muted and a voiceover from the dead Japanese soldier fills the sound space and delivers a message which shows the similarity of men in the contrasting armies. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film and the emotion was achieved, in part, through the use of sound isolation.
Films such as Saving Private Ryan, for example, highlight the chaos of war through an intense and violent soundtrack. Explosions, gun fire, and men’s scream fill the sound space, leaving little room for space between sound effects. While this level of noise does have a powerful effect on the viewer’s psyche, it can lose its effect quite quickly. The intense amplification of the battle sounds only serves to spotlight the exteriority of the events taking place. In other words, it fails to connect with the viewer on an emotional level in the same way as The Thin Red Line. For example, the opening of Saving Private Ryan features the American invasion of German occupied France at Omaha Beach. The Americans are immediately met with gunfire from heavily fortified German defenses overlooking the beach. As the intensity of the battle grows, the sound level continues to increase to the point where the entire frequency range has a high, consistent amplitude. The invasion of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line uses a completely different approach. When the American troops storm the beach, they are met with complete silence. They are not fired upon and the sound of nature quickly fills the soundscape.”As in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, where the conquistadores are continually threatened by unseen natives while surrounded by thick vegetation, unrelenting heat, and the eerie sounds of exotic birds, Malick sustains the tension ‘simply by having nothing happen'”(Lloyd Michaels 59). Understanding that danger is ever present but not knowing where it lies creates the tension of the scene. This use of silence is as powerful, if not more so, than the overtly clear use of powerful sound effects featured in the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Terrance Malick’s understanding of the powerful use of contrasting sound and silence adds another level of complexity to an already gripping story. The focus on a subdued sound space helps set this film apart from others of the same genre and helps create a strong emotional connection between the characters and the audience.
David Lynch is a unique director who has a profound understanding of the role of sound in film. He has the strong belief that due to the fact that sound makes up fifty percent of a film, the design and mix of the soundtrack demands a great deal of attention and imagination. David Lynch has a personal sonic style which connects his films audibly. His soundtracks are innovative and feature obscure dreamlike soundscapes that add an distinct presence to his works. The director’s signature sound is based upon an ominous soundscape that serves as a backdrop for the seemingly bizarre focuses of his films. He also uses the juxtaposition of sound and image in order to create new meaning. Nostalgic and innocent sounds are processed and played over disturbing images to represent the destabilization of the psyche and to place the viewer in the unmistakeable ‘David Lynch’ world of cinema. This world is based upon the combination of reality and dark fantasy:
The film JFK, by Oliver Stone, offered an unique insight into the highly controversial assassination of American President, John F. Kennedy. The film used elements of hyperrealism to help express the time, society, and consciousness of the era. This film attempts to display a mixture of the reality of the situation along with a representation of the emotions of the time. Rapid montages are featured throughout the film as a means of conveying the seemingly constant turbulence of the 1960’s. Due to the artistic liberties taken in the stylistic design of the film, film critics wrote off the artistic use of hyper realism as ‘pointless MTV-style theatrics’. Randy Laist, author of the article Murder and Montage: Oliver Stone’s Hyperreal Period, believes that these critics overlook the effect that the stylized montages add to the film. He says,
“the [film] articulates the thesis that history, society, and consciousness itself have taken on the form of a hyperreal precession of mediated images. Rather than providing a window onto a secret reality, JFK […] enacts a fusion of representation and reality.” (Laist).
Oliver Stone also uses repetition to distort reality in order to make the actual event more impressionable on the viewers’ mind. For instance, repetition is used frequently in the found footage montage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In one sequence, Stone enlarges the infamous Zapruder footage, focuses on President Kennedy’s head and repeats the frames of the bullet impact which subsequently killed the President. The repetition of such a gruesome act creates a very strong impression on the viewer. This image confronts the audience with the brutal violence that took place to such a key figure in American History. More importantly, this sequence is used in an effort to persuade the viewer into accepting the possibility that the President was not shot from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository, but was instead shot by a shooter located near the grassy knoll, based on the movement of the president’s head after he was shot. Oliver Stone repeats this footage in order to convince the audience that a second shooter must have been present during the assassination. By focusing on the point of impact and looping this clip, the information is deeply engrained into the viewer’s mind and sticks with them long after the movie ends. I found that this sequence was particularly striking to me and stayed in my mind long after the screening was finished. Oliver Stone’s hyperrealistic rendition of this extraordinarily significant piece of American history made the event feel much more emotional and personal.
The documentary, “The Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris was a fascinating look into the failings of the American justice system. It illustrated a horrible crime that was committed as well as the preceding legal events that lead an innocent drifter to receive a life sentence while a young, reckless killer was permitted back into society where he continued to cause damage to other people’s lives and property. I especially find the backstory of the film to be remarkably interesting. The creator of the film, Errol Morris, set out to make a film about the so-called Dr. Death, a Dallas based psychiatrist who had become famous for his harsh and highly controversial testimonies after being asked to determine whether or not a convicted person was too dangerous to be left alive. He was a popular choice by prosecutors seeking the death penalty and had a long 15 year career of convincing jury’s that a convicted man would be ‘100 % per cent certain’ to kill again if he were released into the general public. Dr. Death became a significant figure in the Texas judicial system and caught the intrigue of Errol Morris. Morris was so interested in the career of Dr. Death that he began planning a documentary with Dr. Death as the focus. As Errol Morris studied more and more about the life of Dr. Death, he discovered a case Dr. Death was involved in that quickly changed the course of the project. This case was of course that of Randall Adams, a drifter serving a life sentence who claims that he was framed for the murder of police officer. I personally believe that this backstory shows a great deal of risk by Errol Morris and is a good lesson for filmmakers. During the process of researching a film, Errol Morris left himself free to pursue paths and stories even though it would steer him away from his original idea. Morris was decisive and chose to follow a story line that he felt proved ripe with injustice. This decision led to the creation of this enchanting film that eventually helped reopen the actually court case which in turn released an innocent man from a lifetime behind bars. This artistic endeavor was able to make real change by shining a light on a dark corner of our judicial system. I believe other filmmakers can learn from the experience of this film and begin to understand the power that film can have in society.
Recreating the soundscape from one of the most brutal wars in the twentieth century involved a great deal of sound design. In order to accomplish this difficult task, legendary sound designer, Walter Murch, focused on using sounds of the Vietnam war that were prominent in the television broadcasts of the 1960s/1970s in order to create the sonic atmosphere of the cinematic master piece, Apocalypse Now. One such sound which was used as the basis for the sound design of was the American military helicopter. The helicopter was emblematic of the militaries modern version of Calvary. In an interview, Walter Murch discusses the importance of the sound of these helicopters in the film:
“what made Vietnam different and unique was that it was the helicopter war. Helicopters occupied the same place in this war that the cavalry used to. The last time the cavalry was used was in World War I, which demonstrated that it didn’t work anymore. In World War II there was no cavalry. Then we got the cavalry back, with helicopters, to a certain extent in the Korean War, and really got it back in the Vietnam War.” (Miguel Isaza).
The helicopter was a key feature of the Vietnam war that was distinct to the era and the war. It is only natural then that these mechanic sounds be used to help place the viewer into the world of the film. The design of the helicopters also involved a great deal of sound design and mixing. Each rotor of the helicopter was mixed separately and mixed spatially in order to accurately create the illusion of motion through sound. “sometimes you’ll hear just the rotor, then you’ll hear just the turbine, then you’ll hear just the tail rotor, then you’ll hear some clanking piece of machinery, then you’ll hear low thuds.” (Miguel Isaza). This level of detail is one of the reasons that the sound design of the film is as convincing to the audience.
The music of the film derived inspiration from musique concrete, or the idea of creating music from sound. This soundtrack was also interesting because the sound would switch from mono to stereo. Walter Murch believed that this technique would add variation to the soundtrack that would help keep the viewer from listening to a stagnant soundtrack:
“I thought, instead, what you had to do was shrink the film down to mono at times, and let it be there quite a while. People without knowing it would think, ‘This is mono.’ And then, at that moment, you could make it a stereo film, and that would be impressive because now it was different.” (Miguel Isaza).
Switching from mono to stereo helps create a juxtaposition which emphasizes the surround sound when the sound format changes. The amount of thought and focus on detail truly makes this soundtrack a masterpiece and notable within Cinematic history.
Using popular music in film requires precision and purpose. Songs have an innate ability to heighten the emotion of a scene but must be used in a way that serves story rather than merely fill a hole in the sound track. When the proper songs are selected for specific “emotional beats” in the film, the film is given a new and palpable energy. This is the case in Martin Scorsese’s 1990’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas. This film features a wide variety of interwoven popular music which is remarkably blended into the film. Scorsese has a tendency to make story developments that synchronize with the music being played. This can be demonstrated in the bar scene when Tommy (Joe Pesci) gets into a fight at a bar with a ‘made’ man. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pQ6fd6iO_c). As the scene and the setting are introduced a happy “pop” song is played which helps create a festive atmosphere before the scene turns sour. As the conversation between Tommy and the ‘made’ man heads south, the music begins to dim providing a correlation between the mood in the scene and the volume of the soundtrack. When the conversation explodes into a full blown screaming match, the music is completely cut helping to create the strong juxtaposition with the volume level of the music that existed at the introduction of the scene. This sound automation has a powerful effect on the viewer’s perception and helps to add dramatic tension. The sudden void in the soundtrack makes the silence speak louder than it would have had the song never been played. This sound synchronization with film truly adds another level of complexity to the movie.
Music is also used in this film to show the attitudes on different characters. This can be seen in the bar scene featuring an increasingly annoyed Robert DeNiro who is sick of Maury approaching him and asking for the money he feels entitled too. (https://youtu.be/FmF_Phk6eIE). In this scene, we see DeNiro take a drag of his cigarette and give Maury a look that summarizes the detest DeNiro’s character has for Maury. As the camera begins to push in on DeNiro, the infamous opening riff to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” plays in the soundtrack indicating audibly exactly what DeNiro plans on doing to Maury. A popular rock song combined with DeNiro’s tough exterior and Scorsese’s masterful camera framing created one of the most menacing shots in the history of cinema. The reading Case Study Good Fellas says “the second level of musical allusionism […] highlights the authorial expressivity by commenting on characters rather than speaking from there point of view” (52). I believe this is especially evident in this shot because the music speaks to DeNiro’s characters tough personality by using a classic rock song to define his tough exterior rather a dark musical number that directly expresses his hatred towards Maury. I believe that Scorsese’s use of music in this film was impeccable and helped add another level of intricacy to the movie.