On Jewish Humor

A little over a year ago I published an essay in the Journal of Popular Culture about how Larry David and his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm subverts traditional definitions of Jewish humor. That piece was a sequel to an original but unpublished article I wrote on the meaning of Woody Allen’s fictional screen persona and its misunderstanding in film and cultural criticism. What follows is a version of that piece.

In the final section of his first short story collection, Getting Even, published in 1971, Woody Allen includes an addendum entitled “About the Author,” which sketches his major accomplishments as a writer for television, film, and the stage. The piece remains an otherwise pithy autobiographical statement until the final line where Allen reveals that “His only regret in life is that he is not someone else.”[ii] On one level, this candid confession is a clever non sequitur, providing one final piece of amusement before the book ends; but more seriously, the confession reflects a recurrent spasm in Allen’s perceived identity. While he is seemingly writing about himself, the final line recalls the ironic and self-critical character of Allen’s persona that saturates most of his stage, screen, and literary work. This fictional identity is chiefly characterized by an ambivalent unity of pride and criticism, which ultimately shapes the nebbish spirit of his comedy. In this sense, he is at once the schlemiel—the self-critical loser, the awkward innocent—and a sharp observer of cultural attitudes. Such a traversal is presented more drolly in the old Jewish adage, “We have a God in heaven, thank God; but has he got a people on earth, God help him!”

Allen’s brief comment suggests, among other things, that his persona is shaped by multiple notions of Jewish identity and is filtered through a keen understanding of Jewish humor. As such, the imbrication of these elements constitutes one of the defining features of Allen’s put-upon little mensch character, so much so that it often shadows the real Allen. Although he has maintained a certain distance from his fictional doppelgangers, he nevertheless identifies with his characters as Jews: “Any character I…play would be Jewish, just because I am [a Jew].”[iii] By identifying with his Jewishness on the one hand, Allen’s persona reflects particular Jewish attitudes that inform his own Jewish identity. Paradoxically, on the other hand, his persona often expresses anxieties with which a wider audience (including non-Jews) can identify. As Maurice Yacowar has observed, the persona “hides what Woody is really like, but it shows us something of his inner life—and it reflects our common nature.”[iv] Indeed, as a humorist, comic, and clown Allen has become a major cultural symbol in North America, a figure of intelligence, wit, and clumsiness. For Jews, Allen cleverly communicates the eternal strife of emancipated Jewry; for non-Jews, he connects to his audience through common anxieties by mocking what he does not understand. Certainly, it would not be difficult to overemphasize the notion of Jewish victimhood in Allen’s comic style, as evidenced in the above quotation, but it remains only one facet of his complex persona.

My basic claim is that Allen’s schlemiel figure, while Jewish, demonstrates a comic and intellectual sensibility that obfuscates a singular notion of Jewish identity and representation. The natural spirit of Allen’s comedy is in his ability to be Jewish, unJewish, a New Yorker, a romantic, a cynic, an intellectual, a fool, an outsider, and an insider—sometimes all in the same breath. The imbricated and oscillating nature of Allen’s persona resists causal explanation in terms of either Allen’s own Jewishness or specific principles concerning contemporary Jewish identity in North America. To understand the complex nature of Allen’s persona, what is most helpful, I argue, is an investigation of the central tropes that disclose the essence of this comic persona. By examining the tenets of Jewish humor and the relevant notion of contemporary Jewish identity, we can begin to reveal the significance of Allen’s humor, the response(s) that his humor triggers, and its relationship to notions of a particular Jewish sensibility.

On the nature of Jewish laughter, Irving Howe has suggested that Jewish humor is not humorous at all. In fact, the distinctive quality of this humor is in its ability to examine and criticize cultural attitudes from a marginalized position. As Howe observes, “The group which struggles along the margin of history is always in a better position to examine it realistically than the group which floats in midstream.”[v] More than criticizing the mainstream, however, Jewish humor has been historically defined as a critical apparatus that also involves a healthy dose of self-criticism. The acute social observations that pepper the jokes of classical and contemporary humorists often include self-criticism and ridicule, leading Howe to suggest that this humor “is in a state of constant tension between criticism and justification,” which resembles “the plight of all humanity.”[vi] Furthermore, the double-bind of Jewish humour, its oscillation between pride and criticism, supports Sig Altman’s conclusion that in contemporary film comedy the “very word ‘Jewish’ has become laden with humorous overtones,” and that “Jewish identity is itself a kind of automatic comic device projected at an audience ‘programmed’ to receive it.”[vii]

Indeed, humor has been at the heart of Jewish writing from Sholem Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer to Saul Bellow to Philip Roth to Woody Allen. These writers have debated identity in their work and, in turn, have been subject to scholarly criticism that aims to concretize and isolate the inherent “Jewishness” of their texts. In Allen’s case, the critical discourse has centred on the perceived Jewishness of his persona. At a theoretical level, the identity of his persona is ultimately shaped by the discourse, which has reduced the heterogeneous and, perhaps, paradoxical character to a homogeneous stereotype that begs to be read as irrefutably “Jewish.” More than any other contemporary Jewish personality, Allen’s nebbish persona has been appropriated and essentialized by a range of scholars in various disciplines—from theology to cinema studies—whose aim is to effectively isolate Allen’s internal Jew from other traits that challenge his unique Jewish identity. In a sobering account on Jewish exile, Howard Wettstein observes a trend in recent scholarship that employs essentializing categories of identity to virtually construct the modern American Jew. Signalling the need to remain open to ironic and overlapping definitions of Jewish identity, he asks, “Who is to say, after all, that there is only one kind of significance, only one way that being Jewish can matter?”[viii] Thus, I argue that the willful tendency to construct Jewish identity in contemporary discourse finds an apotheosis in the critical perception of Allen.

As cultural studies scholar Simon During has noted, “Identities, then, are not given in terms of what individuals are as a whole, but in terms of more or less arbitrarily selected features that they possess. For the most part, individuals have little power to choose what features will be used to identify them—these are determined socially, from the outside.”[ix] Here, however, I would like to make a stronger claim, that Allen’s identity is far more nuanced than discussions have suggested.

The exact nature of Jewish identity remains an anomalous beast that resists articulation. However, despite the tendency to suppose that there is a single or privileged classification, it is important to consider the diversity of Allen’s identity. To explain his character as a result of a clearly defined Jewish influence is to foreclose inquiry into the textured traits that fill his art. In this sense, it is possible to link Allen to the broad notion of cultural hybridity that is outlined by During: “hybridity theory thinks of identity not as a marker, a stable trait across groups, but as a practice whose meaning and effect is constantly mutating as its context changes.”[x]

What I’m suggesting is that Allen’s comic identity — the self-hating Jewish outsider — has been misread. His persona is far more nuanced, diverse, and hybridized than critics and scholars have let on.

The Self-Hating Jew

The distinctiveness of Jewish humor is a familiar topic for cultural historians and social theorists. Howe’s contention that Jewish humor is not necessarily humorous is a valuable conclusion that informs the structure of many Jewish jokes. While there remains room for physical slapstick comedy, several scholars have noted that the humor of Jews is based on the criticism of cultural attitudes from outside the fray of mainstream society. The criticism of social behavior and cultural traditions reveals a disposition that is not as amusing as a physical gag or impersonation, but nevertheless yokes observation with a certain form of social satire. Howe goes on to argue that these jokes do not provoke uproarious laughter, but instead question the ways in which society behaves. Consider these jokes from Allen’s repertoire: “When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room…” and “My parents were very old world. Their values in life were God and carpeting.” Thus, these comic jabs attest to what Howe has called the “internal criticism” of Jewish humor: “Though a joke usually involves a thrust at someone else, [this] humor is often a thrust at the Jews themselves.”[xi]

The emergence of the self-critical or self-hating Jew in critical discourse derives its influence from the comic style articulated in Allen’s jokes. Indeed, for some scholars Allen’s supposed self-criticism is a decidedly “Jewish” trait that would otherwise find little laughter if the comedian was not a Jew. Moreover, for some psychologists Jewish humor is “an act of self-disclosure…a means by which a person tells those present something about himself.”[xii] This hypothesis is taken one step further by Sigmund Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. He has observed that Jewish jokes “are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics…I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to a such a degree of its own character.”[xiii] The investigation of the Jewish condition has led Freud to conclude that Jewish jokes can be characterized in six ways:

 [There is] a sharp self-criticism of the Jew; a democratic mode of thought; an emphasis on social principles of Judaism; a revolt against Judaism; a concern with the socio-economic status of the Jew; and a generally skeptical outlook.[xiv]

Three of these categories are related to the general condition outlined by Howe, which emphasizes the self-critical and sometimes negative attitude of Jewish comedy. The sharp self-criticism, the revolt against Judaism, and the skeptical outlook have all been applied to the study of Jewish fiction and, more recently, to the style of Allen’s persona. However, before asking if Allen is, in fact, a self-hating Jew, we must examine the purpose of the self-critical joke.

The social relevance of self-deprecating jokes in contemporary Jewish culture is central to our understanding of its place in Jewish humor. Early students of Jewish humor including Martin Grotjahn and Sig Altman contend that the self-critical apparatus became a necessary defensive device throughout Jewish history. Their hypotheses develops the idea that the disclosure of shortcomings by Jews essentially stifles further persecution. Put another way, the paranoia and discrimination suffered by Jews throughout history results in a defensive strategy that counters hostility by admitting fault. Lester Friedman has called this hypothesis the “I’ll-Say-It-about-Myself-before-You-Say-It-about-Me” attitude.[xv] More generally, this definition is shaped by historical factors that have emotional overtones. These critics imply that self-critical humor is used as a shield and serves its purpose only when it protects against tyranny and mockery. Maurice Samuel sees the shield working in reverse: self-deprecating jokes empower the Jewish victim and encourage an “escape from the tragic realities of Jewish life.”[xvi]

In his own study of the social conditions of Jewish humor, Avner Ziv reaches a similar conclusion and maintains that shtetl Jews laugh to ease the pain of their everyday experience. The common foibles provide the impetus for the humor, which allows them to laugh and take comfort together.[xvii] Theodor Reik, Freud’s disciple, echoes Ziv by suggesting that a certain degree of masochism “has been essential to Jewish survival in the diaspora over the last two millennia.”[xviii] These accounts all stress the emotional toll of oppression, and see self-deprecating humor as quelling Jewish anxieties. However, these theorists have not addressed whether or not self-critical humor is the result of Jewish self-hatred.

In their discussion of modern Jewish American culture, Naomi and Eli Katz have suggested that self-critical humor is used to isolate one generation of Jews from another. Where humor was once the defensive shield of the ghetto community, it is now employed to mock the qualities and attitudes of first generation immigrant Jews. The Jewish American humorist mocks the qualities that typify the Old World Jew, from the Chassidic garb to the whining Yiddish accent. From Jackie Mason to Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen, the Katz’s maintain that the criticism does not imply hatred for Jewish culture as much as it is hatred for “the first-generation Jew himself, since the stereotypes being criticized refer to a specific folk caricature rather than to the Jewish system of ethics.”[xix] This perspective receives further treatment by Salcia Landmann who “predicts the impending decline of the phenomenon of Jewish humor defined by Freud because Jewish humorists will soon have nothing new to mock.”[xx]

Landmann’s hypothesis is anchored by the idea that modern American Jews consciously distance themselves from the qualities and attitudes of their Old World ancestors. Allen’s joke about his parents being Old World “types” is frequently invoked to support this argument. These arguments also point to assimilation as a determining factor of Jewish humor. As the American Jew becomes assimilated, there is the possibility that she relinquishes her Jewish identity in favor of one more acceptable in mainstream society. Most certainly, this theory finds its apotheosis in the work of Bernard Rosenberg and Gilbert Shapiro who refute Landmann’s claim on the basis that second- and third-generation American Jews are facing their own identity crisis: “Where we previously hated ourselves for being Jews, we now frequently hate ourselves for not being Jews.”[xxi] In Oedipus Wrecks (1989) (one of the three tales in New York Stories), Allen plays Sheldon, a Jewish writer who has all but renounced his religion and cultural heritage in order to distance himself from his overbearing mother (another common source for comedy in Jewish humor). Sheldon becomes engaged to a Gentile woman, anglicizes his last name, and becomes enmeshed in the Manhattan WASP social scene where he frequently disparages the cultural behaviour of Jews. That is, until his mother disappears from her New York apartment and soon takes up residence in the sky, where she can better monitor her son’s actions. Overwhelmed by guilt, grief, and frustration, Sheldon meets a Jewish mystic with whom he falls in love—if only because of her traditional Jewish cooking! In the end, Sheldon accepts his heritage, his mother, and ultimately accepts his own Jewishness, which results in his mother’s return. Thus, it is a sense of guilt that contributes to the humorist’s self-deprecation.

That Jews are self-hating because of their disappearing Jewishness is a hypothesis that is not limited to Rosenberg and Shapiro. In a polarizing essay entitled “Woody Allen and the Jews,” Samuel H. Dresner argues that Allen is not only self-hating but also openly critical of the Jewish religion. Confusing Allen’s persona for the real man, Dresner castigates Allen for comments he made in a 1988 New York Times editorial, where he criticized Israeli military conduct during the intifada. Dresner blurs the line between Allen’s persona and his actions as a Jewish-American when he calls on his “adoring audience, especially his Jewish audience” to question the motives of the filmmaker: “For that audience, by its adoration, and even by its neutrality, has ipso facto betrayed its faith and its people. Does one detect a scintilla of love for the Jewish people in Allen?”[xxii] While Dresner’s suggestion of audience complacency is not his central point, he nevertheless employs the notion of the self-hating Jew to support his larger thesis concerning Allen’s anti-Jewish attitudes.

Focusing on the issue of religious faith, Dresner repeatedly criticizes Allen for mocking the Jewish religion and, by corollary, Jews themselves. He observes that Allen’s audience is “accepting” of these attitudes, which, for Dresner, results in “a betrayal of Jewish values…[and] a betrayal of the Jewish people.”[xxiii] In other words, when Allen criticizes rabbinical practices or Jewish traditions, he is also betraying himself. This mockery to which Dresner refers derives not only from Allen’s film work, but also to the short story in Getting Even, “Hassidic Tales, with a Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar,” quoted at the beginning of this post, which critiques the wit and wisdom of Jewish bible stories and the religious figures that tell them. Dresner writes:

Never before have so many Americans seen so ugly a portrayal of religious Jews as in his oeuvre. For the Gentile, Allen’s depiction of religious Jews as pious frauds, and worse, can only confirm the vicious stereotype of the Jew as hypocrite, devil, despoiler of morality, and corrupter of culture.[xxiv]

In this sense, Dresner implies that Allen’s self-hatred mobilizes into disdain for an entire people. In Dresner’s view, the implication of Allen’s stereotypical appropriations is a negative enterprise that threatens to corrupt the existing Jewish culture and highlight certain undesirable attitudes to non-Jews.

As a Jewish humorist, then, Allen is appropriated by several scholars who theorize on the nature of the self-hating Jew. While each scholar identifies different qualities in the self-hating subject, Allen’s humor is featured prominently in their analyses. In Lester Friedman’s study of Allen’s comic style, he notes that Allen uses laughter as a shield to escape the injustices of life and the people who scorn him. Though Friedman does not necessarily associate the laughter shield with the deflection of anti-Semitic hate, the origin of the shield metaphor is curiously similar to one outlined earlier by Sig Altman. In another book-length study of Allen’s films, Maurice Yacower argues that his self-deprecating humor demonstrates, more than anything else, “the difficulty of sustaining a traditional identity” in the modern urban community.[xxv] In both of these accounts, Allen’s self-critical disposition is attributed to social injustice and religious persecution.

The examination of Allen’s persona by various scholars has revealed a tendency to focus on the comedian’s Jewish background. Although Allen frequently refrains from dealing with “Jewish” subjects in his films and short stories, the critical discourse outlined above has clearly defined his persona as being Jewish. Whether he is scorned for political views that defy conservative Jewish thought or narrowly defined as being self-deprecating, Allen’s image has become subject to identity appropriation. Allen himself has stated that “what I’m really interested in is creating an image of a warm person that people will accept as funny, apart from the joke or the gag.”[xxvi] In this sense, the real Allen seeks approval from his audience, while the persona continues to signal that he is still not comfortable with himself.

Mark E. Bleiweiss offers an alternative hypothesis when he suggests that Allen’s persona neither mocks his own Jewish identity nor Jewish culture itself. In this sense, the purpose of Allen’s self-criticism springs from “his desire to humble himself before audiences who might otherwise idolize him.” Thus, the eternally shy Allen “instills his own personal warmth into all of his roles,” which leads Bleiweiss to conclude that his humor

reveals his self-affirmation as a Jew … He increases his persona’s warmth by stressing his imperfections. His emphasis on the imperfect, far from mocking Jewish values, actually reflects the Jewish notion that we must all learn to accept unchangeable shortcomings so that we can function in our everyday lives.[xxvii]

That Allen injects decidedly Jewish topics into some of his films leads Bleiweiss to state that the persona is, in one way, proud of his cultural heritage and willing to share it with his audience. Paradoxically, however, Bleiweiss’ notion of the “self-affirming Jew” is weakened by his assertion that Allen is largely ignorant of his own Jewish heritage. His argument suggests that just as Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) “got off on the wrong foot” with God, so too has most of his other screen characters. When Allen criticizes rabbinical practices and Jewish mysticism, Bleiweiss stresses that he is simply mocking what he does not understand.

However, in Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) the one character that is placed on a moral pedestal is the blind rabbi (Sam Waterston) who is wiser and more sensible than the other troubled characters. Alternatively, in the “Hasidic Tales” short story, Allen mocks a rabbi who does not obey the laws of kashrut and is revealed as a fraud. In each of these examples, Allen presents ambivalent readings of Jewish culture and tradition that cannot be safely confined to one category or another. He is at once the self-affirming figure that venerates Old World customs, and a self-critical cynic that questions his own allegiances.

To suggest, then, that Allen’s persona is a complex and ambiguous figure challenges the ways in which scholars have appropriated his image to support their various perspectives on the nature of the self-hating Jew. In other words, Allen’s persona is frequently reduced to an essentialized identity, one that leaves little room for ambivalence, incongruity, and nuance.

He is self-hating because he is intended to repeat the historical plight of his ancestors; or he is self-affirming because he chooses to mock his cultural roots. For Altman and Friedman, Allen uses self-deprecating humor as a defensive measure against further persecution and criticism from society. For Dresner, Allen’s self-critical humor betrays his religious faith and commitment to Jewish causes, while Bleiweiss and others feel that Allen cannot be too critical of his Jewishness because he does not know enough about it to genuinely criticize it. Thus, Allen’s identification as a conflicted Jew has been appropriated by several scholars who have constructed an identity for the comedian; that is, his persona has been imbued with characteristics that are culturally inflected and determined by specific social conditions.

In other words, I am suggesting that the persona has been mapped by scholars in order to anchor Allen’s comic style in a particular field of study. The traits chosen to identify Allen’s self-hating behavior are contingent and based on arbitrary values that do not consider his persona’s sometimes paradoxical and incongruous attitudes towards Judaism, society, and ethnicity. The essentialized personality that these scholars have constructed limits our own ability to understand the nature of Allen’s comic style and his relationship to traditional forms of Jewish humor. The origins of self-critical attitudes in Jewish humor are multileveled, yet in order to reveal Allen’s hybridized personality, we must first consider another trope of contemporary Jewish identity: the Jew as outsider.

The Jew as Outsider

The myth of the wandering Jew functions as a dominant symbol in the critical discourse on Allen’s comedic persona. More generally, the Jew that is never at home, never at rest, and a stranger in his own village is a broad theme that moves throughout modern literature and film. This theme has prompted several scholars to theorize on the nature of the Jewish outsider. In the novels of Saul Bellow, the protagonists struggle in a world that is not their own. Philip Roth’s natural subject is a Jew that is uncomfortable in his middle-class surroundings, the Jew whose identity is a “problem to himself.”[xxviii] Thus, Gregg Bachman has asked, “What is a Jew?”[xxix] His answer lies “in the desperate struggle of the outsider,” while Albert Memmi suggests that

The Jew’s self-rejection by the non-Jews are so intertwined that it is sometimes difficult distinguishing between them. In making fun of himself, by this very mockery, the Jew reveals his absurd preoccupations, the acrobatics to which he resorts to face them, his complicated and ludicrous adaptations to life in a too-harsh world, one which he can’t face unprotected. Jewish humor tells of the fundamental lack of adaptation of the Jew to non-Jewish society.[xxx]

The heroes of these narratives all struggle to understand what it means for them to be Jewish in the urban chaos of New York City. Yearning to assimilate, to adapt, and to be accepted is a cultural tenet that Memmi argues is fundamental to Jewish humour.

The root of Allen’s screen persona can be linked to the comic traditions of the clown figure of early Hollywood cinema. Film clowns, as Gerald Mast explains, are different from everyone else around them, especially in appearance and demeanor. Groucho Mark, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin are perpetual outsiders who cannot function in mainstream society because they are too busy mocking it. Indeed, several scholars have related Allen’s schlemiel clown to Chaplin’s Tramp on the assumption that both figures are eternal outsiders and, thus, quintessential Jews. Hannah Arendt suggests that “the most unpopular people in the world inspired what was long the most popular of contemporary figures.”[xxxi] On the influence of Jewish elements in Chaplin’s humor, Albert Goldman has argued that

Chaplin was an English Jew who was at pains always to deny or minimize his Jewish origins. The Little Fellow was the apotheosis of the schlemiel. His vulnerability and helplessness, his quick wit and ingenuity in self-preservation, his absurd affectation of dandyism, his infatuation with blond-haired, fair-skinned, voluptuously innocent maidens…were the classic notes and signs of the Jewish comic hero.[xxxii]

Sig Altman has stressed that, like Goldman, Chaplin’s Tramp is “difficult to ‘place’ into any other symbolic niche but that of the Jew in the Diaspora.”[xxxiii] Even the Nazi Party denounced Chaplin’s films on the merit that he was a “Jewish Communist millionaire.”[xxxiv]

These statements by Jewish and non-Jewish critics serve to highlight the structuring character of Jewish humor in the modern era. According to these thinkers, this humor is derived from difference with and adversity to the Gentile world. It is also derived from a sense of galut or exile from home. The Jew, like the Tramp, is the perennial loser, the unfortunate and clumsy outsider. Chaplin’s ability to tap into these themes would suggest that he shared a perspective with first-generation Jews who found humor in their plight.

The only caveat to this hypothesis is that Chaplin was not Jewish.

The misconceptions over Chaplin’s ethnicity spring not from unintentional coincidence but from clichéd notions of Jewish humor. The image of the Jew-as-outsider is an available caricature that evolves out of the novels of Kazin, Bellow, and Roth, where urban Jewish types search in serio-comic fashion for their “identity” amidst a sea of people that do not resemble or understand them. The alienated characteristics that define Chaplin’s Tramp are echoed in Lester Friedman’s pithy summary of Allen’s persona:

 [Allen is] a wise-cracking onlooker, persecuted victim, anxiety-ridden weakling, eternal outsider, guilty paranoid, stand-up comic, hopeless but unbowed lover, figure of moral rectitude. Like Chaplin’s immortal tramp, Allen…finds himself locked into conflict with the alien world surrounding him.[xxxv]

Whether or not Chaplin was influenced by Yiddish humor or the stories of immigrant Jews, it is clear that scholars have attributed his fictional persona to the ubiquitous Jewish outsider. Thus, the link between Chaplin and Allen is made complete by the inference that both comedians are Jewish (or, at least have been influenced by the plight of the Jewish outsider).

Consequently, there is a consistency to the way in which Allen’s persona is coded as outsider. Gerald Mast links him to Chaplin when he states that “Allen’s combination of the Jewish aspects of the schlemiel with the physical characteristics of the silent clowns presents an image of a man eternally bewildered by a hostile universe.” He goes on to insist that Allen is the first comedian where being Jewish “was not simply a hereditary accident but a way of life.”[xxxvi] In another study of Allen’s work, Ruth Perlmutter argues that Allen is never at home in any of his films, hinting that his situation resembles Theodor Herzl’s notion of the Jew who never leaves the ghetto except through illusion.[xxxvii] Thus, suffering and eternal isolation are themes that dominate the criticism of Allen’s screen personality.

The perceived vulnerability of Allen’s persona is essentialized by several scholars who position his Jewish characters in dichotomous relationships with non-Jewish characters. This perception highlights Allen’s Jewishness and isolates him from those who do not understand his Jewish sensibility. The conflict between the Jew and the WASP is an essential antinomy to the construction of Allen’s screen persona. Without this dichotomous category, Allen would simply assimilate into the Gentile crowd and lose his distinct Jewishness. At least this is what Ruth Perlmutter suggests in her study of Zelig (1983). She writes:

 Thus, Zelig is a further extrapolation of Allen’s literalizations of himself as the Jew in the WASPish world. If he can change himself in to a goy and marry the oxymoron, the non-Jewish female psychiatrist, he has resolved his own sexual inadequacies (which seem always tied to his Jewishness) while retaining the American dream of assimilation promulgated by the Jewish Hollywood moguls.[xxxviii]

Suffering has become so embedded in the perception of Allen’s Jewish humor that the binary model of Jew-WASP has become a distinguishing character trait of his persona. Zelig is about a Jewish man who is so obsessed with assimilation that he takes on the qualities of a chameleon who can physically transform himself into the ethnic group of which he is a part. Interestingly, Perlmutter has focused on the relationship between Zelig and his female psychiatrist rather than the other relationships that pepper the narrative. Zelig’s association with Chinese individuals, British and American politicians, the obese, and even Nazis presents a challenge to the simple Jew-WASP binary; that is, Zelig seems to fit in everywhere but nowhere. The only stability he achieves is in his love for the psychiatrist he eventually marries.

The clear contrast between these two cultural categories is elucidated most plainly by Gerald Mast who insists that it is Allen’s own insecurities and self-critical attitude that reveals the binary situation. In Sleeper (1973), Allen is literally out of his own time when he wakes up in the year 2073 to find that future citizens are rather bland, featureless individuals who rigorously obey the edicts of their “leader,” an aged man that is frequently glimpsed on television dressed in flowing white robes. Mast investigates the film’s treatment of Jews and Gentiles and concludes that Allen illustrates the dichotomy with a distinct visual style.

Evident in Annie Hall and Interiors (1979) as well, the Gentiles in Sleeper are visually “coded” by their blond hair, white clothes, and muscular bodies. Gentiles are frequently bathed in natural light, surrounded by lush greenery. Mast writes: “Although Allen associates any number of pleasing visual images with goyim—sunlight; nature; tasteful shades, shapes, furniture, objets d’art, and clothing—he also implies spiritual deficiencies to accompany the tasteful imagery. Gentiles are cold, unpredictable, frivolous, and suicidal.”[xxxix] Miles is, alternatively, dishevelled, neurotic, anxious, and feels uncomfortable being outside for too long. For Mast, Allen draws out these distinctions to a greater degree in Annie Hall, which I will examine in the next section. It is enough to say at this point that the “faddish, flippant, and unpredictable”[xl] Gentiles of Annie Hall prefer life in Los Angeles while Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, cannot dream of leaving New York City. Again, however, it is not ethnicity that provides the impetus for Alvy’s self-critical humor. Once more, Allen’s salvation comes in the form of a smart woman (Annie Hall) who, in turn, makes him even more conscious of his self-criticism.

The oppositional strategies that have been employed by these scholars reduce Allen’s comic identity to the myth of the wandering Jew. These arguments, while persuasive, nevertheless reflect what Bernard Susser has called the “adversity thesis.” Susser contends that throughout history, since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Jewish identity has been shaped by adversity to oppression. Susser states that it “created the kind of solidarity of both fate and faith that could withstand, indeed gain strength from, the oppressors’ blows. In a word, Jews survived not despite their persecutions but because of them.”[xli] This argument, first advanced by Baruch Spinoza over three hundred years ago, is raised by Susser in order to question its validity in the late 20th century in North America. He claims that modern Jews, while devoid of any oppression in their own lives, continue to carry within themselves the “stubborn” attitude that pits Gentile against Jew and, more generally, non-Jewish society against Jew. He goes on to argue that “What emerges for modern Jews is, therefore, a striking dissonance between the cultural assumptions of the tradition and the reality with which they are familiar.”[xlii] He claims that Western, pluralist democracies have provided a positive place for Jews to live, which necessitates a new way of conceiving of contemporary Jewish identity.

Thus, the embattled Jew that Mast and Perlmutter describe has, in some ways, outlived embattledness as a reality. The construction of Allen’s perceived embattled identity has shadowed a number of different readings of his humour and comic style. If we attempt to describe Allen as anything but a self-critical outsider, the framework that has constructed this image will likely weaken and reveal the hollow shell of its theoretical structure. Perhaps the most provocative question that Susser asks is one that relates directly to this discussion of Allen’s comic style: “Will Jews learn how to take ‘yes’ for an answer?”[xliii] Can Allen’s persona learn to take “yes” for an answer? Indeed, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is capable of eschewing the adversity thesis that has haunted his comic identity. By detailing the fragmented, oscillating character of Allen’s persona through a brief analysis of Annie Hall, the hybrid nature of this identity becomes evident.

Grammy Hall and the Restless Jew

The dialectic at the heart of Allen’s humour recalls Irving Howe’s conception of Jewish comedy in relation to the work of Sholem Aleichem: his comedy is built on “the incongruity between man’s ambitions and his impotence to achieve them.”[xliv] This assessment reveals the tendency for the Jewish humorist to oscillate between two poles: success and failure. Tragic as well as comic, this oscillation is always in motion, for the Jewish joke is never conclusive or necessarily tied to one pole or another. There is a constant flow of pleasure and pain, success and failure, adversity and acceptance. There is a conjunction of identities within the same individual that ultimately informs our understanding of Allen’s Jewish persona. The internal contrast that characterizes this persona reflects an ambivalent attitude that cannot be adequately explained with reference to the two aforementioned tropes. That Allen is either a self-hating Jew or self-affirming Jew, an insider or an outsider, overlooks the hybrid qualities that inform Allen’s comic style.

The merging of oppositions is crucial within Allen’s comic persona. This is clearly explored in Sleeper. As the alien individual in a future society, Miles is homeless and without a clear idea of who he is. In order to determine why Miles is an anxious neurotic, his two companions re-enact a key moment from his childhood that explains his nervous disposition. Luna (Diane Keaton) and Erno (John Beck) proceed to undertake a scene from a Passover seder from Miles’ youth. The two blond-haired characters, while impersonating Miles’ parents, struggle to speak with Yiddish tongues, often mispronouncing phrases such as “Oy vey iz meir!”

On the surface, this sequence appears to conform to the binary model espoused by Mast in his study of Allen’s comic sensibility that explores the “differences between the Jewish Allen and the goyim who become his lovers and friends.”[xlv] Mast illustrates the Jew-WASP binary by juxtaposing the environments in which Jews and Gentiles take their meals: the recreation takes place in bright sunlight with two characters that are fair-haired and dressed in white as opposed to the darkened indoor setting of traditional Jewish meals.

However, the binary function of this scene is contingent on the thematic importance of the dinner scene itself. That Miles’ repressed memory consists of a seder in which his parents condemn his strange behavior is the more important feature of this scene. It is a caricature of a traditional Jewish meal that is punctuated by intense bickering, Yiddish slang, and Miles’ own sheepish demeanor. It would seem, then, that Allen is stressing the beleaguered state of his persona and the disdain he has for his upbringing rather than the dichotomous relationship between Jews and Gentiles. However, the merging nature of his comic identity allows for both to exist simultaneously. The continuous movement between the two poles of self-love and self-hatred are palpably contained within the same persona. Miles, the paranoid, insecure character, is both proud of his outsider status and ashamed that his life is punctuated by stereotypical characteristics of Jewish behavior.

Nowhere in his work is the traversal of Jewish humour more evident than in Annie Hall. Throughout this film, Allen’s character Alvy continuously oscillates between the two tropes of Jewish humour. Indeed, this film concretizes the persona’s hybrid nature as a Jew in transition. Alvy is consumed by self-doubt that ultimately destroys the relationship between him and Annie. Alvy’s behaviour can be represented by the merging of oppositional attitudes within the same structure. Somewhere beneath the binary exterior that Allen’s critics have identified is a persona that thrives on incongruence; for without the incongruities Allen ceases to be funny. There is a conspicuous irony in this film that demands ambivalence in order to be comically effective.

During a pivotal dinner scene with Annie’s family, Alvy is stricken with self-doubt when he glances over to Grammy Hall who stares at him with a malevolent glint in her eye. In one of the film’s many “Brechtian” moments, Alvy turns to the camera to address the audience, calling her a “classic Jew-hater.” He goes on to say, “[her family] really looks American, you know, very healthy and…like they never get sick or anything. Nothing like my family. You know, the two are like oil and water.” The screen then splits in half with Annie’s family on one side and Alvy’s family (from his childhood) on the other.

The contrasts in the eating environments are so overt that the Hall’s take their meal during the day, while the Singer family takes theirs in the cramped quarters of a darkened dining room. The Hall’s are surrounded by nature, lit by bright light, while the Singers are huddled together in a cave-like room with little light. The Halls converse in a polite, if sterile, manner, while the Singers criticize each other with raised voices. At first, then, Allen appears to be feeding the dichotomous Jew-WASP relationship, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Allen is doing much more than that. The two distinct scenes play out individually with one contrasting the other until Mrs. Hall speaks across the screen to Mrs. Singer.

In this lengthy exchange, Allen traverses the boundaries of Jewish humor and reveals the inherent ambivalence towards his persona’s Jewish identity. While he secretly admires the Hall’s more “healthy” lifestyle, he is intimidated—if not terrified—of Grammy Hall’s anti-Semitic attitude. The shot that follows Grammy’s steely stare is one of Alvy in the guise of an Chassidic Jew, complete with black hat and beard. As Mast has correctly noted, this image does not reflect what Grammy Hall sees, but rather how Alvy feels about himself. Indeed, he feels slightly out of place in the Hall’s home; that is, until the screen splits.

Although Alvy initially contrasts the two lifestyles (Jew-WASP), he also implies spiritual and social deficiencies within his own markedly Jewish family. When Mrs. Hall asks why the family fasts for Yom Kippur, Alvy’s father suggests that he too does not understand. For Alvy, Judaism is an enigmatic matter. His family obeys the laws of kashrut only because it is customary to do so, and not because they value their faith above all else. In this sense, Alvy’s displaced persona is not limited to the world of goyim; he is equally out of place in his own environment surrounded by his Jewish family. This is evidenced more clearly later in the film when he revisits his childhood home and observes the obnoxious behavior of his relatives. In one shot, little Alvy watches as his uncle “Nickels” makes a fool of himself with a magic trick. In the background of the same shot, adult Alvy observes the entire scene looking completely defeated. Furthermore, the split screen conversation is an explicit representation of the oppositional tendencies of his persona. Here we have two competing perspectives interacting with each other, crossing the threshold of the time-space division. The implication of a binary model is eschewed and replaced by one that underscores Alvy’s (ie. Allen’s) imbricated identity.

Theoretically, the yoking of oppositional categories is central to Allen’s persona as a Jew in transition. In several films, including Annie Hall, he prides himself on being a New Yorker, but admits that the rest of the world views New Yorkers as “left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.” He is a well-read intellectual that criticizes intellectuals as being “moral masturbators.” He is self-conscious around Gentiles, but consistently falls in love with them. He affirms his Jewishness by separating himself from Gentiles, but questions the existence of God. He respects the wisdom of rabbis, but openly mocks their questionable practices. In an early stand-up comedy routine, he noted that “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.” Here, in a single utterance, Allen has traversed the bounds of Jewish humor, claiming that life is cruel and uncompromising but he wouldn’t be without it. He is miserable because life is challenging and over too soon.

More important, Allen resists a compartmentalized identity by being ambivalent, critical, and above all, incongruous. In many ways, he is a Jewish enigma that resists the essentialized character of a narrow Jewish identity. The duality of his persona, the ability to be two things at once, is Allen’s unique talent. The dual nature of Allen’s persona affords him the ability to be self-affirming and self-critical, an insider and an outsider.

While scholars have routinely characterized Allen as a quintessential Jewish comic, they have perhaps underestimated Allen’s potential to eschew a traditional definition of identity. The alternating uniformity of his persona is safely contained in the oppositional clarity of his fictional comic identity: just when someone figures him out, he takes a sharp left turn and fools them again. It is, therefore, by no means necessary that Jewish identity be defined by the binary “adversity” model espoused by the cultural critics discussed throughout. For Allen, the tropes that distinguish Jewish humour are in constant motion, and are, for better or worse, all part of the same joke.

[i] Woody Allen, “Hassidic Tales, with a Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar,” in Getting Even (New York: Random House, 1971): 68.

[ii] Ibid, back matter.

[iii] Natalie Gittelson, “The Maturing of Woody Allen,” New York Times Magazine, April 22, 1979: http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/nytimes_magazine/904Z-000-027.html.

[iv] Maurice Yacower, Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen (New York: Continuum, 1991): 10.

[v] Irving Howe, “The Nature of Jewish Laughter,” in Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987): 19.

[vi] Ibid, 22.

[vii] Sig Altman, The Comic Image of the Jew: Explorations of a Pop Culture Phenomenon (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971): 49, 50.

[viii] Howard Wettstein, ed., “Coming to Terms with Exile,” in Diasporas and Exiles: Varieties of Jewish Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 57.

[ix] Simon During, Cultural Studies: a critical introduction (Routledge: London, 2005): 145, 146.

[x] Ibid, 151.

[xi] Howe, 22.

[xii] David Desser and Lester D. Friedman, American Jewish Filmmakers, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004): 13.

[xiii] Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: The Standard Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1963): 133.

[xiv] Desser and Friedman, 13.

[xv] Ibid,14.

[xvi] Mark E. Bleiweiss, “Self-Deprecation and the Jewish Humor of Woody Allen,” in Renée R. Curry, ed., Perspectives on Woody Allen (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996): 200.

[xvii] Avner Ziv and Anat Zadjman, Semites and Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor (New York: Greenwood Press, 1993): 54.

[xviii] Bleiweiss, 200.

[xix] Naomi Katz and Eli Katz, “Tradition and Adaptation in American Jewish Humor,” Folklore, 84 (1971): 215, 219.

[xx] Bleiweiss, 204.

[xxi] Bernard Rosenberg and Gilbert Shapiro, “Marginality and Jewish Humor,” Midstream, 4 (1958): 72.

[xxii] Samuel H. Dresner, “Woody Allen and the Jews,” in Renée R. Curry, ed., Perspectives on Woody Allen (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996): 191, 193.

[xxiii] Ibid, 191.

[xxiv] Ibid, 197.

[xxv] Yacower, 95.

[xxvi] Bleiweiess, 206.

[xxvii] Ibid, 200, 207.

[xxviii] Alfred Kazin, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973): 144.

[xxix] Gregg Bachman, “Neither Here Nor There,” in Renée R. Curry, ed., Perspectives on Woody Allen (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996): 179.

[xxx] Desser and Friedman, 13.

[xxxi] Ibid, 9.

[xxxii] Ibid, 9.

[xxxiii] Altman, 12.

[xxxiv] J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003): 37.

[xxxv] Lester D. Friedman, Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982): 283.

[xxxvi] Gerald Mast, “Woody Allen: The Neurotic Jew as American Clown,” in Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987): 126.

[xxxvii] Ruth Perlmutter, “Woody Allen’s Zelig: An American Jewish Parody,” in Andrew S. Horton, ed. Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991): 215.

[xxxviii] Ibid, 210.

[xxxix] Mast, 132.

[xl] Ibid, 133.

[xli] Bernard Susser, “The Ideology of Affliction: Reconsidering the Adversity Thesis” in Howard Wettstein, ed., Diasporas and Exiles: Varieties of Jewish Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 221.

[xlii] Ibid, 225.

[xliii] Ibid, 232.

[xliv] Friedman, 273.

[xlv] Mast, 130.

“I Knew He Would Be Gone”

The Shape — otherwise known as Michael Myers — is a terrifying movie monster not because his motives for killing are unknown, but because he performs the cardinal function of the horror genre and imbues the film with a distinct lack of closure. In John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), The Shape is a menacing force with a large kitchen knife, navy coverall, and soft-featured mask who escapes from an asylum and returns to his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois to terrorize the town’s teenage babysitters. Aside from the very loose motive formed a decade-and-a-half earlier when Myers watched his sister — who was supposed to be babysitting him — have sex with her boyfriend, we aren’t given much in the way of explanation by his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (played by Donald Pleasence). Even Loomis seems to generalize his condition to the town sheriff and other characters by calling him “evil,” and agreeing with Laurie Strode that he is, in fact, the boogeyman. He tells Sheriff Brackett, “I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.”

When Loomis fails to explain Myers’ condition, he strengthens the idea that The Shape’s motivation is both unexplainable and unstoppable. That we are unable to fully explain away Myers’ psychological problems and confine him to a clinical box the way we do with Norman Bates at the end of Psycho (1960) underlines the film’s distinct lack of closure. At the end of the film, when closure is nearly achieved, Myers rises from the dead and disappears into the night. Dr. Loomis had him cornered and caught him “in the act” as his namesake did in Psycho (that Sam Loomis, who was the boyfriend of Lila Crane, was played by John Gavin). But unlike the pat ending to Psycho, Carpenter and Debra Hill let The Shape loose into Haddonfield after taking six bullets from Loomis’ Saturday night special.

What is most terrifying, however, about The Shape and his place in horror film history is his performance of the genre’s key contemporary function to withhold closure. The Shape performs this function by evading capture, but — on a broader level — the Halloween film series solidifies the genre’s resistance to capture and death. With its assortment of sequels, reimaginings, namesake-only spin-offs (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), extended television broadcasts, remastered DVDs, and other “definitive” editions, The Shape embodies the genre’s purist drive for more: more victims, more mayhem, more unexplained motive. With each entry in the series, there is always the false hope that The Shape won’t make it out alive; that he’ll become more than a faceless monster and resemble something more tangible and vulnerable. But if he were to do so, he’d be breaking the basic rule that monsters don’t die. We won’t let them die, nor will film producers.

A bitter pill to swallow. As a boy growing up with the series, I wanted closure and looked forward to each sequel with the belief that this time The Shape will be explained and face certain death. I wanted the nightmare in Haddonfield to be over. The series came closest to closure in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), which pitted Myers against Laurie Strode for one last confrontation at her son’s private school. Laurie pins Michael against a tree with a van and as he extends his arm to her — a sign of human feeling? — she takes a breath and lops his head off with an axe. Just as the original film ends on Myers’ heavy mask breathing, H20 ends with Laurie, out of breath, exhausted, and relieved.

But, wait. Halloween Resurrection, which was released in 2002, takes a few steps back and offers an alternate reading of that satisfying ending. It wasn’t The Shape that Laurie decapitated. Myers supposedly switched outfits with a paramedic and escaped into the woods, while the unfortunate ambulance driver got the axe instead. By this point, however, I was starting to clue in to the genre’s need to reaffirm its purpose by never providing real closure. While I thought I had been tricked, I came to realize that The Shape’s terror depended on his ability to evade capture. Some might call these developments “twists,” but they represent more than that. The modern horror genre, especially Hollywood horror, replays the escapist scenario in order to survive itself. And though we, as an audience, believe we want closure, it’s hard to deny the terrifying notion that The Shape won’t be stopped because he can’t be stopped.

All of this leads me to my favorite moment in Carpenter’s original film. It’s right at the end when Loomis peers over the balcony to find Myers gone. Loomis’ reaction isn’t telegraphed by the score or underlined by excessive cutting. He confidently walks over to the balcony, fully expecting to see Myers’ body lie below, but then his eyes widen at the site of an empty patch of grass where Myers should be. His eyes seem to glaze over as he lifts his head to stare somewhere beyond the frame. He’s accepted it, perhaps, because he expected it. Then, to emphasize the lack of closure, Laurie begins to sob heavily into her hands. She knows the nightmare isn’t over, most likely because of Loomis’ stone-faced silence.

I never fully appreciated the artfulness of this simple reaction. When I listened to Carpenter’s audio commentary on the Criterion LaserDisc way back in 1993, he spoke briefly about this moment and its singular importance to the whole film. (The commentary seems to have survived multiple DVD and Blu Ray re-issues).

During shooting, Pleasence reportedly asked Carpenter how to play the scene. Here’s his summation of the event:

[Pleasence asked] “How do you want me to react when I look off the balcony. There are two ways. I can react ‘oh my god, he’s gone.’ Or I can react ‘I knew he would be gone.’” It was the first time an actor had given me a choice. And I was stunned by it. So I asked Donald to please play it both ways and I’d decide later. See if you can figure out what choice he made as he looks down from the porch.

I still love how Carpenter withholds his decision from the audience. It’s a clever little game that still entertains me when I watch it. Year after year, my impression changes. At the moment I believe Pleasence articulates both shock and knowingness. Shock at the moment when he sees the body is missing, but a complete lack of surprise that he’d be gone. Loomis hopes the nightmare will be over, but knows too well that Myers is not really human after all.

Crisis in Criticism

As some loyal readers may have noticed, I recently embarked on a facelift of my site that would make it easier for readers to find older essays (courtesy a fancy image slider) and would give the whole reading experience a cleaner appearance, including larger (hi-def) illustrations. In the posts to come, I plan to also include video analyses where applicable. All of this, I might add, is being done as I continue my work as the Provost Postdoctoral Scholar in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, where I’m prepping a manuscript based on my dissertation on sound technology, practice, and labor in the Los Angeles-based film industry.

One of my core arguments in that work, and one that continues to define my relationship with cinema and media studies, is that there is very little value in over-estimating the perceived effects of technological change, stylistic innovation, and other paradigm shifts in the process of filmmaking.

At the moment, the industry’s transition to digital production and exhibition continues to stir debate among high-level filmmakers and critics. Most recently, David Denby spilled some digital ink on what he called the “conglomerate aesthetics” of digital Hollywood. In his lengthy piece for The New Republic, Denby — who is a film reviewer for The New Yorker — blamed the industry’s current business model for diluting the “language of film,” that is film style, and stripping narratives of depth, drama, a sense of pace and space, and, most of all, character. Denby suggests that movies don’t breathe anymore; they are engineered to move at a hurried clip with little or no regard for character development. At the same time, he lauds this form of “neo-primitivism” as a key ingredient of modernism — the stripping away of excess in form and narration. It’s also the hallmark of what some have called the post-classical. He cites Paul Greengrass’s two installments in the Bourne series — Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum (2007) — as bold embodiments of a post-classical filmmaking style that is as much about the story of Jason Bourne as it is the fight-or-flight experience of the protagonist in dizzying car chases, foot chases, and fist fights shot with hand-held close-ups and edited at breakneck speed.

Denby’s article appeared just after I had seen Side by Side, a new documentary co-produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves on the industry’s inevitable transition from celluloid to digital video. Reeves enlists the help of cinematographers (Anthony Dod Mantle, Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman), editors (Anne Coates, Walter Murch), visual effects supervisors (Dennis Muren), producers (Tom Rothman), and directors (David Fincher, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and others) to reflect on the ongoing history of digital imaging in American cinema. Smartly, the film offers little in the way of bias toward either film or video. Instead, Reeves lets his interview subjects vent their hopes, frustrations, and fears about the aesthetic and technical differences between the two mediums. In some cases, the arguments have been heard before. James Cameron and George Lucas take great pains to educate Reeves and the audience on the distinct advantages of digital filmmaking. Noted skeptic Christopher Nolan and his dp, Wally Pfister, are less kind to 3-D and video’s pixel inferiority to 35mm and 70mm film. Others, including David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, admit they’ve been having an affair with video and may be ready to ditch film permanently for their digital mistress, mainly for economic reasons. David Fincher is less interested in debating the technical veracity of either medium, and rather than feeling nostalgic for celluloid, chooses a path of least resistance by asking video manufacturers such as RED to push themselves to make a better camera, a better sensor, a better system that not only mimics the fine-grained textures of film, but also offers a range of new possibilities to filmmakers such as low-light shooting.

An air of inevitability is most evident in the way most of the film’s interview participants react to the encroaching dominance of digital production (shooting and editing) and exhibition. As Reeves takes his audience through the technological evolution of video production — from Dogme 95 filmmakers shooting on a Sony PC7e camera to Soderbergh shooting Haywire on the RED ONE camera — it’s hard not to be swayed by the admittedly deterministic argument that technical advances in image resolution have reached a point where 35mm images and 1080p hi-def images are virtually indistinguishable. When comparing scenes from The Celebration and Chuck and Buck, both shot with Sony handycams, to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, shot on the RED EPIC, the resolution differences are, well, epic. What Reeves reveals, however, is that the technical history of professional video cameras and formats is marked by its nostalgic, even obsessive, relationship to 35mm. When, in the mid 2000s, Panavision decided to market a digital version of its camera systems, one was designed to look and feel like a film camera. The Genesis featured a solid-state drive mounted to the top of the camera that resembled a film magazine perched on top of (or slightly behind) the camera body. Early versions of the Genesis did not feature immediate video playback, which signaled a further resemblance to 35mm. That processing of any kind — “digital dailies” — was required irked Fincher, who instead chose the Thomson VIPER to shoot his first digital feature, Zodiac, in 2007.

The backwards engineering ethos that inspired Panavision to make the Genesis more like a 35mm camera than a video camera speaks to the reticent, if not entirely hostile, attitudes of high-level dp’s and directors who hold the belief — rightly or wrongly — that video is still an inferior medium. It would seem that the nostalgia for 35mm goes beyond discussions of “grain,” but also involve the look and functionality of hardware, too. I remember the same concept being replayed by record labels in the late 1990s with re-issues of “classic” and noteworthy albums using original LP art and, in the case of Deutsche Grammophon’s “Originals” series, the image of a grooved LP on the surface of the actual CD. The digital-ness of the CD was essentially hidden under an image of its analogue counterpart. In the case of Panavision and the early Genesis systems, they were essentially hiding an inferior sensor beneath a familiar 35mm façade. Side by Side suggests rather convincingly that when Jim Jannard founded RED and created the RED ONE camera system in early 2007, he produced a product that owed very little to its analogue past, except perhaps that it had a lens. It didn’t look like a 35mm camera, nor was it designed to be one. It was lighter, more compact, and with later models it became even smaller. This intrigued filmmakers like Fincher and Soderbergh for the myriad creative possibilities that digital camera systems could yield filmmakers — longer takes, low-light shooting, greater image manipulation in post-production, not to mention the overriding economic incentive: solid state drives are a heck of a lot cheaper than 35mm stock. In fact, the doc stressed the clarity and film-like texture of this shot from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it played in the doc. The shot is even more interesting because of the digital trick it employs to stabilize the image by utilizing a shifting aspect ratio (or, frame within a frame) that adjusts to the movement of the mobile camera rig, thereby producing an eerily static tracking shot.

These sorts of aesthetic choices are not the film’s primary interest, but they do raise a series of questions about the stylistic contours of digital cinema and its relationship to 35mm. This swings back to David Denby’s article, which doesn’t mention the ongoing history of digital cinema, except to suggest that “digital is still in its infancy.” It’s not exactly clear what aspect of digital filmmaking is still in its infancy, but there is a strong sense that Denby ties together “conglomerate aesthetics” with stylistic techniques that are most associated with innovations in computer-based picture/sound editing and computer generated imagery. In his view, the language of high-budgeted movies began to disintegrate in the 1980s and reached a zenith of sorts around the millenium when, as he puts it, action sequences in Gladiator destroyed “something staged clearly and realistically in open space…by sheer fakery and digital ‘magic’ — a constant chopping of movement into tiny pieces that are then assembled by computer editing into exploding packages.”

Indeed, Denby is making the case that corporate ideologies that govern modern studio practices are intimately tied to screenwriting techniques, narrative formulas, and filmmaking practices such as editing and digital effects “magic.” Quoting Denby at length, the handshake between studio policy and filmmaking technique is expressed thusly:

Constant and incoherent movement; rushed editing strategies; feeble characterization; pastiche and hapless collage—these are the elements of conglomerate aesthetics. There is something more than lousy film-making in such a collection of attention-getting swindles. Again and again I have the sense that film-makers are purposely trying to distance the audience from the material—to prevent moviegoers from feeling anything but sensory excitement, to thwart any kind of significance in the movie.

Denby may have a point. Studio ideology is indeed governed by the idea of investing one dollar in a project with the primary goal of making two. As recently as a few days ago, Warner Bros. severed ties with longtime producing partner Joel Silver — The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes — in an attempt to curb spending on cushy, long term deals with producers. In exchange for a modest severance package ($30 million for the rights to roughly 30 features), Silver lost his offices on the Burbank lot and his financing with the studio. Silver will be fine, though, as he already has a multi-year producing deal set up with Universal. But the fact remains that studios are tightening their wallets and when they do open them up, they choose to invest in reasonably safe properties — sequels, adaptations of successful novels or comics, and to a lesser extent auteur projects.

However, Denby incorrectly shifts the blame for conglomerate aesthetics to filmmakers — writers, directors, editors, and likely everyone else in the production chain. They are blamed for not holding shots long enough, for sacrificing character depth in favor of cheap thrills, and for hollowing out emotionally charged scenes with visual effects. He uses an example from Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor to illustrate his point, and hints that “people who know how these movies are made” told him the limits of digital filmmaking are to blame. Whether filmmakers are guided and ultimately constrained by studio ideology, or have become slaves to their digital toolboxes, Denby dismisses the creative and professional attitudes of practitioners in the production chain by assuming that film crews maintain a single, unified goal. In academic parlance, “agency” is a particularly fashionable term that emphasizes our own activity within society, and speaks to a person’s ability to assert themselves within a social world. In film and media studies, in particular, it’s not uncommon for historians and critics to routinely overlook the agency of creative professionals who are not the writer or director or producer of a work; that is to say, the names on the marquee that often drive discussions of authorship. These three above-the-line roles work alongside dozens of other artisans, craftspeople, and practitioners who are equally engaged on a creative and economic level with the artistic demands of a film. Not everyone in the production chain has sipped the kool aid that makes movies bad.

Given the general authority of either a writer, producer, or director on a film production, it’s often true that most editors, cinematographers, composers, costumers, mixers, and production designers defer some creative agency to these above-the-line principals. As a collaborative art, most filmmakers defer their own creative agency at some point or another during a shoot. But each practitioner brings to their work a creative perspective that is based on their own professional history, training, and creative taste. Of all of these factors, taste is perhaps the most difficult to define, since it’s both highly personal and ephemeral. Taste is often about feeling and responding to a scene, line of dialogue, or shot with a certain emotional intensity. Most editors and mixers I’ve spoken to admit that they often get hired because of their taste. Left alone to make editorial decisions, these professionals rely on their creative agency to solve the day’s problem or make sense out of senseless footage.

When Denby talks about how studio conglomerates have made the choice to construct films in shallow terms, he acknowledges that filmmaking is about choices. Studio figureheads, however, are not responsible for all choices. Instead, most creative choices are often positioned, executed, and derived by below-the-line professionals who must bear the brunt of technological change, economic re-structuring, and the aesthetic curiosities of auteur directors. These professionals are constantly engaged with the material they are tasked to edit, mix, sketch, sew, and compose. It’s easy to make generalizations about the speed, look, and tone of movies without some pointed analysis of any of the crafts I’ve mentioned that are responsible for those textures. Jim Emerson wrote a widely praised piece on how the Lower Wacker car chase in The Dark Knight doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of continuity editing principles. It’s a valuable piece of criticism because he takes the time to investigate the work of an editor, and while I don’t necessarily agree with Emerson’s conclusions, his analysis reaches beyond the pale of most criticism to examine why (and how) the movie works on a functional level.

One of the biggest discoveries I’ve made in my work is that most creative decisions made by filmmakers are shaped by the visceral notion known as feeling. Feeling guides late night editorial decisions, groggy early morning decisions, and nearly everything else in between. Filmmakers — and I use that term in its widest possible sense — look at a scene and if something feels right, then they make the cut…or cut the cloth…or add the musical notes. It’s difficult to quantify feeling, or attribute finite rules to it. Feeling can best be described as a way of organizing ideas and executing those decisions based on an individual logic. Feeling is also directly tied to taste and the way a filmmaker goes about making creative decisions.

When I was writing my dissertation, I asked a re-recording mixer how she makes sense of her work, which involves taking a massive amount of sound materials (tracks of dialog, music, and effects) and organizing them into a cohesive whole. She turned the table on me and asked how I’m making sense of my dissertation project. Am I making decisions to cut things? Am I choosing to start a chapter with a particular sentence? Am I linking certain chapters with similar ideas? It was a very smart way of answering my question because she knew that we both organize material, make editorial cuts, and try to create a work that flows from chapter/scene to another.

We can certainly disagree on the choices that are made, but to dismiss the system that governs those choices ultimately reduces the professional agency of filmmakers who work on high-budgeted, blockbuster features. That kind of rejection assumes that we fully understand the logic of practice that drives filmmaking decisions. It also assumes that most choices are made in a top-down fashion by studio trolls.

The interesting thing about “conglomerate aesthetics” and its top-down schema is that it bears a passing resemblance to Justin Wyatt’s “high concept.” According to Wyatt, a high concept film is one whose plot can be explained in twenty-five words or less, and features an array of tie-ins from the corporate parents that invested, distributed, and marketed the film. The “high concept” film came of age in the 1980s with hallmarks like Top Gun and Flashdance and their pulsating pop-synth soundtracks (also available on LP and cassette!), slick music-video-inspired visuals, easy-to-follow plots, and charismatic leads. Wyatt’s theory hinged on the idea that high-budget, corporately synergized movies were slowly eroding the fabric of classical hollywood narration in favor of something far more disjointed:

The modularity of the films’ units, added to the one-dimensional quality of the characters, distances the viewer from the traditional task of reading the film’s narrative. In place of this identification with narrative, the viewer becomes sewn into the ‘surface’ of the film, contemplating the style of the narrative and the production. The excess created through such channels as the production design, stars, music, and promotional apparatus enhances this appreciation of the films’ surface qualities.

The debate continues whether we have forsaken classical narrative — causality, goals, deadlines, emotional investment — in favor of something more modular in the words of Wyatt or nihilistic in the words of Denby. One way of testing this crisis hypothesis is to reflect on the films of the past that received this kind of criticism. One problem with Denby’s analysis is that he, like many other highly articulate film scholars, has a bad memory.

To create some distance from today’s films, Denby talks glowingly about a previous generation of individuals who invigorated the system with new ideas: “Stanley Kubrick’s cold, discordant tableaux; the savagery, both humane and inhumane, of Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah; the crowded operatic realism of Coppola in the first two Godfather movies; the layered, richly allusive dialogue and sour-mash melancholy of Robert Altman; Steven Spielberg’s visually eccentric manipulation of pop archetypes…” Many of these innovations in commercial filmmaking were originally considered regressions, gaudy, sad imitations, reactionary, and just plain wacky at the time of their releases. Speaking of Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark is now considered the benchmark of good action filmmaking, yet here is Pauline Kael’s review from 1981:

These marketing divisions are a relatively new development… Their growing power isn’t in any special effectiveness in selling pictures; it’s in their ability to keep pictures that don’t lend themselves to an eye-popping thirty-second commercial from being made or, if they’re made, from being heard of. In the new Hollywood wisdom, anything to do with people’s lives belongs on TV… it appears that Lucas and Spielberg think just like the marketing division.

But Spielberg’s technique may be too much for the genre: the opening sequence, set in South America, with Indy Jones entering a forbidden temple and fending off traps, snares, poisoned darts, tarantulas, stone doors with metal teeth, and the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen, is so thrill-packed you don’t have time to breathe—or to enjoy yourself much, either.

Not enough room to breathe. Too busy. Too much to take in. Ironically, I’ve used the film’s truck chase to show undergraduate film students how spatial geography isn’t sacrificed for speed and “energy.” It’s an example of Spielberg’s “cutting for clarity” method, which I talk about here. It’s all about causality, deadlines, and character goals. It’s all about the story arc (and the ark, as well). In Wyatt’s case, Top Gun is mostly remembered for its pop-icon characters (Iceman, Maverick, and Goose) and slick visuals, not its relationship to corporate synergy or Kenny Loggins. Well, maybe Kenny Loggins.

When Tony Scott passed away earlier this summer, there was a deluge of critical praise about his work. For critics like Wyatt, Scott was the poster filmmaker for out-of-control, over-the-top, and nutrition-deprived aesthetics. These assessments were recently walked back by a number of critics in favor of more positive notices. He is still the poster filmmaker for whiplash style, but now it’s a compliment.

My point is that with some critical distance, the perceived crisis in American movies is greatly exaggerated. The transition to digital shooting and delivery, as articulated in Side by Side, carries a similar message about seeing the forest for the trees. When you consider the opinions of the interview subjects, digital filmmaking is a crisis in form, not function. Filmmakers will find ways to adapt their methods to new cameras, as they did during the conversions to synchronized sound, color photography, and widescreen processes. When Denby writes about the meaninglessness of digital environments, he’s responding to something with the same discomfort that Kael felt when watching Raiders for the first time. Now, Spielberg is lauded not derided by the likes of Denby for his “eccentric manipulation” of pop culture imagery. Again, it comes back to the idea of how taste and feeling shape the creative decisions that filmmakers make all day, everyday. We can all disagree on an individual choice, but it’s a mistake to make a broad attack on the entire system because of those choices.

Somehow after the transition to sync sound and color, movies weren’t murdered by such technical innovations. Movies are always in crisis because critics — myself included — spend far too much time trying to fit them into neatly categorized piles of art and junk. Sometimes some art ends up in the junk pile and we spend the rest of our careers trying to atone for our mistakes.

Spielberg’s Suburban Animism

So, it’s been eight months since my last post. In that time I managed to finish writing my dissertation, complete a barrage of revisions, defend the thesis in a three-hour inquisition, pass the defense, graduate, and accept a teaching and research fellowship that will take my wife and I to Los Angeles for at least two years. It’s all a bit surreal to think that my doctoral project is finally over.

Four hundred and fifty three pages later, the result is “Sound from Start to Finish: Professional Style and Practice in Modern Hollywood Sound Production.” Count me among those who were floored at its eventual length — for some reason I have a tendency to under-estimate word counts and page lengths with my writing.

What is most amazing about these past eight months is that everything to do with this research project reached a level of intensity that I had not experienced before. I’m still processing it all. But completing the project definitely felt more anti-climactic than exultant. After a prolonged period of not knowing how the project would be received by the thesis committee, or how much time any revisions would take to complete, or if the defense recommendations would interfere with my post-doctoral appointment, everything actually…worked out well.

Thick ThesisIn the coming weeks and months I’m aiming to return to this blog with some frequency to hammer out some new ideas and describe the monumental task of moving from Toronto to L.A. and working within the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

To start, I thought I’d share some ideas on the nature of Steven Spielberg’s “suburban animism” that I tried to describe in an article I wrote a few years ago that I never published. After seeing Super 8, and reading Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece on the nostalgic glare of J.J. Abrams’ film, I thought this might be a good opportunity to explore some of the fine-grained features of Spielberg’s early sound style as evidenced in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Poltergeist (yes, I know Tobe Hooper directed this one, but we can all see Spielberg’s fingerprints on it).

In 1991, Spielberg was asked to provide an image from one of his films that typified his visual style. Indelible as it is enigmatic, Spielberg chose the moment in Close Encounters where little Barry Guiler is caught in the doorway between his home and that “beautiful but awful” outer light. The dichotomous relationship between the familiar image of the family home and that of the unfamiliar alien presence serves to spotlight the significance and simplicity of this moment in the film; it also reflects the prevailing notion of suburban disruption in the filmmaker’s work. Arguably, however, the extent to which we can study Spielberg’s style by focusing on this “master image” is limited, as it does not account for the sound that accompanies and surrounds it. Sound defines the domestic setting of the scene. It introduces the familiar noise of a family home, while disrupting it with an unfamiliar, alien presence that reverberates in both the aural and visual spaces.

Within the boundaries of Spielberg’s early works, the domestic melodrama finds a home amidst the fantastic. Unlike its generic antecedents, the science-fiction films by Spielberg offer a rich, textured, and ambivalent notion of the American suburb. Part domestic bliss, part domestic nightmare, these films are often transgeneric models that blend elements of horror, sci-fi, and family melodrama into a cohesive whole. What can be termed Spielberg’s “fantastic” cinema, the defining feature of this generic model is his attention to to the functionality of the contemporary American family (or, as it were, the 1970s family): how domestic space is divided, sewn, and often torn apart by familial tension. Spielberg’s domestic scene is painted with few frills; instead, his portraits of suburbia are eerily plain and realistic.

In their biography of the director, Donald Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders note, “Spielberg’s characters are usually suburban types very much like the suburban moviegoers sitting in the shopping mall theaters watching them.” Noting the important connection between Spielberg and his middle-class roots, biographer Joseph McBride amusingly suggests, “It is possible to imagine John Ford never having seen Monument Valley, or Martin Scorsese never having walked New York’s mean streets, and it is equally impossible to imagine Steven Spielberg never having grown up in suburbia.”

Described by Tom O’Brien as “suburban animism,” Spielberg’s early sci-fi films personify the everyday. The realities that govern a middle-class experience are paramount in Spielberg’s world. O’Brien writes:

Watch Spielberg’s pizzas, watch his toys, dolls and train sets. In E.T. watch his use of Coors beer and Pez candies. On one level, this mass of details explains part of the appeal of his films — the lovingly nostalgic recreation of American life, particularly suburban life, that engages viewer sympathy, tickles humor, and establishes credibility for the weird events about to happen. On another level, however, these physical, almost palpable recreations of the material world are not the antithesis to Spielberg’s interest in the uncanny; rather, their intensity explains it.

Bridging the gap between genres, Spielberg introduces the supernatural and extraterrestrial into domestic, suburban settings. Put another way, the fantastic finds its way to the homes of Roy Neary and Barry Guiler, Elliot, and Carol Anne.

As if connected by a common narrative thread, Close Encounters focuses on the disintegration of the traditional family unit, while E.T. and Poltergeist reflect, expand, and comment on the results of this breakdown. As Roy Neary boards the mother ship to be born again, to re-discover his life’s purpose, his wife and three children are left to clean up after him and to go on without him. In E.T., Elliot is without a father, and watches as his two siblings and mother learn to cope with the abandonment. Indeed, E.T. begins where Close Encounters ends, with a family in disarray, and a child without a father. In Poltergeist, the scenario is taken even further. Vivian Sobchack has suggested that signs of paternal failure are visible in the “ethically lax, real-estate salesman Dad whose willful ignorance of the ground of his business practice jeopardizes his children.” While Steve and Diane Freeling are seemingly happily married, their home becomes the site of a haunting, which results in their youngest daughter being kidnapped by evil spirits. The disappearance of Carol Anne fuels the Spielberg thematic of familial separation and subsequent disorder and division.

More generally, all three films exhibit a distinct suburban animism that resonates not only visually but, more importantly, sonically. The Spielberg suburban thematic has often been discussed in visual terms, as evidenced by this review of E.T. and Poltergeist by Vincent Canby:

The Spielberg films are distinguished from most other American films with which they might be compared by the richness of their gently satiric social detail. The gallant youngsters…do not live in some unlocated American Never-Never-Land but in California, in an all-too-real real estate development. The houses, which look not as if they’d been built but laid by a giant hen, come equipped with every possible kitchen gadget, hot tubs, suspended staircases, and walls that are probably paper-thin. The kids eat dreadfully over-sweetened cold cereals and waffles defrosted in toasters, and they sleep in beds that are often full of potato chips. They play with remote control toys, drink colas that rot their teeth even as they’re being straightened, and they go to sleep to the hum of television sets that are no longer being watched.

Canby’s review, while rich in visual description, only hints at the sound of Spielberg’s suburbia. The director’s objets d’art crackle with a palpable sense of realism and temporal immediacy. They are the sounds of the domestic landscape: the multi-layered conversations among family members, the noise of electronic toys, and the distant but familiar sounds of dogs barking and garbage cans rolling in the street.


What is more, Spielberg’s characters listen. As they all learn to communicate with each other and the fantastic, the aural environments provide a rich canvas of sounds, noises, voices, and musical tones that provide a modicum of meaning to the supernatural and other-worldly events.

Disembodied Voices

The home itself takes on a living, corporeal identity in each of these films. The first time we enter the Neary home in Close Encounters, Roy is framed in close-up, seated at a living room table with his train set, attempting to help his oldest son with a math problem. While their dialogue dominates the sound track, a flurry of background noise is distinctly audible. One child causes the destruction of a playpen, another cries for attention, and Roy’s wife carries on a conversation with her husband with or without his participation. Beyond this sonic dynamism, the noise of toys being broken and the murmur of a distant television compete to be heard. The juxtaposition that emerges here is that of an uncluttered frame — a two-shot close-up — that is accompanied by a cluttered and overwrought sound track. Occasionally, Spielberg fulfills the sound hermeneutic, revealing the multiple sources of these sounds. When the sounds are revealed, the anamorphic widescreen frame takes on an expansive but claustrophobic quality thanks, in part, to Spielberg’s deep focus compositions. In this way, everything is in focus and everything speaks.

Furthermore, the sound track emphasizes important narrative points through variation, including dissipation. Roy is often framed in isolation from his family in order to advance the notion that he is no longer a pat of the household. At a dinner scene, he stares at his plate while his wife and children carry on different conversations. Framed on Roy’s face, the sound track compensates to fill in the rest of the scene. The resultant flow of sound surrounds Roy in his domestic space: his daughter vies for attention by repeating “There’s a fly in my mashed potatoes,” against the clattery noise of silverware. Mesmerized by the mound of potatoes, Roy begins to sculpt a mountainous shape from the food on his plate. Soon the sound of the family dissipates, as if on cue to signal the moment of his realization. The silence is marked by several shots of his wife and children, staring at him, bewildered and frightened.

Similarly, in E.T., Elliot struggles to be heard at the dinner table as he must compete with the common household sounds. Again, Spielberg chooses to framed Elliot in a medium close-up, which de-clutters the image but stacks the sound track with the sound of rattling dishes, a radio, and the dialog of teens playing Dungeons and Dragons. These sounds prevent Elliot from informing the family of his discovery of E.T. He is only able to assert control over the ambient sounds by dominating it: he screams “Listen!” Silence then follows, as Elliot finally receives everyone’s attention. Finally, in Poltergeist, while the children eat breakfast, an array of foreground and background noise is silenced when Robbie’s milk glass breaks (presumably) on its own.

The acousmatic appropriation of domestic phenomena is best explained by the presence of television in the home. Incorporating the work of theorists Raymond Williams and John Ellis in his study of television sound, Rick Altman posits an intriguing notion that he calls “household flow.” Altman contends that television consists of a continuous sonic flow that spreads from room to room to communicate its message. Essentially an aural medium, television “must organize itself in such a way as to harmonize with the household flow on which it depends…at the same time, renewed emphasis is laid on the message-carrying ability of the sound track, which alone remains in contact with the audience for fully half of the time that the set is on.” Therefore, in terms of this idea of household flow, television is dependent on the sound track to transit meaning and information. It is possible, then, for a television to communicate without having anyone watch it. Even when there is nothing on TV, its static signal beams through the home, uninterrupted, as in the opening scene of Poltergeist.

E.T. 3

Conceived as a wandering acousmetre, household flow is as pervasive as it is invasive in Spielberg’s suburban thematic. The television is ever-present in his domestic spaces. If it is not placed within the visual space, then its sound can be heard throughout the home as an omnipresent character. Some critics have noted that its presence assists in creating a viable suburban realism, however, this serves as its most obvious purpose. In most instances, the television communicates cultural details that reflect the generic heritage of the three films. In Close Encounters, Roy is awakened one morning by the sounds of a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Marvin the Martian; in E.T. and Poltergeist, television becomes a receptacle for old Hollywood fantasy films, including This Island Earth (alien visitors) and A Guy Named Joe (the spirit world).

The television in Poltergeist takes on more of an ambivalent status. The television set itself is the portal through which Carol Anne is abducted. After this point, she communicates with her family solely through sound. Her family can hear her on the other side, but are unable to see her.

Poltergeist tv

Carried outside the home, acousmatic (or, disembodied voices) find a place among adult characters. In E.T., adults and figures of authority are shot in characteristic fashion by Spielberg: waist-down compositions that hide faces, or ones bathed in shadow. Recalling the child-views of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, Spielberg limits the physical view of adults onscreen, while allowing them to retain their voices offscreen. The scene in Elliot’s science classroom is Spielberg’s most overt attempt to avoid showing the teacher’s face.

Certainly, acousmatic sounds serve a further purpose in these films, one that concerns the degree to which characters listen. Hearing sound is as much an audience activity as it is one for major characters. For instance, we listen as attentively for Carol Anne as Steven and Diane do.

“First Day of School” – A Lesson in Communication

The cluttered suburban soundscape that governs Spielberg’s animism often prevents the main characters from successfully communicating with each other and with those who seek to disrupt the familial structure. Overlapping voices compete with foreground and background noises. In her study of dialog in classical Hollywood films, Sarah Kozloff articulates the notion of verbal excess by situating it within a temporal framework. She argues that the 1970s brought an awareness of documentary realism to Hollywood, resulting in the adoption of an aesthetic she calls “verbal wallpaper.” Characteristic of urban dramas such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Kozloff insists that the sound track transmits the sonorous richness of a city street or a restaurant dining room: “a proportion of dialogue in every film serves primarily as a representation of ordinary conversational activities.”

E.T. 2

The effect of the “verbal wallpaper” technique on Spielberg’s works is pretty clear. However, Spielberg also assuages any sonorous excess by setting up two different strategies to simplify the sound space and allow his characters the ability to communicate. The first strategy echoes Spielberg’s general distrust of adult authority by having his adolescent characters speak in simple, colloquial, and often endearing terms. During Elliot’s first morning with E.T. in his room, he shows the alien an array of action figures and toys that help Elliot describe many facets of human life. Just read (or listen) to Elliot’s monologue:

Do you talk? You know, talk? Me human. Boy. Elliot. Ell-i-ot. Coke, see. We drink it. It’s, uh, it’s a drink. You know, food. These are toys. These little men. This is Greedo. And then this is Hammerhead. See, this is Walrusman. And then this is Snaggletooth. And this is Lando Calrissian. See. And this is Boba Fett. And look, they can even have wars. Look at this. (Simulates ray-gun noises) And look, fish. Fish eat the fish food and the shark eats the fish. But nobody eats the shark. See, this is Pez. Candy. See, you eat it. You put the candy in here and then when you lift up the head, candy comes out and you can eat it. You want some? This is a peanut, you eat it. But you can’t eat this one, ’cause this is fake. This is money. See, we put the money in the peanut. You see, bank. Seee. And then, this is a car. This is what we get around in. See, car. (E.T. begins to chew on the toy car) Hey! Hey! Wait a second! No! You don’t eat em. Are you hungry? I’m hungry. Stay. Stay. I’ll be right here.

Elliot’s simple lesson cuts directly to the heart of the matter without unnecessary disruption or confusion. When the two say goodbye at the end of the film, E.T. tells Elliot, “I’ll be right here,” mirroring the lesson Elliot taught him their first morning together. During the course of the film, E.T. and Elliot communicate with rather simple speech: “ouch” represents both physical and heartfelt pain; Elliot asks E.T. to “stay,” while E.T. replies “home.”

In Poltergeist, Steve and Diane must learn to communicate with Carol Anne with stern verbal efficiency. Diane must compose herself to instruct her daughter to stay out of the light.

Close Encounters offers the clearest example of the desire and search for effective means of communication between people and interplanetary beings. The film posits the extraordinary challenge of communicating without resorting to conversational, verbal logic. Since the acousmatic voice resists clarity and yields an excess of noise, Spielberg suggests that language itself must be redefined in order for interaction to be productive. Charlene Engel writes:

Close Encounters is about language: verbal, electronic, and musical — communication and its limitations, language and its possibilities; and it is about the ineffable things which are beyond speech or imaging — things having to do with emotion and yearning, things touching upon the spiritual and the supernatural.

Engel goes further by suggestingt hat the extraterrestrials have come to Earth not to inhabit the planet, but rather to “see if humans are capable of rapidly learning to communicate in an abstract language of light and sound.”

Importantly, Lacombe is initially baffled by the meaning of the vocal chant sung by the Indians. By contrast, the five-note musical pattern is harmonious and immediate. John Williams has stated the genesis for the five notes resulted from Spielberg’s request for a musical signal rather than a melody. A melody, according to Williams, would require too much time to state, while a signal or short phrase would connote the immediacy of a doorbell chime: “we’re here.” Lacombe’s inability to fully articulate the meaning o the signal is based, in part, on the fact that the first time the tones are heard, they are enunciated by human voice. The voice — as I have suggested — has the ability to disrupt, hide, and confuse. In response, Lacombe translates the vocal harmony into a visual sign system. Lacombe adopts the sign language system designed by Zoltan Kodaly that was meant to aid deaf children in understanding music. During a meeting with government and UN officials, Lacombe demonstrates the Kodaly method: first, the vocal rendition is played on tape recorder, then Lacombe performs the hand gestures that accompany each note, and finally the signal is translated into electronic pulses. Click this link for a full clip of this sequence.

During the climactic conversation sequence at the end of the film, the acousmatic sounds of the suburban home and government authority dull to a whisper as one engineer says to another, “It’s the first day of school.” Indeed, as E.T. learns to communicate with simple eloquence, so too do the scientists in Close Encounters. As music and image coalesce in one epiphanous moment, the struggle for communication is overcome: Lacombe extends his hand and greets the extraterrestrial with the Kodaly hand gestures. Synchronized with Lacombe’s gestures, the five notes are played non-diegetically, thus sewing Williams’ score to the diegesis.


Similarly, in Poltergeist, the rescue of Carol Anne unfolds in a dizzying display of diffused light and orchestral bombast: Jerry Goldsmith’s score score fluctuates between ethereal opulence and a gentle lullaby motif by Carol Anne. Also, in E.T., the final reel is joined to Williams’ score. In fact, the light on Elliot’s finger illuminates to a dramatic brass cue, adding one more connection between music and image. E.T. tells Elliot, “I’ll be right here,” a symbol of Elliot’s teaching and a reminder that even the most complex of emotions can be expressed with remarkable clarity through simple words and music.

Parting Notes

The domestic landscapes of these three films are visually denoted by the rows of semi-built homes in E.T. and Poltergeist, and the crowded living room in Close Encounters. But more so, Spielberg’s suburban animism is denoted through the sounds of his domestic spaces. These soundscapes are often cluttered, descriptive, and dynamic; they are also excessive and claustrophobic. Spielberg’s suburban ambivalence reveals a common tension in all three films: as characters attempt to overcome the cluttered nature of their environments, the search for communication becomes paramount. In order for this goal to be achieved, the world of noise is ultimately replaced with a simpler method. Dense, speech-laden environments are replaced with rudimentary, simplistic dialog between characters. Additionally, dialog is abandoned altogether in the climaxes of all three films in favor of a musical language that expresses triumph over the confines of the family home.

Just as Spielberg offered as “master image” little Barry Guiler opening his front door the unknown, we may add as “master sound” the noisy living rooms in Close Encounters and E.T. and the droning presence of television in Poltergeist. Maybe it’s the interplay of music and image. In its suburban familiarity, Spielberg’s master sound may exist in our own homes at this very moment.

Master Image

The Hero Complex

“It’s all a big experiment.”

This was Hans Zimmer’s summation of his work on Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Inception, which is fast becoming one of the composer’s more commercially popular scores. This summer, a viral video on You Tube revealed the origins of the thematic two-note motif that provided Inception with its musical signature. The augmented horn blasts were, in fact, based on a slowed version of a passage from Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Of course, the song itself played an important role in the story world: it was the thematic slumber music by which Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) forces himself back into consciousness.

The two-note brass motif represents a surprisingly small section of Zimmer’s much larger musical work for the film, but has become the chief signifying element of the score. The trailer music, composed by Zack Hemsey, builds an effective motif around a more robust version of the horn blast, which itself has gone viral — in cat videos, no less.

Interestingly, the liner notes of the soundtrack listed the cues that featured “interpolations” of the Piaf song. While some may think Zimmer simply lifted the motif without providing due credit, the decision to augment the original song and integrate it into the sonic tapestry of the film was made by Zimmer and Nolan early in the film’s production. What is truly remarkable about Zimmer’s relationship with Nolan is how early he gets involved. With Inception, for example, Nolan began consulting with Zimmer at the script stage before shooting had even begun. At that point, Zimmer began working out certain musical ideas based on their conversations and his initial impressions of the screenplay, which, to his mind, faithfully conveyed the film’s visual aesthetic in “novelistic” terms.

In the end, the Piaf motif became only one of several musical dreamscapes in the film. The main theme, as it could be called, revolves around another two-note (this time, ascending) motif that is fully developed in the final scene of the film. Zimmer hired guitarist Johnny Marr to add his voice to a selection of cues, including the incredibly expansive “Mombasa” action set piece, which blends Marr’s humming guitar with some driving drum and bass motifs.


Like much of Zimmer’s work, the music is less reactive than it is proactive. The shards of melody and chord swells tend not to work as counterpoint but parallel to the picture. That is not to say he doesn’t hit certain sync points or underline certain dramatic moments, but his stylistic signature remains the “slow burn” technique I outlined in an earlier post. In a motif that echoes the close of The DaVinci Code, Zimmer builds his original two-note motif and adds a cluster of ascending and descending chords in addition to Johnny Marr’s guitar riff for the final minutes of Inception. There’s a clear sync point when Cobb clears customs and is greeted by Miles (Michael Caine) in the airport, which transforms the motif in a more driving figure for guitar, brass and strings. In a narrative sense, the music builds to a climax, but as an audience we’re unsure where we’re going — he’s certainly leading us somewhere, but the music is not necessarily being led by the picture.

In a certain sense, the music could be a projection of Cobb’s character psychology. In other words, Zimmer is following Cobb’s emotional arc in that final sequence. I’m usually not drawn to such flights of psychoanalytic fancy but this might explain how Zimmer approached the emotional tone of the scene. Since the score was mixed particularly high in the film, it is certainly fair to suggest that music plays a greater role in establishing a sound world tapestry that is not entirely locked to every picture beat. It’s precisely that organic quality that eschews clear definitions of point/contrapuntal music. The music leads — but to its own beat, it seems.

In those final minutes we eventually see where he’s been leading us — to Cobb’s home and his children. When we enter Cobb’s home and he spots his children playing in the yard, Zimmer drops the motif and replaces it with a much sparser musical world: a piano arrangement of the two notes built around a rising string figure and the thick undercurrent of an electronic drone, the marker of what might be yet another dream, which is confirmed moments later when Nolan pans left to reveal the spinning top. (The music does not clearly indicate if it’s a dream, though.)

Zimmer cleverly satisfies the desire for a classical denouement by introducing an anthemic quality to the film’s main motif without contradicting the open-ended nature of Nolan’s final image. The repeated motif and thick undercurrent are hallmarks of earlier dream worlds, and Zimmer is not about to scrub the final scene of those markings. If it’s yet another dream, the moving music has fooled us into believing Cobb is safe; however, if he’s reunited with his children, then we are left with a musical reminder of what it cost to get there. That final scene is, indeed, a microcosm of the entire film for how music functions within it.

Inception: The Final Shot

In addition, Zimmer’s current stylistic fingerprints are all over the sound world of the score. Zimmer’s current axiom seems to be that fewer notes work best. What this basically amounts to is a series of small melodic parts stretched and augmented over a period of time. Although Zimmer shies away from being called a minimalist — Anne Thompson tried to assign the label to him in a recent interview — because, to his mind, every film presents a different field of possibility with which to experiment. In other words, he’d rather not be pigeonholed as a “minimalist” composer who simply likes to use two or three notes extended and stretched like Gabe Louis’ “soundscape” projects on The Office.

Zimmer did, however, reveal some thoughts about his creative process in a series of online interviews that coincided with the release of Inception. One particular answer popped up in more than one place and struck me as fascinating and even a bit contradictory. Here’s the full quote from one of the interviews, where he was asked about composing “heroic” music for characters such as Batman, and if his style has changed over the years. Zimmer said,

Yeah, I think so. It’s evolutionary. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to write a tune like Gladiator anymore because it feels like it’s inappropriate for where we are. I think I have a very good sense of that other devilish German word “Zeitgeist”—the heartbeat of the times. If you wrote a big overtly heroic theme, it would just feel wrong. I think I’m getting better at what music can do in a film, thank God. [Laughs] Maybe it’s just because my interests have changed. I’m not interested in the massive heroic tunes anymore. I’ve been there, done it, got the t-shirt, even the crew jacket [Laughs]. Now, I’m interested in how I can take two, three or four notes and make a really complex emotional structure. It’s emotional as opposed to sentimental. It’s not bullshit heroic; it has dignity to it.

In effect, Zimmer is discussing two very different things but they appear conflated in his answer. First, he states that stylistically he has reached a point in his career where he prefers to use “two, three or four notes and make a really complex emotional structure” out of them as opposed to building a series of long-lined motifs. Second, he raises the ever-so-popular notion of “Zeitgeist,” or what can be called the “cultural barometer.” He notes that it is not necessarily fashionable to signify characters or events with grand orchestral “themes” in the vein of Gladiator. This is also applicable to his approach to Nolan’s Batman films, which eschew the Wagnerian textures of Danny Elfman’s scores for Tim Burton’s two Batman films (Batman and Batman Returns) in favor of a more cellular approach. Writing that kind of bold theme would just sound “wrong,” he says.

He conflates the two issues by noting how he feels he has reached a point in his musical education that he can better deal with such film music moments than to revert to past practices (i.e., the grand symphonic tradition of classical Hollywood). In an October interview with Anne Thompson, Zimmer touches on the same issue when he says, “I couldn’t write like GladiatorGladiator would not fit into this movie. I was using the language that was appropriate for this movie.” He tones down the rhetoric and simply argues that Inception did not require a grand thematic score, but did not venture an opinion about the use of such an approach in ALL films.

It’s pretty obvious from the examples I’ve cited above that Zimmer has fully embraced the minimal note approach to which he refers. He is keenly aware of his current mode of practice, and is one of the only commercial film composers who openly discusses his creative process with journalists and researchers, and often neatly contextualizes how his approach for one film informs his greater overall style and “evolution” as a composer.  Other composers, including John Williams, prefer to speak generally and opaquely about their methods, as if musical ideas simply appear before them as tangible options.

Zimmer’s honest self evaluation has also led him to suggest that certain musical options are no longer tenable. But here’s where Zimmer seems to confuse what isn’t tenable for himself and what aspects of film music do not reflect the current Zeitgeist. We can waste a lot of digital ink debating the key characteristics of our socio-cultural milieu and what constitutes the current cinematic Zeitgeist, but I think it’s fair to say Zimmer is primarily talking about the modern treatment of epic filmmaking, spectacle, and heroes. As he says, his approach is “emotional as opposed to sentimental. It’s not bullshit heroic; it has dignity to it.”

It’s unclear what exactly he means by “bullshit” heroic and heroism with “dignity.” It’s also unclear whether or not long-lined themes are still effective options for film music. Three examples might help illustrate this point. Consider the main title sequences from three acclaimed super hero scores and films: Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman (1989), and The Dark Knight (2008). The first difference between these three title sequences is that The Dark Knight does not have one.

Superman: The Movie

Batman (1989) Titles

The Dark Knight Titles

Both John Williams and Danny Elfman used the title sequences in Superman and Batman, respectively, to set a dramatic tone for the films and introduce the key musical motifs that structured their scores. The themes were also unabashedly heroic, featuring driving, up-tempo brass writing. Each theme is comprised of several parts, including fanfares and marches, A-motifs and B-motifs.

On the other hand, Zimmer had very little time to introduce any musical ideas into the first few minutes of The Dark Knight since the only real title — aside from the corporate logos — was a foggy black bat signal emerging from a haze of blue flame. No heroic fanfare, just near-silence. What we do get is a thin, sustained string chord that tracks over the bat signal — an embryonic statement of the Joker’s theme. In a certain sense, Zimmer saves the large orchestral flourishes — grand theme and all — for the film’s final sequence. During Gordon’s hero speech, Zimmer develops the two-note Batman motif into a powerful anthem that reaches its crescendo just as the screen goes black. Then, as the title appears on screen, the reverberant horn blasts become more structured and resemble a fairly “heroic” fanfare that takes us into the Joker’s creepy sustained string chords.

Is Zimmer’s Batman motif more “dignified” than Elfman’s? Is Williams’ Superman too sentimental? Hardly. Each composer responded to the material they were given and worked to create a musical sound world that fit the aesthetic parameters and narrative focus of their films. Obviously, each composer imbued the material with their own musical voices — could there be anything more John Williams-y than that famous preparatory phrase? Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader inspired Elfman to seek a cathedral-like quality to his score. The mix of gong and organ to signal the entrance or exit of Batman perfectly captures the excessive romanticism and Gothic textures of Burton’s visual style.

What is really at issue here is the kind of films Zimmer and Nolan are making and how they do not seem to lend themselves to the romantic tendencies of these other super hero examples. But, in a way, Zimmer’s un-heroic (or dignified) themes simply represent a slightly more modern (i.e., new) way of characterizing the same themes, symbols, and myths that populate these super hero narratives.

That is not to say the “old fashioned way” isn’t palatable anymore; it’s just not currently very popular. In another interview, Zimmer noted that he didn’t believe he could write another Gladiator-type score again because the lyrical, long-lined melodies and romantic tone seemed out of place in the current milieu. It seems that scoring films with fewer notes and more “soundscape” elements — that is, expanding and varying one- or two-note motifs into lengthy suites — will be with us for a while. Even fairly long-lined writers like John Debney have recently tried their hand at writing more immediate, “slow burn” material (see Iron Man 2).

Despite Zimmer’s claim that he has abandoned certain classical tropes of film scoring, he hasn’t completely done away with long-line writing and grand themes. The current Zeitgeist may emphasize a darker and “less-is-more” approach, but the Pirates of the Caribbean series begs to differ. Zimmer’s score for At World’s End, the third film in the series, contains a set of sprawling themes that evoke the action writing and romantic material of composer Jerry Goldsmith. The blocky whole-note writing is still there, but Zimmer cuts through the heavy undertones with a sweeping love theme that is augmented to fit into several different contexts, much the same way that Elfman’s Batman fanfare could be treated delicately to suggest romance or recklessly to suggest anger.

It’s possible that At World’s End represents an anomaly or a serious attempt to re-capture the romanticism of classical Hollywood swashbucklers like The Sea Hawk. The Zeitgeist may forgive attempts at pastiche. Indeed, Madagascar could be riffing off the winding John Barry melody from Born Free.

In any event, it is difficult for any artist to see past their current stylistic impulse. Obviously, Zimmer finds himself working in particular narrative environments that do not lend themselves to the kind of music he wrote for Gladiator. That is not to say, however, that the Zeitgeist precludes those kinds of scores from being acceptable. Studio executives may not find them all that appealing, but there is an appropriate context for them.

With Inception, Zimmer may have composed a thoroughly contemporary film score that rejects the “bullshit heroism” of an earlier era, but it would be a mistake to conflate the suitability of a particular approach to all film with its applicability to a composer’s particular working style.

Rules and Anarchy

It seems fitting that my first post in eight months should reflect on some of my recent film-related adventures. This long absence was not intentional, but as I dove into my dissertation I had a hard time turning away from it. Since my last report on James Cameron’s use of sound in Avatar, I have been mired in the cagey world of production and post-production sound. The good news is that, after a summer spent indoors, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Ten chapters down, two to go.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to return to blogging on a more regular basis now that the bulk of my tome on modern sound practices has been written. One of the highlights of this past summer occurred when I received an e-mail notification from Paul Brunick at Film Comment / Slant Magazine stating that this site was named one of the top film criticism blogs on the net. It was just the kind of thing to keep me motivated to keep writing. So, despite being late to the party, I would like to thank Mr. Brunick and Matthew Connolly for profiling my site and placing me in such amazing company with other noteworthy blogs like Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running, Dennis Cozzalio’s Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, David Bordwell’s Observations on Film Art, Matt Zoller Seitz and the gang at The House Next Door, Jim Emerson’s Scanners, and many others.

While I’m name-dropping film sites, I’d like to also mention the outstanding work of Michael Coleman and his crew at SoundWorks Collection, who have been producing some pretty amazing video profiles on the post-production sound work of major Hollywood releases, including The Social Network. I’d been following Mr. Coleman’s work at Mix Magazine for some time, but last year the SoundWorks project really came into its own as a leading voice in the film sound community.

It’s always nice to see sound editors and mixers talk about the nuances of their work, the challenges they faced, and the creative solutions they devised. Often, filmmakers get short-changed by critics and academics, especially when they talk about their work. We can always learn from what filmmakers say about their work, even if we don’t always believe them or agree with their assessments. In the last few years, the internet has provided a way for filmmakers, especially sound and picture professionals, to speak about the technical and creative aspects of their work. Profiles by SoundWorks and David Poland’s ongoing DP/30 series offer filmmakers a forum to engage with journalists on a variety of issues related to their films in a manner that is more provocative and revealing than your average “Making Of” DVD featurette or Electronic Press Kit.

I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to see Apocalypse Now Redux and hear Walter Murch speak about his sound and picture duties on the film. The newly minted Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto, which is the new home to the Toronto International Film Festival, has been running their 100 Essential Cinema series, which features 35mm, 70mm, and digital presentations of classical and modern favorites, including Apocalypse Now. Murch was in town to participate in a Q & A after the film and to present an original lecture the following night entitled, “The State of Cinema,” which speculated on what would have happened if cinema had been invented in 1789, one hundred years before its actual birth.

Photo of Walter Murch courtesy Linda Dawn Hammond

It’s seriously about time Toronto had a repertory house for cinema. New York and Los Angeles have a rich tradition of retrospective screenings (with pristine 35mm prints) and special Q&A screenings with filmmakers. The Bell Lightbox project aims to bring the same kind of attention to film classics, and it’s even more impressive that TIFF is inviting filmmakers to speak about their work.

I’ve never met Walter Murch, but his legendary status among sound and picture professionals was in evidence during most of my conversations and interviews with Hollywood sound people. Many contemporary sound editors were eager to discuss particular stylistic aspects to his work, but also reflect on his film-theoretical writing. One conversation in particular about Murch’s “Rule of Two-and-a-Half” inspired me to ask him a question during the Apocalypse Now Q&A.

Over the years, Murch has discussed a series of “rules” and self-imposed limitations in his sound editing and mixing work, but none are more prominent than the “Rule of Two-and-a-Half.” Any sound re-recording mixer must balance a bevy of material in order to compose a comprehensible final track. It’s not uncommon for most sequences to feature dialog, music, and a variety of effects elements that must be married to the picture in a way that does not distort or “step on” the other. Every element has been designed to contribute to the sequence in ways that often go beyond mere redundancy (see it/hear it). In a film as dense as Apocalypse Now, Murch had his work cut out for him.

In the essay “Dense Clarity/Clear Density,” Murch outlines the mixing challenges he faced on the film, and offers a theoretical primer on the nature of film sound and how human brains process sound information. In effect, Murch argues that in order to maintain clarity and density — the two key components of any good mix — one could not include more than two-and-a-half elements from any one group of sounds. Let’s say you have a group of five people walking down a long corridor with linoleum floors. It’s pretty clear that we’re going to need to hear their footsteps, but do we need to hear all five sets of them? Not according to Murch:

Somehow, it seems that our minds can keep track of one person’s footsteps, or even the footsteps of two people, but with three or more people our minds just give up – there are too many steps happening too quickly. As a result, each footstep is no longer evaluated individually, but rather the group of footsteps is evaluated as a single entity, like a musical chord. If the pace of the steps is roughly correct, and it seems as if they are on the right surface, this is apparently enough. In effect, the mind says “Yes, I see a group of people walking down a corridor and what I hear sounds like a group of people walking down a corridor.

To illustrate his point more finely, Murch tells the story of one of Eduoard Manet’s students who was asked to paint a bunch of grapes. “Manet suddenly knocked the brush out of her hand and shouted: ‘Not like that! I don’t give a damn about Every Single Grape! I want you to get the feel of the grapes, how they taste, their color, how the dust shapes them and softens them at the same time.'” With our five characters walking down a hallway, what is important to convey sonically is not the diligent reproduction of each footfall, but the impression of their movements. Three represented the threshold whereupon a group of sounds can be deciphered as parts of a whole and an unintelligible mass.

The Dagwood Sandwich is another Murchian concept. This particular “rule” was applied to a sequence in Apocalypse Now when Kilgore’s men land their helicopters on the beach and begin their combat operations. The sound crew produced six pre-mixes of all the necessary sound elements, presented below in the order of importance:

1. Dialog

2. Helicopters

3. Music (Valkries)

4. Small Arms Fire (AK 47s; M16s)

5. Explosions (Mortars, Grenades, Heavy Artillery)

6. Footsteps and other Foley

Mixing these sound groups together, Murch found that the sound was overbearing. He had created a sound sandwich with too many layers. Everything sounded brown. There was no clarity, just density.

So in this section of Apocalypse, I found I could build a “sandwich” with five layers to it. If I wanted to add something new, I had to take something else away. For instance, when the boy in the helicopter says “I’m not going, I’m not going!” I chose to remove all the music. On a certain logical level, that is not reasonable, because he is actually in the helicopter that is producing the music, so it should be louder there than anywhere else. But for story reasons we needed to hear his dialogue, of course, and I also wanted to emphasize the chaos outside – the AK47’s and mortar fire that he was resisting going into – and the helicopter sound that represented “safety,” as well as the voices of the other members of his unit. So for that brief section, here are the layers:

  1. Dialogue (“I’m not going! I’m not going!”)
  2. Other voices, shouts, etc.
  3. Helicopters
  4. AK-47’s and M-16s
  5. Mortar fire.

Under the circumstances, music was the sacrificial victim. The miraculous thing is that you do not hear it go away – you believe that it is still playing even though, as I mentioned earlier, it should be louder here than anywhere else. And, in fact, as soon as this line of dialogue was over, we brought the music back in and sacrificed something else. Every moment in this section is similarly fluid, a kind of shell game where layers are disappearing and reappearing according to the dramatic focus of the moment. It is necessitated by the ‘five-layer’ law, but it is also one of the things that makes the soundtrack exciting to listen to.

In this sense, feel dictated that the music be removed because it affected the general clarity of the scene. Hence, the “Rule of Five” was born.

I asked Murch about his proclivity for sound rules and if they continue to shape his sound mixing work. The short answer was yes, they do. He spoke briefly about his commitment to a dense but clear soundtrack, one that is full of rich details but not overpowering or overly thick. For example, he said that the same sets of conceptual rules governed his mixing work on Cold Mountain.

This sort of rule play guided some of my discussions with other sound supervisors and mixers. Some practice the art of sound mixing using Murch’s principles as a guide or sound Bible. The philosophical aspects to his approach appeals to many top-tier Hollywood sound professionals in much the same way that writers cling to certain well-worn principles of screenwriting. Others, however, expressed a more reserved acceptance of a rule-based account to sound editing and mixing.

One editor in particular dismissed the need for such strict boundaries. Indeed, one can imagine that the Rule of Two-and-a-Half and the Rule of Five might not apply across the board. In some modern action mixes I am fairly certain that more than five sound groups are operating at one time. In a special editorial for Designing Sound, Transformers sound designer Erik Aadahl explained his pre-mixing strategy for that film’s densely packed sound track. Below is a spreadsheet Aadahl prepared for his pre-dubbed “food groups.”

PreDub Layout

Notice the sheer amount of FX tracks and BG (background) tracks. There are Foley groups, Background groups, Weapons groups, Hard FX groups, Robot groups, Vehicle groups, Impacts groups, Sweeteners, and miscellaneous groups (“swish/whooshes”). Most of these could theoretically play at one time since they represent actions that can occur simultaneously.

A judicious mixer, according to Murch, must negotiate what food groups constitute “warm” sounds and “cool” sounds, and to try to achieve a balance between them. Too many “cool” sounds — metallics, for example — and you risk oversaturating your “cool” palette; too many “warm” sounds — music, room tones — and you risk the same thing. But it seems likely that in the case of Transformers the Rule of Five was ignored.

This is not to suggest that Aadahl and the Transformers re-recordists simply saturated the sound track without a plan. A short sequence from the first film illustrates how sound can be absent even though we perceive it to be there. The battle between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher on the L.A. freeway is a sequence that could very quickly devolve into a muddy, noisy mess. But the final sound mix clean, precise, and surprisingly sparse.

Director Michael Bay breaks up the visual action into clearly defined zones. Using medium-long shots, Bay handles the car-into-bot transformations with a measured approach that respects the spatial geography of the scene and individualizes each action. First, Bonecrusher transforms and proceeds to chase after Optimus, which is followed by a separate shot of Optimus transforming in his own space. The two meet (collide?) in a slowed-down long-lens two-shot. The entire build-up is among Bay’s cleanest from a visual editing perspective.


Sound is equally uncluttered during the build-up. Muting the sequence gives you an idea of how many sound options were available to the filmmakers. Besides the mechanical sounds of the transforming robots, there are stacks of other materials and elements that could be layered into the mix, including pavement being ripped up by the ‘bots, explosions, car impacts, car tire skids, adjacent car engines, background traffic, police sirens, and the vocal “grunts” from the transformers. All of these sound food groups are present at some point during the sequence, but not all at once. Just as Walter Murch eliminated music from the continuous action for a brief moment, the Transformers sound crew emphasized only certain sounds during the continuous traffic chase.

The clip begins with a low-angle tracking shot approaching the Bonecrusher construction vehicle. The camera passes the Decepticon police cruiser with its siren on, and then settles on Bonecrusher as he transforms. The police siren drops out completely and Bonecrusher’s transformation takes center stage, sound-wise. In addition to the servos and hydraulics we also hear the grit of pavement being torn up, followed by some robot vocalizations.

A cut to the rear side of Optimus’ big rig eliminates the other sounds, and we are introduced to Optimus’ “sound world.” Again, traffic backgrounds begin to drop away as he begins his transformation, which is dominated by another set of unique servo and hydraulic noises, pavement and debris elements, and more vocalizations. Keeping a low angle on the action, Bay emphasizes Prime’s claw-foot hitting the ground — cue the impact — which nearly takes out a nearby Cadillac sedan — cue the brake skid.

Each sound element is treated as a unique event, separate from the rest of the FX and background materials. We might even say each sound is its own “shot,” which emphasizes certain key elements. There is very little overlap; in fact, the sequence does not rely on a real-world sense of sound space. At times, the robot vocalizations drown out the FX elements even though there is no reason to suggest they couldn’t share the space with the other sounds. Erik Aadahl and the mixers made a conscious decision to spotlight certain elements and eliminate others completely. It made more sense to them to highlight the vocal personalities of the ‘bots than to continue to emphasize the car/road carnage.

The linear treatment of sound whereby one sound follows another follows closely to Murch’s concept of “clear density” without owing to the rules. Murch found that he could remove a piece of sound from an otherwise busy sequence and the audience would not be consciously aware of it. Similarly, the Transformers freeway chase works on the same principle. As long as hear/see certain spotlighted actions, we don’t need every sound to be continuously employed. We don’t question why, suddenly, Bonecrusher’s destructive transformation drops out when we cut to Optimus Prime.

Some sound editors and mixers refuse to believe they work within a set of rules; in fact, some call themselves sound anarchists, believing that every film presents its own set of challenges and creative options. But it is difficult to imagine that, when faced with a complex action sequence like this one, sound designers and mixers do not adhere to some basic unwritten principles. They may not be the same strategies Murch has used, but they do tend to underscore the same goal: balance. How modern editors and mixers achieve the goal of a balanced sound track depends on who you speak to, but Murch’s career-long pursuit of a perfectly clear and dense track is also one shared by other sound professionals. They might not want to admit it, but even sound anarchists want balance in their work.

Apocalypse Now 2

On the Record: The Sound of Avatar

I came across this panel discussion a few days ago and thought it would be fitting to re-post it here. With the awards season well under way, it’s customary for filmmakers to convene panel discussions that showcase the art and craft of the Academy’s “technical” crafts like sound and visual effects. For Avatar, the sound team, along with director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau, took the stage at the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot for a 45 minute discussion of how sound worked in the film. Joining Cameron and Landau was supervising sound editor and sound designer Christopher Boyes, and re-recording mixers Gary Summers and Andy Nelson.

Over the last year I have written about Avatar indirectly, preferring instead to cover the broader technological and aesthetic issues that surround the film, including 3-D imaging and its place in Hollywood cinema. With this in mind, I found the panel discussion to be extremely illuminating. I want to briefly highlight four points that were made at the session that relate back to some of the things I’ve written about in the past.

The sound team makes the important point that Cameron was very concerned about narrative intelligibility, which meant sacrificing some effects work in favor of pushing character dialog and sounds to the front of the mix. Boyes recalls a moment in the film when Jake’s avatar is being chased, and his heavy breathing was not present enough in the mix for Cameron’s taste. He reasoned that we need to hear Jake in order to better feel his fear. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, Landau and Cameron emphasized the importance of story and the emotional attachment to characters even as many in the press were touting the film’s use of 3-D technology and advanced CGI.

Boyes discusses how early he was involved in the process, which goes back to 2006 when he first started designing the creature sounds. As much as Cameron and company may claim the film is a cinematic “game changer” (how I have come to hate that phrase), I believe the film’s lasting effect and its true innovation is in the way Cameron reconfigured the production process. Cameron has arguably created an entirely new workflow for high-profile pictures that involves the collaboration and involvement of crafts like sound much earlier in the process than usual.

Cameron’s home base in Malibu became ground zero for editorial. Music cues, sound effects, and visual effects shots could be sent to this production center so Cameron could continue to tweak his workprint, adding music or effects here or there. With respect to the visual effects workflow, check out this lengthy interview with Cameron, where he details the ways in which the film’s innovative production framework allowed him to work more freely within “3-D space.”

One of the key aspects to my own research on contemporary film sound is the concept of balance within the mix. In a large film like Avatar, there is the potential for sonic overload: dialog competing with effects competing with music competing with more effects. Cameron and Boyes go through the destruction of Hometree sequence, and how dramatic pauses and various kinds of explosions built a sonic architecture around the action sequence. “Clarity is king,” as Cameron puts it later in the talk. With hundreds, if not thousands, of individual tracks the crew worked in a reductive process, stripping away sounds that were deemed to be unnecessary or excessive.

Finally, the crew confirms something that I discussed in an earlier post about 3-D sound. With all the focus on 3-D imaging, mixers have not really changed the way they work with sound in a 3-D space. In fact, Avatar was mixed in 2-D. However, the crew makes an interesting observation about watching reels silently in 3-D, which had them imagining what sounds were appropriate for a specific 3-D moment. In effect, they worked with the silent images to figure out what sounds to feature in the mix, and where to place those sounds in the 5.1 space.

Andy Nelson’s “3-D” treatment of James Horner’s score was also illuminating. By “hanging” certain instruments in the theater space, Nelson adds depth to the sound space in a way that is usually reserved for traditional effects. I’ve only seen the film once and can’t remember this foregrounding effect, but I’ll be interested in hearing how it worked on my second viewing.

Fascinating stuff. Hopefully we’ll get additional panels from the other sound nominees in the coming weeks.



If there is one stylistic technique that has reached a point of saturation in Hollywood, then it must surely be the Snorricam, otherwise known as the “reverse steadicam” or the “chestcam.”  I would go so far as to suggest that it may even qualify as the technique of the decade. (Ok, that may be an overstatement).

It is normally used sparingly, limited to one or two uses in a film for a few seconds at a time. The Snorricam presents a reverse point-of-view shot, which positions the camera close to the actor’s face and is, most crucially, connected to the actor’s body so it responds to the actor’s actual movement. As a camera technique it has not been limited to uses in particular genres; much like the Steadicam, it has been successfully used in disparate genres, from horror films to romantic comedies. Unlike the Steadicam, though, the Snorricam is a plainly evident and rather pronounced camera technique.

The history of the technique is vague: a Google search results in a number of websites that provide DIY instructions for a home-made chestcam, but very few articles on the technique itself and its history in the movies. Modern use stems from a contraption devised by Einar Snorri Einarsson and Eiður Snorri Eysteinsson, the creative team who work under the name The Snorri Bros., though they are not actually related. According to the pair’s website, the Snorricam was created for a music video “years ago for an all girl punk band. It has since become world famous.” Indeed it has, but why have so many films of the aughts turned to this technique?

Its diffusion in contemporary film and television is certainly owed to the Snorri Bros., but the technique itself is not new. Versions of the mounted camera appear in John Frankenheimer’s loopy Seconds and Martin Scorsese’s breakout film Mean Streets. Both films use it to convey the drunken disorientation of the main characters, which also characterizes the way it has been used in more recent films, such as Requiem for a Dream (more on this film a little later). The intervening decades proved to be unremarkable for this technique, perhaps overshadowed by the far more popular Steadicam, which came to prominence with Bound for Glory and Rocky in the mid-70s. I haven’t been able to find any notable uses of the chestcam in the 80s and 90s outside of Jacob’s Ladder and Malcolm X. Were characters in the 80s not getting drunk, dashing around in a disoriented way? Hardly. Were filmmakers not interested point-of-view shots to give some sense of character psychology? I’m pretty sure they were. So, how did this nifty device not gain traction? Well, on a purely functional level, the apparatus had not yet been refined, so weight and mobility could have been a problem. It is also a fairly disruptive technique, and by that I mean it can be disorienting for the viewer — purposely so, I suppose. So, there is good reason to believe that its design is a bit radical, especially in conservative filmmaking circles.

So, how can we explain the resurgence of the Snorricam in the latter part of this decade? It might be productive to look to Darren Aronofsky’s extensive use of the device in Requiem for a Dream and Pi. On its own, Requiem has become a film student’s film, quotable not so much for its dialogue but for its dizzying visual and sound style. Its stylistic palette even became fodder for The Simpsons. Out of the various techniques Aronofsky used to convey the troubled (and troubling) lives of his characters, the chestcam shots are distinctive for two reasons. First, he holds on the shots for some time, giving the impression that the technique is actually doing something more than providing a momentary visual gimmick. Second, the shots are not mere manifestations of subjective drunkenness, but instead suggest an out-of-body disassociativeness, which are neither purely omniscient nor particularly subjective.

The chestcam appears three times in the film: when Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) flees the gang murder scene, when Marion (Jennifer Connolly) leaves the scene of her first trick, and during one of Sara’s (Ellen Burstyn) paranoid delusions. Marion’s sequence is arguably the most visceral, lasting for over a minute. Aronofsky uses two different camera rigs, one in front and one behind her, to capture her walk from the john’s apartment, down an elevator and outside into the rain where she throws up onto the lens. Overall, the dizzying quality of the chestcam works well in the film mainly because it feels connected to the other overly-stylized elements.

The Hangover

In 2008 and 2009, the chestcam made cameos in The Hangover, Slumdog Millionaire, Rock’n’Rolla, District 9, The Lovely Bones, and Orphan among others. It has found favor among filmmakers like Spike Lee, who has used it in Malcolm X, The 25th Hour and Inside Man. It has even found its way onto television shows like House and CSI. Similarly, the taxi cab sequence in Zodiac accomplishes the same effect when the camera is virtually mounted to the moves of the car. The camera is locked to the CG taxi in a way that is slightly disorienting. The camera moves are too perfect, too still, which makes it all the more eerie.

The technique certainly calls attention to itself, which is perhaps why it is used so briefly. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s an effective technique even though it seems to be the go-to device for contemporary directors looking to add a sense of distorted subjectivity to a particular sequence. Peter Jackson recently spoke to Ain’t it Cool News about its use in The Lovely Bones, where he opted to have Stanley Tucci carry a small camera in his own hands, pointed at his face, while running through the house in one of the film’s climactic scenes. But I’m afraid that by this point it’s reached a point of real saturation, where it’s no longer as effective at creating the needed sense of urgency or “raw” movement. While not quite a gimmick, the Snorricam reminds me of how the slow Steadicam creep-in became a de-facto horror film convention after John Carpenter used it to such great effect in Halloween.

When used in an otherwise plainly shot film, the chestcam feels out of place. By this point it’s become a standard option in a director’s bag of tricks. Directors seem to be working off of each other here, borrowing the device to convey similar points. There are other ways of portraying interior states of mind, but this one seems to be the device du jour.

Lovely Bones

What Might Have Been

Late last week Variety broke the story that Steven Spielberg was no longer attached to direct a remake of Harvey, the 1950 James Stewart fantasy about a man and his friendship with an imaginary six-foot rabbit. According to the article, production was expected to begin in early 2010 for an expected late 2010 release. At this point we don’t know why the bottom fell out of this project, but Variety hints that creative differences between team Spielberg and Robert Downey, Jr. (who was set to star) are at least partly to blame. The announcement comes after two years of similar stories about Spielberg’s “next project,” which never seem to go anywhere.

Perhaps no other director in Hollywood is attached to direct more projects than Spielberg. There is the Abraham Lincoln drama based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, starring Liam Neeson. Tony Kushner, who co-wrote Munich, is apparently doing rewrites. There is The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the protests that erupted at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, which is now scheduled for release in 2010 with Ben Stiller directing. There is The 39 Clues, an adventure story based on a series of popular children’s books about a globe-trotting family, which is also in rewrites. There is Oldboy, supposedly based on the Garon Tsuchiya comic not the Chan-wook Park film. There is talk of a Matt Helm project, based on the Donald Hamilton espionage novels. There is Interstellar, the sci-fi project written by Jonathan Nolan. In recent months there has also been speculation that a fifth Indy adventure could be in the cards, along with a fourth Jurassic Park movie.

All of these projects have been spotlighted by trade papers like Variety, which in turn feeds the blogosphere, fan sites, and forums, where speculation often turns into geeky hysteria. The recent Talkback for the Harvey story at Ain’t it Cool News offers commentary from all sides: “FINALLY!!! Something Spielberg ISN’T doing for a change,” “Why, it’s Spielberg’s canceled project of the week,” and “This didn’t need to be remade.” It’s not surprising that there’s interest in these projects, but what happens when they are never made?

Never Mades

AI Concept Art

On one side, we follow the production status of these projects to the point where we can often imagine the completed film before it’s released. Casting decisions, leaked production art, covert on-set photography, script leaks, and the ever-reliable word of mouth from “sources close to the production” all contribute to our attachment to these projects. On the other side, the productions themselves have often spent millions of pre-production dollars developing the script, casting, sketching out storyboards and concept art. What happens to all this work? It’s either stored somewhere or thrown away, rarely to be seen again, unless the film itself is resurrected at some future point.

The Harvey story got me thinking about all the films that reached some stage of pre-production but were ultimately never made. Spielberg’s catalog of almost-mades is large indeed, but several of these films have gone on to be made by other directors. For years, he held on to Memoirs of a Geisha but finally released it to Rob Marshall. If it wasn’t for Spielberg, then Kubrick’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence would never have been made. But some things like Harvey just don’t go anywhere (yet). And we’re likely never to see Spielberg’s notes, art, and design for the film.

What do these never-mades tell us about the filmmakers behind them? When we consider a filmmaker’s output we never consider the films that were almost made. Would it be a stretch to say that we could learn a lot about the creative process if we could study these almost movies? These phantom projects can provide real insight into a filmmaker’s stylistic palette at a particular time in his/her career. Besides knowing what happened to sink the ship, we could learn valuable information about what attracted a filmmaker (not limited to a director) to the project.

Almost, But Not Quite


Alfred Hitchcock was to have made The Short Night after Family Plot, but the director’s deteriorating health derailed the project at Universal. A completed screenplay was published by the author, David Freeman, in the book The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. Wikipedia even has a page devoted to  Hitchcock’s unproduced projects. In 2007 Martin Scorsese put together a short film based on a bare-bones 3-page treatment prepared for Hitchcock, called The Key to Reserva. It can be viewed here. You gotta love Scorsese’s passion for the material: “It’s one thing to preserve a film that has been made. It’s another to preserve a film that has not been made. … I’m obviously not going to shoot it the way I would. But can I shoot them as Hitchcock? I don’t think so. So who will I shoot them as? This is the question…this is the process.” Priceless.

There’s no question that Scorsese shot the sequence with Hitch in mind. The camera angles, pacing, and even the music suggest an oddly familiar Hitchcockian flavor. Some of these choices were inspired by the script treatment, while others seem to represent Scorsese’s attempt to channel the stylistic signature of the old master. He is right to say that the result isn’t quite Hitchcock, nor is it Scorsese. It’s Hitchcock through Scorsese. I can only imagine a filmmaker in forty years channeling Scorsese from an unproduced treatment. Say, the long gestating Sinatra project.

The Scorsese experiment reveals very little about the aborted Hitch project or Hitch’s own stylistic impulses. Since he never made the film — or The Short Night, for that matter — we can only speculate as to how he would have approached the tone, look, and sound of these projects. Scorsese indulges in a way that any of us would with an unproduced Hitchcock script: he interprets the material as he knew Hitch would. Or, the way we assume he would.

The Key to Reserva

In Hitchcock’s case, health issues were the determining factor in sealing The Short Night‘s fate; Harvey seems to have suffered from “creative differences.” But budget considerations seem to be the biggest factor in Hollywood’s ability to sink projects that are in some form of production. Which leads me to the one of the most storied never-mades in film history: Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon project. In fact, Taschen books has just released a mammoth volume which compiles all of Kubrick’s notes, photographs, script treatments, and other pre-production materials in the aptly titled “Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made.”

The Napoleon Project

Allison Castle, who previously published the Kubrick Archive for Taschen — an outstanding collection of Kubrick’s sketches, notes, and other materials from all of his films (and some of his never-mades) — has seemingly done the work for film scholars by packaging the bulk of Kubrick’s notes and other research materials in one place. I say “seemingly” because I have yet to actually see the tome myself. Castle’s work on the Archive was outstanding, so I expect nothing less here. Then again, I would be satisfied with anything released on the Napoleon project.

I remember hearing about the film a dozen years ago when I was just getting acquainted with Kubrick’s works. Back then there was still hope that he might mount a return to the film, but that sadly never happened. There was also The Aryan Papers, which receives some attention in the Archive. It’s rumored that Kubrick abandoned the film in the early 90s after he learned that Spielberg was producing his own Holocaust drama.

Scholarly Matters

Even with internet leaks and trade press attention, we are rarely given access to actual production materials from unfinished projects, which makes it extremely hard for budding film scholars to uncover very much. Castle’s work on the Kubrick archive is special but incredibly rare. Indeed, the Kubrick Archive revealed for all to see that the final act of A.I. was planned that way by Kubrick not by Spielberg. Here is one instance where early concept art and story notes have been used to dispel rumors and conjecture that Spielberg diluted Kubrick’s vision by tacking on a “happy” ending.

I have always been fascinated with the markings of the creative process: handwritten revisions on a screenplay draft, development conversations and roundtables, concept art, musical outtakes and alternates. When the Star Wars scores were re-released in 1997 (to coincide with the theatrical re-releases), I was amazed to find a selection of outtakes from the main title, which were “hidden” on an unlisted track. Included were the first few takes of the cue, which contain slightly different orchestration and timing. It felt as if I was transported to that London scoring stage back in 1977 and was hearing it for the first time along with the engineers and orchestra.

These uncompleted projects all share a certain cachet because they are shrouded in mystery. We will never know, but we can certainly imagine how good they could have been. I doubt Napoleon was going to be the greatest film ever made, but we’ll never know, will we? All we have are the frayed pieces of the puzzle. To be sure, I have only scratched the surface with films that were never made. If you have a favorite, please share it. I’d love to compile a list of almost-mades.

Variety Reserve

On a completely unrelated note I was very disappointed to find out that Variety is ending its three year “experiment” of free access to its online content. From now on, unsubscribed users will have extremely limited access to the site, amounting to something like a handful of articles per month. From now on the site will charge upwards of $250 for an annual subscription that will provide full access to its digital content. Turns out that the trade paper is happy to narrow its readership to industry-only folks, leaving the rest of us to either pay up or move on to other sources of industry news. According to a Huffington Post article on the matter:

“The vast majority of Variety’s subscribers are in the entertainment industry, and so are the advertisers. Because these agents, studios and other companies in the trade seek readers in the industry, they care less about the general audiences that had read the site for free, Stiles said. About 95 percent of Variety’s advertisers buy spots on the Web site and in print.”

I, for one, count Variety as an incredible resource for my research and general interest in the Hollywood film industry. The film reviews are concise, thoughtful, and well-rounded pieces of pop film criticism — especially those by Todd McCarthy. Their attention to fine-grained details like editing, scoring, sound design, and photography is unique among trade press and newspaper reviews. I also find their broader articles on trends, profiles, and other matters of craft to be pretty informative. So it’s disheartening to see the publication go the way of the pay wall. Oh well, either I’ll pay the piper or try The Hollywood Reporter, which still remains a free resource.

On a brighter note, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! I’ll be back soon with some thoughts on the decade that was, including a year-end list that has been ten years in the making.

The Shining: Overlook Hotel

Liberation through Limitation

It’s the end of November, which means Wright on Film has been dark for nearly two months. Yikes! I think that’s a record. With my thesis and teaching load, I have had little time for anything else, especially things related to cinema. As my course winds down for the term I thought it might be time to share some of what I’ve been up to.

Lately, I’ve been mired in the practical world of sound production, learning how to write about the norms and conventions of this particular facet of modern Hollywood. Like any element of the American film industry, the sound chain represents a site of cultural production. There are union dynamics, hierarchies within the employment system, shared aesthetic conventions, and complex relationships with technology. The sound chain itself is a spider’s web of different duties and departments, which are amazingly connected by one governing rule: the story.

At every level of the sound chain, story remains the guiding light for nearly every element of sound style. From Foley to the final mix, every squeak, tweak, and dub is motivated by the oldest question in the Hollywood playbook: how will this affect the story? This Hollywood chestnut anchors the sensibilities of the sound crew, so that everyone is on the same creative page. Go too far with a bone crunch and it loses its meaning within a scene; don’t go far enough and it loses its emotional impact. Dialog editors, too, are gatekeepers of clear and intelligible speech. If someone swallows their line or the production track is too noisy, the main goal of any dialog clean-up artist is to sift through alternate, usable takes. Here, “usable” means intelligible.

You might think that this is a fairly constrained way to work, but artists in most mediums work within some set of boundaries. For many sound professionals, constraints offer creative flexibility — however strange that sounds. But limitations in the form of norms and conventions can be profoundly liberating, especially when working under tight schedules and even tighter budgets with which modern Hollywood sound crews are faced. A re-recording mixer recently told me that there is still room for experimentation even in the most programmed summer blockbuster. But that room is quite small. The mixer suggested that if you needed to work in a creative environment without boundaries, then Hollywood sound production was not for you. At the same time, those same blockbusters offer the sound artist unparalleled access to new technology and, perhaps most important, the chance to collaborate with other creative types who are at the top of their field.

In this sense, my work in film sound has revealed the extent to which boundaries inspire creative decisions. James Horner, the composer of Titanic and the upcoming Avatar, has suggested that unlimited creative options can often be more constraining to one’s work than simply working within a bounded set of options. Which is why story appears to dominate the goals of most Hollywood sound practitioners. Given the demands of the narrative, sound can shape its contours and emphasize (or de-emphasize) certain elements that the image cannot properly convey. In the case of Avatar, Horner’s musical score is “more accessible. We tried some experiments with really weird stuff and ended up alienating the visuals. It was so overwhelming. It’s good to be a little more conservative.”

We often separate the work of composers from the rest of sound production, but Horner’s sensibilities are no different than the work of sound editors. Faced with an elaborate car chase, the sound editor must choose certain elements to emphasize and others that will be sacrificed for the sake of narrative clarity. Unless otherwise directed to include a particular sound element, the editor composes the sequence the same way Horner works with the picture to emphasize certain gestures and movements with his music.

While Avatar afforded him an opportunity to create new sounds for the alien Na’vi culture, the horizon of possibilities was ultimately too wide, and he returned to more familiar orchestral territory. This may enrage critics of Horner’s work, who accuse him of recycling his own melodies in score after score. But I believe the calls for plagiarism have less to do with compositional conservatism than with aesthetic convention. Horner has often stated in interviews that the function of his music should serve the dramatic arc of the story and character goals. Without a clear sense of the narrative, he admits that he has trouble finding the purpose of the music. This reliance on story can also explain why he favors certain orchestrations and instrumentations. It is also why composers often return to familiar idioms when faced with action sequences, love scenes, or comic moments. There is no mistaking a Jerry Goldsmith action cue or a John Barry love theme because these types of scenes sound a certain way to these composers. Goldsmith hardly spoke about the mechanics of his working style because for him it simply made sense to score a scene in a particular way. “How did you come up with that theme?” is one of the most common questions that composers are asked, and yet their answers are rarely satisfying. When asked by Peter Bogdanovich how he shot a particularly memorable sequence in Stagecoach, John Ford famously sniped, “With a camera!”

The intangibility of the creative process offers us few avenues of insight to this particular problem, but shifting our focus to questions of “why” may yield some greater insights into the conventional logic of composers like James Horner. Why were certain tonalities chosen over others? Why a particular focus on this character? Why no music in certain passages?

As original and fresh as the Avatar score may be, Horner’s compositional approach has not changed; indeed, the function of his music remains the same. The orchestral colors may be new, but the structural DNA of the music reflects Horner’s conventional logic. In this sense, convention is less a pejorative term than one that defines an aesthetic approach, including the function of music in any particular sequence.

Hollywood craftspeople have been complaining about shrinking budgets and shorter schedules for decades. And yet I have never read of a composer or sound editor admit that extremely long schedules produce better or more innovative work than shorter ones. Perhaps this may not be the case with visual effects artists, who often require more time to fine-tune FX shots. Horner has experience at both extremes. Ransom and Troy were scored in fewer than 14 days; The New World and Avatar were written and scored over a period of months due to picture changes. And yet even with so much time, he needed to adapt quickly to the editorial changes and sometimes drop or rewrite entire cues to fit the new assembly. Alfred Newman once said that if one was not prepared to work quickly and sacrifice personal taste in favor of what was needed to better tell the story, then one should avoid work in film music. As much as craftspeople complain about short schedules, there is nothing quite like a deadline to inspire the most creative solutions and innovative breakthroughs at all levels of production.

There is still so much to learn about the process of film production, especially the structured environment of Hollywood post production. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the hardest things to teach, because film students at the undergraduate and graduate levels are generally accustomed to analyzing films for broad-based cultural, social, and authorial meanings. To study a group of films and ask why certain choices were made is difficult not only because we rarely have access to filmmakers, but also because we have yet to develop a solid framework with which to study these issues productively.

This is not an intentionalist argument, since I am not concerned with intention as much as I am interested in the process that led to a particular decision. For example, James Cameron might have given Horner a particular direction for his score — an intent — but I am interested in studying how Horner juggled that request with his own frames of reference and horizon of possibilities.

Update 11/28/09: A new interview with James Horner has been posted by Daniel Schweiger. Although not as long and in depth as the 2006 discussion, Horner provides some context for this creative decisions on Avatar, and speaks a little about the current state of film music. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Editorial note: I have tried to locate a lengthy interview Horner gave to Daniel Schweiger from “On the Score” in 2006, but the links have disappeared. Hopefully the audio will be reposted at some point, because it offers a candid and honest discussion of the composer’s style and his ideas on the functions of modern film music.

Horner Contemplating

Hear it in 3-D!

With a busy summer winding down, I’m staring down an equally busy fall. Unfortunately this summer produced fewer blog essays than I intended, as I was busy conducting interviews and developing other research for my doctoral project. I hope to remedy that in the coming months, as I prepare for another round of festival-going at TIFF and take on a teaching challenge at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, where I was offered a full-year course on the history of American filmmaking in the studio era. So, along with my usual thoughts on film style and technology, there will be plenty of film for thought to keep this blog busy.

Today, a few more thoughts on 3-D.

In transcribing some interview material from my conversations with sound practitioners, I came across an interesting point made by a notable re-recording mixer. In addition to finding the right balance among sound effects, this effects mixer is often responsible for placing sound effects in the 5.1 sound space. This means, for example, spreading explosions across the front channels or sending a variety of “bys” or passes from the front to the rear surround channels.

Before the re-emergence and hype surrounding modern 3-D presentations, 5.1 audio represented one way to immerse the audience in the space of a film. Sound mixers routinely envelop audiences in different sound spaces as a way of conveying the spatial geography of a scene; to provide clues to the location of a scene; and to embellish the sound signatures of a particular locale. Sound was a natural choice to convey immersion, since it fills the entire theater space with speakers not only behind the screen but along the side and back walls of all modern auditoriums. But now with 3-D all the rage, it seems that immersive 5.1 audio may not be immersive enough.

Speaking casually about sound technology and the aesthetics of modern film sound, this mixer — who has some experience mixing for recent 3-D fare — expressed frustration with the state of sound in relation to the 3-D format. Here’s the whole quote:

“At the moment I feel it is just a strictly visual experience. With 5.1 you can’t make it sound like special venue sound. In a standard theater, you just can’t do it. You try. You try to exaggerate surround. You try to get more special with things. But you can only do so much because you don’t have a speaker over your head. You don’t have a wall lined with them, like they do in some theme parks.”

With so few films being prepared for release in 3-D, the reality of this situation has yet to be felt by the majority of Hollywood re-recording mixers. Many have noted that norms and conventions have yet to be augmented to better suit 3-D because time, resources, and the small number of actual 3-D films prevent people in sound editorial and mixing to re-conceptualize sound style. While visual effects departments get the time and financial resources they need to refine and complete shots, sound departments are routinely told by post-production supervisors that there isn’t extra time or money for fringe benefits like reconfiguring the 5.1 layout.

The traditional press, along with the blogosphere, have had a lot to say about 3-D (including my own essay on the subject), but few have noted how the sound track might work in relation to eye-popping imagery. I naturally assumed that the 3-D sound track must be exploring new avenues of immersion, or responding in some way to the illusions of depth. If hardware firms like IMAX and Dolby are spending millions developing 3-D technology and studios are readying a growing number of 3-D releases, then surely sound must be part of the innovation party. Well…yes and no.

No one can say for sure what the future will bring, but at this moment the state of the 3-D sound track is unchanged. That is not to say that mixers aren’t working with sound differently than with traditional 2-D films. As the effects mixer noted, they will sometimes push more “hard” effects into the split surround channels to mimic an action that sends the image “into” the theater. Backgrounds (also known as ambiences) may also be treated with more gusto. In this sense, mixers are pushing more sound into the theater space to complement the visual push. It also helps that most 3-D movies has been animated, a genre which often affords mixers greater play with sound level and placement. Things can be more lively, full, and bright with films like Monsters vs. Aliens and Coraline.

Mixers are, therefore, tweaking current practices to suit the new image. They are not, as one might imagine, re-configuring the sound of sound. Why not? Well, a new delivery system for sound would be costly for exhibitors, who have already had to install digital cinema projectors to offer films in 3-D. A new sound system may involve not only new processors, but also more loudspeakers behind the screen and along the side and back walls. For years Tomlinson Holman has been arguing for 10.2 surround sound, which adds a pair of left and right overhead channels, a pair of wide left and right channels, a second subwoofer, and a center rear channel (which Dolby introduced in 1999 with the release of Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace). This layout would add the overhead channel desired by our effects mixer, and gives more latitude to the behind-the-screen channels to localize sound more precisely.

This report from Audioholics points out that psychoacoustic experiments suggest that human sound localization is far greater on the horizontal plane and front hemisphere than on the sides or rear. Unfortunately, the home theater industry continues to emphasize the importance of surround channels, and continues to add rear channels to the home array as some 7.1 systems demonstrate.


In Japan, NHK has proposed a 22.2 system to complement their super high-def television technology. Another re-recording mixer introduced me to a new sound system out of Germany called IOSONO. Here’s a brief excerpt from their description of its cinema applications:

An IOSONO system really comes into its own with IOSONO-encoded material. Sound designers can place up to 32 independent sound objects anywhere outside of, or within, the theater, either far behind the walls or right next to any member of the audience. What’s more, these sound objects can be made to move along any given path, at any desired speed. Ever experienced a helicopter slowly flying into the middle of the theater and hovering right above your seat? With IOSONO, you can.

Here is a description of the technology itself:

A computer controls each loudspeaker separately and actuates it the moment the desired wave front would pass through it. To synthesize a spherical wave front originating from a point behind the speakers, for example, the speaker closest to the virtual source is actuated first, followed by the speakers to the right and left of it. This results in a wave front with a relatively large radius and a virtual source point outside of the listening space. Reversing the order of actuation (where the speakers closest to the virtual point source are actuated last) results in a wave field corresponding to that of a source within the listening space.

The result is a stable wave field in which the listener can localize the virtual sound sources as if they were emanating from actual objects. The loudspeakers themselves, however, cannot be localized. Wave field synthesis thus creates a stunning illusion of acoustic events in a space, adding a whole new dimension to audio in the entertainment and other industries.

Beyond the marketing language of the IOSONO system, it is easy to see how this type of application could be attractive to Hollywood sound mixers who seek to augment the soundscape of a 3-D film by adding more localized channels. As the effects mixer stated, 5.1 is not broad enough to pin-point sound in space. In fact, several mixers agree that 5.1 is a digital compromise between exhibitors and industry practitioners. More channels may represent greater creative control, but it inevitably costs more. And, according to Tom Holman, 5.1 achieves the minimum number of discrete channels required for an immersive sound field.

In practice, mixers often avoid pin-pointed sound in 5.1 sound space because of its potential to distract audiences from the screen. Which is why many supervising sound editors and final mixers aim to fill the rear channels with rich but undefined backgrounds. Very rarely is dialog placed in the rear for the same reason. With 3-D, mixers are faced with an image that calls attention to itself, so why can’t sound do the same thing? If an arrow is shot out from the screen and lands somewhere to the left-rear of the viewer, why not indicate the arrow hit with a sound effect in the left-rear of the auditorium? As I mentioned earlier, mixers already use the rears as transport channels for fly-bys or car-bys or other moving objects.

As much as mixers are frustrated with the financial constraints to 3-D sound, there are some theoretical issues that still lurk in the shadow of 5.1. Mixers may want more channels capable of reproducing localized sound, but they must first overcome the conventional logic of surround sound mixing: avoid localized sound in the far left, far right, and rear. Tom Holman once quipped, “In Top Gun, when jets fly left to right across the screen and then exit screen right, what may be perceived aurally is the jet flying off screen as well, right into the exit sign.”

That is why Holman, among others, has opted for immersive film sound not localized film sound. Unlike a theme park ride which often directs your attention through sound cues placed in a 360 degree fashion around a room (think of the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World), cinema sound must contend with a two-dimensional screen on which audiences must stayed focused, even with 3-D presentations where your eyes remain fixed on a general axis, where any movement outside that axis might reveal the images to be cardboard cutouts — a phenomenon all too familiar to me.

The call for special venue sound for 3-D presentations seems to be an unlikely reality given the cost and small base of films released in the format. The desire for special venue sound also hides a fundamental aspect of Hollywood filmmaking that James Cameron continues to emphasize, even as he touts his upcoming Avatar as a veritable “game changer” in the way we experience our movies. In an interview with the Daily Mail he stated,

The irony with Avatar is that people think of it as a 3D film and that’s what the discussion is. But I think that, when they see it, the whole 3D discussion is going to go away…That’s because, ideally, the technology is advanced enough to make itself go away. That’s how it should work. All of the technology should wave its own wand and make itself disappear.

He is emphasizing story clarity and intelligibility, two of the most fundamental building blocks of American cinema. As much as the technology can wow our eyes and ears, the experience is in service to something else: the story. So as much as Cameron is prepared to awe his audience, he’s acutely aware that the illusion will fail if the audience isn’t taken on a journey that means something more than eye-popping visuals.

Filmmakers, including sound professionals, have always had to reconcile the spectacular nature of technology with the need for narrative invisibility. This is especially the case with sound mixing, where their art is based on the fine balance of story comprehension and environmental immersion. It is, therefore, hard to imagine sound acting any other way than it currently does in 3-D environments, especially if directors like Cameron subscribe to the story-is-paramount ideology.


Keep Circulating the Tapes — The Best of MST3K

After being off the air for nearly a decade, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999) is perhaps more popular now than it was during its initial run. While it has maintained a loyal fan base since its cable access launch in 1988, it continues to attract new fans — or MSTies — thanks to the release of 15 DVD anthologies of some of the show’s funniest experiments. Not to mention the countless websites devoted to the series and its satirical treatment of bad movies. Some of these movies have even re-entered popular discourse after being featured on the show, such as Manos: The Hands of Fate. Despite its strong niche popularity the series remains an acquired taste. Its mixture of broad shtick with esoteric observation is not hard to grasp, even for the uninitiated. Still, however, some viewers might find it hard to take pleasure in watching others watch bad movies.

The premise of the series is simple enough that the show’s original theme song distills its basic plot quite nicely:

In the not-too-distant future — next Sunday A.D. — there was a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me. He worked at Gizmonic Institute, just another face in a red jumpsuit. He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses didn’t like him. So they shot him into space. We’ll send him cheesy movies. The worst we can find (la-la-la). He’ll have to sit and watch them all, and we’ll monitor his mind (la-la-la). Now keep in mind Joel can’t control where the movies begin or end (la-la-la). Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.

The “experiments” sent by the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) are among cinema’s tragic failures, which are lampooned by Joel Hodgson and his robot pals, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu), Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy), Gypsy (Jim Mallon) and Cambot. We watch the cinematic travesties with Joel and co., who sit in a row of theater seats silhouetted against the movie. They laugh at the screen and make self-reflexive wisecracks that highlight the often uncontrollable badness of the movies they are forced to watch.

Joel and the bots mike and the bots

Unlike its premise, the history of the show is rather convoluted. After a mid-series network switch from Comedy Central to the Sci-fi channel in 1996, the show changed hosts (Mike Nelson replaced Joel), Trace Beaulieu was replaced with Mary Jo Pehl as Forrester’s evil mother, Pearl, and the voice of Crow was replaced with that of another series writer, Bill Corbett. Despite the acting replacements and the loss of Beaulieu and Hodgson, the writing staff remained relatively unchanged throughout the series’ run. The show’s most commercial outing was with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie in 1996, which skewered the now revered Universal sci-fi flick, This Island Earth. In fact, the feature film represents a bridge between the “Joel years” which preceded it and the “Mike years” that followed it on the Sci-fi channel. An “almost but still not quite complete history” of the show is available here.

Part of the show’s longevity stems from a request by the writers to “keep circulating the tapes,” which would appear during the credits of each episode. In the days before streaming internet video, home recorded VHS tapes were traded among fans who might have missed an episode or an entire season of the series. The trend continues to this day with some sites selling bootleg DVDs of episodes not yet released officially on video. In fact, some of the best episodes remain unreleased due to copyright claims and licensing restrictions. Until they are all released, I’m sure the show’s creators would like you to keep circulating those tapes.


Postmodern Silliness

We, the audience, are back-row participants in the fun. Put rather dryly, the humor derives from the double-exposure of watching the film and listening to Joel and the bots simultaneously. The jokes are timed to interrupt the narrative as little as possible, thereby allowing the audience to experience the film in a rather unobstructed sense. Much of the humor is observational and thus tied to the happenings on screen, yet some of the most effective jokes are broad reflexive gags that highlight outmoded social and cultural attitudes, or point out inter- and extra-textual meanings across a wide range of films. In this sense, the show demands the audience to be schooled in the finer, if somewhat marginal, aspects of pop culture. How else can we explain the inclusion of a Herbert von Karajan reference in the offbeat 70s horror film, The Touch of Satan? Without veering too far into high theory, Mystery Science is postmodern humor without pretension. It unearths the forgotten disasters of cinema to pick them apart, line by line, and call attention to their relationship with other films. In one of the show’s best “meta” jokes, the cast spends the final minutes of Laserblast reading Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide in hopes of finding other films that were also rewarded 2.5 stars out of 4 by the editors of the Guide. To the cast’s dismay, Maltin’s Guide suggests that Amadeus, Being There, Unforgiven, A Fish Called Wanda, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are on par with this utterly hilarious 70s sci-fi bomb.

I came to know Mystery Science in 2001 when it had already been canceled by the Sci-fi channel. My wife, who was then my girlfriend, introduced me to her collection of VHS episodes, and in a very short time I was hooked. With a name vaguely reminiscent of George McFly’s favorite TV show, Science Fiction Theater, the show appealed to me with its high-brow assault on some very low-brow movies. As an antidote to the sarcasm of the movie segments, the show’s bumper sequences are often silly, campy riffs between Joel/Mike and the evil earthbound scientists. Some of the funniest host segments feature the cast in a recreation or “homage” to that day’s film, where Joel/Mike and the bots don costumes and reflect the attitudes and behavior of the characters.

Not everyone understands the joy of watching the gang skewer a particularly bad movie. In his review for the feature film, Jonathan Rosenbaum snickered, “Of course making up your own wisecracks and passively listening to the wisecracks of ersatz spectators aren’t precisely the same activity. The potential creativity of the audience has been usurped…” Usurped is a strong word. I think this critical hesitation says something about our relationship with movies and how we watch them, which invaraibly leads to a feeling of being left out of the fun. Rosenbaum believes that passively listening to someone else make jokes somehow undercuts the whole enterprise of back-row heckling. In a way I see his point, but film viewing requires passivity. I would argue that the show rubs some viewers the wrong way because it asks its audience to forgive moviegoing etiquette and incorporate the wisecracks into the narrative. Whereas we might normally criticize the hecklers up front for ruining our moviegoing experience, Mystery Science Theater asks us to loosen our 1:1 relationship with the screen and participate in a weekly roast of a cheesy movies. It might not be active participation, but then again, why not? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about MST3K screenings where people shout the jokes back at the screen like a Greek chorus.

Entering the Screening Room

The List

With nearly two hundreds episodes to its credit, dozens of classic lines and memorable moments, and some perfectly roasted films, Wright on Film presents its Top Ten Favorite Moments from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The list comprises a selection of the funniest lines, gags, or entire films featured on the show. Join the chorus with your own favorites, if they aren’t among the ten chosen here.

10. The Skydivers (1963)


“Somebody with Attention Deficit Disorder edited this film.” This Colman Francis gem about a group of professional skydivers is a bleak and dreary exercise in cinematic boredom. Not much actually happens in this movie, except for the frequent discussion and enjoyment of … coffee. “Coffee? I like coffee,” says one character. Mike replies, “Thus we peer into the complex inner workings of this character.” The film itself is almost unwatchable, due in no small part to the dreary grayness that saturates every frame of this film. Not much happens here, as evidenced by this exchange: “Wonder how high they’re gonna jump.” A guy responds, “I don’t know.” Crow quips, “Wow, they really captured that kind of situation.”

9. Soultaker (1990)


No, that’s not Martin Sheen as the Soultaker, it’s his brother, Joe Estevez, a veteran character actor who has appeared in dozens of direct-to-video genre pics, frequently with Robert Z’dar, another DTV favorite. Two of the funniest riffs by Mike and bots have to do with the size of Z’dar’s face: “He looks like a catcher’s mitt with eyes!” and — as Z’dar looks at Estevez — “Man, that guy’s face is small.”

8. Puma Man (1980)

puma man

An international co-production about a super hero with the powers of the ancient Aztec Pumaman (who might also be from an alien planet). It’s hard to determine what is funnier, the film’s visual effects or Donald Pleasance’s overwrought performance. The rear-projection flying sequences are completely inferior even for the period. Luckily the poor effects don’t go unnoticed by Mike and the bots: “I’m falling at a 60degree angle, defying all the laws of physics!” Pleasance’s oddly affected British pronunciation of “Puma Man” (more like “Pee-yoo-ma-man”) never tires of being funny, especially since he seems to be relishing every syllable. Honorable mention also goes to the film’s funky disco score, which only adds to the joy of this 70s mess.

7. Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996 and 1982)


“Rock’n’roll martian…” So, basically this film purports to tell one story about the mystical sorcerer but is actually two different films by the same director cut together. It’s not that obvious, unless you happen to notice the 180 degree plot shift, the change in film stock, the different lighting styles, and most fundamentally the different fashion styles. One was made in the mid 90s, while the other reeks of the early 80s. Looking past the blow-dried hair and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial references, the film’s most memorable character is a skeptical newspaper columnist who claims to eviscerate new businesses with his influential reviews. Of course, he sets out to review Merlin’s shop by leafing through his book of spells and making sarcastic remarks into a tape recorder. We’re not sure if the actor is overdoing it, or if the character is that ridiculous, but he nevertheless provides plenty of fuel for Mike and the bots. When his wife complains of his lack of tact and sympathy, the bots chime in: “If she had a store, I’d crush her!” Later, during one of his tedious interior monologues, Servo adds, “I talk to myself a lot. Long monologues complete with sarcasm.”

6. Boggy Creek II: …and the Legend Continues (1984)

Boggy Creek II

“Can I borrow a cup of shirt?” A professor and three of his students head for the Arkansas backwoods in search of the legend of Boggy Creek, a woolly behemoth that is not unlike Bigfoot. Along the way, we must contend with the professor’s droning monologues, a sweaty swamp hillbilly, and Tim, the kid who refuses to wear a shirt. There are several jabs at Tim’s shirtlessness, Arkansas, hillbillies, and some technical oddities like the film’s inconsistent look: “My flashback wasn’t color corrected when it came back from the lab so it was kind of dark.”

5. Cave Dwellers (1984

Cave Dwellers

One of a few MSTied movies to feature a main title credit sequence with footage from a completely different film. Thanks Film Ventures International! Set somewhere in the middle ages, this Miles O’Keeffe vehicle is about a He-Man named Ator, whose quest is to keep the Geometric Nucleus out of the hands of Zor. This one is very popular at our house as the one that started it all. It was the first VHS my wife bought. At the time, her youngest sister was taking the train in to the city for a weekend visit, and she wanted something fun for them to do. One look at Zor’s silly swan-topped black battle helmet, along with Crow’s apt quip, sealed the deal for the two of them: “You know that hat has a slimming effect on you.” It’s a small moment of silliness that was capped later in the episode when Joel and the bots donned the same oversized helmets during one of their host segments.

4. The Final Sacrifice (1990)

final sacrifice

“So, Rowsdower, is that a…stupid name?” Arguably the most popular title not to be officially released on DVD, this also happens to be one of my favorite Canadian films. When an ancient cult idol is found by a boy, he sets out to discover the truth behind his father’s death. Incidentally, he must evade capture from the Ziox cult and its evil leader, Sartoris, by hiding in the back of an unsuspecting Canuck’s pickup truck, who may or may not be a former cult member. This God among men is Zap Rowsdower, our beefy anti-hero with a priceless mullet, thick Ontario accent, and penchant for stonewash denim. Ridiculed endlessly by Mike and the gang, most of the Rowsdower jabs are hilarious, including a few about his hockey hair. However, my favorite is a dig at the kid. He asks his grandmother if he is like his dead father. Crow replies, “No, he was masculine and likable.”

3. This Island Earth (1955)

This Island Earth

Granted, this is the feature film “experiment” and not from the original series. We’ve included it here since it contains some of the show’s best riffing. That is not to say that there are more jokes here than in an average episode or that they are funnier, but the source material definitely provides much to be satirized. In a recent interview, Mike Nelson spoke about the elevated status of the original This Island Earth as one of the “best” 50s sci-fi flicks and noted that it’s still not very good. Perhaps the same people who have such reverence for the film haven’t actually seen it. Or maybe they haven’t seen the MSTied version, which points out many of the film’s shortcomings. Or maybe they have seen the Mystie version and can’t help but hold the original in higher esteem (what I like to call the Manos effect.) The “science and technology” montage is wonderfully silly, as is the “Normal view” song. My wife was lucky enough to see this movie during its theatrical release and while MST3K is hilarious on the small screen, the jokes feel even bigger with a large audience. For my wife, MST3K: The Movie still holds the title for the most she has ever laughed at a movie. Ever.

2. Time Chasers (1994)

Time Chasers

“So in the future kids become gay agents?” I’ll admit that it was hard to get over the loss of Trace Beaulieu as the voice of Crow and initially I wanted nothing to do with Bill Corbett. Then came the release of Volume Five of the MST3K DVD collection and the awesomeness that is David Giancola’s Time Chasers. We are introduced to the less kind, more acerbic Crow T. Robot who is clearly unhappy with the casting of Matthew Bruch as our hero, Nick the time-traveling scientist. Crow yells “Hey wait a minute. This isn’t our star, is it? I will not accept this as our star, sorry.” This new Crow isn’t afraid to get angry and hold a grudge, “Movie! Hey Movie! Can I see your supervisor? This will not stand.” And who can blame him? Our hero is dressed in stonewash jeans, sporting a mullet and riding a 10-speed. And he looks to have a dinner roll attached to his chin. At least Rowsdower had a pickup. One thing is for sure, the crankier Crow gets, the funnier the jabs become. One of the best set pieces is the mezzanine office of the evil J.K. Robertson, which looks like it was filmed at a public library. The host segments are also very strong, with a hilariously gruff “alternate reality” Mike taking over mid-way through the film.

1. Mitchell (1975)


Who’s the puffy guy who is a big blurry sex machine? Mitchell! That’s right, Joe Don Baker is the pushy, puffy, greasy and sleazy cop who manages to bust up John Saxon’s crime ring and bed Linda Evans (a “loser actor bouquet” indeed.) Where to begin with Mitchell? Joe Don Baker’s face and girth make good fodder for the guys. You’d think there was a limit to how many fat, lazy and drunk jokes can be funny. But there isn’t. And it’s even funnier in song: “Mitchell, Mitchell — eye on the sandwich! Mitchell. Hearts poundin’. Mitchell. Veins cloggin’, Mitchell!” Not to mention that this is the episode that sees Joel’s escape from the Satellite of Love and introduces us to Mike. Unlike several episodes, Mitchell is a fairly watchable movie with actual Hollywood actors, including Martin Balsam and Baker (who has appeared in a few James Bond outings). Its humor, then, isn’t based on the unprofessionalism of the filmmakers but instead on the contrived plot and uncharismatic title character. Which are endlessly funny. Not to mention the low speed car chase. We’re still trying to figure out why Mitchell is eating an orange at an upscale restaurant. Apparently Mitchell doesn’t care for the ways of society and chooses to live by his own rules.

Keep circulating those tapes.


A Mann Among Us

Has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? That question, along with a few others, nagged me after a recent screening of Public Enemies in Toronto. First, some context. I have long admired Mann’s artistry. There is drama in his unironic flourishes — the final moments in Heat or The Insider before the end credit roll when Moby’s music fills the air and the characters take one last look around before the screen goes black. There is precision in his mise en scene, a compositional control that rarely goes over the deep end of mannerism, when style only serves itself. He is not afraid to marinade cinematic moments with lingering stares, contemplative glances, and longer takes that follow characters in their moments of crisis, joy, confusion, or pain. One way Mann accomplishes this in-the-moment presentness is with the extreme close-up. If you haven’t seen Public Enemies and don’t want anything spoiled, then this serves as my warning that spoilers lie ahead.

screen-capture2While much of the early press on Public Enemies has emphasized its historical subject m
atter, Mann has spoken a little about his technical and aesthetic choices. In an interview with Ain’t it Cool News, Mann discusses the function of the close-up in his films. One passage is particularly informative:

I look for where or how to bring the audience into the moment, to reveal what somebody’s thinking and what they’re feeling, and where it feels like you’re inside the experience. Not looking at it, with an actor performing it, but have an actor live it, and you as audience, if I could bring the audience inside to experience. It became critical in THE INSIDER, because the ambition was to make a film that was as suspenseful as I knew, and dramatic as I knew those lives really were. And, it’s all talking heads, but the devastation, the potential devastation to [Jeffrey] Wigand and Lowell Bergman was total annihilation, personal annihilation, suicide–all that was in the cards for these guys. And, yet, it’s all just people talking. So, that kind of began an exploration into how I could bring you into experience in as internal a way as I could.

For Mann, the close-up is a ticket to a character’s soul, their inner subjectivity. The closer the camera gets, the closer we are to their thoughts.

A Pair of Subjectivities

The close-up has always been used for emphasis. They portray the emotion on someone’s face or clarify the presence of an object. We might even say that it’s the most cinematic of shots, since it affords an intimacy and immediacy that is rarely found in the other arts. But can a close-up convey character subjectivity?

Griffith Close Shot

Kristin Thompson offers a fascinating essay on the nature of subjectivity in cinema, which can be found here. She notes that “the more imaginative [filmmakers] have shown immense creativity in trying to convey what characters see and think.” She isolates two kinds of functions that emphasize character subjectivity: perceptual and mental subjectivity. As she puts it, both functions suggest being “with” the characters as opposed to merely observing them. Perceptual subjectivity offers a visual or aural connection to what a character sees or hears. Point-of-view shots or point-of-audition sound not only places the audience in the scene, but in the head of a character for a given time. There are countless examples of effective POV shots, but POA sound seems much rarer, if only because they are harder to spot. The Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now is a good example. An American sniper loads his gun and takes aim at the trees, where a vocal Vietnamese sniper is perched, hidden by the dark. The U.S. sniper focuses his ears on the Vietnamese’s taunting voice then fires. The trees go silent. In the moment leading up to the killshot, the din of ground activity fades away and the acousmatic voice becomes the solo aural element on the sound track. We hear what the sniper hears as he strips away layer upon layer of sound until he aurally spots the tree sniper.

Apocalypse Now

Mental subjectivity, in Thompson’s view, goes a step further by offering fantasies, dreams, and other image-sound elements that are experienced by only that character. The numerous gags in Throw Momma from the Train where Owen (Danny DeVito) fantasizes about killing his mother are good examples. Without framing the fantasy, DeVito convinces his audience by playing the scene through. Only then does he cut back to the beginning of the sequence and we realize that the second half of the sequence was a figment of his imagination.

But the Do Lung sequence could also qualify as mental subjectivity since the U.S. sniper is specially trained to hone in on particular sounds — that technique is fairly unique to him. If we heard the same sequence from Willard’s position, we might not hear the same focused sound. In this respect, Thompson’s definitions are by her own admission fluid and ambiguous: “Filmmakers can create deliberate, complex, and important effects by keeping it unclear whether what we see is a character’s perception of reality or his/her imaginings.”

By all accounts Michael Mann works in the gray area between these functions. Films such as The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies are intimate character studies even if the subject matter of each is expansive. The Insider is as much about the news business as it is about the personal struggle of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It isn’t surprising, then, to hear Mann discuss that film in docudrama terms with lots of talking and exposition. He attempts to overcome the dryness of this approach by personalizing the story, thereby bringing the audience closer to Wigand, in three key sequences.

Immediacy and Despair

The Insider 1

We are introduced to Wigand at the beginning of the film through a series of fragmented shots. Mann captures a birthday celebration in the B&W chemistry lab through a glass partition. Wigand’s profile appears in close-up, out of focus, as the party continues in the background, out of ear shot. He packs up his briefcase with haste, then exits the office. Cut to Wigand in the elevator. The camera is perched on Wigand’s shoulder, inches from his ear. We’re only slightly off Wigand’s own eyeline, a pseudo POV shot. The doors open and Wigand exits — the camera holds its position. We move into the lobby still attached to Wigand by Mann’s fly-on-the-shoulder camera. As he approaches the floor security guard, we cut to a wider shot of Wigand passing the guard. Mann slows the film down, stretching the moment, giving an impression of Wigand’s own stunned numbness to the situation.

Insider 2

Later in the film, following a contentious meeting with Brown & Williamson chairman Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) and B&W legal counsel, Wigand leaves corporate headquarters in a rage. He calls Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) from a pay phone to blame him for the way the company was treating him. Framed again extremely tight, Mann’s camera is inches from Wigand’s face. In this way, Wigand’s enraged state is expressed with the extreme close-up. It’s made even more jarring when we cut to Bergman’s, who is framed in medium long shot, while Wigand is right in our face.

Insider 4

Insider 5

It’s also interesting to note that during the B&W meeting, Mann incorporates the on-the-skin close-ups into his shot reverse-shot compositions.

Insider 6Insider 7

These two uses of the extreme close-up aim to bring us closer to Wigand’s inner subjectivity, to be on his skin — if not totally in his thoughts. I would even suggest that the tight framing also leads to a kind of compositional clostrophobia, where Mann’s camera seeks to make us feel Wigand’s pain. It’s not necessarily a POV shot, since both sequences utilize relatively objective camera angles, which are positioned outside Wigand’s body. We also don’t get much POA sound in either case. Instead, Mann uses a particular camera technique — bringing the camera close to the skin — in order to satisfy the need for inner subjectivity.

It’s not an altogether new technique, either. The Dardenne brothers achieved a similar effect in Rosetta. The rather grim tale of a young Belgian girl’s struggle with poverty and social alienation utilizes the same sort of on-the-skin camera to further bring us into her world. At times, we’re locked on her face and experience the world around her only through sound.


To express the enormity of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg offers surprisingly few establishing shots, and instead relies on a few well-placed extreme close-ups. The most notable example comes after the battle, as Horvath (Tom Sizemore) remarks, “That’s quite a view.” Close on Miller’s helmet, he raises his head, takes a swig of canteen water, and takes in the sight: “Yes it is. Quite a view.” Spielberg’s camera moves in closer until Miller’s eyes are the only thing in focus. Only then do we cut to a series of wider shots of the beach. Again, the close-up emphasizes the connection between character and audience without taking the form of a traditional POV shot.


The final example of character subjectivity from The Insider is one of Mann’s only forays into mental subjectivity. Late in the film Wigand is holed up in a hotel room, his wife and children having already abandoned him. He’s all but given up, seated in a chair, unshaved, disheveled. A hotel employee attempts to get him to answer a telephone call from Lowell, but he’s drifted off into a daydream. Lisa Gerrand’s hypnotic voice primes the viewer for an unexpected fantasy that unfolds around Wigand. A pastoral mural on the wall behind him begins to morph into his old backyard, where his two children are playing. He turns to face them as the two girls stop and stare back. The moment is broken when we cut back to the hotel employee, who is still on the phone with Lowell, saying “He doesn’t seem to be listening.”

Insider 8Insider 10

It’s a relatively short daydream, but a bold move on Mann’s part to include such a whimsical touch in an otherwise button-down narrative. It works because we’ve been primed by the various close-up techniques to expect a glimpse into Wigand’s psyche.



Public Enemies continues Mann’s close-up technique on a more visceral level. Instead of portioning out the device, he composed much of the film in a deliberately tight fashion. One film critic went as far to say that he dispenses with the use of establishing shots altogether! For the record, there are a few scattered throughout the picture, here and there. But the critic’s point is well taken: there are far fewer master shots than in any conventional actioner, including the Bourne series, which is anchored by a series of sprawling city shots with legends indicating the location.

Chicago itself is presented as a disjointed city; the Biograph theatre floats somewhere in between Dillinger’s hideaway and the Bureau’s HQ. The bank heists remain coherent, but verge on the indefinable. According to the filmmakers, Mann expressed a desire for immediacy in order to move beyond the period niceties of 1930s Chicago. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, “Mann redressed Lincoln Avenue on either side of the Biograph Theater, and laid streetcar tracks; I live a few blocks away, and walked over to marvel at the detail. I saw more than you will; unlike some directors, he doesn’t indulge in beauty shots to show off the art direction. It’s just there.” In fact, Mann wants you to think that the detail is on their faces.

In the same Ain’t it Cool News interview, Mann mentions the psychological importance of the extreme close-up in the film:

So, with Homer, outside the bank, and he sees that police car drive up. There’s a close-up–it’s something you can only do in hi-def–I’ve got the lens right here, and you’ll just see the focus shift to right to the stubble, and then I’m heightening that and color timing by raising the contrast just when we get there. So, you really feel you’ve gone right into Homer, and you can feel his awareness just climb up. There’s no nervousness, there’s nothing. But, you see he has totally taken in the arrival of the cops outside.

Again, in Mann’s view, the closer we get to the skin the closer we can absorb that character’s emotional state. We not only see the sweat begin to bead, but we might also begin to sweat ourselves.


We don’t get any closer than with Johnny Depp’s vivid portrayal of Dillinger himself. He plays Dillinger close to the chest, but that’s where Mann’s camera can peel away the hardened exterior to reveal his cheek scar, his five-o’clock shadow, and a range of muted emotions that are exclamation points in close-up. In the film’s final minutes, the close-up is combined with a pseudo POV shot of the fatal bullet that enters the back of his neck and exits under his right cheek. As he lies dying on the sidewalk, Mann returns to the on-the-skin shot one more time to see Dillinger in a much more vulnerable light. Ironically, we’re so close, yet we still can’t make out what he’s saying.

Returning to my original question — has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? — I don’t think so. Mann is an ambitious filmmaker who often seeks to refresh cinematic conventions if only to tell very familiar stories. The close-up remains a choice in the filmmaker’s bag of tricks to emphasize. But I would argue that even a long shot can emphasize character psychology, if placed in the hands of a talented filmmaker.

Mann’s close-ups are interesting because few other directors today portray subjectivity this way. They have become a signature Mann shot. With The Insider we witness Jeffrey Wigand’s crisis with a macro lens, while the rest of the film remains detached and cool. I would argue that Public Enemies erases that borderline between close proximity and objective control. By placing the audience in the immediacy of Dillinger’s present, the close-ups lose their emotional edge, their ability to read character subjectivity, and we are ultimately left with mannerist excess.

At certain points the close-up can emphasize character psychology, to bring us closer to their skin. As much Mann tries, though, it can’t put us in their skin.


Hearing Beyond Words

If you know me or have read some of my posts, you’ll know that I am a film music devotee. The music of film guided my early education in cinema as I came to know the work of Hitchcock through the music of Herrmann, Spielberg through Williams, Burton through Elfman, Fellini through Rota, and Leone through Morricone. From there, things multiplied quickly as my tastes expanded and I was introduced to different styles (minimalism), periods (Miklos Rozsa’s 40s noir), and trends (Jerry Goldsmith’s electronics). Ironically, despite my note-by-note analysis of many works, I have no training whatsoever in reading music or playing an instrument. Over the years I’ve picked up quite a bit of theory by reading album liner notes, film music texts, and critical writings on the subject. But it still remains an obstacle for someone like me who writes on film not to be able to delve into the compositional science of this so-called neglected art.

So, for years I have been trying to find ways to study the craft without relying on musicological methods. To be honest, most musicological studies of film music are dry reads, often forgetting that the notes and motifs are to be married to an image-track and joined with other sonic elements like dialog and effects. Strictly musicological studies tend to divorce the music from the rest of the film, preferring instead to reach broad-minded conclusions about artistic style and dramatic intent based on close textual readings of the score. What’s missing is an understanding of how music affects the audiovisual experience, and how that experience is crafted by composers in the industry.

Music as Industry

Johnny Williams

A few years ago, two other approaches to the study of film music struck a chord with me. The first is exemplified by Robert Faulkner’s 1978 essay in Qualitative Sociology, “Swimming with Sharks: Occupational Mandate and the Hollywood Film Composer.” Faulkner distills the working relationship between the composer and director in Hollywood and argues that the composer may have artistic license on a project, but ultimately the producer and/or director will negotiate the role and function of music in the film. Faulkner writes, “Only the craft really belongs to the craftsman. The product belongs to someone else.”

Faulkner’s approach is both economic and social, in that he focuses on the nature of collaboration in the film industry. He is less concerned with aesthetics or style as they relate to specific films or composers, but instead how artistic sensibilities gel with the larger filmmaking culture in Hollywood. “The composer’s clients seldom find themselves in the situation where they must follow instructions and depend on the recommendations of the artist/expert, as is often the case with a lawyer or physician,” Faulkner argues. “The commercial craft is precarious: it is negotiated and re-negotiated on a situation-to-situation basis. While both composer and filmmaker are theoretically in accord with the end product of their relationship — a ‘good’ film score — the means by which this is achieved can be a source of conflict. Meddling and interference is a constant problem. Once the score is completed, the filmmaker is the final arbiter of a composer’s labor. He or she has the power to do what he or she wants with the music.”

For anyone who bothers to know such things, there are too few studies of modern Hollywood that delve into the division of labor, the relationships among craftspeople, and the struggle between art and commerce. In my own research interviews with sound professionals, there is a common thread among them: many are experiencing shorter production schedules, budgetary cutbacks, and post-production supervisors and producers who want creative decisions made quicker and films turned around in record time. In this environment, composers sometimes have too little time to develop their ideas; other times, their ideas are drowned out by other sonic elements or dropped altogether from the final mix. Jerry Goldsmith’s second-last score for Richard Donner’s Timeline was dropped but subsequently released on CD by Varese Sarabande because eleventh hour editorial changes required Goldsmith to redo several cues. Because of his health at the time, Goldsmith and Donner agreed to part ways, which opened the door for Donner to hire Brian Tyler to compose a brand new score for the re-edited version.

The question remains how composers (and other craftspeople) deal with these obstacles. How does this affect their creative decisions and choices? To what extent do composers rely on what I would call “fallback principles” to complete a sequence or an entire score because of time restraints? By this I mean the degree to which composers utilize a set of creative assumptions based on training or instinct.

Music as Expression


The second approach rests on the expressiveness of film music. I am particularly drawn to Noel Carroll’s theory of “modifying music,” whereby music helps to clarify mood, setting, character, or dramatic import of a scene. Jeff Smith has noted that Carroll’s theory represents “an aspect of musical cognition, a means of enabling spectators to gauge the emotional qualities of a scene” (“Unheard Melodies? A Critique of Psychoanalytic Theories of Film Music”). By acknowledging the emotional currency of film music, we can begin to understand its affective qualities beyond both musicological and abstract psychoanalytic frameworks. “A cognitive account of film music,” writes Smith, “would not only more directly address the issue of the spectator’s awareness of film music, but would also address the spectator’s mental activities in utilizing cues that musically convey setting, character, and point of view.”

The study of musical cognition — or our ability to understand the emotional expressiveness of music — offers us a valuable way to discover how music affects our experience of a film. Even a casual observer will acknowledge the presence of repeated themes (motifs) that signify characters or other visual iconography. They will also be attuned to the tonal dynamics and mood of music in specific sequences. The ubiquitous example here that combines both of these affective properties is Jaws. I’m thinking specifically of the pier incident sequence when a pair of bright bounty hunters attempt to lure the shark to them with a holiday roast. We’re triggered to the presence of the shark by the two-note sawing motif. John Williams uses the motif not only to note the presence of the shark, but to also indicate its proximity to the bounty hunters. Since we cannot see the shark, the orchestra’s loudness and intensity act as barometers. We’re also cued to the danger and violence of the act, which is emphasized by the guttural churning of the double basses and horn counterpoint. Listen here.

The music here is an unambiguous example of music that serves an emotional role. The threat of the shark is expressed musically, since it is goes unseen for much of the picture. As an audience we are placed in a more informed position than the two hunters: we know when the shark is going to strike because the music (which is not heard by the characters) leads us to this conclusion.

The debate among film music scholars (and some fans) that film music should not manipulate or lead the audience is as old as the practice of underscoring for motion pictures. I gave up a long time ago trying to make sense of it, since many composers will admit that their job is in service to the dramatic and emotional core of the narrative. By their very nature they heighten the emotional tone of a scene through a variety of practices. In a 1996 interview Jerry Goldsmith exclaimed, “The job of the composer is to delve into the emotional aspect of the film. I’ve heard so many people and critics say, ‘Well, the music is leading the audience emotionally. It’s not right!’ Or, ‘you’re manipulating us!’ Well, what the hell? That’s what we’re here to do! Good film is manipulating your audience!”

Moving Music

First Contact

In this way, film music can move us emotionally. With all the hype surrounding the release of the J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film, I was reminded the other day of Goldsmith’s contribution to the musical heritage of Gene Roddenberry’s film and TV franchise, especially one scene at the end of 1997’s First Contact. I’m a fan of this entry in the series, but always felt the final scene played a bit stiff. However, all the hesitation and awkward staging seems to melt away when Goldsmith accentuates the emotional significance of this moment, when humankind makes first contact with an alien species. Skip ahead to 6:40 to see this sequence here.

“I want one theme that will sum up the entire…spiritual, dramatic message of the picture,” Goldsmith noted in 1993. “I need the main theme and I need some motif,” he added. “Not a theme but a motif. Something secondary.” These comprise Goldsmith’s building blocks of a score, no matter what genre, tone, or setting. These elements also carry with them the emotional punctuation and grammar of the score. In this example from Rudy, Goldsmith scores the final game with a brassy four-note motif that works in conjunction with the more lyrical and sweeping Irish-flavored theme for Rudy himself (heard when he’s carried out).


What’s even more impressive about the music than its emotional register is its ability to keep the sequence moving. When Goldsmith spoke about audience manipulation, he was referring to a particular practice that emphasizes emotional manipulation (high strings = tears; screeching strings = horror). But another kind of manipulation positions the composer as pace-setter. The Rudy example works well in this respect, since Goldsmith’s two melodies work to create two different moods that affect the pacing of the entire sequence. The 4-note football motif, with its diving violins and reactive brass, works the audience into a frenzy of surreal action. Although David Anspaugh’s camera remains at the sidelines for most of the sequence, the soundtrack (including the music and effects) remains much closer to Rudy’s perspective. Though Rudy cannot hear the music, Goldsmith approximates the tension and excitement with Rudy in mind. Once Rudy is lifted up by his teammates, the tone shifts and Goldsmith returns to the more familiar emotional pull of Hollywood film scoring. The lyrical theme, joined by a choir of voices, moves the audience tonally towards the film’s resolution as it moves them emotionally. The bold timpani roll signifies a slowing-down of the action as Goldsmith scores the remainder of the scene more gently, thereby stretching the apparent passage of time.

Two simple melodies in service to a story. Whether we consciously hear the music or not, Goldsmith and others like him have shown that music can be a modifying element in a film. I’ve tried to argue here that such a modifying effect need not be reserved to an emotional framework, designed to move the audience spiritually. This is certainly the case, even as Goldsmith has pointed out in the quotes above. However, my own attempts to study film music have led me to consider the modifying elements as temporal and spatial in nature. Music moves the audience through a sequence, both emotionally and temporally. Ask yourself why you feel almost out of breath after one of these dramatic sequences. You haven’t moved in your seat, but you have been moved by the rhythmic and expressive nature of film music.

Rudy finale

Deja Vu All Over Again

Spielberg Cameron Katzenberg

I’m always finding interesting articles on the net regarding modern film technique, but last week I came across a really marvelous audio interview with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg on the future of 3-D imaging in Hollywood cinema. The interview was conducted by Time magazine editor Josh Quittner and can be found here. It’s a shame that most of the interview did not make it into the relatively short article, but the audio excerpt with these two filmmakers reveals a remarkable discussion about film technique, history, and the fascination with immersive entertainment.

What emerges from this interview is a clear sense of each filmmaker’s personal perspective on the nature of cinematic storytelling and the role of high technology in the filmmaking process. With a firm grasp on the high watermarks in technological film history, Cameron appears to school Quittner on the basics: the coming of sound, color, widescreen, stereo sound, and 3D. He is comfortable referring to technique and artistry in early silent cinema as he is in recounting the economic history of modern 3D and IMAX experiments. He is also very confident mapping out where he wants to take live-action narrative movies in the next decade. He is undoubtedly a champion of 3D or stereoscopy, which he sees as a “pervasive if not ubiquotous” format in the next few years.

Alternatively, Spielberg reveals his skepticism towards a wholehearted embrace of a re-engineered technique that failed with moviegoers nearly 50 years ago. While Cameron insists that digital 3D is nothing like your grandfather’s 3D — which he likens to Arch Oboler and the anaglyph method (superimposition of two images) — Spielberg offers a more reserved appraisal. In his words, digital 3D constitutes a “revelation not a revolution,” an “evolution” of cinematic form but not one that threatens to eclipse standard 2D filmmaking. At least not yet. Spielberg’s skepticism is rooted in the fact that up until now no live action film has utilized digital 3D to tell a story without relying on z-axis tricks and showy effects.

Where Spielberg sees 3D as a ubiquitous element in modern animation (he is shooting The Aventures of Tintin in 3D), Cameron intends to be the first to introduce a new filmmaking vocabulary with his live-action hybrid, Avatar, which blends performance capture (what he calls e-motion capture) with live action elements and actors. But both men agree that 3D cannot save a poorly conceived film.

What is most fascinating, though, is the discussion about personal style and technique that reaches beyond 3D and reveals the creative process of each director. Cameron discusses his work in terms of control and harnessing the technology in order to push the medium. He has spent nearly a decade designing and innovating stereoscopic cameras and is figuring out new ways to shoot and edit stereo space. In the process, he is retrofitting Titanic (and potentially other films as well) to 3D, which will hit theaters sometime in the next year or two.

By contrast, Spielberg states that he has no desire to reformat his old films, since they were not shot with 3D in mind. In a brief exchange, he goes into some detail on his shooting style, in which he plans each shot with one eye open, since it gives him a more accurate approximation of the frame as a 2D construct. On Tintin, which is due out sometime in 2011, he confides that for the first time in his career he is framing shots with both eyes open, presumably to better compose for stereo space.

The Spaces Between

Although I am currently entrenched in the world of sound space, I’m always keeping an eye on editing trends and the changing nature of spatial geography in contemporary movies. See this post, for instance. I have found that in order to really appreciate sound space, it’s important to consider image editing strategies as well. On the surface, Cameron insists that stereoscopic space is not dissimilar from 2D space, in that conventional cinematographic and editing strategies can be upheld. Which is why it might be more of a revelation than a revolution if conventions are merely tweaked, not redefined. No doubt we’ll still have shot-reverse-shots, dolly shots, montages, etc. Thus, Cameron appears to be trying to appease some of his director and cinematographer colleagues, who are reticent about shooting in HD and in 3D. Their hesitation stems — in Cameron’s view — from a lack of familiarity with digital tools, preferring instead to cling to their light meters and celluloid canisters. He’s asking them to trust him.

The challenge that Spielberg sees is a creative one that influences his decisions at the level of shot composition. Unlike animated 3D, which is not limited by depth of field and focus, live-action 3D is theoretically hampered by limited depth of field, especially in low-light conditions as Spielberg points out. In this way, he would need to map out the z-axis of each shot to ensure that certain foreground/middleground/background elements are in tight/soft focus to maximize (or minimize) the 3D “pop.” As he said, “You get more depth if you throw your foreground out of focus. It just looks deeper.”

Another concern for stereo space is the space between shots, or how 3D shots can be cut together without throwing too many depth cues at the audience. With shot lengths decreasing and framing fairly tight these days, how will filmmakers like Cameron respond? Spielberg seems to suggest that modern action editing strategies might not work with live-action 3D, especially if every shot is a maximized for its “3Dness.” The net result could be hundreds of shots with different depth cues, forcing the audience to constantly readjust what they’re looking at. Recently, my wife had trouble with the 3D work in Coraline for much the same reason: too much z-axis information across successive shots.


The spatial possibilities of live action stereo space have yet to be fully realized, but Cameron appears to be on the bleeding edge of innovating a stylistic language that may shape future uses of the technique. He is so convinced of digital 3D that he has no plans to return to 2D filmmaking anytime soon. On the other hand, Spielberg’s more measured response to both 3D and high definition (as replacement mediums for old-fashioned 2D celluloid) seems antithetical for a filmmaker who has been on the cutting edge of several modern technological innovations in movies: Dolby Stereo in the late 1970s, photo-real CGI in the early 1990s, and the use of digital pre-visualization tools in the early 2000s. But he and his longtime editor Michael Kahn continue to cut on film — instead of on a digital workstation. Walter Murch has pointed out that since the mid-1990s the only film to win a Best Editing at the Academy Awards that was NOT edited digitally was Saving Private Ryan in 1998.

The Bleeding Edge

The debate on the viability of live action 3D is only beginning, but these two perspectives provide us with a preview of the coming attraction. Interestingly, debates on the power of technology to influence the art and craft of filmmakers remind me of a Francis Coppola quote:

“People ask me if all this technology will make the movie any better. Well, no, technology doesn’t make art any better. Art depends on luck and talent. But technology changes art.”

In the 1970s Coppola was on the forefront of digital editing and shooting, decades before high-def was a household term. In a fascinating new book called DroidMaker, Michael Rubin explores the ways in which Coppola and George Lucas attempted to redefine how films were produced, shot, and edited. Rubin paints Coppola as a bold showman who refused to see the limits of his vision, so much so that his expensive experiments eventually led to bankruptcy, and nearly ruined his career. Lucas, on the other hand, was less reactive and took a more cautious approach to the digital revolution. He took smaller steps, which arguably paid off in the long term. It’s hard not to see the comparison with 3D today.

Brain Trust

While Cameron and others are pushing hard to get more theaters converted to digital, he cites Lucas’ original digital cinema plan as a good effort but not enough to convince exhibitors across North America that digital is the way of the future. Lucasfilm had originally hoped that exhibitors would be quick to convert theaters when it was revealed that the last two Star Wars films were intended to be shown digitally. Gentle nudging didn’t do it, so Cameron is hoping that a more aggressive campaign –and perhaps more impressive films — will convince audiences to demand the change. As Hugh Hart recently noted in a Wired article, “No matter how deep the 21st century filmmaker’s bag of tricks, digital sleight of hand won’t rescue weak performances or lame dialogue. Despite elaborate green-screen backdrops painstakingly scanned into existence by hundreds of visual-effects techies, The Spirit flopped.”

Even more impressive than the coming of live action digital 3D is the extent to which the film industry has already adopted 3D digital imaging technology to create virtual sets for pre-vis purposes and, more impressively, for set creation and extension. These effects aren’t limited to expensive blockbusters, either. For United 93, Paul Greengrass shot much of the interior plane footage in a 50-foot section of an airline cabin. In post, Peter Chiang and his crew of digital artists extended the partial set to include more rows and other details for 30-odd shots.

United 93

Even though the most impressive examples of digital set design still stem from summer tentpoles and actioners, the artists responsible for these creations insist that their best work should go unnoticed. Production designer Alex McDowell has noted that, “For me, it’s about creating a machine that both contains and triggers narrative. At the beginning of a film, these new tools allow us to set up a kind of test-control space where you throw ideas in and test them against the logic of the storytelling.”

There are some remarkable things happening with virtual sets and digital extensions that go unnoticed by most of us. McDowell’s tools are quickly becoming conventions of the trade, as indispensable as mattes were in the studio era. Coppola is right: technology can change how artists think of their medium, but it will never change the artist’s desire to tell a story. If we think too big about the challenge of 3D and the wealth of options it gives to filmmakers, we may end up losing sight of these more modest and subtle changes at the level of production design.

The history of film is filled with oracles, prognosticators, visionaries, and showmen. The industry itself is also remarkably conservative when it comes to technological innovation and diffusion. But these aren’t entirely incommensurable. Despite what some might say, it took the release and success of Star Wars in 1977 to push exhibitors to install the Dolby cinema processor in order to decode the multichannel sound track. And it took Cameron and Spielberg’s persistence with Industrial Light & Magic — not to mention Dennis Muren’s creative genius — to produce groundbreaking CG work for Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. The technological history of the movies is as fascinating as it is incredibly predictable and slow. When Cameron speaks, we should listen, but we should also listen to Spielberg’s cautious optimism, which is in my view a far safer bet. We’ll just have to wait and see. Avatar is still eight months away.


To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a sound effect.”

The reviews for the remake of The Last House on the Left have not been too kind. Dennis Harvey of Variety says the film is “Unnecessary on every level save the paramount commercial one.” Peter Howell of the Toronto Star says, “If you’re a sociologist tracking the decline of civilization over the past four decades, you’re in for a night of solid research.” Roger Ebert advises, “I’m giving it a 2.5 in the silly star rating system and throwing up my hands.”

Quite predictably, the film has been roundly tagged as one more experiment in horror torture cinema, which reached a sort of hysterical apotheosis with the Hostel series and a few other less successful variants including Wolf Creek, Captivity, and The Devil’s Rejects (a film that I actually admire). In a 2006 article for New York, David Edelstein lamented the pervasiveness of sadistic horror as Hollywood’s choice scare opiate:

Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation were once confined to the old 42nd Street, the Deuce, in gutbucket Italian cannibal pictures like Make Them Die Slowly, whereas now they have terrific production values and a place of honor in your local multiplex. As a horror maven who long ago made peace, for better and worse, with the genre’s inherent sadism, I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.

It isn’t that surprising, especially if we consider the critical reception of Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, which itself was a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Howard Thompson’s New York Times review, even after 30 years, is an apt summary of a sub-genre that still confounds critics and some audiences:

In a thing (as opposed to a film) titled “Last House on the Left,” four slobbering fiends capture and torture two “groovy” young girls who airily explore the bad section of a town and more or less ask for trouble.

When I walked out, after 50 minutes (with 35 to go), one girl had just been dismembered with a machete. They had started in on the other with a slow switchblade. The party who wrote this sickening tripe and also directed the inept actors is Wes Craven. It’s at the Penthouse Theater, for anyone interested in paying to see repulsive people and human agony.

While Thompson’s repulsion stems from the gruesomeness of the film’s depiction of rape, torture and murder, Edelstein is more concerned with the slick, high-end production values afforded to this sub-genre of modern horror. In the days of Craven’s original film, exploitation pics — even highly crafted ones — hardly resembled A, B, and even C-grade fare. Now, the slightly unattractive textures of film grain, overexposures, lens flares, and slap-dash editing are markers of a highly stylized studio horror film. With Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and the the remakes of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, the unintentional effects of a low budget and youthful experimentation have been consciously codified into a new system of horror aesthetics. Dennis Cozzalio pinpointed this trend in a recent piece on the new Friday the 13th: “The wonder is that even though every single scare is of the dog/funny stoner/masked psycho-jumping-out-at-you-from-nowhere (accompanied by amplified musical sting, or scream, or stabbing sound effect) variety, the movie is so much more accomplished on a simple technical level than any of its predecessors that, despite its slavish faithfulness to the tired (not a typo) and true Jason formula it ends up, through the sheer magic of competent pacing and high-quality cinematography, seeming like a masterpiece, if not of the horror genre, then at least of the Jason genre.”

Last House on the Left

Indeed, the cultivation of specific techniques into a new conventional system of aesthetics and high style is not limited to the horror genre. In fact, many modern filmmakers seem to be borrowing and reinventing old techniques all the time, consciously or unconsciously. The most pervasive of the bunch is the use of documentary “realism” in action films and dramas. So, while your old home movies were often poorly lit, hand-held, and edited with lots of jump cuts and subjective inserts, some Hollywood genres have utilized these techniques in the service of greater realism.

There is also the sense that a foul movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its remake should not look too slick or too artful, since its off-the-cuff approach actually adds another level of mystery, terror, and disgust. The original narration at the beginning of Tobe Hooper’s film points to the film being a factual account “of the tragedy that befell a group of five youths…” Twenty-five years later, The Blair Witch Project went further by claiming that the low-quality video to be actual found footage. Some even claim that the dingy aesthetic of old VHS rental copies add to the mystique and danger of some older horror flicks. What better than to experience true no-budget horrors on a worn VHS copy that warps, stutters, and bleeds color.

So, as these films have moved from trench-coat theaters to suburban multiplexes, their visual styles have also streamlined. But the focus on their unmistakable visual polish has unfairly eclipsed the role of sound in this new horror paradigm, where cheap is now expensive chic. Modern sound style is at the core of my doctoral research and the horror genre provides a useful introduction to some of its key aesthetic trends. To be sure, the sound of modern horror might not deviate from the fundamentals of earlier eras, but as with many things the devil is in the details.

The sound of horror is the exclamation point to a terrifying scene. It’s the rhythmic pulse that quickens our breath in anticipation of a pay-off scare. It can also be laughably predictable: the screech of high strings, a woman’s scream in the dead of night, an intense clap of thunder, the heavy breathing of a nearby assailant. These sonic conventions and icons, among many others, have defined the sound of horror cinema since the 1930s, if not earlier. They contribute to our sense of the genre by providing some key sonic markers.

I’ve always considered the goal of horror sound to be the enhancement of the visual frame by supplying the right amount of atmosphere, tension and directional cues. Sound can also push the limits of horror violence by suggesting far more than what is shown. Points are often raised about the severity of current horror violence, but they usually concern visual depictions of various extreme acts. Arguably, the gurgling, bloody gasps of victims or offscreen sounds of powertools diving into flesh have been safe from MPAA censorship, since it’s heard and not seen. Even as the borders of acceptable graphic imagery enlarge, sound will inevitably push them even wider. The unseen presence of sound taunts us with orchestral crashes, faraway whispers, and deafening silence.

With only mono sound and some stock library tracks, classical Hollywood films have yielded a surfeit of terrifying moments derived from the spare or dense use of sound. In keeping with today’s film roster, the final act of Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre emphasizes poor Sally’s torment at the hand of her captors. She screams, sobs, and cries throughout the final sequence at full volume. Even as Hooper cuts to wide shots, we still hear her at full volume, in full auditory close-up.

Like Hitchcock did in Blackmail, Hooper substitutes some of Sally’s screams with non-diegetic sound effects and score to — perhaps — give the audience some reprieve from the horror, and to further emphasize the nightmarish qualities of the insane dinner party sequence. The sustained, overt screams play as counterpoint to the film’s opening credits, which depict the police investigation of the chain saw crimes. Over a black screen, the repeated sound of an eerie camera flashbulb gives way to fleeting glimpses of human flesh and decaying bodies. The remainder of titles mix sound effects with score, a tapestry of radio static, cymbal hits, and other odd noises. Overall, the dense sound track to Hooper’s film is creatively sewn together, mixing “naturalistic” ambiences with subjective inserts like the sound effect in place of Sally’s scream.

By comparison, the sound of modern horror is quite different, even as it still works to achieve the same results: to provide discomfort. Gregg Rudloff, a sound supervisor, notes:

Where in other films you might want to have nice, smooth transitions between scenes, in a horror film we might do the opposite: We might make an uneven transition so that it startles the audience a little bit — not spill-the-popcorn startling, but just something that’s a little off and uneven about it. It can be something as subtle as a background sound.

And it seems that some critics are paying attention, too. In two reviews for the new Last House on the Left an argument is made that questions the manipulative qualities of sound to inject some faux chills and shocks into what is considered to be a rather predictable flick.

Variety reports that some “hyperbolic camerawork and body-blow Dolby thuds can’t equal the queasy, plain impact of original’s most upsetting moments.” The New York Times adds, “I suspect the movie’s sound designers deserve some kind of an award: thanks to them, the damage one can inflict with small appliances and a giant grudge is all too clear.”

Two things are evident from these observations: 1) impact and 2) clarity. These are two of the most salient characteristics of modern sound technology and style. Digital audio affords greater frequency range, a more robust dynamic range, and crystal clarity at the top and bottom ends of the loudness spectrum — making those appliances sound so piercing.

Low frequency sound from theater subwoofers can reach out to touch you in your seat, providing an added jolt of tactile horror to the cinematic experience. The bottom-end Dolby “thuds” that Dennis Harvey speaks about in his review have become staples of the horror and action genres. Rudloff explains: I like to use the sub for impact occurrences. Obviously, if there’s an explosion or if somebody kicks in a door, you can use the kick, but I don’t like to have it as a steady element. I think it muddies up the sound; it clouds the details that might be apparent in other areas.”

Perry Robertson, who supervised the sound on Rob Zombie’s Halloween, adds: “People are so jaded these days, and it’s hard to make anyone jump anymore. Part of it has to be the picture, part of it has to be the music and part of it is the sound. You hit them with a loud sound using subwoofers. If you get that quick hit from the sub, you’ll feel it in your chest.”

Rob Zombie's Halloween

In a way, then, the sub “hit” represents a modern spin on the stinger, a high-pitch “gotcha” effect that is sometimes performed by high strings or a chorus of shouting voices. The sub hit is not so much heard as it is felt, thereby bringing the horror into the theater without resorting to William Castle’s 1950s gimmickry.

Everybody has their own favorite stinger or “jump scene,” but here’s an undeniable classic [click on the frame]:

Friday the 13th Jump

With Zombie’s Halloween, the sub sting is used to amplify and punctuate Michael Myers’ strength, as evidenced by this clip. The attack on Mr. Strode is cut fast and close — without any blood — but the sound of Michael’s strike is mostly at the low-end as opposed to the higher frequency sound of a knife blade.

Contemporary filmmakers and sound designers are drawing on the techniques and conventions of the horror genre to craft the ubiquitous jumps and shocks. Rudloff acknowledges that horror films are highly conventionalized, yet audiences are keen to the tricks of the trade. As a result, the sound designer’s job is to keep the audience off-balance. Melissa Hofmann, sound supervisor on Captivity, believes that horror films require more mood than other genres:

If the picture is leading them to be jarred, then we have to support that with sound or lead it with sound. If it’s an environmental sort of thing, then sound can play a huge part of giving a feeling without necessarily the audience even knowing. Those subtle things can help to build up to or support the bigger things. Or on something that’s more psychological, they can be a big element of that subconscious feeling. People don’t even think about it; they just kind of squirm a little and that’s what we are after. I love that — to be able to get to them without them even realizing it, to get them on that visceral level.

Modern horror sound can also add a subtle layer of discomfort that does not rely on broad dynamics and punchy bass. Not necessarily a horror film by definition, Zodiac utilizes an interesting technique when the voice of the Zodiac killer is heard over 911 lines. David Fincher and his sound team assembled a vocal track using two different actors’ voices, alternating each word, in order to create an altogether strange, but not unreal, moment. Ren Klyce, the sound designer, tells Mix Magazine: “[ADR editor] Gwen Whittle and I thought it was a pretty bad idea and that it would never work…Splicing from one actor to another? Forget it! We said, ‘Okay, let’s just do it and show David that it can’t work.’ So Gwen started to do this — and it worked! It was so weird.” The most unsettling aspect of the vocal work is the line reading of Zodiac’s sign-off after the Blue Rock Springs murder, which was supposedly inspired by the real killer’s odd way of saying “goodbye.”


The film’s real set-piece is the interrogation of Arthur Leigh Allen at his workplace, an oil refinery, which is anything but a quiet place. The din of machinery never overwhelms; instead it coats the walls of the scene, providing a subtle subtext to the interrogation. Right from the start, Fincher places his detectives (and his audience) into an uncomfortable and highly unfamiliar sonic environment. The constant drone of refinery equipment hangs heavy in the air, linking Allen to a feeling of unease.

While modern studio horror films may conventionalize the techniques of grindhouse favorites, the intents and aims remain the same: to scare you silly. They may be polished versions of raw, vinegary horror, but it’s important to consider how these films scare us. Sound remains one aspect of a larger canvas, where filmmakers and sound crews push the boundaries of taste and censorship, as well as cinematic style and convention.

Thoughts on the sound of horror?

Last House on the Left New

Looking Through CG Eyes


Over at The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have posted a fascinating debate on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After seeing the film myself, I have to agree with much of what they said, including their suggestion that the film represents little more than an age reversal gimmick. I’d like to avoid covering the same ground as Bellamy and Howard, since they’ve done an admirable job distilling some of the finer grained aspects of the film, but I would like to take a moment to discuss an area of Benjamin Button that has yet to receive much critical attention in the press (including the blogosphere).

That is, I would like to consider how the visual effects technology of the film undermines the structural and emotional arc of the narrative. My comments are still fairly fresh since I have just seen the film and am responding rather quickly to something that will no doubt require a little more thought. For those who have yet to see the film, there are serious spoilers ahead.


The dramatic structure of Benjamin Button is familiar enough to mainstream audiences: it involves a framing device firmly rooted in the recent past (2005) during an infamous crisis (Hurricane Katrina). We then travel back in time via Benjamin’s own words (his last will and testament) and memories of Daisy, the love of his life, who lies dying in a New Orleans hospital bed. Throughout, Benjamin narrates his life story with voice-overs used to link time and place. The central story thread concerns Benjamin’s love for Daisy; a love that turns into an obsession as he grows younger. While he pines for her, there is little to suggest that Daisy is even deserving of such praise. She is cold towards him at various times and exhibits no real personality, except a single-minded vision to dance and mingle with an intercontinental set. At the same time, Benjamin’s single-minded journey to reunite with Daisy becomes tiresome when we realize that Benjamin is capable of so much more in life, yet he lives and acts as an observer to history, not a participant in history.

This film has been compared to Forrest Gump, not only because both share the same screenwriter (Eric Roth), but also because of the character-moving-through-history motif that characterizes both films. Some critics have suggested that Fincher’s work removes the sentimental gauze, which plagued Robert Zemeckis’ vision of a man caught up in major historical moments of the mid 20th century. However, I have read very little criticism of Button that highlights the striking similarities to Gump at the level of its narrative arc.


The enduring appeal of Forrest Gump as a character is his ability to cut through a complex situation and insist on a simple solution. In his mind, he loves Jenny and there is no good reason why the two of them should remain apart. Critics and intellectuals have scoffed at this attitude, claiming that it reduces a generation of social unrest and activism to a sentimental fable. That Forrest is unwilling to participate but simply observe seems to be the chief concern of activist scholars and critics. Alternatively, Fincher bests Gump by removing the sense of social urgency by offering a grand fable that barely references our cultural history. What we glimpse is on television or the radio, not experienced first-hand by Benjamin.

Yet, like Forrest, Benjamin also prefers to observe and say very little. When called upon to explain himself or recount his past he is brief and has a penchant for what I can only call Gumpisms. When asked if he could explain what it feels like to grow young he replies, “I’m always looking out my own eyes.” Or when he reflects on the importance of strangers in his life, he says “It’s funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us.” Or this gem: “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same. Smells the same. Feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.” When Benjamin speaks at any length it is in his voice-over, which is actually being read aloud by Daisy’s daughter, Caroline.

More fundamentally, however, Benjamin’s obsession with Daisy, to bring her home and start a family, mirrors that of Forrest and Jenny to the point that when Daisy rejects his offer to sweep her off her feet I thought he might reply,”I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” There are other plot point similarities, including the sea captain mirroring Lieutenant Dan, Queenie mirroring Mamma Gump, and everyone else being vaguely suspicious or sorry for Forrest and Benjamin because of their deviation from the norm.

My real question is why Benjamin is limited to his observational status, why he responds with few words and even fewer thoughts, and why he accomplishes so little in a life that is filled with potentialities? In a broader sense, the film — much like its characters — felt stiff, awkward, and unsure of itself. These peculiarities point to the visual effects as the potential problem.

The computer generated imagery (CGI) of Benjamin Button attempts to situate the audience in a parallel world where a baby ages backwards. To accomplish this, Fincher and the visual effects crew (namely the craftspeople at Digital Domain) utilized a number of techniques to give the illusion that Benjamin (as played by Brad Pitt) grew young in a photo-real way. As you know, most Hollywood CG visual effects aim to be photo-real; that is, they seek to blend computer graphics with the photographic properties of film. So, customarily grain is added to otherwise pristine digital images, and blending tools attempt to match the photographic reality of what was captured on set (or what would pass as believable or realistic from a photographic standpoint).


For certain sequences, the look of old Benjamin was achieved by using stand-in actors whose faces were digitally replaced with portions of Pitt’s. (The New York Times recently ran an article with a revealing slideshow that explains much of the artistry that went into this process.) I found this visual effect to be disjointed and unconvincing, mostly because Pitt’s eye-line matches were off. There were also instances where Pitt’s eyes appeared to float separate from the physiology of his face. (The effect is far more convincing in still frame, as evidenced by the screen shots that I have included here.) In any event, it is clear that the achievement of this effect was predicated on having very few lengthy close-ups of Benjamin’s face. Which might explain Benjamin’s penchant for short answers and stunted movement.

Even as the character grows younger and Pitt takes over the role (body and all), Benjamin moves very little and continues to say very little. Similarly, the reverse aging on Cate Blanchett results in a series of shots that show her smoothed skin. However, when she speaks we are treated to more reverse shots than close-ups or medium close-ups. This is plainly obvious when Benjamin reaches his teenage years and returns to see Daisy in her dance studio. The lights are out, except for an orange glow emanating from her office and the street lamps. Benjamin is bathed in deep shadow, but we can barely make out his smoothed, youthful look. Pitt’s performance in this scene is awkwardly static, as he hesitates to move out of the shadow, which only reinforces the artificiality of the whole aging process. We’re not allowed to see him in full light otherwise the seams of the effect might become visible. The same goes for old Benjamin, who we do see in full light, but only for very short glimpses. It’s also rather convenient that Benjamin never speaks too much, for that might require shots that linger on his blended face.


In a sense, the film becomes a slave to technology when stylistic concerns are motivated by technical standards. Strangely, A.O. Scott in the Times praises the CG work in this film as building on previous models of cinematic illusion:

Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis — and on his own previous work adapting newfangled means to traditional cinematic ends — Mr. Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”) has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking. While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like “Minority Report,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Forrest Gump” (for which Mr. Roth wrote the screenplay), “Benjamin Button” may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest.

While the aging effects may indeed be subtle, they are also far too delicate to live and breathe on their own. The shots are too precious to be handled with a rougher style; they require the kind of rigid template that Spielberg aimed to overcome with his dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Initially, it was deemed to risky to move the camera in an effects shot, for it might reveal the seams of the nascent technology. But, I would argue, that it was Spielberg’s decision to move his camera through the space of the galloping Gallimimus that made that shot.


Just as Benjamin is an observer, so too is Fincher, who does not penetrate the visual space of the film but captures the space from a safe, static distance. Everything is too clean, too composed, if only because the CG age elements required Fincher to lock down his camera or limit his stylistic palette. We cannot know for certain why he chose certain angles or options, but we can consider Fincher’s other work, and what we find is a director that moves through space with his camera and allows his actors to move in space. In Panic Room, the camera is a roving macro eye; in Se7en the canted framing and hand-held shots in several sequences sets a tone; and in The Game the long shot is used frequently to isolate Nicholas in empty spaces.

In light of my comparison to Forrest Gump, it’s worth mentioning that I believe Zemeckis’ CG approach is the subtler one. Advocates of Fincher’s choices might suggest that back in 1994 audiences were less sophisticated when it came to pointing out CG shots. But even today I am impressed with the execution of Lieutenant Dan’s struggle with the loss of his legs. Watching the film for the first time I wasn’t really concerned with how the effects were achieved since I believed the situation. There were few showy set pieces for the CG leg effect in bold lights. Dan simply moves through space with no legs, while Zemeckis shoots the scene as if that did not matter.


And while some might prefer Fincher’s detached, almost humorless view of things, there is the sense that Gump’s awe-shucks attitude and goofiness assisted in turning some awkward, showy CG shots into comic gems. So, in that sense, Zemeckis successfully pulled the wool over our eyes with Dan’s handicap, the blue-screen feather, and the multiplied crowds in Washington D.C., but tried with a bit of comedy to sell some awkward effects, particularly those involving Forrest’s celebrity meetings.

As I’ve already suggested, these are some very preliminary ideas that I hope to flesh out at a later date. In the coming weeks I will be returning to Button on a more positive note with some ideas on sound design and the importance of environmental ambiences. If you’ve seen the film and have an opinion, I’m interested in your comments.


Film and Variations: On Multiple Versions

For the last few weeks I have been reading through back issues of Mix to get a sense of how the magazine has reported on the development of digital sound technology in Hollywood. One article that stood out from the rest examined the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997. Larry Blake, the author of the piece and a sound practitioner himself, confronted the whole question of whether or not George Lucas was committing heresy by tampering with the “original” films. Essentially, Blake found that even in 1977 there were multiple “originals” in theatrical circulation. This finding also supports my view that, in some sense, we can never really discuss any film as a text without variation. There are, of course, expanded releases, “director’s cuts,” “special editions,” “remastered editions,” and “restored editions” that alter the ways in which we can study a film. There are also more subtle variations that quietly subvert a totalizing view of film as text. We need to consider the aural and visual differences between a film’s theatrical presentation and its home video release. And as Blake’s Star Wars analysis suggests, we also need to consider how multiple versions of the same film can exist in its initial theatrical run.

binary sunset

To this end, I support what Rick Altman has already called for in his “heterogeneous” approach to film study, whereby film is understood as a experience or event that is mediated by various factors. Altman suggests that by “Ostensibly analyzing the film, cinema critics have been at pains both to homogenize the lived experience of film-viewing and to avoid undermining that homogeneity. Rather than recognize the legitimate existence of multiple versions of a film, based on diverse social and industrial needs (censorship, standardized length, colorization, foreign-language dubbing, etc.), critics have regularly made a fetish of locating the ‘original’ version.”

Calling attention to the heterogeneity of the film experience, Altman offers a film-historical approach that removes the need to refer to the film as a single phenomenon. Instead, we should embrace the multiplicity of spaces and versions of the cinema experience. To put this another way, Altman worries that by homogenizing film as a singular, unchanging text we miss an opportunity to explore the diversity of spaces in which films are presented and the various “social contexts in which the film is seen.” Specifically, he is pointing to silent film exhibition where feature films were shown with differing musical accompaniment or different ticketing and seating policies, thereby contributing to an altogether different experience of the same film.

The modern exhibition environment offers the same variation, even if it is less obvious than silent film practices. There are first-run theaters, second-run houses, drive-ins, and countless combinations of home cinema applications that skew any sense of a singular film experience. Can we honesty say that a state-of-the-art screening of, say, Wall-E at a digital cinema will be the same at a run-down mall multiplex? Or during a screening geared at mom’s and tots? David Bordwell has recently noted that at such parent-friendly screenings the “theatre is a little more illuminated than normal, the sound a little softer.” This ties back to Altman’s call for film studies to incorporate broader parameters in the analysis of films. Indeed, we might learn more about film viewership and audience trends if we consider the conditions under which films are exhibited.

One of the most understudied components is, of course, home viewing. When films were first shown on television, they were — arguably — poor imitations of what audiences experienced in the theater. In the post-widescreen era, films were truncated to fit on the relatively square-shaped TV screen, the audio mixed down to accommodate the puny mono TV speaker, and color films were often seen in black-and-white by home audiences who did not own a color set. By the time of VHS and Dolby Surround, home audiences were closer to experiencing the version of a film that filmmakers intended, but sound and picture were still augmented to accommodate the different platform. Even in the age of Blu Ray and High-Def TVs, mainstream films are translated to video in a complex process that often results in color and sound being slightly “off” from the theatrical (i.e., celluloid) standard.

In recent advertisements, Dolby Labs tells us that their latest home cinema technology, Dolby True HD, offers unprecedented audio clarity to home theater buffs by including uncompressed “lossless” audio that mirrors what filmmakers heard during the mix. It’s an outstanding format, but Dolby and other home audio manufacturers have been marveling at their ability to “bring the theater into your home” for decades now. The tools may be new, but the offer is the same. Which is why it is important to consider that there is no tangible way we can achieve equivalence between home and theater viewing.

This brings me back to Larry Blake’s Star Wars article. During the original release of Star Wars in May 1977 Twentieth Century-Fox released no fewer than four versions of the film to North American theaters. While audiences may have seen the same film, they heard three different ones. Star Wars was one of the first films to be mixed in Dolby Stereo and the very first film to employ a low frequency effects (subwoofer) channel, resulting in some very experimental mixing techniques. No one was quite sure how to best create a multichannel mix and the tools were not yet in place to ensure that the Dolby Stereo mixes were problem-free. By my count, there were four separate mixes readied for distribution: a 4-track master (LCRS, or Left, Center, Right, Surround), a 6-track version (LCRS+LFE), a 2-track Dolby mix (LR), and a mono track.

To be sure, the differences among the sound tracks were not merely cosmetic. Some sound effects, foley, and dialog were missing from some mixes. Ben Burtt recalls that as he and his sound crew scrambled to create the various mixes in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere “there was a lot of stuff [in the 2-track version] that wasn’t in the stereo optical [4-track], including lines of dialog and sound effects, because opticals were being cut in after the mix.” Burtt notes that the simple-stereo 2-track mix “was the first mix finished and was also the least complete creatively, because at that time the stereo optical [format] was an unknown quantity and Dolby wanted to test it and find out how it was going to work. That mix was rushed out of the door, and we didn’t think it was that important because it was only going to be heard in a few theaters.”

The second mix the crew readied was the 6-track version with the added low frequencies for 70mm engagements; these were considered the roadshow engagements and numbered only 35 across North America.


Blake goes on to suggest in his article that “Even after the film was in theaters…the mix was continuing at Goldwyn, in order to creat what Burtt says was considered by Lucas to be the genuine article…in mono!” Since the majority of theaters were still wired for mono sound, George Lucas and his crew felt that most people would experience Star Wars that way. Unfortunately, this meant that Burtt needed to create an entirely new mix, one that was fundamentally different than the stereo versions. Recalls Burt, “By the time we go to the monaural there were even further developments: more changes in dialog, more changes in sound effects, different processing.” He goes on to joke that “There was an offscreen line of Threepio’s, where he says, ‘That’s the main power station tractor beam switch, and you’ve got to go there and turn it off.’ And that was not in the 6-track version of the movie; it was only in the stereo optical [4-track]. It wasn’t even in the mono print, and I don’t know how it happened, but we found that line and now it’s back in.”

Thus, even before the 1981 re-release — wherein the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” was added to the title crawl — and long before the CGI upgrades and Han-Greedo dilemma, Star Wars was released with multiple sound mixes. So, will the real Star Wars please stand up?

no hope

title crawl

Some might suggest — as Ben Burtt has — that the 1997 redux version represents the most complete sound mix to date with every line of dialog, foley hit, sound effect, and music cue created for the film. But what about the more nuanced differences between home and theater presentations? Can a music or sound effect sting pack the same wallop at home as it does in a THX certified auditorium? More importantly, how do these changes in exhibition affect the film experience?

To help facilitate a broader discussion of this phenomenon, I believe we need to consider Altman’s “cinema as event” thesis. Even if we do not engage with the social dimensions of his platform, it is important to ask if a film text is a singular entity. We are conditioned to speak about films as singular texts. We tell our friends that we went to see this film or that film, not a version of that film.

To some, these variations are very minor and do not intrinsically change the nature of a film as text. But, as Altman contends, if we claim to understand the technical and cultural implications of a film, then it is important to consider the ways in which multiple versions contribute to this discussion. The “cinema as event” thesis affords us a more general flexibility to tackle this issue. It also provides a means by which we can discuss more dramatic changes to films.

Here I am referring to the process of renewal that we know as “remastering.” When E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was being prepared for its DVD release in 2002 Steven Spielberg remastered the original print, added some material, and (infamously) removed other material, including the replacement of guns with walkie talkies in the hands of the government agents. Some have reported that the line about Mike not being allowed out on Halloween dressed as a “terrorist” was changed to “dressed like THAT” in the VHS release from 1988 and “dressed like a hippie” in the 2002 theater/DVD release. (Note the compositional changes in the two frames below: Elliot’s head and E.T.’s basket have also been repositioned).

et untouched

et retouch

As such, it becomes harder to differentiate among versions when filmmakers and studios prohibit earlier versions from being distributed. In an eleventh-hour decision by Spielberg, the 20th Anniversary E.T. DVD set also included the original 1982 theatrical version. Many applauded this decision because it provided audiences with the option of experiencing Spielberg’s first “draft” or his latest draft of the film. This is a trend that has continued with the releases of multiple versions of Blade Runner and Touch of Evil, but many fans of the Star Wars saga are still clamoring for a yet-to-be-released “original” version of the first trilogy. I’m sure there are countless other major and minor examples of films that have been irrevocably changed, where original versions remain unavailable on video or extremely rare.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made it clear that they believe these works of popular art belong as much to the fans as to the filmmakers who created them. In a South Park episode titled “Free Hat,” Cartman and the gang learn that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are planning to release a remastered version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in order to “improve history.” Parker and Stone mock the “re-re-re-release” strategy of studios and filmmakers with send-ups of Saving Private Ryan (the word “Nazi” is replaced with “persons with political differences”) and The Empire Strikes Back (where all characters were replaced with Ewoks). Traveling to Skywalker Ranch to confront Lucas and Spielberg, the boys plead with them not to tamper with Raiders. Parker and Stone essentially argue that the film belongs to the world and to change it would mean changing history and memory: “movies are art and art shouldn’t be modified.” A very recent episode of the series suggested that Lucas and Spielberg “raped” Harrison Ford and, by corollary, the boys for having Indiana Jones meet interstellar beings in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

south park

I have outlined two approaches to the study of multiple versions; one considers the technical differences between mixes and presentations, and the other considers the cultural impact of the altered, er, “remastered” version on the movie-going experience. They are very different approaches, since the more fine-grained model requires the critic to be mindful of different material conditions as opposed to obvious content differences within a film. Both, however, demand critics and scholars to be more precise about the definition of a film as a text or an event.

To help facilitate discussion on this topic, I don’t believe it is necessary to point out an appropriate method by which to release or “restore” a film. I sympathize with those who feel utterly betrayed by filmmakers who change their films. To take a macro view of this trend, we should consider that perhaps we experience approximations of films that change over time. I doubt that even directors and editors experience their films in the same way from venue to venue, year to year.

As a film student this can be incredibly frustrating. One of the chapters of my Master’s thesis was devoted to the innovative sound design of Apocalypse Now. Right in the middle of my research it occurred to me that my analysis could be deemed completely subjective and baseless since I was hearing the film in my home, on DVD, in an audio format that did not exist in 1979 (5.1 Dolby Digital). How could I honestly write with authority about the movement of sound, the spatial dynamics of sound, and the textures of the sound track when I was hearing an altogether new mix?

This is a question plagued by many film scholars who give themselves the job of historicizing the technical and aesthetic qualities of cinema. To study early Technicolor (as Scott Higgins has admirably done) or sound design in the 1970s requires a caveat: material conditions change. Can we productively analyze Technicolor stock qualities based on a remastered DVD of Gone With the Wind? How about the study of mise en scene using a full frame copy of Blow Out? If we tow the party line of film studies, then there is no real difference. A film is a film is a film. But we know better, don’t we?

star wars rerelease 1997 rerelease

“From here on in, absolute silence.”

If we break down a modern film sound track into its component parts, traditionally we’d have three indispensable units: dialog, music, and effects. Each of these elements can be further sub-divided into types of dialog (voice-over narration or diegetic speech), music (source or score), and effects (footfalls, gunfire, or ambiences). But there’s a fourth component that often goes unnoticed, mainly because of its muted presence on the sound track. I am talking about silence. As filmmakers and audiences continue to complain that modern films are too loud, relying on heavy doses of ear-splitting passages to convey the intensity of an action sequence or dramatic moment, it’s worth noting some impressive forays into sonic silences.

Walter Murch has stated on occasion that today’s films risk overloading digital sound tracks with too much sonic information in a way that can lead to muddy, incomprehensible, and unnecessarily loud passages. For example, with up to eight loudspeaker channels to fill on an SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) track, sound editors and mixers (along with some directors and producers) can become greedy. A simple dialog sequence between two characters in a park can turn ugly if the ambiences of the park are amplified to such an extent that the characters’ words are competing with the breathing sounds of nearby squirrels or the tweeting sparrows that flutter past the camera. But are the birds and other ambiences really necessary to the main conversation?

In 1979, Murch pioneered the use of the modern multichannel sound track with his work on Apocalypse Now, where he very much designed the ways in which sound moved around the theater space. In the film’s hellish combat sequences, Murch incorporated the split-surround channels to convey the spacious geography of the battle. But in other sequences, where we are plunged into the mind of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Murch shrunk the sound space down to one channel (the center channel) to literally “focus” the audience’s attention on one or two distinct sounds. Just as a camera operator focuses on narratively pertinent objects, the sound designer can accomplish the same goals with the manipulation of our modern multichannel sound space.

Now, very few films have attempted what Murch accomplished in 1979. To this date Apocalypse Now still feels experimental. But the principles outlined by Murch — which he discusses in Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations — have influenced a generation of Hollywood sound practitioners. One such principle applies to the use of silence in sound cinema. Writing on the interrogation scene in The English Patient, Ondaatje notes:

When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness.

Interestingly, Murch has said that he makes a conscious effort to find a moment of silence in all of his films, where the “shock” of it will resonate more than any sound effect could. The shock of silence in modern movies is due, in many respects, to its foreignness on the sound track. There’s a certain discomfort that comes with a silent sound track. In life, we’re surrounded by noise emiting from our environment, televisions, personal stereos, and other media outlets including the movies. When that noise is silenced, there’s a good chance that something has gone wrong. Imagine the street traffic outside your window ceases and you’re left with the thin sound of the wind and the beating of your own heart.

As television commercials are growing increasingly louder than the programs they sponsor, it’s downright eerie when an ad opts for a sparse sound track, devoid of any loud music stings or portentous voice-overs. I can say the same thing for movie trailers. When was the last time a trailer impressed you with moments of relative silence?

Obviously, the shock of silence is only effective when used in conservative amounts. Gary Rydstrom — who designed the sound for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, among others — believes that effective sound design begins with contrasts:

But it’s also about how frequencies work together. There’s a trick to making a gunshot big using multiple layers of elements. You take the high snap of a pistol and add to it the low boom of a cannon and the midrange of a canyon echo. You orchestrate it. On an über scale then, we do that to the whole soundtrack, making sounds work together.

For a sound to be perceived as loud, it makes sense to sandwich it between quiet sounds. For instance, there’s a wonderful moment of shock in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster when Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) threatens Tango outside the diner by pointing a .45 pistol at his head. We’re unsure if Frank — who stands stone-faced — will actually shoot Tango in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy street corner. Scott focuses the camera on Frank as he makes up his mind, even though Tango is slightly visible at the left side of the frame. Frank hears enough from the insolent thug and fires the pistol at his head. The gunshot is noticeably louder than any other sound in the scene — richly detailed and sharply defined. It’s startling because Frank actually murders Tango in cold blood, but also because of the hyper-real sound of the gun firing. Scott and his sound crew force the audience to listen intently as Frank stands in silence before upsetting the balance with an unusually loud gun shot effect. It’s a stylized move from Scott to intensify the drama of that moment, when Frank becomes a feared figure in Harlem.

Rydstrom’s concept of contrasts dovetails nicely with Murch’s notion of sonic silence. The contrast from loud to quiet can be intense, as Murch demonstrated with the interrogation scene in The English Patient. Slowly, Murch builds suspense by pulling sounds out. It’s subtle and doesn’t last for too long, but long enough to register a sense of discomfort and eeriness. In some sense, sonic silences constitute the uncanny, that which is unfamiliar and unsettling. By pulling sound out of a scene we are faced with an otherwise “unrealistic” situation: by all accounts we should be able to hear what the characters are saying and what their natural environment sounds like. In this way, the rules of sound cinema are violated and we are plunged into an unfamiliar sonic environment.

Rydstrom continues:

Silence can be thought of as a type of sound. It’s like when somebody years ago figured out that zero was a number. And silence is just as valid as an amazing sound. Every sound editor can’t help but think of how to fill up a track; it’s what we’re paid for.

Because of its ability to distance the audience from the narrative, most filmmakers avoid complete silences. In many cases silence can be achieved through what Michel Chion has called the silence around the single instrument. If we think of an orchestral solo, the entire orchestra is silent except for the lone soloist whose sound fills the entire hall. With film, the solo instrument can be a single sound effect played through one loudspeaker channel, while the others remain empty (or simply carry the reverb of the solo effect).

The T-Rex attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park offers a fine example of this type of silence. The angry dinos have pushed the research trailer over a cliff, leaving Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Sarah (Julianne Moore), and Nick (Vince Vaughn) dangling inside. Sarah loses her grip on a door handle and falls to the bottom of the trailer, landing on the back window, which slowly begins to crack. She lies motionless as the cracks widen and grow like spiderwebs around her hands and legs. When Spielberg’s camera is on Sarah and the glass, the sound track deadens to a low frequency hum (a combination of music score and effects). On top of this hum is the sound of cracking glass. The glass effects build over time as more and more cracks appear around Sarah’s body. When Spielberg cuts away to Malcolm and Nick, the sound track resumes with other effects that connote the chaotic environment: creaking metal, shouting, and rain ambiences.

Much like the close-ups on the cracking glass, Spielberg’s aural close-ups convey a more immediate sense of danger. As the cracks intensify, their sound grows more heavy: the next one could crack open the entire window! Finally, the tension is released when the mobile phone drops through the window just as Sarah grabs something to hold on to. The final smashing sound is the proverbial crescendo to this mini-sequence.

This is not a pure example of silence, but something we might call “near silence,” where the air around the solo sound is silent. That might sound pretentious but it speaks to the psychological weight of sound in modern cinema. With so many loudspeaker channels and tracks available to sound mixers today, sometimes it’s a single sound surrounded by its own echo that communicates the most information.

Another modern example I find effective is from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. At the end of the film when Munny (Eastwood) is about to kill Little Bill (Gene Hackman) Munny cocks his rifle and takes aim. The sound track deadens and we wait as Bill speaks his dying words. Then, in near silence, we hear Bill inhale for the last time. The sound of his breath — metaphorically, his life — fills the front channels right before the rifle is fired. It is a quiet sound, but one that is surrounded by thick silence. It’s no surprise that pauses during dramatic confrontations sometimes represent the most tense moments, since there is often little to no sonic accompaniment. I’m thinking specifically of Hitchcock’s tense finale to Rear Window when the only rear sound is that of Jeffries’s flashbulbs. Randy Thom’s work on Cast Away (2000) is another case where near-silences dominate entire sequences. When we’re on the island with Chuck (Tom Hanks), the sound of the ocean often fills the empty sonic space to remind us that he isn’t quite alone. He’s immersed in the natural environment, which has its own set of sounds.

So it seems relatively common for filmmakers today to imbue sound tracks with near-silences that focus narrative attention to a solo sound. What about absolute silences? Remarkably, I have encountered very few films that incorporate moments of absolute silence, where even room tone and other “natural” ambiences are stripped from the sound track in favor of an empty track. As I have already suggested, a muted track can potentially distract an audience because of its utter foreignness. We’re just not used to hearing nothing when we go to the movies. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’re not accustomed to hearing the people around us in theater move around in their seats and chew on their popcorn and candy.

One of the more impressive moments of absolute silence occurs in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. After Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has locked himself in his office and he begins to hallucinate, Scorcese pulls the sound of the scene. Hughes is naked, watching his own films on a loop. We stare at Hughes in a medium-long shot and as he sits in his chair the sound track goes mute. Not even the sound of the projector. Not even the sound of Hughes breathing. Nothing. It’s a stark moment because at this point he has sunk so low into depression and sickness that he finally alone. The silence lasts for only a few seconds, but its presence is hard to ignore.

Absolute silence is certainly rare in longer sequences, especially in mainstream movies. It may be an effective dramatic device, but the fear of distraction often trumps aesthetic experimentation.

My last example is a mix between near and absolute silence. It’s hybrid character is unique among Hollywood movies in that it takes an opportunity to underline the importance of sound (or lack thereof) in dramatic situations. Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible includes an impressive sequence within the headquarters of the C.I.A. in Langley, Virginia. Ethan Hunt and his team of operatives must infultrate a secured vault and retrieve a set of computer files. The only problem is that the room is sound and heat sensitive, so any increase in body temperature or noise will set off the alarm.

Ethan must be lowered into the vault — which bears a striking resemblance to the design of several sets in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — and retrieve the hard-disk files without breaking a sweat or making any noise. This becomes even more difficult since he is lowered upside-down and the room temperature must remain below 73 degrees. De Palma and his sound crew take this opportunity to engineer a sequence that unfolds in relative silence. Before entering the vault Ethan tells his team, “From here on in, absolute silence.” We then cut to a close-up of the vent grate being removed and then a close-up of Ethan being lowered down, face first. Following Ethan’s directive, we are treated to the same silence that Ethan experiences in the vault. For a moment there’s a faint hum from the computer terminal, but even this is reduced to a whisper as Ethan continues his descent.

There is some sonic reprieve each time we cut back to Krieger (Jean Reno), who is holding the rope apparatus, and Luther who is in a separate location handling surveillance. Their sound spaces are filled with ambiences and mild effects, while Ethan’s vault space is sonically barren.

Gary Rydstrom recalls working on this scene:

I remember a scene in the first Mission Impossible in which Tom Cruise breaks into a computer room at the CIA, for which we’d added all these sound details for equipment he was using to
lower himself in. Yet the idea was that if he made any sound over a certain level, he would trip the alarm. Brian De Palma ultimately said, “No, take it all out.” And for the most part, that scene plays with nothing on the track. I went to see it with an audience and it had the desired effect: It made everyone lean in, pay closer attention, get nervous. Tension comes from the silence of that scene.

I remember watching this sequence in the theater and realizing that in the silence everyone stopped eating and moving. There was stillness for those few moments. Not only was their tension in Ethan’s descent, but also in the audience’s self-consciousness at being exposed. You could hear a kernel of popcorn drop.

It becomes obvious that sound has been pulled from the vault shots when the rope apparatus makes no noise when Ethan is prematurely lifted out. Sound returns to the vault when the C.I.A. employee enters and the chamber is unlocked with a crisp thudding effect. When Ethan gets the data he is pulled up once again, but this time the wires make a distinct noise that was not heard when he lifted earlier. The rope begins to rub against the vent, creating a tearing sound that threatens to cross the sound threshold of the vault security system. To make matters worse, just as Krieger takes the disk from Ethan, he drops a long knife. We follow the knife as it falls through the air — no sound, just a tense sigh from Ethan. The knife hits the desk simultaneously as the C.I.A. employee returns and disarms the alarm. Throughout the sequence, a cluster of problems arise that threaten the security of our protagonists, each tied to the element of sound.

Brian De Palma is no stranger to aesthetic experimentation and innovation (see his use of split-screens throughout the 1970s), and so it doesn’t surprise me that he would try to stretch the extent to which silence can be deployed in a Dolbyized multichannel environment. He does it convincingly by having the silence grow organically from the plot, which lessens the extent to which we can be pulled out of the narrative. It is surprising, however, that all of these techniques are not used more often to pique interest, drive narratives, and communicate meaning. Silence is a powerful sound that does something that no other element of film sound does: it forces the audience to listen more intently to the air between the sounds.

The Slow Burn

Earlier this summer I found myself wondering how I could best describe the work of film composer Hans Zimmer. In many respects, Zimmer’s contribution to modern film scoring is extensive as it is expansive. With this post I’d like to discuss the constitutive elements of the Zimmer “sound” and how it works with the image.

Since the 1980s Zimmer has written for various genres, from intimate dramas (Rain Man) to summer blockbusters (Gladiator), and has established himself as one of the most versatile figures in modern film music. His Remote Control studio (formerly Media Ventures) is a veritable training ground for young composing talent, which has arguably led to a definable Remote Control “sound.” The fabric of Zimmer’s approach is evident in the works of John Powell (The Bourne Identity), Steve Jablonsky (Transformers), Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl), Harry Gregson Williams (The Chronicles of Narnia), and other proteges of Remote Control.

The sound I am talking about can often be misunderstood as synthetic, loud, and lacking compositional complexity. As a listener and collector of film music, I am quite familiar with the criticisms leveled on Zimmer and his colleagues, which emphasize the music’s lack of counterpoint, intimacy, and tradition. Zimmer himself has gone on record a number of times to point out that his music is indeed performed by an orchestra, even though it often sounds synthesized, modulated, or processed.

The power anthem

The Zimmer sound has also contributed to a distinct trend in modern orchestral film music. What we might call the power anthem has emerged as a dominant texture of not only movie music, but also music for sporting events and television advertising. The power anthem is a muscular, brassy motif with considerable synthesized augmentation, and the occasional anvil hit. Which is why it finds a comfortable home in the world of sports montages and commercial advertising. At the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays’ starting lineup is announced to Badelt and Zimmer’s main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. Composer Mark Isham (who does not appear to have any affiliation with Remote Control) composed the Army Strong music with a strong power anthem at its core. On television, a power anthem was used in the opening credits of the short-lived reality series The Contender, starring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone utilized a Remote Control protege, Harry Gregson Williams, to compose the score to Team America: World Police in the same style. In this case, the intent of the score was parody. At the time of Team America‘s release in 2004, the anthemic approach had achieved such a profound ubiquity that the South Park creators were only too willing to acknowledge and mock. Much of the Team America score is overwrought with muscular horns and percussive hits with nary a hint of subtlety. Parker and Stone’s parody is as much of the Remote Control sound as it is the style of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Top Gun and Armageddon.

The resounding strength of the power anthem, no doubt the result of its transparent melody and brassy flourishes, has been tied to military themes. However, I hesitate to identify the music as being inherently masculine or patriotic or militaristic. There is nothing — that I can tell — that is distinctly militaristic or masculine about the anthem trend, unless we are willing to define brass and horns as distinctly “masculine” instruments. At the same time, the power theme has been used in this way to convey militaristic themes of honor and masculinity. We might be able to define the use of the power anthem as a stylistic choice favored by Jerry Bruckheimer. His own dislike of wind instruments and preference for emboldened brass underlines the power anthem structure, which has become a staple in most of his productions.

Roll Tide

The military anthem is certainly not new to film music or ceremonial music, but its modern incarnation is very much rooted in Zimmer’s output in the 1990s. In fact, one of the earliest manifestations of this motif can be found in the fourth movement of Anton Bruckner’s olympic eighth symphony. Listen to a snippet here and here, and tell me that you don’t hear the driving bass lines of most modern action film music. The principal theme of this movement reminds me of both Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s newer Batman cycle.

Back to Zimmer and the power anthem. There is Black Rain (1989) and Backdraft (1991), but for me the real birth of the Zimmer anthem came with Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide in 1995. The relatively intimate submarine drama relied heavily on closeups of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, but Zimmer’s score was much grander, much wider than that. The “big speech” delivered by Hackman’s character, Captain Ramsay, comes on a rainy night as he addresses the crew of the Alabama. While he attempts to inspire the troops, the soundtrack fills with the tinny sound of rain, the low-end rattling of thunder, and Zimmer’s rising orchestra. As Ramsay intones that the ship belongs to the “greatest country in the world,” we cut to a wide shot of the ship and its crew spread across the length of the Panavision frame. The power anthem arrives on the cut to emphasize the scope of the moment. Not even Denzel Washington’s ironic smirk can dilute the epic seriousness of this sequence.

Following Crimson Tide, the power anthem structure was clearly audible in The Rock (1996), The Peacemaker (1997), and Gladiator (2000), where Zimmer turned it into a battle waltz. In some sense, it’s not that surprising that the anthem became a de facto element of big-budget Hollywood music, considering Zimmer’s collaborative approach to scoring. The Remote Control environment is one of open collaboration, where several composers take turns sewing the musical fabric to different scenes. Which is why it can sometimes get confusing when Zimmer admits — for example — that he wrote the Pirates theme, but did not score the actual film. The risk being that the Remote Control composers write in a similar fashion. As a result the power anthem has reached a point of saturation that even Zimmer has begun to lighten his use of it in muscular projects such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Asked why the anthem-driven motif for Batman in the first Nolan film was not used more, Zimmer stated simply that the character had not yet grown into the heroic figure worthy of such a grand statement. By the time of The Dark Knight, Zimmer virtually abandoned the motif in favor of a less sure-footed theme. To be sure, the anthem is still present in the score, only in fragments.

Which leads me to my next point regarding Zimmer’s sound. The power anthem may be the most recognizable and disseminated technique popularized by the composer, but it says nothing of his art. There is a much more instinctive scoring technique that Zimmer continues to employ in film after film that has evaded considerable focus and attention.

I’ve called this technique “the slow burn” in order to emphasize the ways in which the music rests underneath broad sequences to unify the diegetic space and slowly build to a satisfying crescendo. Avoiding musical punctutation, Zimmer’s musical building blocks are expansive, sweeping, and blanketing. Through percussive overlays, rhythmic counterpoint, and cyclical ostinatos, Zimmer allows his music to breathe through sequences and culminate in a crescendo that is not otherwise indicated visually.

In this way, Zimmer does not deviate from established Hollywood practice; he still emphasizes dramatic action and underscores the emotional textures of scenes. I would not go so far as to call this musical minimalism in the vein of John Adams or Steve Reich, but there are hints of the sparse rhythms and repeated motifs of these American minimalists. One major difference between Zimmer and the minimalist phenomenon is that Zimmer will introduce a thematic motif and develop it throughout the piece, reaching a full statement at the climax, then decaying in the final moments.

Do we hear film music?

The old Hollywood adage goes: we shouldn’t hear film music, we should feel it unconsciously. The slow burn method, emphasized by Hans Zimmer, fulfills this traditional perspective since the music is based on textures and ostinatos that seems to exist only in the ether. It’s mesmerizing precisely because it is not immediate. It grows over time, builds to a climax then disappears again. Arguably when film music is “heard,” it interrupts the diegetic sound flow. Suddenly room tone is eviscerated by a battery of horns. In other words, it is an an inorganic element. I have spoken with many film PhDs who argue over these two approaches: the less-is-more and the more-is-more traditions in film music. I’ve even heard arguments over these varying techniques used by the same composer:

“Well, Bernard Herrmann’s over-the-top Seventh Voyage of Sinbad pales in comparison to the minimalist tones of Cape Fear.”

“Really, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is much more involving and thematically diverse than his minimalist works for Cronenberg.”

Zimmer’s functional aesthetic with the slow burn anticipates the need for unity and emotional resonance without an overt call from the orchestral pit. There is an impressionistic quality to this music, even if the images are overly literal. The technique works best, however, when the images are equally impressionistic and open-ended.

In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s poetic World War II drama, Zimmer’s score provides a dream-like haze over the sprawling narrative. While Malick’s narrative never quite congeals in the classical sense, the original score unifies the disparate plot and ties together the multiple voice-overs with a handful of recurring motifs. Zimmer wrote much of the score before the film was completed, leaving Malick with large swaths of music from which to pick and choose in the editing process. In this way, Zimmer could write elongated passages that were not scene specific, but rather mood specific.

The Japanese bivouac sequence underlines this approach. I am not one who regards Malick’s narrative as an exercise in the sublime, but I will say that Zimmer’s music in this sequence is a near-perfect exercise in image-sound relations. The visual narrative of the bivouac sequence is deeply layered, with shifting perspectives throughout, yet Zimmer composes not for intricacy, but for movement.

Lately I have become fascinated with how filmmakers achieve movement, whether through framing, editing, or sound. It’s a complex phenomena that I shall return to in later posts, but for now let us examine Malick and Zimmer’s cinema of movement in the bivouac sequence.

The slow burn

The sequence begins as Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stares at the remains of a Japanese soldier, whose entire body — save a small portion of his face — is covered in dirt and ash. Witt is captivated by the face, which seems frozen in time, and he imagines the voice of the soldier speaking about the meaning of death and honor. We then gradually move with a battalion of American soldiers as they make their way to the Japanese encampment, through a dense fog. When the soldiers emerge from the fog they are enveloped in a chaotic battle scene, where some Japanese soldiers are firing at them and others are wounded on the ground, screaming in pain. Their words are not translated, leaving the audience (and American soldiers) to interpret only the sounds and not their meaning. While some Americans attempt to console the wounded, others fire at them. The sequence ends with Private Doll (Dash Mihok) asking, “Who’s doing this? Who’s killin’ us…?”

Malick’s camera remains fluid throughout the sequence, in search of a focal point, but never finding just one. He panaglides from one soldier’s face to another, registering the utter disbelief and horror on their faces. Each of them seems to be asking themselves, “What are we doing here? What do we do?” In the midst of the chaos, a lone Japanese soldier meditates. Another tries to hide in an above-ground fox hole but is killed by a mortar explosion.

The score cue — known on the soundtrack album as “Journey to the Line” — runs the length of the sequence. The music grows out of the mist as Zimmer employs a series of rhythmic pulses over the principal motif, which is performed on low strings. These pulses underline the entire sequence, while Zimmer continues to add orchestral layers, including further instrumentation of the mourning brass figure.

At the four minute mark, as the soldiers enter the encampment, taiko drums are added to the mix to intensify the rhythmic properties of the piece. Everything continues to grow out of the main theme, with horns carrying a soulful three-note descending motif that cascades over the rest of the orchestra. We’ve reached the height of the sequence: a terrified Japanese soldier covers his ears from the sonic chaos that we can barely register.

Before we know it, the horns have subsided and the rhythmic pulses return. Low strings pick up the main tune without the drama or intensity as before. As the soldiers assess the situation, Zimmer introduces a high-string element that works through several prolonged chords before evaporating into the sound of the jungle. In the film, Zimmer’s music gives way to a quotation from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

The passage from near-tranquility to chaos and back again is accomplished through the blanketing texture of this cue. The sound grows without any specific visual cues; it simply exists. Yet, the sequence is unified by the singular theme that grows to full maturation at the mid-way point.

We might say that Malick’s roaming camera presents a variety of dramatic vignettes without any context. Zimmer’s music concretizes the emotional weight of the sequence by building the layers, piece by piece, until the tension and drama is fully realized. Then it dissipates, evaporates.

In a 2007 interview with soundtrack.net, Zimmer commented on this approach:

Here’s the thing. If I come up with an idea like the Thin Red Line thing, for instance, it’s not finished when I finish that piece: it’s just a jumping-off point to try to get better at that. So I’ve been going back to that idea because I think, as a composer, you have a duty to develop. It’s evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary always. So the idea of these patterns and these things building on top of each other is really just minimalist music taken to a romantic level. The whole Da Vinci Code score is sort of based, I suppose, on minimalist ideas…

It’s a very open piece, and what it does in the movie is that it lets you in, it lets an audience participate. It’s not like a normal tune, which has a start or end; it’s asymmetrical on purpose and breaks all the rules, so it’s more like a question than an answer.

As he says, the slow burn is also utilized in climax of The Da Vinci Code when the location of the Grail is revealed. The scene itself is rather flat, with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) walking from his hotel to the inverted glass pyramid at the Louvre. Zimmer scores the sequence much the same way he did The Thin Red Line with an organic motif that builds to a full statement over four minutes. Beyond the exposition of the sequence delivered by Hanks in voice over, Zimmer’s arpeggios suggest a mystery about to be solved, while the choral and high-string ovelays provide that much needed sense of release. Throughout, the sequence moves on the wings of the music, as it does with The Thin Red Line.

The “romantic minimalism” of this approach offers a sense of movement that is entirely dependent on the sound track to provide such momentum. Thus, the movement derives not from the rhythmic properties of the music, but from the slow evolution of the thematic motifs. The music drives the sequences, setting up the audience for a reveal, a culmination, a release at the end that the image does not convey. With the finale to The Dark Knight, Zimmer underscores Commissioner Gordon’s speech to his son: “Because he’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him…because he can take it…because he’s not a hero…he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” Throughout the monologue, Zimmer (and James Newton Howard) builds a musical fabric from the Batman motif developed earlier in the film, and wisely chooses to conclude without a culminating chord. The end credits begin on a higher note, but not one that entirely satisfies.

It’s not a groundbreaking function of film music, but it is one that continues to fascinate me. To unify the image, enhance the drama, and move the audience with music is surely a difficult task. Zimmer has stated on occasion that even though he is quite prolific, he tends to experiment with musical ideas across an array of films until he feels a creative satisfaction that a concept or motif has been perfected or exhausted. The creative process is much like a puzzle, sifting through the pieces to find the right order and reveal the big picture. With film music, it is about finding the right tone, the right accompaniment, or the right set of notes. At one end of the Zimmer spectrum is the power anthem: aggressive, catchy (in pop music terms), and direct. At the other end is the minimalist romanticism that punctuates the dramatic action by blanketing it with a build-and-release rhythmic arc. The musical function that I have described as the slow burn is as much an exercise in long-form composition as it is a different way of scoring to picture. It represents a musical option in the composer’s arsenal to complement the dramatic action without being tightly bound to the confines of the image.

Studio Logos by Association

A recent Variety article investigated the changing nature of studio logos in the context of their growing running times. The author, Peter Debruge, suggests that not only are studio logos increasingly reliant on splashy animated sequences which can run half-a-minute in length, modern feature films can also suffer from pre-credit logo overload. With the proliferation of co-financing deals between production companies, the majors aren’t the only ones anymore with logo flair. As Debruge highlights, “Everyone from Tom Hanks to Mel Gibson to Ben Stiller has a company these days, and they all want placement.” I would argue that one of the key reasons behind such cramped pre-credit sequences is the decline of main credit sequences (discussed here). It seems likely that production companies want recognition up front before the end credit surge.

While there do not seem to be any rules governing the placement or length of production logos, Debruge does suggest that major distributors prefer to go first, and no one likes to be outdone by longer sequences, which is why most cap at sixteen seconds. A quick visit to YouTube seems to confirm this point. However, the article raised a few more questions in my mind about the nature of studio logos. While Debruge discusses the visual panache of some logo designs, he does not mention one key effect of the studio logo sequence: its associative effects.

Thinking about studio logos, I remember their iconic resonance on my childhood. As a budding cinephile I took note of studio logo designs in different eras of Hollywood history. As a teenager I wondered if there was such a thing as “house style” in contemporary movies as there seemed to be in the classical era. Some authors have pointed to a distinct house style in the 1930s (see Thomas Schatz and Paul Grainge), when MGM’s Leo the Lion symbolized the opulence and grandeur of musicals (The Brodway Melody of 1938) and epics (Mutiny on the Bounty); Warner Bros. distributed “gritty,” social dramas and gangster films; Universal produced low-budget horror films (Dracula); and Paramount’s distinctly “European” flavor, employing emigree directors such as Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch.

It might be harder to observe definable house styles today as the modern studio is little more than a distribution channel for smaller production companies. There are certainly trends in studio output, in that audiences can discern the type of film from a particular distributor. In recent years, the art-house crowd would be remiss not to trust the Miramax brand for its attention to European and Asian filmmakers and imports, intimate dramas, and award season prestige pictures. In the 1980s and 1990s New Line Cinema established a unique brand by releasing Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series alongside John Waters’ Serial Mom and other horror and fantasy films. Perhaps now New Line is most often associated with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, the majors have avoided this type of catalogue branding, if only because they risk missing on specific markets by remaining loyal to particular genres or styles. In many ways, the contemporary major studio — like in the past — specializes in a range of genres, franchises, and styles. We should remember that Warners is not only home to Harry Potter, Superman, and Batman, but has remained a home to Clint Eastwood and was also the permanent home of Stanley Kubrick.

Instead of looking for particular groupings or inherent “house styles” among the modern majors, I offer an alternative criterion by which to assess the impact of studio style by way of the logo sequence. In less than twenty seconds the logo sequence must convey a message in image and sound that defines an identity to the audience. If a studio was not interested in conveying a brand identity, then why advertise itself so verbosely before every film?

I am suggesting that these unique logo sequences offer associational frameworks by which audiences identify studio output. These associations are by no means homogeneous, since we all have different cinematic experiences. But it is likely that we have associations with studio sequences that have shaped our understanding of specific genres, filmmakers, and (most obviously) studio style.

For me, the associational nature of pre-credit sequences can have a Pavlovian effect. Let me explain. I’m flipping channels one afternoon and I happen upon the “zooming globe” Universal Pictures logo. Based on the animated design, I am immediately attuned to the era of the logo (the 1970s and early 1980s); I listen for any musical clues that might identify the forthcoming film. The presentational value of the logo extends to my own personal history with the logo and the films associated with it. Thus, I identify the Universal globe with a particular era of studio filmmaking, one with which I have always been fascinated.

The associational value of the pre-credit sequence is very much rooted in my adolescence, when I discovered new things about cinema every day. To put it not so romantically, I watched a lot of movies and over time some of them actually stuck with me. What also stuck with me were those iconic emblems of Hollywood studios. And, more often than not, the emblems symbolized not studio style but a particular film experience.

I have already mentioned the Universal zooming globe, which gave way in 1990 to a more three-dimensional animated sequence that paid tribute to all previous Universal pre-credit sequences. You can see it here. This sequence, which signaled the studio’s 75th anniversary, was supported with music by James Horner and premiered with Back to the Future III and later reverted to a shorter intro minus the montage. This serene sequence was replaced in 1997 (attached to Jurassic Park: The Lost World) with the current “shimmering” Universal globe, which carries a Jerry Goldsmith fanfare.

Watching the 1990 incarnation of the logo, I am instantly reminded of my trip to the theater to see Back to the Future III. The 1970s logo carries memories of the original Back to the Future, Jaws, and American Graffiti. You could make the argument that the films I have mentioned belong to a certain filmmaking or stylistic category, which could constitute a certain house style. In the 80s it was not uncommon to refer to Universal at the studio that Steven Spielberg revitalized. Indeed, the studio’s top grossing films of the late 70s and early 80s are Spielberg productions: Jaws, E.T., and the Back to the Future series (which he co-produced). However, this does not explain MacArthur, Animal House, the surge of John Hughes comedies in the 1980s, Field of Dreams, and Born on the Fourth of July to name just a few deviations from the Spielberg “style”.

In much the same way, I associate the DreamWorks sequence with Steven Spielberg, even though not every DreamWorks film is connected with the bearded one. But there are several subtle textures that point to a Spielberg style: the use of music by longtime composer John Williams, the moon and child imagery, and the little fact that he co-founded the studio. As a side-note, I never understood why Spielberg’s Amblin logo sequence never preceded films, but always appeared after the end credits.

Warner Bros. constitutes another fascinating example of associative logic. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, Warners did away with the traditional WB shield logo in the early 1970s and replaced it with a far more abstract design pictured below. This design reeks of the 1970s — even though it was used well into the 1980s — since I associate it with one of Warner’s premiere franchises: Superman. No matter what film proceeded it, the abstract “W” logo meant Superman: The Movie. For my wife, Monica, the traditional Warners shield is strongly associated with the Harry Potter series. In each film, the shield is desaturated, surrounded by varying cloudscapes, and seems to move past the screen as a 3-D image.

I would be taken to task if I did not mention what is perhaps the most famous associative connection in modern studio logos: the transition from the 20th Century Fox fanfare (composed by Alfred Newman) to the Star Wars main title (composed by John Williams). The two musical statements have worn well together, leading some to think that they were composed together. Newman’s original Fox fanfare premiered in 1935, which was later extended in 1953 to include a logo for Fox’s CinemaScope widescreen process. The extended fanfare appears over the Lucasfilm Ltd. credit.

As a trend in franchise pictures or prestige films, more and more studios are altering their current logo sequence to support particular films. I first noticed minor changes in the 1990s with films like The ‘burbs, The Flintstones (both of which played with the Universal globe), and Gladiator (which simply used a sepia-toned Universal and DreamWorks logo to convey the color scheme of the film). There are many other examples, but some perennial favorites include David Fincher’s use of “vintage” Warners and Paramount logos for Zodiac and, of course, Spielberg’s Paramount dissolves from the Indiana Jones series. The decision to use the Columbia logo from the 1970s for Superbad — complete with a VHS stutter — is an interesting statement, but I was left wondering if the humor was ironic or if the filmmakers had a genuine connection to a particular 70s aesthetic.

As more studios are lending their logos to the narrative/stylistic patterns of particular films, the associational logic of film-to-studio seems appropriate. However, studios have little control over an audience’s association with an untouched logo. Why, for instance, do I consistently think of Friday the 13th and the Star Trek films whenever I see the vintage Paramount logo sequence that dissolves into a sky-blue relief of itself? Some may think of Robert Evans and his tenure at Paramount in the 1970s, but for me it’s the lousy VHS dubs of Star Trek I-IV and even lousier copies of the Friday series.

Then there are those abstract sequences that simply transport me back to my childhood. The Tri-Star sequence (seen here) which has been parodied by Joe Swanson on Family Guy. And the Touchstone logo (seen here) which I never quite got, even though I saw it enough growing up with fare like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Studio logo sequences have always fascinated me, but I’ve never been able to explain why. The mini narratives and advancing animation keeps me interested in new concepts and revisions of old formulas, but there is something much more intangible to my interest in pre-credit designs. Perhaps they work on a nostalgic level, as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demonstrated earlier this summer. Perhaps they are symbols of larger cinematic histories, specifically the history of cinema-going. Or, perhaps they work on a much more associative level, whereby the familiarity of logo sequences are rooted in the experience of a particular film.

Nevertheless, the unspooling of a classic or contemporary pre-credit sequence is an exciting moment, filled with possibility and the knowledge of what has come before.

What are your own memories of studio logo sequences?

The Voice Amidst the Noise

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, which focused on the technical possibilities and implications of IMAX technology in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Since then I’ve read a number of reviews and appraisals of the film at various film blogs and news sites (many of which make up my Links section), which tend to emphasize its direct and indirect allegorical and symbolic textures. Most recently, Ted Pigeon over at The Cinematic Art has written a sharp piece of criticism that highlights the social and political tone not of Nolan’s film but of these reviewers’ responses to the film.

It would seem that in the weeks since I’ve seen the film, the dominant conversation has shifted away from Knight‘s technical and stylistic achievements to a more interpretive, if not totally reductive, schema that aims to set in relief the political overtones and undertones of Nolan’s film.

As a piece of alternative programming, I’d like to redirect the focus a little bit and explore one of the most fascinating aspects of The Dark Knight: the sound design. There are a number of interesting sonic elements in the film — the propulsive bass, the blanketing textures of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score, the crispness of artillery fire, and the supple sounds of Batman’s cape — but the vocal track stands out as a real accomplishment for reasons that you probably did not even consider.

The construction of any vocal track begins with the production sound mix, captured by the boom operator and sound recordist on the set. For large and small films, production recordists must contend with environmental ambiences, crew noises, unwanted reverberation, mumbling and poor enunciation from actors, among other annoyances. The goal, as dialogue editor John Purcell notes, is “to make every single word as clear as possible. He or she has to remove any and all distractions, noises, or mumbles to make the words as clear as a bell.” If a production track cannot be salvaged for whatever reason, the job is left to a dialogue editor to piece together a usable track from an alternate take or through ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), a post-production process whereby the actor “loops” (i.e. re-records) her lines in a studio. The dialogue editor then assembles the track using the re-recorded dialogue.

With the modern blockbuster, production recordists have their work cut out for them. A film like The Dark Knight requires noisy air conditioners, smoke machines, movable rigs, characters speaking through masks and heavy makeup, unforgiving studio reverb, and don’t forget those ultra-noisy IMAX cameras. Which is why it is estimated that most Hollywood productions rely on post-production sound services to balance, sweeten, and clarify what could not be captured live on the set. I think I’ve become rather savvy when it comes to distinguishing between production sound and ADR. In fact, I became a little distracted by the piecemeal looping in Step Brothers, a film that seemed to rely on heavy improvisation, which explains the need for ADR to tighten the continuity.

The remarkable thing about The Dark Knight is the amount of production sound that made it into the final mix. A casual listener might not be able (or care) to distinguish the difference between production and post-sync dialogue, but some have argued that the separation of voice and body — or, the act of re-recording a piece of dialogue weeks or months after the initial shoot — results in a bifurcated performance devoid of the energy and focus of the original. While “good” ADR can approximate the spatial signature of the set/location (e.g., echo and reverb) and the nuances of the original vocal performance, Christopher Nolan has repeatedly indicated his preference for production tracks. In the June issue of Wired, Nolan says “I just think separating the voice from the face and the body is very tricky. It is, after all, blatantly unreal.”

In some sense, the preference for production audio is tied to Nolan’s entire approach to the Batman series, which eschews excessive cinematic artificiality in favor of practical effects and solutions. Even with a healthy number of CG elements, many effects shots were captured the old fashioned way with a camera photographing actors in a real environment. In the same Wired interview Nolan stresses that practical shots, such as that of Batman being air-lifted out of Hong Kong by a KC-135, restore “the human element of choice: the little corrections, little imperfections. Certain uncertainties.” And, in my mind, this attention to practical solutions also restores a certain faith in the ability for filmmakers to accomplish complex maneuvers without an over-reliance on animation. (I will be sure to return to this topic in another post).

With the death of Heath Ledger in January 2008, it was clear that the actor had not completed any post-sync “looping,” which could have jeopardized the final sound mix. However, supervising sound editor Richard King and production recordist Ed Novick have revealed that ADR sessions were not necessary for Ledger’s performance. In other words, Novick and his crew managed to capture the entire performance “live” on the set.

It’s hard to dismiss the nuances of the Joker’s vocals — the giddy highs, the ferocious lows. One would automatically think that the Joker’s laugh — the character’s signature quality — was re-recorded in post production. However, Richard King tells Film Sound Daily that it was either recorded during an actual take or between takes, in what is known as a “wild take.” Even with the practical pyrotechnics and complex machinery, Novick and his team were able to construct a beautiful production track, which often competes with real-world ambiences and crowd noise. As Novick notes, “Chris likes to use the production sound for the final, yes. And if during shooting I can identify a problem – that’s fine. But he expects me to have a solution, as well.”

Indeed, the preference for using production dialogue seems to be a dying art in modern movies. While some films may loop nearly 1000 lines of dialogue, Nolan’s quest for production purity is a noble endeavor. (Part of the research for my thesis hopes to address this element of sound production, since dialogue continues to be central to the narrative fabric of any film, yet its technical and practical nature remains relatively unknown.)

Perhaps the penchant for live vocals and gritty recording has set in relief the instances where Nolan opted for sound with an artificial halo. Some people have commented to me that despite liking the film they found the voice of Batman to be distracting and altogether “unrealistic.” I haven’t been able to find any sources that account for the process by which Batman’s voice was modulated, but even to the untrained ear it sounds heavy and thick with a great deal of bottom-end added to Bale’s original track. Perhaps the bat suit comes equipped with its own voice modulator that ensures Bruce Wayne’s identity is never revealed. I admit that at times I found it hard to decipher what he was saying because of his lower pitched voice.

The opening bank heist sequence is also notable for what appears to be post-sync dialogue. As the Joker’s masked goons execute the robbery we follow them from the roof to the bank vault. They converse with each other during the process, questioning the identity of the mastermind they call the Joker. My wife pointed out to me that these exchanges had the vocal feel of Batman: The Animated Series and feature-length film Mask of the Phantasm. The goon’s voices are exaggerated, even comic, impressions of thugs we associate with the gangster film. That these thugs are wearing clown masks gave Nolan an opportunity to stray from an avowed “realism” and embrace a broader stroke of comic book pastiche. Granted, it’s a small moment in a very long film, but the devil is in the details.

The importance of voice in film can never be over-estimated. The voice provides immediate access to inner character psychology; a line reading can change the meaning of an entire scene; a vocal inflection can change the meaning of a word. Close-up recordings, like that of Willard’s narration in Apocalypse Now, envelop us in his tormented mind and bring us to the edge of comprehensibility. The absence of voice pushes us to strain our ears to hear what is not there, to listen through the screen and capture the elusive whispers of Lost.

Additionally, there are those sound-theoretical issues that aim to draw a distinction between the voice captured “live” and that re-recorded at a later date. The seemingly unnatural separation between body and voice is a concern shared not only by Nolan but also by film sound theorists like Mary Ann Doane, Rick Altman, and Steve Wurtzler (see this anthology). ADR technology allows actors to re-perform, re-capture, and reform the performance, much like different “takes” of the same shot affords similar flexibility.

It might be naive to assume that what we’re hearing is Heath Ledger’s “original” Joker vocals, untouched. Of course, it is probable that different vocal takes were utilized to match Nolan’s preferred image take, which completely removes any sense of an “original” performance. We must remember that modern film sound production is governed by the construction of a representational event. James Lastra has argued that, indeed, there is no original sound event! After levels are tweaked, takes are swapped, and voices are electronically modulated and edited, we are left with a constructed sound event that owes very little to the pro-filmic event (i.e., the thing that is being filmed or the location being filmed). In the Film Sound Daily interview with Richard King, King admits that the Bat Pod sound, which can be described as an always-ascending tone (see the Shepherd Tone), replaced the actual sound of the Pod, which was that of a small Kawasaki engine. Thus, the Bat Pod exists only in the film and within its spatial confines that are outlined by the cinematographer, set designers, and sound designers. In this sense, there is only the representational nature of the cinematic space (the diegesis, to use a film nerd term).

Yet, despite this film theoretical rhetoric that attempts to shatter the illusion of live performance, there is something so immediate and unfiltered about hearing (and seeing) Ledger’s performance as a unified whole. Even if things were sweetened, even if different takes were ultimately used, the real sense of “liveness” still resonates with me.

On IMAX and Hollywood

As The Dark Knight continues to break box office records I thought it might be worthwhile to examine one of the key features of the film’s success: IMAX. The film’s IMAX treatment has been getting some press lately, but I’ve read nothing that really situates the technology (or The Dark Knight‘s use of it) with the history of the format. Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film is, indeed, a cinematic achievement for incorporating –for the first time in Hollywood– the IMAX process into the visual structure of the film. Of the many accolades the film will likely continue to garner, this is one worth exploring further. Here are some thoughts on IMAX in The Dark Knight, its relationship to Hollywood, and its future.

The IMAX format originated as an experimental projection system for EXPO ’67 in Montreal, Canada. In 1970 the first IMAX system and film was presented at the Fuji Pavilion at EXPO ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Since then there has been no shortage of discussion in trying to link the large format process with commercial filmmaking. In the early 1980s, as the company expanded its theater and distribution network to include more locations in North America and around the world, technologically conscious filmmakers expressed interest in shooting with the system. Most notably, Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas pledged their support of IMAX technology as a viable out-of-home theatrical experience.

The format boasts an image surface area that is up to ten times the size of normal 35mm film. Using 70mm film turned on its side with 15 perforations per frame, the frame size is square-shaped (1.34:1) as opposed to the wider processes of standard 35mm film. With such a large frame surface area, more light is capable of striking the negative, which results in sharper images with less grain. Audience seating in IMAX theaters such as the Ontario Cinesphere in Toronto– the world’s first permanent IMAX venue — consist of stadium rows that begin above –not below– the screen, which gives the impression of vertical as well as horizontal immersion. In the 1990s, IMAX patented a digital multichannel audio system to compete with other emerging formats such as Dolby Digital 5.1. Together, the immersive image and sound technologies offer spectators an “experience” unlike other conventional theatrical venues.

However, by the mid-1980s the IMAX format became associated with spectacular documentaries, travelogues, and short subjects that lent themselves to the immersive images and sounds of the process. Documentaries such as The Great Barrier Reef (1981) and Hail Columbia! (1982) and The Grand Canyon (1984) are three early examples of the types of films that dominated the IMAX brand: educational and spectacular voyages through space and the sea. Not unlike the early travelogues that helped Cinerama gain a reputation in the 1954 as an immersive and altogether new cinematic experience, IMAX seemed destined to be relegated to the specialty entertainment film, the novelty film, and the educational film.

Hollywood’s interest in IMAX resurfaced in the early years of this decade when the company announced its plans to innovate a system that would essentially convert traditional 35mm film into the 15/70mm IMAX format. This paved the way for conventional films like Beauty and the Beast, Apollo 13, and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones to be retrofitted with the IMAX brand and re-released in IMAX theaters. These retrofitted films were edited for time since the size (and tremendous weight) of IMAX reels prevented films from running longer than 2 hours. Current 2008 IMAX “platters” can hold up to 150 minutes of film. This process, which is called DMR (Digital Re-Mastering) offers a less sharp, less crisp image that is basically “stretched” to fit the taller format. Another option of the DMR format is to present a film in its original letterboxed format, which will leave empty space on the top and bottom of the screen. A further option has been to present Hollywood films in 3-D, such as The Polar Express and Beowulf.

At the same time, true 15/70mm films continue to be made and released on IMAX screens, including the recent film Deep Sea 3D (2006), which utilized 3-D imaging technology in addition to the traditional IMAX screen (and a beautiful Danny Elfman musical score that is made up of his concert work, Serenada Schizophrana).

With this in mind, it would appear that Hollywood has had a very limited relationship with IMAX. Each of the innovations mentioned thus far have been half-hearted attempts by studios and filmmakers to exploit the IMAX format. Hollywood is known for its conservative feelings towards innovative image and sound technology. A “wait and see” approach has dominated the industry since the very beginning, which is partly why it took nearly seven decades for wide film processes such as CinemaScope and Panavision to become an industry norm and not a novelty. In many ways, technical standardization is the result of a perfect storm of happenings: audience demand, economic security, and a film (or set of films) to ignite public interest. In other words, if a technology is cost effective, audiences demand more films to utilize it, and filmmakers have proven to be adept at using it, then it may be adopted by the broader industry. Other factors apply, of course, but I’m trying to simplify things, and these are some of the more dominant concerns of technological innovation in Hollywood.

So, then, why hasn’t IMAX fully partened with Hollywood studios and filmmakers? Why are we not experiencing more “conventional” films in the large screen format? The answer that has circulated in the industry and in cinema studies is surprisingly simple. I will let Tara Wollen answer it for us, since she has written one of the key articles on IMAX in the anthology Future Visions:

The IMAX format imposes particular possibilities and limitations. Since the viewer sits lower in relation to the IMAX screen than in a conventional theatre, the frame’s centre lies about a third of the way up from the bottom of the screen. Close-ups therefore need plenty of headroom. While long shots can be framed wider than usual, the movement from extreme long shot to medium close-up can be very condensed and the screen’s enormity cannot tolerate grainy or irresolute images. It is interesting to note that one of the difficulties (or challenges) the IMAX format poses have provoked reactions very similar to those expressed by directors working in early CinemaScope. Longer pacing and the large frame are ideal for the wide-world films IMAX produces but they send acting, dialogue and emotional scenes into the wrong orbit. Quick cuts are a rarity in IMAX, because they would subject the audience to severe jolts and probably violent nausea.

Wollen basically suggests that there are several aesthetic hurdles that must be overcome if the rules of continuity filmmaking are to be applied to the IMAX format. While the soundtrack remains unaffected, image composition and editing may not “hold up” as well. At least that is the governing logic as Wollen sees it. And, to some degree, she is right to posit that close-ups are difficult to pull off since the wide-angle lenses of the IMAX camera may distort a face or close object. Faster cutting may also not fare well, since the audience must register much more visual information than normal; watching something like The Bourne Ultimatum may prove to be too challenging for some, and may result in the “violent nausea” that Wollen mentions. The movement from close-up to medium or long shot may also be quite startling, as viewers reacclimate themselves to the ever-changing shot scale. To be sure, traditional IMAX fare such as Everest tend to linger on shots, thereby allowing the audience to “take it all in,” which is often the modus operandi of any IMAX docu-experience.

There are other concerns that Wollen does not mention. First, there is the issue of expense. It’s very expensive to shoot in the 15/70mm format and to distribute hundreds if not thousands of prints to theaters. Second, it’s noisy. IMAX cameras are notoriously loud, since they must feed the large negative through the camera at 24 fps. As a result, dialogue is virtually impossible record on set, especially if the camera is close to an actor reading her lines. Lastly, the IMAX cameras are heavy. Hand-held shots are hard, if not impossible, to achieve, which leaves filmmakers with a more limited stylistic palette; crane shots, static shots, and tracking shots notwithstanding.

With the release of The Dark Knight, the first film ever to be partially shot using IMAX film, some of these limitations may no longer be a problem. Director Christopher Nolan has noted in the past his desire to shoot an IMAX film, but like his forebears — Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola — it was all talk and no show. Until now. Having experienced The Dark Knight in its eight-story IMAXed version, I must admit that I’m once again smitten with the format, not because it reignited my passion for large-format films but because it has proved that large-format commercial filmmaking is possible.

In some sense, The Dark Knight is another baby step in a long line of baby steps that Hollywood has taken in adopting the IMAX format for its storytelling purposes. However, Nolan’s step is much more significant than earlier experiments, since he has laid the groundwork for future experiments with IMAX cameras at the shooting stage of production. It’s one thing to blow up a print for IMAX exhibition, but it’s entirely different to plan and execute several sequences with the format in mind.

Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister utilized the technology for six sequences spread across the film. Sequences shot in 35 were transfered using the DMR technology, which appear as letterboxed, while scenes shot with IMAX cameras on 15/70mm film expand vertically to fill the entire eight-story screen. It is not surprisingly that sweeping vistas and panoramic shots constitute some of the IMAXed scenery, since it is the bread and butter of the format. And even I must admit that the Chicago — er, Gotham — skyline never looked better. With its uncompromising clarity, I was mostly astonished at the level of sharpness with most of the expansive shots.

The film opens with an elaborate bank heist that some critics have compared to Michael Mann’s Heat. While this is not nearly as elaborate as Mann’s instructional “how-to” sequence, Nolan’s prologue does as much to set up the introduction of The Joker as it does to introduce his audience to the IMAX format and its range of visual possibilities. The first shot, as I have already mentioned, establishes the Gotham skyline at mid-day with a skyward track towards a tall office building. As one of the windows is blown out, the sequence-proper begins as a group of clown-masked thugs prepare to empty the vault of one of Gotham’s high-profile banks. What was remarkable about the entire sequence was its adherence to the conventions of continuity logic: wide shots give way to medium shots; screen direction is dictated by eye-line matches; and Nolan continues to exert his own brand of “intensified continuity,” utilizing singles and rhythmic cutting to enhance the kinetic pulse of the bank job. (The images here from The Dark Knight are IMAX frame-grabs).

Therefore, what was remarkable was entirely unremarkable. Instead of being too aware of the vertical horizon of the IMAX image, I was completely swallowed into the story world as the infuriated Bank Manager (William Fichtner) attempts to thwart the clowns’ plans with a hidden shotgun.

The rest of the film followed this logic. Expansive shots gave way to more tightly woven elements, as when Batman plays a game of chicken with The Joker’s 18-wheeler. For the most part, the IMAXed sequences avoid extreme close ups and favor more medium-to-long framings. However, Nolan occassionally draws your eye to various areas of the large screen as accent points, such as when Batman redirects his BatPod by climbing a building wall (at the right side of the screen).

There was no disorientation, confusion, or nausea. At times I admit to feeling completely immersed in the image, especially skyward shots, mostly because my peripheral vision (top and bottom) was consumed by the screen. Others have told me that they couldn’t tell when the screen reverted to 2.40:1 letterbox, a potential testament to the immersive nature of the film itself, not its technical wares.

One of the current executives at IMAX has stated in a recent interview that “What Chris discovered along the way was that not only the things that seemed obvious looked good, but a lot of the close-ups and a lot of the more intimate scenes also worked.”

A Globe and Mail article has called it the “rebirth” of the IMAX brand. The article suggests that

Imax, which is coming off a bumpy few years marked by struggling ticket sales and multiple earnings restatements — the company acknowledged last summer it overstated revenue between 2002 and 2005 — now finds itself filling theatres well in advance.

In Chicago, for example, The Dark Knight is sold out for the next week, the company said.

Mr. Gelfond said Tuesday that Imax is now in talks with several other directors who want to duplicate Mr. Nolan’s model, where scenes are shot for the oversized Imax screens, and then shrunk for regular theatres.

As the IMAX company shifts to an all-digital format in the next two years, the above mentioned “obstacles” may be completely eliminated, most notably camera weight and noise. That only really leaves the aesthetic question. Can filmmakers pull off a feature film entirely in IMAX? Will audiences be nauseated? What kinds of films will benefit most from IMAX treatment? Will studios foot the bill?

Warners has not yet indicated how much of The Dark Knight‘s $180-million budget was because of the IMAX sequences. As studio execs ponder the cost effectiveness of entire features in IMAX, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are reconceptualizing how to shoot for IMAX and make it work. The sellout crowds at IMAX screens across North America this past weekend has signaled an appetite for the immersive medium, even if it costs a few dollars more than a traditional 35mm screen.

As critics and historians we must not fall for the inevitable argument that positions IMAX as a revolution in cinema technology and aesthetics. So far, IMAX has been with us for forty years and is only now making waves in Hollywood’s swimming pool. As home cinemas become more prevalent and more impressive — and multiplexes become less immersive and impressive –  IMAX is a format that continues to “wow” audiences.

To be sure, I believe that the success or failure of IMAX as a viable feature film format will lie with the innovative support of filmmakers like Mr. Nolan, whose aesthetic demands will shape the obstacles, limitations, and possibilities of IMAXed movies.

<p style=”text-align: center;”

Cutting for Clarity

If you’ve been following the production and early marketing campaign for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, then you may have noticed how Steven Spielberg has been discussing the film’s visual style in relation to the other Indiana Jones films and, more curiously, to contemporary action films. It seems that last summer’s intense discussion of The Bourne Ultimatum‘s hyper-kinetic editing by bloggers and scholars such as David Bordwell and Stephen Rowley did not go unnoticed by the bearded-one. In the February issue of Vanity Fair, which featured an Annie Leibovitz photo-spread of all the major characters in the new film, Spielberg comments on his own editing style:

I go for geography. I want the audience to know not only which side the good guys on and the bad guys on, but which side of the screen they’re in, and I want the audience to be able to edit as quickly as they want in a shot that I am loath to cut away from. And that’s been my style with all four of these Indiana Jones pictures. Quick-cutting is very effective in some movies, like the Bourne pictures, but you sacrifice geography when you go for quick-cutting. Which is fine, because audiences get a huge adrenaline rush from a cut every second and a half on The Bourne Ultimatum, and there’s just enough geography for the audience never to be lost, especially in the last Bourne film, which I thought was the best of the three. But, by the same token, Indy is a little more old-fashioned than the modern-day action adventure.

Spielberg’s technical skill as a director has always been closely linked to the tenets of classical Hollywood style. His adherence to eye-line matches, graphic matches, and the 180 degree line – where the camera obeys an axis of action over an entire sequence – might not sound so revolutionary, but it is has been one of the keys to his success as an innovative storyteller. In this sense, Spielberg subordinates style for story clarity. Though he is not one to shy away from breathtaking shots and jaw-dropping visual effects, this “stylish style” (to use David Bordwell’s phrase) is presented in an open and transparent manner. In other words, it’s all there on the screen to be appreciated.

In the above quotation, Spielberg is discussing two elements of visual style. His preference for clearly defined spatial geography is not unlike many other contemporary filmmakers, who build scenes out of stable blocks of shots: master (establishing shot), medium, and close up. You establish the space with a wide or long shot, then move in for greater details and drama once direction and “geography” has been defined. David Fincher comes to mind, so does Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, and Michael Mann. However, more and more films – including the Bourne series – sacrifice visual clarity for kinetic rhythm and movement.

Spielberg suggests that this sacrifice is not entirely necessary, since speed can be conjured through other means, namely story:

Part of the speed is the story. If you build a fast engine, you don’t need fast cutting, because the story’s being told fluidly, and the pages are just turning very quickly. You first of all need a script that’s written in the express lane, and if it’s not, there’s nothing you can do in the editing room to make it move faster. You need room for character, you need room for relationships, for personal conflict, you need room for comedy, but that all has to happen on a moving sidewalk.

This constitutes the second element of visual style under discussion. The speed at which Spielberg cuts appears to be on the slower side compared to other directors in the industry. The fact that he needs to outline his preference for editing precision and concision comes off like a defense against the industry “norm.” While I have not completed an average shot length study of Spielberg’s work, it is clear that other filmmakers are indeed cutting faster. Yet it remains to be seen if faster cutting has resulted in more stylistically innovative, comprehensible, or successful films. Compare, for example, the action scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II. While Nolan stresses the congruity and geographical integrity between shots, Bay abandons this compositional value for the rapid-fire “feel” of an entire sequence.

With respect to Spielberg’s own editing style, I would hardly call it conservative. He may be more methodical and deliberate than Martin Scorsese but it depends on the genre in which each director is working. The flamboyant Scorsese (The Departed) is faster to the draw than the serious Spielberg (Amistad). Even in an adventure film like Jurassic Park entire sequences play out with very traditional setups. The introduction of the T-Rex is first revealed offscreen on the sound track, then visually by the cup of rippling water. The first time we actually see the angry predator, it’s a wide shot – much like the introduction to the Brachiasaur earlier in the film. As the T-Rex sequence continues, Spielberg has established the space of the scene using eye-line matches and other directional strategies to orient the audience. In many ways, this enhances the suspense of the scene because we’re fully aware of the proximity of the T-Rex to the other characters.

In an article published in the New York Times on May 4th, Spielberg again discusses his editorial strategies for the new Indiana Jones movie. This time, he is more explicit with his intentions:

In fact, Mr. Spielberg said, he tries to cut as little as possible in these movies action sequences, because every time the camera changes dynamic angles, you feel there’s something wrong, that there’s some cheating going on. So his goal is to do the shots the way Chaplin or Keaton would, everything happening before the eyes of the audience, without a cut.”

By citing the visual styles of Chaplin and Keaton Spielberg reinforces his preference for stylistic transparency. Although Charles Chaplin used far more close ups than Keaton, both silent comedians earned their keep by convincing audiences that their stunt work was the real deal, not the result of a camera trick or a stunt man. In Modern Times, Chaplin (who is blindfolded) rollerskates dangerously close to the edge of a second or third floor department store balcony. In Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College, Buster Keaton narrowly avoids being crushed by a falling housefront. Each of these iconic moments are captured in a single take and in long shot to “sell” the danger and “realism” of the stunts.

Spielberg continues:

The idea is, there’s no illusion; what you see is what you get. My movies have never been frenetically cut, the way a lot of action is done today. That’s not a put-down; some of that quick cutting, like in The Bourne Ultimatum is fantastic, just takes my breath away. But to get the comedy I want in the Indy films, you have to be old-fashioned. I’ve studied a lot of the old movies that made me laugh, and you’e got to stage things in full shots and let the audience be the editor. It’s like every shot is a circus act.

Stressing the need for long shots and deliberate pacing for effective comic gags, Spielberg underestimates the innovative spirit of his own visual style in dramatic situations. His preference his “in-shot editing” is clearly evident in Munich. In one scene, Avner (Eric Bana) and his partners discuss the logistics of their next target assassination while inside a small car. Spielberg’s camera slowly pans from the hotel (site of the assassination) to the car’s side-view mirror, in which Steve (Daniel Craig) is reflected. As he speaks, the camera continues to move laterally towards the car’s rear-view mirror. Hans (Hanns Zischler) comes into view as he finishes Steve’s sentence about who they may be up against. The camera continues to focus on the rear-view mirror as Avner comes into view and says, “It’s definitely him.” A fourth visual plane is established when Hans holds up a photograph that blocks the rear-view mirror, which still remains the camera’s central focal point. The black-and-white image is of the man they are to kill, Al-Chir. As Hans describes the potential obstacles to the hit, the camera swings around to reveal Avner seated in the backseat, taking the photograph from Hans.

The shot presents four planes of action that reveal key story information without a single cut. Instead, the camera moves around the confines of the car, using the various mirrors to reflect each of the characters who do not sit facing one another. The constricted space of the car does not limit Spielberg’s camera from capturing the visual details of the hotel (site of assassination), the worry on the group’s faces, and the assassination target. This type of shot is repeated in Munich as characters and objects are reflected in windows and mirrors to avoid superfluous cutting. While the story may provide the momentum, certainly we cannot dismiss the movement of Spielberg’s camera as contributing to this sensation of speed.

In the Vanity Fair and New York Times interviews, Spielberg admits that his visual style has grown and matured since the last Indiana Jones adventure in 1989. For the newest installment, he and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski re-watched the trilogy to get his “Indy legs back.” In Kaminski’s case, he was asked to approximate the look of another lenser, Douglas Slocombe, who shot all three Indy films and recently passed away. Spielberg recounts:

I still wanted the film to have a lighting style not dissimilar to the work Doug Slocombe had achieved, which meant that both Janusz and I had to swallow our pride. Janusz had to approximate another cinematographer’s look, and I had to approximate this younger director’s look that I thought I had moved away from after almost two decades.

This is an intriguing admission, since it points to Spielberg’s desire to return to a style of filmmaking that he no longer practices. Perhaps Spielberg and George Lucas feel that it is necessary to emphasize the timelessness of Indiana Jones by sticking to a very time-specific style. For many fans, it wouldn’t be an Indiana Jones film without the signature iconography of the series, which includes Indy’s hat and leather jacket, the ubiquitous map line, and the many creepy crawlies that Indy must swat, crush, and flick. Of course, this iconography also includes the characteristic action set-pieces, hair-raising stunts (sans CGI), and buoyant John Williams score.

It would appear that Spielberg and company are aiming to recreate a stylistic moment that has, by all accounts, influenced a generation of filmmakers to “out do” the Spielberg/Lucas one-two punch of action/adventure filmmaking style. Indiana Jones gave way to John McClane (Die Hard), the Terminator, and Jason Bourne. Computer generated effects have become more prolific, yet arguably present filmmakers with fewer options. Cutting rates have increased and action scenes are noticeably more frantic and fragmented.

However, I am wondering if Spielberg is perhaps too aware of this recent stylistic trend. With Raiders of the Lost Ark and its two sequels, cutting speed and visual flair seemed to grow organically from the films, which is why they defined a new approach to an old genre. In the early 1980s, it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear critics bemoan Spielberg for hyperactive and disjointed action scenes. Now, those same critics long for the intelligible and witty textures of the Indy series compared to the numbing banality of M. Night Shyamalan and a slew of unremarkable superhero pictures.

Obviously, I have yet to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I cannot comment on the film’s stylistic approach. Since Spielberg has been so outspoken on the visual style of the series compared to more contemporary editing/compositional approaches, I am curious to see if he is too self-conscious, too constrained, too judgmental of his own instincts. Because – as we know – when Spielberg’s instincts are sharp, we are in for a wonderful time at the movies.

Death of the Title Sequence



Since my return from Philadelphia I’ve been listening to Film Score Monthly’s groundbreaking release of the music of Superman. The FSM “Blue Box” contains eight compact discs containing the complete original scores from all four Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978-1987) and the music from the short-lived 1988 Superman cartoon series. It’s a remarkable achievement by such a small record label, who specialize in the music of the movies. The rich history of the Superman films and their music is documented in an accompanying 160 page book — a must-have for any fan of the series or the music of John Williams.

Superman: The Movie remains the quintessential superhero film and the comic book adaptation against which all others are judged. While director Richard Donner has had other successes — namely The Omen and the Lethal Weapon franchises — his most accomplished work remains Superman. The expensive and exhausting production of the original 1978 film has been documented elsewhere, most recently in the 12-DVD box set released by Warners in 2006 to celebrate their “year of Superman” that coincided with the release of Brian Singer’s Superman Returns. I’d like to focus on a few smaller aspects of Donner’s work, namely the music and the main titles.

Listening to the music of Superman: The Movie by John Williams, I recall being six years old and hearing the soaring march for the first time. The Superman theme — which includes a brilliant three-note phrase that seems to call out “Sup-er-man!” — is the music of flight. It is visceral and transparent, and most important, it soars. Perhaps most interesting is the “balletic preparatory” music that precedes the introduction of the fanfare and, by corollary, Superman himself. It’s a dotted triplet rhythm that is carried by the low strings and sets a variety of action sequences in motion. It’s used to great effect during the first big reveal, when Clark Kent transforms into Superman on the streets of Metropolis to save the life of Lois Lane, who dangles off a building roof. There’s something about that “preparatory” phrase that is very John Williams. It’s dead serious, yet playful, and entirely cinematic. It reassures the audience of Superman’s imminent arrival in the same way that the shark motif in Jaws warned of imminent danger. The moment when Clark tears open his shirt, revealing the Superman shield, is effective because of this musical lead-up.

Part of the original film’s appeal is the opening title sequence — designed by R. Greenberg and Associates — that features the full musical fanfare and march in Dolby Stereo. Donner’s intent was to immerse the audience in the world of Metropolis and the mythology of Superman without losing a sense of verisimilitude — the quality of appearing real. This was also manifested in the film’s marketing campaign, which utilized the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.” As such, the film itself begins in a movie theater with the curtains closed. The frame-within-a-frame reveals another frame when the curtains part (like in those old picture palaces) and a screen appears, followed by the noise of an old projector.



The appearance of the date “June 1938” is followed by a black-and-white faux newsreel narrated by a small child, who explains that during the Great Depression, not even the great city of Metropolis was spared hardships and despair. The child turns the pages of an Action Comics book and the camera focuses on a sketch of the Daily Planet. The newsreel then dissolves to a live-action version of the Daily Planet building at night, and the camera arches beyond its roof and into the heavens.

Though music has been playing in the background up until this point, it’s been nondescript. A timpani roll formally introduces the beginning of the title sequence and the film-proper. The first title, that of producer Alexander Salkind, appears to move beyond the old-fashioned movie screen (whose ratio is approximately 1.33:1) and into the theater space. As the blue letters invade the theater space, the screen widens to the full Panavision width of 2.35:1 and the side curtains move beyond the limits of the frame.


The music continues to swell, building off of the preparatory phrase, until the S shield fills the screen with a red glow.

vlcsnap-13421440.png vlcsnap-13420981.png

The remainder of the title sequence repeats the innovative 3-D effect for each name and credit, giving the impression they are flying past the audience.

vlcsnap-13421374.png vlcsnap-13421849.png

The starfield background is occasionally interrupted by a cosmic anamoly or starburst, which is timed to the music. Or, should I say, the music is timed to the image. Either way, it works beautifully to convey the grand spectacle to follow. In his original review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther expressed his distaste for the sequence when he wrote that the “opening credits … are so portentous they could be announcing the discovery of a new mouthwash…”

Little did he know that the main title sequence was slowly fading from view. In the years since Superman: The Movie, studio executives and filmmakers have moved the bulk of credits to the end of the film. My own research reveals that by the early 1990s, most Hollywood films held the “main” credits for the end, reversing a long history of studio filmmaking that announced up-front who was responsible for the film you were about to see. Some have attributed this move to audience polling during advance screenings. Studios risk losing the audience’s attention during long, cumbersome title sequences. Even Steven Spielberg has noted that he prefers the end credit system, since it enables him to start the film without disruption or pause.

This is ironic since Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can opens with one of the most entertaining title sequences in recent memory. Indeed, the animated titles pay homage to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking, when title songs and sequences became as famous — or even more famous — than the films themselves. Here I’m thinking of the Pink Panther and James Bond series, which incorporated complex animation and choreography to open each installment.

title.jpg article_medium_kdtitles.jpg

While Catch Me If You Can appears to be the exception, a number of studio films continue to place the main titles at the beginning of the film. They are noticeably translucent, tucked at the edges of the frame, in order not to detract from the introductory scenes that, no doubt, are establishing character and plot. The Devil Wears Prada opens with a montage sequence showing Andy and other women preparing for an early morning job interview. The sequence is set to the up-tempo KT Tunstall song “Suddenly I See,” which glues the whole thing together, and sets a rhythmic tone for the film to follow.

Some films have even crafted intricate and visually interesting end credit sequences. The second and third Bourne films showcase an array of graphics that interact with crew names. The use of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” works not only a musical signature for all three films (they all incorporate this song over the end credits), but it provides the quick tempo and catchy melody that turns ordinary credits into an arresting credit sequence. See the credits here.

Other films have dispensed with opening titles altogether. After studio logos, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor opens on the image of a sunset and gets down to business without even announcing the title of the film. Batman Begins opens with an elaborate sunset shot filled with swarming bats that form the shape of the bat signal. No title, just the shield. I admit there’s an immediacy to this technique, since you are instantly plunged into a fiction without the presentational aspects that have shaped our collective notions of movie structure.

More recently, 3:10 to Yuma, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men offer their respective titles at the start of the film, but nothing more until the closing credits. This is by far the most common technique utilized by current filmmakers: state the title and get on with it.

For a while, especially in the 1960s, the title sequence was an emerging art form. Saul Bass is a legend in the field, producing the titles for Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and my personal favorite, Casino. In addition to Superman, R. Greenberg and Associates created the titles for Home Alone and The Untochables. And, of course, Maurice Binder’s Bond sequences are among some of the finest and trashiest ever produced.


The novelty of these sequences lies in their ability to set a tone, create a visual and sonic signature, and synthesize the iconographic elements of a given film. The best ones can emerge as standalone set pieces, while others simply serve as introductory “warm ups.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Superman sequence began with a ritual that has also faded from our movie-going habit: the grand theater with a proscenium and curtains that reveal the screen.

Instead, we now get more commercials in front of the feature, smaller screens, and movies that are all too willing to cut to the chase.

What are your favorite title sequences?


The Scream Heard ‘Round the World



A few months ago I published a short piece on the history of the Wilhelm Scream in Offscreen, an upstart film journal. They put out an issue on sound in the cinema, and I was asked to contribute a short article on my favorite moment of film sound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my most favorite moment was, in fact, the repeated use of a classic studio sound effect, known affectionately as the Wilhelm Scream.

For a brief history of the Scream, see my original article which is available here at the Offscreen website. In short, the scream was first heard in the Gary Cooper western Distant Drums (1951), when an American soldier attempts to evade a slew of Seminole Indians in a Florida swamp and ends up being dragged under the water and eaten by an alligator. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the voice effect — originally recorded by Sheb Wooley — was re-used in several films that required a high-pitch male cry, including The Charge at Feather River (1953) and Them! (1954). Contrary to popular belief, there were five Screams, each different in duration and pitch. In the mid-1970s, Ben Burtt was combing through studio sound libraries searching for material for Star Wars (1977) and came across the Screams, which were then catalogued as “man getting bit by an alligator.” It was the Scream’s use in The Charge at Feather River that inspired Burtt to rename the effect the Wilhelm Scream after the character who is unceremoniously shot with an Indian’s arrow and falls off his horse.

Burtt’s inside-joke homage to old studio sound effects led to the Scream’s use in the original Star Wars trilogy and the first three installments of Indiana Jones. The Scream invariably accompanies a villain’s fall, such as when one of Jabba the Hut’s goons falls into the Sarlac pit in Return of the Jedi (1983) and when a Nazi is thrown off a moving truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). For Burtt and directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the Scream functions as a comic gag and an allusion to the old Hollywood system of which Star Wars and Indiana Jones are indebted.




After the final Star Wars prequel was released in 2005, Burtt announced that he was retiring the vocal effect from any further use in his own work. However, Burtt’s decision has had the opposite effect on sound editors and filmmakers, who have saturated its use in movies and TV shows. By the turn of the 21st century the novelty of Wilhelm has worn thin as a new crop of filmmakers have used the effect as an homage not to classical Hollywood, but to the New Hollywood and its second-generation revival. Quentin Tarantino used it sparingly in Reservoir Dogs (1992), while Peter Jackson and his sound team placed the Scream in all three Lord of the Rings films. It’s been used in animated films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Toy Story (1995), and most ingeniously in Gary Rydstrom’s Pixar short, Lifted (2007).

Indeed, it has become difficult not to spot the Wilhelm Scream in current movies and TV shows. Family Guy and American Dad treat the Scream like a musical sting that accentuates a gag. Both shows wear their love of the Star Wars saga and 1980s pop culture on their sleeves, so it is not surprising that the cultural currency of Wilhelm is not lost on their writers. More and more films are using the Scream, including Batman Returns (1992), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), Hellboy (2004), Team America: World Police (2004), Anchorman (2004), and Aeon Flux (2005).

Interestingly, I can’t think of a film or TV show in recent memory that has used the Scream in a straight-forward and dramatic fashion. In some sense, there’s a comic quality to the tone and timbre of the scream itself, which lends itself to parody and homage in programs like Family Guy.



As much as I am a fan of the Wilhelm Scream, I can’t help but think that it has overstayed its welcome. As a punchline, it is no longer that funny, since its singular use (to enhance someone’s fall) has been repeated with little variation. As homage, the Scream is in its third generation of use, and its allusionist qualities are wearing thin. As the Scream is endlessly repeated, its value as a Hollywood artifact and inside joke is greatly diminished. Perhaps retirement is not necessary, but a more creative and textured approach is definitely needed in order to keep Wilhelm from becoming a stock comic effect in the sound track arsenal.

For those who don’t see the irony in the situation, let me clarify. Burtt revived the original Scream, which had become a stock sound effect in the studio system, and fell out of favor with New Hollywood craftsmen in the early 1970s. Burtt’s placement of the Scream in Star Wars alluded not only to the B-movie origin of Lucas’ space narrative, but to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking. Its use in Star Wars and Indiana Jones is pastiche at its most fun and irreverent.

For a time, the recycling of the Scream became a game for sharp listeners, who, after being introduced to it in the 1980s, fell under its spell. You felt as if you were part of a secret club of movie geeks who could list all the Scream’s appearances in the post-Star Wars era. Now, even the most untrained ears can spot the buffoonish cry under layers of other sound effects.

The Scream, which was once used to parody old stock sound effects, has become a parody of itself. We’ve had our fun, so let’s store it away for a while, let it collect some dust, and wait for another sound designer to one day discover it all over again.

For the uninitiated, here is the Wilhelm Scream. What are your own favorite Wilhelm moments?