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 That piece was a sequel to an original but unpublished article I wrote on the meaning of Woody Allen’s fictional screen persona and its misunderstanding in film and cultural criticism.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.