Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound


An endless array of sound.

(2019) Documentary (Dogwoof/Cinetic/MatsonBen Burtt, Walter Murch, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sofia Coppola, Ang Lee, Ryan Coogler, David Lynch, Gary Rydstrom, Christopher Nolan, Ai-Ling Lee, Pat Jackson, Alyson Dee Moore, Victoria Rose Sampson, Mike A. Mangini, Peter Weir, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Cecilia Hall. Directed by Midge Costin

 

Movies make memories and not all of them are visual. Who could forget the roar of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the shriek of the violins in Psycho, the explosions and gunfire in Saving Private Ryan? Even though film began as a strictly visual medium, today it is the marriage of two of our primary senses and both are at least as important to making a movie work.

Longtime sound editor and current professor at the University of Southern California Midge Costin has a passion for sound which shows through in her documentary. She loads up with clips that illustrate her point, one of which was that Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera in essence to give people something to look at while they were listening to his phonograph, which he invented more than a decade earlier. Due to the logistics of sound and light not moving at the same speed, we were stuck with silent films until 1927.

In any case, we get to hear from some of the giants of sound design, such as Murray Spivak, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt – hardly household names but all responsible for developments in sound that have shaped how we experience movies (and television) today.

Many of the advances in sound design were fought for by directors like Barbra Streisand, who fought with studio heads to bring stereo sound to A Star is Born – in fact, she was willing to spend a million dollars of her own money to do so, but the studio so loved the results that they footed the bill themselves. We hear how Orson Welles used techniques brought over from his time on radio to enhance films like Citizen Kane and how Murch was influenced by experimental musician John Cage when constructing the legendary scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone kills a rival mafioso and a corrupt cop in an Italian restaurant. You can almost hear, as Murch puts it, his neurons firing.

The professorial side of Costin comes in as she discusses the various components that go into the sound mix. You’ll discover what ADR stands for (Automated Dialogue Replacement; that refers to dialogue that is re-recorded in studio) or what Foley artists do (they create sound effects such as boots walking through snow, or glass breaking). Costin does bring some of the giants of the industry to talk about sound; visionaries like Lucas and Coppola whose drive to create better movie experiences led them to hire men like Murch and Burtt. We also hear from other directors who understand the nature of sound and its importance to film (like Peter Weir and Robert Redford) as well as from a parade of sound editors.

We also discover that despite the under-representation of women in general in Hollywood technical roles, sound design has always had women involved from Pat Jackson (who is interviewed extensively) on down to Ai-Ling Lee. She also utilizes graphic representations of sound waves to delineate various sections of the film, which is largely divided between chronological advances in sound before moving into the various elements of movie sound. These sections non-buffs might find a little bit dry.

The point is that sound and music often provide an emotional context that images alone cannot alone give us. The sound of a movie has often been underestimated, not only by the moviegoing audience but by studio executives and sometimes even those who make movies. That’s a shame and even though this can sometimes sink into dryness, it is nevertheless essential viewing for any cinema lover who wants to understand movies better and is certainly a must for any aspiring film student.

REASONS TO SEE: Absolutely essential for film buffs everywhere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Those with only a casual interest in film may find it dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although 1927’s The Jazz Singer was the first movie with sound, two years earlier Don Juan had a mechanically synchronized score
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Visions of Light
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Day 5 of Six Days of Darkness!

For the Birds


A bird in the hand…

(2018) Documentary (Dogwoof) Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, Sheila Hyslop, William Brenner, Paul DerOhannesan, Jenny Brown. Directed by Richard Miron

 

There are some who say that there is a very fine line between love and obsession. Still others assert that in love there is always a degree of obsession. However, I think everyone agrees that too much obsession, no matter how great the love, is a very bad thing.

Kathy Murphy lives on a lovely property in upstate New York in a small town called Wawarsing. While the mobile home she lives in is spartan, she and her husband Gary seem pretty content with their lives. She finds an abandoned duckling on her property one day and decides to raise it. She becomes enchanted with the waterfowl; soon more ducklings follow. Then chicks. And geese. Even a couple of turkeys.  Before anyone knows it there are over 150 birds living in close quarters in the shed and having the run of the house.

Kathy goes from being perceived as a kind-hearted animal lover to a slightly eccentric bird enthusiast to a full-blown crazy lady. The birds have completely taken over her life; she spends all her time feeding them, caring for them and hanging out with them. The house becomes fetid with the smell of bird droppings and the noise is so bad that Gary, who works nights, must turn on his stereo full blast to drown out the birds calls so he can sleep. The situation begins to affect his health.

Neighbors begin to notice the mess and the unsanitary living conditions for the birds and call the local SPCA. The Woodstock Wildlife Refuge is notified and workers like Sheila Hyslop, a charming Scottish lady and committed volunteer for the Refuge who is visibly affected by the situation in the Murphy homestead, try to convince Kathy to part with some of her feathered children.

Yes, Kathy actually considers the birds as her babies, which is ironic because she has an adult human daughter who has a child of her own; Kathy has essentially cut them out of her life. In fact, she’s cut everyone other than Gary and the birds from her life and even Gary who clearly loves his wife in order to put up with this for years is getting fed up. Eventually the SPCA animal police are called in and they seize almost all of her birds. A legal battle ensues and although local tax lawyer William Brenner represents her, it must feel to Kathy as if everyone has deserted her – including Gary.

Miron is actually a volunteer at the Woodstock Refuge himself which is where he first encountered the story. Considering Kathy’s contentious relationship with the Refuge, it must have taken some pretty extensive sweet-talking to get her to allow the kind of access she gives the camera crew. Kathy herself makes a fascinating figure; she clearly has at least some form of mental illness. The repetitive phrases she uses, the fast-paced staccato vocal cadences and the rapid head movements certainly give that impression.

You would think Miron would take a very negative view of Kathy and at times, she does come off negatively but Miron is also surprisingly sympathetic as you realize that Kathy is not a monster; she’s also not the sort who endangers her birds because of a mental deficiency. What she does have is a hoarder’s mentality which eventually puts her in an untenable situation where she can’t possibly give the birds adequate care but she refuses to recognize that until it’s too late.

Lest you think this is a downer of a movie, it isn’t. Kathy does find a kind of redemption at the end although it doesn’t come until she hits rock bottom, which often is what it takes for people to make changes in their lives and their attitudes. What prompts Kathy to make those changes is never truly explained. All I can say in the five years that are covered in her life, Kathy ages in a pretty stark manner and I’m talking American President stark. She’s not youthful at the start of the film but you can still see vestiges of her youth; by the time the final credits roll she has clearly aged into the role of an old woman. Love can do that to you.

While this is definitely interesting viewing, it isn’t essential. Miron does a surprisingly good job of telling Kathy’s story, thanks in no small part to the editing work he did in coordination with Jeffrey Star which is where the story really takes off. We often overlook how important film editing is to the finished product but this is certainly an example of how crucial it can be and how it can make or break a movie. Fortunately in this case, it’s make.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering portrayal of obsession and its effects on relationships.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film doesn’t explain very well how Kathy turned her life around.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity as well as a sometimes-disturbing depiction of mental illness and animal neglect.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five-year period.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Extracurricular Activities