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!

Hitchcock/Truffaut


The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

(2015) Documentary (Cohen) Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Matthieu Amalric (voice), Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Directed by Kent Jones

Greatness isn’t a title we’re allowed to proclaim for ourselves; it is rather bestowed upon us by those who follow in our footsteps. And, hopefully, an honor bestowed upon a favored few.

Certainly, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut are worthy of such accolades. Hitchcock, once lauded as the Master of Suspense, was mainly relegated to the standing of a competent director of popular entertainment. It wasn’t until Nouvelle Vague darling Truffaut interviewed him and wrote a book about their conversation that Hitchcock began to be taken more seriously by film cognoscenti.

Much of the documentary is about the conversation between the two legends, with audiotape from the actual interviews that are augmented by film clips and commentary by ten modern directors who are clearly influenced by Hitchcock in particular. I don’t know that the commentary augments the book with much insight other than as to how Hitchcock has influenced modern movies, particularly in how carefully he framed and set up his shots. You might not know it from looking at him, but Hitch was a driven artist who labored intensely to make his vision come to life.

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s disdain for actors and in many ways he used them as living props. He was a visual storyteller more than anything, which makes sense considering he got his start in silent cinema. He worked with some of the great names in Hollywood – Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Tony Perkins, Janet Leigh and so on – but for him, they meant little other than how they looked in the shot. He was a master storyteller however and he always got the best from his actors, no matter how much they personally disliked him.

The thing is though; I’m not sure why this documentary exists at all. The book that it is about is a landmark book that essentially provides readers with a Film Directing 101 course and continues to do so to this day. Anyone interested in going into movie production should make it required reading. But the question is what does this documentary give you that you couldn’t get from reading the book yourself?

The answer is not much. Sure some of the director commentary helps, and Jones – whose day job is as a film historian (he also has collaborated in the past with Scorsese, a well-known film buff) – provides some historical context to Hitchcock’s career. Some of the footage of his older films from the silent era and in England in the 30s was stuff I hadn’t seen. I wish there had been more of it.

Certainly there is plenty of interest here and if you haven’t read the book, this is a fine introduction to it. I read it back when I was in middle school and high school and my lifelong love of film was in part primed by it and other such tomes (The MGM Story, for example) for which I’m duly grateful. However, recommending this has to come with a codicil – read the book. If you have more than a passing interest in movies, you should read it anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights to some of his classics. Gives a great director his due.
REASONS TO STAY: Couldn’t ya just read the book? Glosses over most of his films other than Vertigo and Psycho.
FAMILY VALUES: Some images of violence as well as suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The conversations, recorded on audiotape and partially on film, took place over a week in a conference room on the Universal lot in 1962.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: In the Heart of the Sea

The Artist


The Artist

Ta-da!!!!!!!!!!

(2011) Romance (Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Bitsie Tulloch, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian, Basil Hoffman. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

 

Some movies try to re-invent the wheel. On occasion they are successful and create something new and exciting. Strangely, sometimes going back to the beginning can in itself become something new.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is at the top of the world in 1927. He is a movie star, beloved by women and admired by men. His movies are smash hits, the studio loves him and he is married to a beautiful woman (Miller). There are clouds on the horizon however; the talkies are coming and George has a thick French accent.

But that is still on the horizon. For now, George has another fabulous premiere of another big hit to attend. Outside, while mugging for reporters, a female fan named Peppy Miller (Bejo) accidentally bumps into him; the two mug for the cameras and Peppy bestows upon George a kiss which makes all the industry papers.

George, a generous soul, gets her a bit part in a movie and thus begins the inevitable decline of the big star and the rise of a fresh face. George, refusing to do talkies, gambles everything on a big budget silent that nobody wants to see. Peppy, on the other hand, is just as her name describes her; energetic, smart, sly and full of moxie, see? She is the embodiment of the new Hollywood; stars that not only are beautiful but have something to say.

George’s fortune is lost in the crash. His wife leaves him. The studio boss (Goodman) fires him. As time passes, he is unable to afford his faithful valet (Cromwell) and fires him. All that is left is his dog – and Peppy, who is hopelessly in love with him but George’s pride won’t let him accept her aid. Pride goeth before the fall and George has an awful long way to go before he hits bottom.

Who would have thought that one of the best movies of 2011 would be a silent movie (not completely silent – there is a musical soundtrack, some sound effects during a dream sequence and a few lines of dialogue near the end of the movie). Hazanavicius has skillfully re-created not only the era but the style of the films. He went after a melodramatic look and it pays off; even though there are elements of the screwball comedy as well as the swashbuckler.

Valentin is a cross between John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks – dashing, handsome and with a crooked grin that is endearing, he is both masculine and charming. Dujardin plays him with a bit of a wink but as Valentin’s fortunes fall, the French star adds an element of pathos that really gives the movie a complete emotional gamut; it’s part of why the movie is so wonderful. At various times in this movie you’ll laugh and cry and Dujardin is a big reason why.

Bejo who is the daughter of an Argentine filmmaker but grew up in France is also the director’s wife; formerly best-known for her role as Christiana in A Knight’s Tale (2001) she is almost a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination (she already has a Golden Globe nomination among others). She brings a liveliness and joie de vivre to Peppy that adds a great energy to the picture. In fact, there is a great joyfulness to the movie that separates it from much of the dark, depressing fare that comes out of Hollywood these days.

There are some terrific supporting performances, particularly from Cromwell as the loyal valet but the performance most people are going to remember is the dog. Jack puts Lassie to shame. Jack gives the movie one rating point all by himself.

Needless to say, the critics are falling all over themselves to praise the movie and with good reason. Rarely does a movie come along that has as much heart and soul as this one. It has become quite literally the must-see movie of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Charming and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the silent film to be gimmicky.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s one disturbing scene and an obscene gesture but otherwise fit for most families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog Jack was actually played by three separate Jack Russell terriers and each one was colored to resemble the other dogs so that they matched onscreen.

HOME OR THEATER: Best viewed in an old movie theater, preferably one more than 70 years old if you can find one around.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination