Sound and Fury






I thought I was going deaf. Selectively deaf, only to the dialogue of certain films. Leaning forward or cranking the volume (which sometimes only made it worse) I seriously considered turning on those stupid subtitles. Then I happened onto an article that assured me the film industry acknowledges the problem. One sound designer listed a “gumbo” of technical, social, aesthetic, and economic causes, all mushed up together with increasingly maddening results.

How do you read that explanation and not think of U.S. politics? Sometimes people yell, sometimes they mutter, but regardless of volume, those who do not agree find their words unintelligible. Like the mumble and roar of movie dialogue, the political impasse has worsened over the past decade. Dog whistles go unheard by most of us until it is too late. Boomers and millennials refuse to cut one another slack. The right cannot comprehend the words of people who are transgender or in any other way not like them; the left will not listen to any sentence that fails to use the latest vocabulary. Family members can no longer have a friendly argument.

The political is now far too personal. Just after skimming the sound article, I opened a newsletter from the legendary therapist Esther Perel. She began by describing a recent, utterly frustrating session: “From sex to money to in-laws, they had fallen into a pattern of not hearing a single word the other was saying. Well, they were hearing the words, but only for the purpose of rebuttal. They both couldn’t help themselves from cringing, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and sighing every time the other spoke. Each partner’s whole body seemed to express an inability to accept a different reality from its own.”

We are, all of us, losing the plot.

Am I so obsessed with the discord that I see analogies everywhere? Maybe. Nonetheless, I needed a break from political pundits who just hoist themselves onto their favorite soapbox. So I reread the analysis from sound editors, designers, and mixers, all of them eager to solve a problem far more practical in a realm far more fun.

Sometimes, I learned, it is the director’s fault. Christopher Nolan, for example, pushes the boundaries on purpose. He courts his audience’s outrage. No political parallels there.

Sometimes more sophisticated aesthetics are allowed to rule, and the result is a confidential murmur to those who will appreciate the subtlety, everybody else be damned. An attitude that would be easy to resent as elitist.

Good old-fashioned theatricality, in which actors worked hard to reach even the people in the back row, is now out of date. Turns out it is easier to manipulate the audience with special effects than to reach them with words.

Directors (like political handlers) can hesitate to be blunt, afraid to say, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” Because it is safer or easier to let it ride, the mumbling is indulged.

Alternatively, a director has grown so familiar with the script that they can no longer tell how it sounds to a new audience. Mainstream Democrats might be guilty of that?

Another problem for the film industry is that the visual is given such priority. The sound crew is shoved aside, for example, so the camera team can have its lighting just so, without the distracting shadow of a boom mic. The optics are what matters, one sound editor explained. Anything that might skew the optics must be sacrificed.

Also, the sound professionals who know what they are talking about have been slapped aside once too often, so they keep their mouths shut.

Budgets and schedules are always crunched, so no time is taken to get something right the first time. It is assumed—with film, as with legislation—that clean-up can happen later, in post-production.

Technology has complicated sound editing with too many options, too many tracks, too many sound effects, and other distracting toys. New media is an issue: streaming a film to reach an exponentially larger audience requires compression, and that means a loss of quality. Boiling down a long, thoughtful speech to a few sound bites and tweets also requires compression—and can narrow and distort the debate.

Another overlap: directors rely too much on music to generate emotion in the audience. Thoughtful dialogue is pushed back, and the music is cranked up high.

Even dialogue that is borderline audible is sometimes incomprehensible. Often the characters are talking about people, places, or ideas that are new, strange, or complicated, and the audience is not given enough time to absorb what is being said. Here, public policy springs to mind.

One of the biggest problems of all, noted sound editor Donald Sylvester, is that audiences and professionals alike “get familiar with the bad sound to the point where they no longer find it to be a problem.”

Or they feel powerless to change it.

Then you have the local control issue. A film can wind up sounding a lot different in the local multiplex than it sounded in the pure environs of the studio. On top of the extra noise and inferior equipment, local movie houses often ignore the sound specifications, sometimes going low because a director has insisted on a screaming volume, then forgetting to re-set the level for the next film. “God knows what ‘s going to happen when you’re out in the wild,” said sound editor Craig Mann, “and we can’t control all of that.”

Finally, “not every filmmaker knows that you have to rebalance your film so it plays differently on a home theater,” noted Baker Landers. Public policy needs rebalancing, too, if it is to be clear and relevant to families across the country.

The parallels went on. Surprised by just how easy they were to draw, I read the article’s conclusion carefully. The reporter wanted to know how, knowing all this, the industry could make dialogue more intelligible.

Educate people, he was told. Up your game “to meet the changing circumstances of the moment.” Manage the mix. Do not hide in your comfort zone and insist on doing what you have always done.

“I think the solution is brain power,” Sylvester said, “and being aware of what we’re losing in these new presentation environments.” Which sounds like a useful insight, but what political figure knows how to be understood by people whose worldview is 180 degrees away?

The last suggestion? Have “tough conversations on the set which establish priorities and make sure everyone is on the same page.” I snap the laptop shut.

The overlap should not have surprised me. Economics, technology, ego, aesthetics, territoriality, optics—these forces play out in every realm. Lately, the cumulative effect nearly always seems to be destabilizing. Maybe because there is more power and profit in tugging an audience off balance than in appealing to their intelligence?

Like film, politics is an art. The difference is that, while in politics we have all given up on each other, the sound professionals make a fix sound doable.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.