Sound Criticism

This post represents a bit of a change of pace from other letters. I am currently taking a course on the theory and practice of sound design in film. As part of the course we have been asked to write short essays reflecting on a number of books on film criticism and analysis. Being the movie buff that I am, I opted to investigate Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present edited by David Denby. Part 3 of the work examines the development of a theory of film criticism. Essays included film critic Pauline Kael debunking the auteur theory as put forth by fellow critic Andrew Sarris, and an excerpt from Robert Warshow’s “Preface to the Immediate Experience.” These works have sparked my interest in the auteur theory and I have found myself contemplating the usefulness and feasibility of working towards a sort of auteur theory for sound designers. Below is my essay. I hope you enjoy it!

When Robert Warshow wrote his “Preface to the Immediate Experience” in 1954, film criticism was at the stage of existence that sound criticism is today- the early stages. Film criticism was fractured, fragmented into two distinct camps as film critics struggled to determine their role in the broader context of art criticism. Warshow describes two main schools of thought. The first is a precursor to the auteur theory, which privileges the vision of the director and the techniques he or she employed to construct the film while simultaneously minimizing the importance of content. The second type of criticism conversely, minimizes the importance of the aesthetic in favor of examining the film with respect to its role as a barometer of current feelings and trends in broader society and culture. Critics of either camp, however, are intended to remain neutral observational entities. Their purpose is not to apply their own experiences to these detached academic observations. This, according to Warshow, is the fundamental failing of both these types of criticism. He contests that film, at its core as an art form, is continually in conflict with warring identities: those films that seek to appeal to the masses, and those films that function on an alternate plane of ‘high’ art. By introducing him or herself into the critique, Warshow believes that the critic can bridge this divide and resolve the conflict. The common denominator for these disparate film styles is, of course, the viewer, and in this case, the critic. A critic is still human, and it is not impossible for an individual to enjoy both a so-called ‘low brow’ comedy or action picture equally as well as ‘high art’ experimental film. Therefore, to fully legitimize film as an art form on an equal playing field with other visual art such as painting or sculpture, one needs to reconcile the many faces of film so that it may be appreciated as a cohesive art form.

Sound criticism has the benefit of coming to the fore after the many decades of discourse surrounding film criticism. It can benefit from the progress made in trying to address this tension between art and popular culture. However, even with the aid of time, it is easy to see the potential of sound criticism falling into a range of similar dichotomies. However, the notion of a focused sound criticism is slightly problematic. It cannot be considered in the same way as a film as a whole, because no matter what form sound takes aesthetically, it is always beholden to the whims of the director and must work for the sole purpose of furthering along the story. Taking this into consideration, it is interesting to explore the possibility of developing a sort of auteur theory for celebrity sound designers, but it is not clear whether this would ultimately prove to be useful in critical discourses surrounding film sound. Does Walter Murch have a particular style? Perhaps. His name is associated with the idea of ‘worldizing,’ which is a unique design concept characteristic of his sound designs. Once he began to worldize however, the technique grew in popularity amongst other sound designers, and now worldizing has become common across a broad spectrum of projects and sound design practitioners. As Pauline Kael argues in the next piece in this section “Circles and Squares,” perhaps a consistent aesthetic fingerprint is nothing more than a manifestation of artistic limitations. She cites Otto Preminger’s style as ultimately being detrimental to his overall success as a director. She contests that films as radically different as Carmen Jones and Anatomy of a Murder do not warrant stylistic consistency at all. Sound design is the same way. Much as the best directors are those who are able to helm a variety of genres and projects privileging the story above their own aesthetic hallmarks, so too are the best sound designers able to serve the film in the most appropriate way, exercising creativity and innovation, but unbeknownst to the majority of the film-goers sitting in the auditorium.

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