The Changing Role of Sound in Film Criticism

In keeping with the style of my previous post, I present my last short paper for my sound theory and practice course. It is a reflection on two essays, one about Film Noir penned by Paul Schrader, and another by Susan Sontag discussing the science fiction genre. The essay concludes with an entreaty to consider the use of sound in future film criticism. This essay was written prior to the recent reviews of Christopher Nolan’s Insterstellar, which illustrate that as sound technologies continue to improve, their perceived importance in an audience member’s experience of a film also grows. Sound is now a noteworthy issue to discuss as Anne Hornaday’s (of The Washington Post) review title “Interstellar‘s sonic soup or: How auteurs diss their audiences” aptly shows. Hornaday is not the only critic to note the improperly balanced final mix– the overpowering nature of Hans Zimmer’s score and a score of bass-heavy sound effects. I have not yet seen the film, and so cannot affirm or deny these claims. I only cite this as a timely example of the shift in film criticism from the predominantly visual focus of the critics of the ’60s and ’70s to present times.  While film criticism has certainly made great strides in beginning to include the other half of a movie, even Hornaday’s review stops short of examining sound in the same way as one might the visual or the writing. It’s a valid and important observation to note the negative impacts of unintelligible dialogue, but perhaps the real sonic discussion of Interstellar should be to address why Nolan and his team felt that the bass heavy mix with overpowering music was appropriate in the first place. What was Nolan trying to communicate with the mix and with Zimmer’s music? Visual conventions (and breaks away from convention) in films have established semantic meanings that are illustrative of a variety of societal conditions. Sonic conventions (and breaks from convention) are just as indicative of social and cultural mores as visuals are. The next step in incorporating sound into film criticism therefore, becomes creating a relationship between the presentation of sound in film and what that sound is trying to communicate on a broader artistic, social, cultural, and narrative level.

The analysis of genre films can be undertaken from many different perspectives. One can approach them, as Paul Schrader does in his essay “Notes on Film Noir,” (1972) from a perspective of stylistic analysis. This methodology is a modernist approach in that it emphasizes the intrinsic aesthetic and artistic values of a work, divorcing it from the greater social context within which it was created. Conversely, one can view films for their sociological and cultural significance, attempting to dissect their imagery and stylistic conventions in relation to their social commentary. This is a distinctly postmodern view that recognizes that all artwork created is a product of its context and the experience of the artist. This is the approach that Susan Sontag takes in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster” (1967).

Each approach has its own validity. Sometimes it is interesting to examine the pure aesthetics of a form of film making. Oblique angles and dramatic shadows are hallmarks of the film noir, just as flat, full-on lighting is that of a comedy. This type of classification provides a more concrete mode of assessment and categorization that can be useful when developing comparison analyses between film types and genres. While Schrader does, very briefly, touch upon the social conditions that resulted in the evolution of noir as a film type, breaking its development down into 4 discrete components: war and post-war disillusionment, post-war realism, the German influence, and, the “hard-boiled” literary tradition (281), he was far more thorough in his aesthetic analysis. He hesitates to label film noir as a genre of film, instead, Schrader refers to it as a style. The themes he identifies are extensions of the form’s stylistic hallmarks. Interestingly, Schrader spends very little time on the discussion of the use of sound within these films. If such precise attention to detail was paid to all other aesthetic components of film noir, including the writing, the character types, and the visuals, one would assume that a noir director’s attention to the use of sound would fall into one of two categories: either the director would pay as much heightened attention to detail in the sound work as the rest of the aesthetic composition, or he would let sound fall completely to the wayside. Schrader, however, leaves sound completely out of his analysis. He emphasizes the importance of the visual, “compositional tension is preferred to physical action. A typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical action” (283). The use of camerawork as a narrative device is used similarly in many high art silent films. This might lead some to surmise that sound in film noir would be relegated to nothing more than a supporting role, akin to its place in the silent film sphere.

While it is easy to confine an analysis strictly to the mechanics of filmmaking, considering only the artistic intent of the director and the practicality and logistics of achieving a particular shot or visual look, it is important to remember that films are works of art, and are open to wider sociological, cultural, and emotional interpretations. Susan Sontag approaches the science fiction films of the 1950s and ‘60s in this way, attempting to understand the sociological significance of the recurring traditional narrative story arcs and archetypical characters present in these films. Sontag states “science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art” (266). The idea of facing a disaster resonates at the most primitive core of humanity’s collective consciousness. Because of this, disasters, especially in Hollywood (science fiction) films, are usually told on a monumental scale. Filmmakers build extravagant sets, develop intricate character designs, and wow audiences with visual effects. These aesthetic and mechanical conventions may be viewed as a direct result of the great importance of the disaster in the collective human psyche. “The science fiction film…is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess” (266). Consequently, sound plays a significant role in these types of films since filmmakers rely on the combination of sound with image to fill in the details of the fantastical world depicted on the screen. Sontag acknowledges this, citing examples of the noises emitted by space-age machines, and crashing explosions (267). Unfortunately, before elaborating upon specific uses of sound within the genre, she moves her analysis away, focusing once more upon the visual.

As the essays by Schrader and Sontag illustrate, it is possible to devote pages of text to the analysis of a narrow subset of film history, exploring the aesthetics, the sociological significance, or a combination of both, in these films. While these analyses are incredibly valuable, as film criticism moves forward, it is imperative that the critic begin to recognize and address the role that sound has in shaping these categories of analysis. Camera work changed after the advent of sound in film. The microphone could pick up every camera utterance and directorial shout that before would be invisible in the final print. Clearly sound influences form; let us work to include sound in all formal and critical analyses in the future.

Essays from:

Denby, David, ed. Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present. 1st ed. New York City: Vintage, 1977. 263-290. Print.

Thanks for reading. I hope to return to letter writing in the coming weeks, as I reach out to one of my favorite director’s of the Danish New Wave of the 1990s.

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