Ever wondered what one of those strange sounding Foley artists are in a movie’s credits? What, how does an award winning short sound?
There’s nothing like reaping the bounty of one’s hard labour now is there? Over the years I’ve cultivated a passing acquaintance with a few delegates in the indigenous film industry, I’m on name terms with a few colleagues in the team that run the LFF every year, and I’ve picked up a few smaller PR and marketing contacts along the way. One of these was responsible for inviting me to the Kier Duella and Gary Lockwood interview last year, so I returned the favour by devoting some coverage to the London Human Rights Film Festival earlier this year, as a way to say thanks and, well, I was interested and enjoyed watching the documentaries anyway – a win win as we like to say in Local Government. These reciprocal arrangements can work wonders as I was delighted to receive a press invite to a Barbican hosted event this week, more specifically an Asian Dub Foundation rescoring and live soundtrack performance of George Lucas THX 1138 – more details here and, indeed here. Having seen the film at the BFI last year I was less interested in revisiting the movie than I was to see Walter Murch in conversation prior to the concert/screening hybrid, he is of course one of the great technicians of our age he is never less than fascinating on the subject and craft of cinema, and is one of the art-forms leading exponents of editing technique and sound design. His contributions to a small trio of masterpieces – The Conversation, some Vietnam war movie and some gangster flick have assured his footnote in cinema history, and he is never less than fascinating and (to coin one of his terms) certainly not fungible in the flesh;
These unusual aural assimilations come along on the world cinema network ever so often, I can recall a Philip Glass rescoring of the 1931 Dracula, (speaking of Glass guess who’s off to the Opera again next year?) and techno sorcerer Jeff Mills replicating of Lang’s Metropolis from recent memory, I can’t say I’d heard of these guys entering the fray before, and it was quite a sensory overload experience. Here’s a little taster;
The press blurb is here, it was certainly quite apt seeing the film in the brutalist enclave of the Barbican building, I felt positively violated as I left the arena. As expected Walter was a fascinating , opining on his three fundamental rules for editing 1) Emotion – does the edit, the cut provoke an emotional response pertinent to the scene and character? 2) Story – does the edit move the story forward, does it drive the narrative flow? and 3) Rhythm, how does the edit work in concert with the entire film, with the pace and tempo of the film? Unlike some he has fully embraced digital methods in both editing and filming despite being raised on the analog systems, and he shared some of the post production techniques he used for THX1138. The man is a genius in the industry, so it was a pleasure to hear her speak;
I hear from my colleagues that Murch is in London for the summer and will shortly be available for interviews – interesting hmm? As I have said before I generally resist these activities as they risk turning a hobby into something more time-consuming and serious, but I think as with the 2001 event I’ll make an exception in this case, given the opportunity to query him on one of the all time great movie openings, on the ratcheting up of the sound and industrial clanking in the infamous Sollozzo sequence, or more seriously how guilty does he feel for unleashing this nightmare fuel on a generation of youngsters in his only non-fiction directing credit;
Can you hear that? That’s the ominous approach of an epoch shattering event in the adolescent development of cinema, the arrival of sound. I’m not going to rehash the introduction of the auditory here as wiser souls have already collated the colorful history here, although of course as Bogdanovich and others have pointed out cinema was never ‘silent‘ due to the important musical accompaniments and audience participation that supported those early screenings, so if you’re interested then here is a fine primer that gives you all the technical and industrial context of the transition which shattered so many careers. Apart from the godlike stars (many of them European talent with strong regional accents) some directors also found the change impossible to accommodate, Griffith and Keaton immediately springs to mind as two icons whose careers waxed and waned as the industry swiftly embraced the new technology, whereas the great chameleon Chaplin and the likes of Hitchcock instinctively absorbed the new narrative and storytelling possibilities that the breakthrough afforded. But it was Fritz Lang whom arguably directed the first sound masterpiece, pioneering the aural to accelerate the cinematic experience, merging technological form with content to provoke a sense of ominous, foreboding dread in 1931’s M.
The landscape is Berlin, the period a decedent 1920’s and a child murderer is terrifying the streets. Although the film has passed into the public domain and you can find it easily on certain sites I arrested the exhaustive recent Blu-Ray release, this essential print containing the original premiere 117 minute version and the 1960 re-issue 98 minute version, alongside a illuminating commentary from director and scholar Peter Bogdanovich. The film is celebrated for its groundbreaking deployment of sound, it was barely a few years since Al Jolson amazed the world and the industry was slowly adapting to the new possibilities at an aesthetic level, of how on-screen sound could be used to drive a narrative and story functions forward to a expectant and attuned audience. Many of these films were primitive affairs, no surprise given the methods required to hide microphones in props and to obscure the cranking and moving of big, bulky cameras being shouldered round the set during a take, but as always a few pioneers begin to mine the possibilities of the newly evolving technology. Lang specifically exploited the phonic in his film, utilizing a few formal inventions – the thud of a bouncing ball, the distant hum of police alarms, the chimes of clocks and church bells – in order to prise open the sense of a humming and vibrant city, before awarding the central protagonist a murderous whistling refrain which becomes the uneasy leitmotif of the entire film. Character voiceover became a economical method of imparting story information over montages of the city and the authorities hesitant investigation into the murders, a procedural fascination with technique, logical deduction and strict methodology which prefigures Michael Mann, David Fincher or any one of the CSI: St. Albans franchises by a half century.
Can you imagine, even remotely, any country on earth or indeed any prestige director gaining finance for a film which has a child murderer and implied pedophile as its main protagonist? Sure it does happen (this is pretty darn grim from Haneke’s production house) from an arthouse perspective but this would be a rough equivalent of Ridley Scott or Chris Nolan taking on such material, with all the attendant controversy that would ensue. The film treads its own dark path in other ways, beyond the deployment of sound there is no hero-cop investigator to root for as Peter Lorre’s career defining antagonist criminal is the only major character in the film, the prowling camera following the loathsome little wretch as he stalks his hapless prey. Lang is less concerned with any individual psychological malfunctions than he is of societies reaction to such unimaginable crimes, the underworld flocking together to eradicate the threat not out of some civic or moral duty but due to the interference that concentrated law enforcement is hampering their clandestine activities. That’s one of Lang’s traits, the position of one mortal situated within a wider society, a human animal constrained and conflicted by civilization’s controlling infrastructure. In M it’s the burglars, pickpockets and larcenists who bring the repulsive killer to kangaroo court justice, prompting some rather uncomfortable questions of the sanctity of the law and due process, of the presumption of guilt before innocence, a cruel and satiric inversion of being judged by a jury of your moral and social peers.
As progressive as the sound design this is a Lang movie so the visual arrangements are equally planned and revealing, the architectural framing of the characters within the urban angles of the underworld and mean streets suggesting a framework of order and control, a futurist manifesto more in alignment with Man With A Movie Camera than the mean streets of The Naked City or The Wrong Man to come. Peter Lorre’s squirm inducing performance lingers in the mind like a trailed nightmare, his sadistic wretch often cited as a metaphor of the Third Reich to come, with Hitler and his psychotic fanatics seizing the country a mere two years later. M is the mirror of a decrepit, shadow choked Germany reeling from a global economic depression and recent scars of defeat, a poisonous fulcrum wich would ferment a fascist cancer. Uncomfortably and presumably intended as a warning the presentation of the murderer verges on the sympathetic, he pathetically confessing that his compulsion to kill is uncontrollable and cannot be refused, a gnawing hunger within him that can only be sated through death. Lang counterpoises this with his frequent fascination with the indiscriminate mob, a crowd working as a homogenous mass of ignorance and fear, an explicit statement of the single in opposition to the social that also prefigures his first American film Fury in 1936. Lorre would go to be one of American cinemas most memorable sniveling, conniving degenerates, with memorable tuns in The Maltese Falcon, some early Hitchcock’s, and a little known picture named Casablanca. With serendipitous timing this article dropped on the day I starting putting this review together which perfectly links some of these European films to some of Hollywood darkest dreams, the early germs of the despair to come;
Well the gifts just keep on giving this week, here is the brilliant Walter Murch, editor and sound artisan par excellence, in lecture mode from last years Sheffield Documentary Film Festival;
After growing increasingly perplexed by my review of The Game I thought I’d take a break and check out an all too rare event these days, a BBC commissioned documentary related to Hollywood. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a red blooded hetrosexual disliker of musicals as much as the next man, but there are a few of them from the golden era which are essential viewing, and as an insight into early Hollywood holography this was insightful amusement. The fact that in a certain bona fide classic about Hollywood duplicity the Debbie Reynolds part was also shadowed as she surrogates a silent star makes me smile;
Aaah, they don’t make them like that anymore. I wonder if in twenty years filmmakers will be producing romantic inclined films about those crazy days of shooting pictures on film, rather than ocular mounted, hard drive driven vipers?