Movies are too damn loud. I have a friend with tinnitus who can't go to the pictures because he might harm himself. "I can usually go see foreign films or really talky movies," he says. "The Company of Menwas really good for me because basically all they did was talk."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chooses to reward sonic onslaught with its sound award, which every year seems to go to the film with the most airplanes in it. This year, the list of nominees includes both Con Air and Air Force One, two films you won't find up for many other kudos. Why do the noisiest films get nominated?
What's being rewarded, it turns out, isn't on-location sound, but expensive post-production work. "When they shoot a scene on an airfield, they have to loop the dialogue, actually replace it later, because there are all these stupid airplanes in the background," explains Matt Monroe, a Seattle-based location sound mixer ("a lot of people just call me Sound Guy"). But not even the airplane noise is taped live. "They get an audio reference track," Monroe says, "either something they've already got, or they might send a guy out later to a different place to record it. It's certainly easier than getting good location sound."
When I ask if this offends his aesthetics, he tells me his theory of good sound. "I believe my job is not to get the best sound, but the most appropriate sound." In his work for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, Monroe might tape an interview on the beach. "On the coast, you hear waves, you hear seagulls. If you're recording out there, you might not get the best audio, but it's the most appropriate."
While airplane noises may have you stuffing popcorn in your ears, the more insidious culprit is the score, which is not only sonically loud, but emotionally loud. The award for best original dramatic score each year seems to find its target, like a missile seeking heat (very loud heat) in the most disruptive, obnoxious scores out there. As an audience, we want the movies to do their manipulative job of dictating emotion. We just don't want to be reminded about it all the time. Several of this year's nominated scores—Amistad, Good Will Hunting, and Titanic—insistently remind us of the manipulation at work. (We'll let less egregious nominees L.A. Confidentialand Kundun off the hook.)
The noisiness of American film isn't merely annoying—it's insulting. Take Amistad—please. Whenever Anthony Hopkins appears in the role of John Quincy Adams, a kind of "Spirit of '76" tune twines around his noble brow. And I mean "whenever" quite literally—he doesn't appear for a single moment without this insipid musical shadow. What's the point of making a film about American history if not to make it human-size? Yet this fife-and-drum number does just the opposite. It distances us from Adams by reminding us of how we're supposed to feel about him. Revere him, dammit!
I recently caught the 1971 film The French Connection on late-night TV. The silence of the film sounded strangely great, ringing and suspenseful and taut. You could hear Gene Hackman's footsteps meeting the pavement, car engines starting up, conversations in the background. It gave the film poise, even dignity. The film wasn't whoring itself to the viewer's emotions.
Music is ubiquitous. Not just in movies, but in the air we walk through. Milan Kundera describes the proliferation of sound in a scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where Franz and Sabina sit at a restaurant where "loud music with a heavy beat poured out of a nearby speaker as they ate." Sabina thinks longingly of "the days of Johann Sebastian Bach, when music was like a rose blooming on the snow-field plain of silence." (Incidentally, Kundera here neatly pulls off the almost impossible feat of a successful rose-in-the-snow metaphor.)
Films from the era of The French Connection existed in that snow-field plain. And within the silence of the larger culture, the films kept themselves quiet too. When music crops up, you notice it—as you do with lots of contemporary foreign films. When Ravel makes his sinuous way into the French film My Sex Life, it destroys you because there's a wide white background of silence behind it.
Scores that insist we respond with more obtuse emotions force us to lose complex, human responses to film. I had a high school Latin teacher who, in defense of his anachronistic subject, insisted on the value of Latin for vocabulary building. He told us, "You can't have an emotion unless you know the word for it." At the time I thought, "How elitist." But now I wonder. Watching film is an intricate neural dance of emotion and intellect. Music, with its powerful voice, names our emotional response to film. Its vocabulary should be as varied and subtle as films themselves.