Tuesday, March 31, 2009


As pertains to the previous post, here are some period items concerning musicians and theater fires:
Elizabeth, N.J.—The presence of mind of a pianist in the Proctor Theater, who started to play "The Star Spangled Banner" when a film caught fire, checked the stampede of freightened people and the fire was extinguished by hand grenades ("Trade Notes," Moving Picture World, 19 September 1908, 216).
Not sure what kind of hand grenades those would be...

The problem was not so much the fire itself, which was usually contained by the metal lined box that served as the projection room. Rather the greater danger was general panic:
"The study of the safeguards against accidents from moving pictures is now occupying much of the attention of electricians and insurance men,” said Mr. Sydney Andrews, of the Middle Underwriters’ Association, 316 Walnut street [Philadelphia]. "So satisfactorily has the problem been solved, however, that it would appear to me personally that the greatest danger from the moving picture places was that of stampede from fear of fire rather than from the actual results of fire. You see the most of these places have only one exit, and that is in the front. Consequently, in case of fire the audience would be compelled to rush by the booth, which is in front of the building." ("The Situation in Philadelphia," Moving Picture World, 2 November 1907: 560)
In such situations, music was understood to be a definite ally:
The coolness of George Hunter, proprietor of a nickelodeon at 4115 Butler street, Pittsburgh, Pa., and his piano-player, in the face of danger saved an audience from panic the other night when the moving picture film fired and set fire to a curtain. The flames were spreading rapidly through the room. Hunter leaped to the platform and assured the audience there was plenty of time to get out. At the same time the piano player struck up a lively tune, and their combined efforts served to calm the frightened people. Ushers succeeded in getting every one out safely. Harry Wills, the operator of the machine, was slightly burned about the hands and face. The damage to the building was about $600. ("Trade Notes," Moving Picture World, 1 June 1907, 200)

Nickelodeon Plan

Source: Moving Picture World 28 March 1908

Here is a cut-away drawing of a nickelodeon theater from 1908. The article that this picture illustrates concerns theater safety; hence the annotation: "The only exits." Note that the exits are both located next to projector room, and, at the time, fires were extremely common due to the flammable nature of the film stock. Obviously, a theater constructed in this manner was not particularly safe, and there were frequent campaigns at the time to regulate theaters to avoid floor plans such as this one.

But theater safety is not what drew my interest to this drawing. Instead, the piano situated oddly along the right edge intrigued me. Notice how difficult it would be to see the screen from the position of a player. The obvious implication is that pianist was not expected to play to the film. Actually, given the limited space, it seems quite probable that this is actually supposed to represent a player piano.

(For large size scan (2100 × 1344), double click on the image)

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Does it sound expensive?"

One of the busier composers to have been thrust into the spotlight over the past couple of years is Tyler Bates. In the grand tradition of many successful film composers, Bates began writing for low-budget films and had graduated to mid-level horror films (Dawn of the Dead, The Devil's Rejects, Slither) when he seemed to come out of nowhere with his 2007 score for Zach Snyder's 300. Since then, he's added a television series and video game score as well as three other scores to his resume (including Snyder's Watchmen) and has a nice write-up in Electronic Musician this month. As he's been doing all of this work out of his home studio (hence the title of this post), the article and photos are a good indicator of what a currently successful film composer's life and environment can look like.

Voice as Demonstration Tool in Chapter 2

Chapter 2 uses multiple examples from films to illustrate the musicality of the sound track. In class, demonstration of musical terms using live musicians is ideal, of course, but a compact "bare bones" introduction can be easily managed by using the instructor's own voice (augmented by assistance from students' voices to illustrate polyphony or textural layering). The advantage of this is that the concepts are thereby transferred out of the musical setting to the speaking voice (similar to dialogue) and the instructor's physical movements (similar to acting). The final transfer to the film sound track, then, can be made with little difficulty.

Offscreen vs. Ambient Sound

When we hear a bark but do not see the dog or hear birdsong but do not see the bird, it can be difficult to decide whether to classify such sound as offscreen or ambience. This ambiguity points to a fundamental difference in narrative function, which in turn determines whether we expect the source of the sound to be shown. If the function of the sound is primarily atmospheric, if it serves primarily to establish mood and setting, then there is no reason to show the source. Indeed, showing the source might actually endow it with undue narrative significance. Think here of the atmospheric sound of a howling wolf against the image of a full moon; now think of that same sound, only this time the fog parts on a hilltop revealing an image of a wolf beneath the full moon. The presence of the wolf with synchronized sound asks for a much more direct interpretation. It asks us to make some narrative sense of the bodily presence of that wolf as opposed to the atmospheric presence of the call.

This suggests that one way of thinking about the difference between offscreen sound and ambient sound is in terms of an expectation determined by the needs of the narrative: with offscreen sound we expect the source to be shown whereas with ambient sound we do not expect the source of the sound to be shown. Sometimes, as with crickets at night or the wind howling, we understand that this sound could never be localized to a single sound source; such sound in that sense will always be ambient because, in a sense, it cannot be narrativized, cannot be turned into a character. (Crickets could, perhaps, (like locusts) manifest themselves as a swarm and the wind could become, say, a tornado—as it does in Twister. These are limit cases that show how ambience is bound to a general, rather than particular, representation of the environment or setting.) Even with bird song or a dog bark, where the sound could be much more easily synchronized and so be made particular, we do not expect the source to be revealed to the extent that we understand it as ambience.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Simple pedagogical example in Paris, Texas

Exaggerated, and therefore unusually clear, examples of offscreen sound occur one after the other in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984). At the beginning of DVD ch. 16 (01:10:50), Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) walks past a club playing tejano music; we see the club only several seconds after the scene starts, and volume levels even rise and fall accordingly. Cut to daytime as he walks on a particularly long highway overpass; immediately we hear a man yelling; Travis continues to walk and only 30 seconds later does the man come into the frame as Travis pauses briefly before going on -- and the man's voice goes offscreen again.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Textbook Is Now Available

David and I just received our copies of the textbook in the mail today, and the Oxford University Press website now lists the book as officially in stock.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Three performances in The Sound of Music

We talk about the Laendler scene from The Sound of Music twice in HtM -- as a performance scene in Ch. 7 and as a love scene in Ch. 9. The dance by Maria (Julie Andrews) and Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) is framed by two other performance scenes, a waltz and the children's "So Long, Farewell." Together, these three scenes run just over eight minutes and provide a compact exemplar of differing but typical treatments of performances: (1) narrative proceeds through a performance that shifts between backgrounded and foregrounded status, (2) performance predominates but a significant narrative event occurs during, or as part of, the performance, and (3) narrative essentially stops while the rhythms of the performance take over.

The waltz (01:28:00, or DVD Ch. 29) begins with a diegetic view of an orchestra and couples dancing in the elegant circling manner of the Viennese waltz. (The music is based on "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things".) Frequent cutaways advance the narrative as guests arrive and are greeted, two speak conspiratorially, and the children appear on the outer patio and talk among themselves. The Laendler (01:30:10, DVD Ch. 30) is strongly foregrounded as a performance, but in the course of it Maria and the Captain come to realize that they are attracted to one another. We understand the orchestra to be diegetic (same as for the waltz) but we do not see it. Finally, the strongly strophic design of "So Long, Farewell" — which accommodates the seven children's one-at-a-time "good nights" — shuts narrative down (01:33:10, DVD Ch. 31). This time the orchestra is nondiegetic (there is no attempt at all to implicate the waltz orchestra, nor is there an audio dissolve).

Monday, March 9, 2009

Editing Software

Lifehacker has a quick run down on six video editing software packages for Mac and Windows. Personally, these days I mainly use Quicktime Pro or MPEG Streamclip, both of which offer a very fast way of making excerpts and changing formats but do not allow you to add transitions (e.g., fades).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Weak Acousmêtre in Dark Passage

Dark Passage (1947) is the minor entry among the four feature films starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, by no means up to the standard of The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Key Largo. The screenwriting is somewhat pedestrian and the characterizations too obvious (except for an implausible taxi driver who can't seem to decide whether he's a gangster or a Good Samaritan), but the film's greatest weakness is that it asks the audience to believe that a man we see in a photograph with a full, square face can speak like Humphrey Bogart and, even worse, can have an hour's worth of plastic surgery so that he comes out looking and sounding like -- Humphrey Bogart. On the other hand, the leading and principal supporting roles are well-played by veteran actors, the cinematography is clean and crisp, and Franz Waxman's underscore is both skillful and effective.

Still, the film has some definite pedagogical uses. Bogart's character during the first half has some of the attributes of an acousmêtre, Michel Chion's "acoustical being" defined by sound rather than physical presence. (We discuss the acousmêtre in HtM, ch. 3.) Bogart's shadow man, however, lacks some of the most salient traits of the acousmêtre and so makes for a good comparison with, say, the Invisible Man. The combination of visual and aural point-of-view, starting just before 00:03:00, is also a point of interest, as is extensive use of offscreen sound, which divides duties between aural pov (hearing what Bogart hears) and helping the audience locate his body in relation to the frame. Reasons for the formal distribution of diegetic music, nondiegetic music, and repeated ambient sounds (sirens, motor noise, and boat horns) during the first 20 minutes are worth exploring, too.

Music and Transcendence in The Shawshank Redemption

Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is a dark romance that sets genres incongruously beside another—the hard-boiled realist prison novel and the nineteenth-century "escape" adventure novel (there is even a trace of the coming-to-age narrative, although in the warped sense of men coming to terms with the realities of life imprisonment). The protagonist Andy is falsely imprisoned for the murder of his wife. Only in the last two and a half pages of the ninety-five-page novella does the story suddenly come open, as the second protagonist, Red, is paroled and decides to follow up Andy's hints on how to join him in Mexico. In the feature film version, The Shawshank Redemption (1994; musical score by Thomas Newman), this corresponds to the last minutes of the film. Although both novella and film place the center of attention on Andy (Tim Robbins), the novella is written from the first-person perspective of Red (Morgan Freeman), who is now offered a deus ex machina, thanks to Andy's persistence and intelligence.

The novella ends there, with Red's hope that he can indeed find escape, but the film goes further to show us (to imagine?) the realization of that hope, and it is at this moment that the film's main theme, a simple melody, resists the old cliché of a descending close, which it has followed several times earlier, and instead reaches out and up to end on a high note just as Red, still absorbing the demonstration of Andy's generosity and loyalty, speaks of things "only a free man can feel." (The two versions are shown in musical notation below.) Two markedly different iterations of this transcendent, utopian gesture immediately follow in confirmation, and the film comes to an end with the two men greeting each other on a pristine, isolated beach as credits begin to roll, superimposed.


JB here: I found the clip on You Tube.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Woody Allen and Diegesis

Woody Allen's films are replete with violations of diegetic space that are, of course, played for humor, part of which is triggered by the audience's recognition of the film's constructedness. Beyond their specific functions, these ruptures of the diegetic are valuable pedagogically as exceptions that prove the rule about filmic conventions of space and time, of diegesis and synchronization (we discuss these topics in HtM, chs. 3 & 4).

Perhaps the most familiar instances are when Allen suddenly breaks out of his character to address the audience directly. In Annie Hall (1978), for example, he does this as a frustrated movie-goer forced to listen to the pompous blather of a person behind him in the ticket line. Allen compounds the confusion by dragging in Marshall McLuhan from offscreen (?) to rebut the offending would-be critic, who had mentioned the famous media theorist. Direct address to the audience is hardly unknown -- the voice-over narrator, after all, is addressing the audience, not characters in the film -- but voice-over narration exists in the nondiegetic realm. The barrier of the screen makes direct address to the audience difficult and problematic, not so in the traditional theater, where that barrier is the far more permeable front edge of the stage, so amenable to monologues and soliloquies. Managing voice-over narration in a similar way is ironic or funny, as in Allen's usage, or complex and often ambiguous, as when a voice-over narrator is at some other time revealed to be a character.

The device is pushed to its reductio ad absurdum in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), when one of the actors in a film spots Mia Farrow in the audience (see the first screen still below) and talks to her. He then walks through the screen out into the theater, to the consternation of audience and screen actors alike (see the second screen still). The plot then revolves about the "real life" actor and his newly acquired shadow, both of whom claim to have fallen in love with Mia Farrow's character. If at the end we are suspicious that she might have imagined the whole thing in the course of watching the movie multiple times, the film staunchly refuses to let on.

Screen Sound and Theater Sound

I first saw The Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) in a multiplex theater. Most of this historical costume drama was shot on a somewhat claustrophobic set depicting neighborhoods in a Dutch city during the lifetime of the painter Vermeer, but a very few scenes were done in landscape settings. During one of these, I was impressed by a sound track detail -- faint, distant thunder heard against a clear sky, an effect that subtly hinted at the emotional turmoil in which Griet (Scarlet Johannson) would shortly find herself. Only later, when the thunder reappeared nonsensically during an interior scene, did I realize that the sound was the bass bleeding through the walls from the action film next door. (We discuss multiplex theaters in HtM, chs 13 & 14.)

Woody Allen plays on this confusion of real-world and diegetic sound near the end of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), an inspired farce in which backstage comedy and 1930s gangster films collide. An actress's bodyguard is pursued by two members of his own gang and killed offstage while a play is being performed. The next day the producer reads aloud from glowing reviews. A particularly enthusiastic critic writes that "One of the greatest moments in this reviewer's experience is in act 3, when the lieutenant returns and confronts his mistress. We hear distant gunshots, which get louder and louder, bringing the lieutenant's twisted military past and violent tendencies into bold bas relief." The urge to interpret is strong, but the result may just be fodder for ironic humor.