Listening to the Movies

The other day I wanted to watch a movie, but I was too tired. My eyelids were heavy as barbells. I wasn’t really sleepy, just too tired to focus on a movie. I put the movie on and got comfortable, closing my eyes.

Yes, film is a visual media, but it is also a sound experience too. The advent of sound changed the film industry and many careers. While silent films tended to have live music accompaniment and title cards, audiences would discover additional storytelling textures beyond what they were used to enjoying.

What followed was an interesting experience. No drugs were consumed in any of these screening, nor thoughts of any Kardashians.

I’ve seen Bull Durham (1988) many times, so the movie is quite familiar to me. A movie that is well-known can still provide something new.

Crash and Nuke

Without looking at the TV, I followed the movie perfectly. Having watched this so many times, the images were stored in my brain, and were easily dialed-up as a new scene started. Of course, I recalled the comedic elements, even those that were more visible than spoken. A familiar movie like this one is probably unfair to use as an experiment, but I quickly found that I began focusing on aspects other than the words or story points, because I knew them already.

Music, not just popular songs, is important in Ron Shelton films. He uses recognizable songs in key places. From “Rock Around the Clock” and “Centerfield,” to more character-specific like Edith Pilat’s “La Vie en Rose” and George Thorogood’s “Born to Be Bad,” popular songs convey both mood and something about the characters in the scene. Incidental music by Michael Convertino is incredibly effective as well. “Love” is used to emotionally link a montage toward the end of the film. It conveys loneliness, disappointment and melancholy as Crash Davis finishes his baseball career without fanfare, Annie goes about her emptier life without with Crash or Nuke as summer gives way to the rainy and melancholy fall season. “Love” is one of the best pieces of instrumental music I’ve ever heard in a movie.

What I also enjoyed, just listening, was the dialogue in the film. Not the words as much as the rhythms and nuances of how the words are spoken. Shelton is an excellent writer of offbeat characters and in his films there is a great deal of verbal conflict. Characters enter scenes from different angles, their emotions and motivations have conflicting purposes. It is from this conflict that we get to know the characters and the energy drives the story forward. It’s like billiard balls colliding. Smart, crackling dialogue is always interesting.

A difference between a very good movie and a great one is all the additional information that can be found in a great one. Like a painting that keeps you discovering more depth and emotional texture. When you are not using your eyes, your ears more acutely mine information from sound. Obviously this does not work well with movies with quiet scenes, heavy special effects or long instrumental passages where it becomes a predominantly visual set of clues.

The next listening session involved To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

The first thing I notice is the incredible musical score by Elmer Bernstein. Like some other composers of the era, Bernstein had a main theme, then did variations off of it. I can’t overstate the importance of music to this movie. However, even without music, this movie would lose none of its bite and poignancy, the issues of justice and racism would not be diluted; yet the music adds a layer of emotion, especially in the family relationships and struggles of each character. Bernstein was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for his score.

Among the musicians who contributed to the main score motif, including playing the lonesome sounding piano, was John Williams. As a young musician/composer, he often worked for Bernstein and Henry Mancini. Williams of course went on to score hundreds of television and film scores, often working for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Much of the connectiveness of the story resides in the narration of Scout, as an adult, she is looking back on these events. The narrator does not overtly try to inflect the story with her emotions; the story has a matter-of-fact quality, yet there is a sense of underlying longing for a special, but lost time.

Gregory Peck has a dignified, yet warm and richly inviting form of delivery. His Atticus Finch has a proud, yet loving embrace voice, respectful of others, his cadence is slow and his drawl stays within a moderate range.

I spoke of the excellent score; but it was not overused as is often my complaint with today’s movies. In the court scene, there is no music, the drama is played with just the actors voices. The tension is high as it ratchets up with the emotional testimony of the girl who was sexually assaulted, and then the defendant. The court scene is more than twenty minutes long; all without music.

My third film was The Wild Bunch.

Sam Peckinpah’s movie was maybe the most talked about movie of 1969, primarily for the graphic violence. I wanted to experience the movie from only sound and what I remembered.

There are really only two major scenes of intense violence, at the beginning and end, as bookends for the movie. The rest of the movie is really a character study of six men facing the end of an era; their era. The road ahead is not promising.

The musical score is by Jerry Fielding. The music over the opening credits, where the men dressed as soldiers ride into town, and the army ants sworn the tarantula, is foreboding and uneasy. During the twelve minute opening shootout, there is only incidental music from a marching band, just the sound of gunfire and panic. While music can enhance a scene, it can also distract.

Throughout the movie, Fielding uses authentic Mexican music for celebrations and happy moments, then orchestrations selectively to underscore dramatic moments. One scene where the outlaws steal rifles on a U.S. government train, just the rhythmic sound of the locomotive’s engine is heard, which provides the tension, almost like a pulse.

At the movie’s conclusion, after the outlaws have decided to fight Mapathe’s army for their friend, the scene is done with only a few words of dialogue. The decision is reached through nonverbal communication, as each outlaw accepts the plan, and ultimately their fate.

The Wild Bunch is quite a visceral movie, but there is a lot of information in the margins.

The fourth movie is Chinatown (1974).

Chinatown is a neo-noir detective mystery of 1930s Los Angeles. This a very old fashioned movie, the look and feel of postwar L.A. has the sun washed glow of the desert and allure of the American Dream.

From a sound perspective, the film is bathed in the haunting, melancholy jazz composed by Jerry Goldsmith. The main theme has an eerie and edgy vibe. The music fills, delicately underscoring, the mysterious actions and the flawed behavior in the story. The story is allowed to breathe, with natural sound effects punctuating the quiet. The sound effects, seagulls or splashing water can be more effective in building tension than music telling you what to feel.

Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes is smuggly confident, yet knows how to turn on the charm or the tough-guy attitude. Nicholson’s inflections turn on a dime and his Gittes shows conflicted feelings for his client Mrs. Mulwray.

One very effective musical device by Goldsmith is the jarring use of musical instruments to convey tension or suspense. A single instrument, used sparingly is more effective than an orchestra or low bass notes.

In Chinatown, the listener can feel the emotions of the characters and be cascaded with the glitter and fool’s gold of pre-War L.A.

Casablanca (1942)

Rick and Ilsa. They will always have Paris.

The movie’s opening sequence has a montage and narration which set up the story of intrigue and desperation against the Second World War. In the first several minutes, the conflicts have been identified even before Bogard and Bergman enter the movie.

Each character has an easily identified voice, it’s the United Nations of characters and motivations. The dialogue is in English, but heavy accents. Fear and desolation hangs thick in the air.

Music is important to the story. The score is provided by Max Steiner. His music is used to convey the emotional journey of Rick and Ilsa, and the events of the War. The famous song used in Rick’s Cafe, “As Time Goes By,” was written by Herman Hupfeld. This song had been around for awhile and is the love theme between Rick and Ilsa. Other songs used in the movie can be heard in Rick’s as incidental music, for emotional accent. The French and Germans have a very effective duel of songs at one point, a symbol of opponents in the War.

Yes, Bogart is a tough guy, yet he has a soft, gooey center. Most of the main characters are not entirely what they seem. Yes, you can see it onscreen, but you can also hear it in their voices.

If you have seen the movie a few times, your ears can easily follow the movie. The dialogue communicates the story with emphasis from the music.

Next up is Tin Men (1987).

Barry Levinson’s ode to early 1960s Baltimore. This is a comedy built around two shady aluminum siding salesmen who are in love with their Cadillacs and the same woman.

Levinson writes rich character films, so it’s in the dialogue and reaction to events where you enjoy the pearls. There are many quirky characters, comic conflict and the dialogue is rapid-fire. This is a movie about the American Dream and optimism of the period. Many nostalgic cultural references happen in scenes that have nothing to do with the story, but they are fun as these characters give us a laugh.

The movie begins with a Nat King Cole song. Other period songs follow, but strangely the Fine Young Cannibals, a late 1980s group pop group, contributed several soulful songs. Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is used for a seduction scene that has an unpredictable funny/sad result.

Tin Men is a movie about dialogue, as I have said. Character-centered films focus on the words and character reactions. There is plenty of visual comedy here, and Levinson’s production catches the early 1960s style.

Listen, and ye shall be entertained.

2 thoughts on “Listening to the Movies

  1. Interesting topic, Mike. I’ve seen the movies above except Bull Durham and Tin Men. Way too many movies today have baby-boomer producers who want to borrow from their record collections, and the music often doesn’t fit. I’ve noticed even documentaries have loud music running throughout, which smothers the story and is very distracting. As far as non-musical sound, I’ve always loved spaghetti Westerns, which have little dialogue but lots of extraneous noise to enhance atmosphere: grunts, sighs, horses snorting, etc.


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