Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Critique: Conversation of Blood: How Sound Tells the Story

When synchronous sound first appeared in films in 1927, many filmmakers feared that the art of cinema was dead। Over the years, however, ways were found to integrate sound usefully into the filmic language. The films Throne of Blood and The Conversation are two excellent examples of how juxtaposing sounds and images can be used to help tell the story and infer deeper meaning.
The sound in Throne of Blood is very literal; it is always attached to an object on screen. One of the most striking and memorable uses of sound in the film is the lonely, hushed swishing of Asaji’s gown upon the floor as she flits around the fortress in the tense minutes just after the murder of the Lord. It is practically the only noise we hear, and this near vacuum of sound serves to create a haunting and foreboding atmosphere. If the film were silent, the same effect would not be rendered. This is an example of how sound helps to expand the impact of the scene. The same notion would not be accomplished with music; indeed there is no score accompanying this sequence, and with good and deliberate reason: it would be too much. Kurosawa knows this, and so, uses admirable restraint. The sound of Asaji’s swishing gown goes everywhere with her, like a devious whisper. It is quite literally attached to her. it is a sound we would hear were we actually in the room with her, yet on the screen it takes on a special significance. This small sound has a big impact; it tells us that she is a maniacal schemer inside a deceptively quiet package. The sound of the swishing gown, being the only noise present, tears through the scene, simultaneously building and cutting the tension. The sound is simple, mundane even, but the context it is put in causes it to mean something more.
Conversely, the sound effects in The Conversation are used more metaphorically and symbolically. They start out holding onto literal objects, but quickly let go and are allowed to roam around the ether, attaching themselves to things they should regularly have no business associating with. This detachment and reassignment does well to create new and precise meaning. A perfect example of this is the titular, spied upon repartee that Caul records. We first witness the conversation as it happens in real time, attached to the images it originates from. Later, though, as Caul listens to bits and pieces of it, it is out of context, assigned to new images. The words take on new meaning; repeated over and over, they begin to lose their traditional definitions and become just sounds, almost like music. Indeed, the score of the picture is quite minimal, leaving room for these orphan syllables to fill the sonic gaps and punctuate the action themselves. Another function that Coppola employs this method for is to represent Caul’s state of mind cinematically. He starts out sane. We see him listening to the conversation as it happens, in context, unfolding from beginning to end. As the film progresses, however, Caul begins to loose his grip on reality, just as the sounds he listens to again and again are no longer connected to the situation that birthed them. With The Conversation, Coppola proves that sound design can be used to enhance images on screen, rather than detract from them.
Similar to Throne of Blood, though, is Coppola’s deft use of the absence or near-absence of sound. Take the elevator scene, wherein Caul inadvertently shares a ride with one the subjects of his surveillance. For the first time in the film, there is a hush, and it is suffocating and deafening, making us and Caul feel trapped. Again, like Asaji’s swishing gown upon the floor in Throne of Blood, this quiet in the elevator, in the larger context of the film, does more than any carefully crafted effects or musical score possibly could.
Another thing the two films have in common with regard to sound design is juxtaposition. Loud scenes are adjacent to quiet ones. Juxtaposition is a key element of the cinematic language. Usually, it is thought of with regards to opposing images, but it applies equally to sound. As discussed before, Coppola removes certain sounds from their original places and pairs them, or juxtaposes them, with new images.
Through expert use of juxtaposition, Kurosawa and Coppola prove that sound does not have to be a crutch, but can in fact greatly enhance the power of a film.

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