I’d like to discuss some transformations which have occurred in film sound, and brought about by film sound, since Dolby became the standard for film in the middle of the 1970s. We should remember that previously there were already films we could watch using ‘magnetic sound’ which had Dolby characteristics (increased frequency range, dynamic enhancement, ie: the possibility of contrasting high intensities and damping background noise; and of course, two, three, four or six tracks instead of just one), but these films – usually David Lean-type adventure movies, special productions like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK,1968), or musicals like West Side Story (Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins, US, 1961) – represent a very small proportion of general production, and, in order to be seen under ideal acoustic conditions, special set-ups were required, so they were only screened in ‘stereophonic sound’ in a few prestigious venues. They couldn’t have any effect on cinema aesthetics in general.
When Dolby appeared (launched as part of the promotion of Ken Russell’s Tommy, UK, 1975), it was initially treated in the same way as Cinemascope: it was seen as a new acoustic space which had to be filled right up in order to enhance it. Films like the first Star Wars (George Lucas, US), which came out in 1977, are good examples of this aesthetic of ‘plenitude’ and ‘sonic density’. Yet, this latter was not invented in every respect by Dolby. Some earlier films, like George Lucas’ THX 1138 (US, 1971), which owes a lot to Walter Murch as both co-writer and editor, already had enormous richness of sound.
At the same time, in a dialectical movement, it became increasingly clear that Cinemascope’s creation of a new cinematic space to be filled, also created a larger space to be emptied (compare the ‘full’ image of The Robe (Henry Koster, US, 1953), the first official Cinemascope film, with the ’empty’ image of A Star is Born (George Cukor, US, 1954). Equally quickly it became clear that this newly created sonic space also needed to be emptied, a new silence had been created. The new silence which envelopes and dominates certain words and isolated noises gives a new and singular intensity to particular scenes. It was there in any case in certain films from the beginning of Dolby, or earlier in some ‘magnetic sound’ films.
Let us take as an example Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (US, 1979), where Walter Murch did the sound design. The most famous sequence is based on a ‘full’ effect, the bombardment of the Vietnamese village with the noise of helicopters and explosions. But here already one can find minimalist sequences, where the loudspeakers ‘suspend’ their noise, like an orchestra which is there but is not playing, to allow a solo sound to ‘speak’, for example the voice of Marlon Brando in the monologues at the end of the film.
So Dolby sound introduces a new expressive element, the silence of the loudspeakers, and, to complete it, the attentive silence of the audience which is its reflection. All silence exposes us by way of stripping bare our hearing, but it is also as if a huge ear opened to pick up our slightest noises. While we are listening to the film, we are, as it were, being listened to by it.
In another scene edited by Walter Murch and sound-designed by Alan Splet, the photographic shoot sequence in Phil Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (US, 1987), the quality of the silence surrounding the noises (the clicking of the camera Juliette Binoche is using), and the music (taken from a Janacek sonata) as well as discrete natural sounds (thunder) created, by way of reflection, a certain silence in the audience which underscored the density of the silence between the two women, a silence with an obvious erotic meaning.
In Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze (Greece/It/Fr, 1995) the movie director played by Harvey Keitel arrives in Sarajevo at the time the city was being bombed. The sound of explosions, footsteps, and the voice of Keitel is distant and muffled, which produces the unusual impression of life held in abeyance, because of the clarity of the sounds and what one might call the ‘silence of the loudspeakers’. In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s La Double Vie de Veronique (Poland, 1991), a music teacher (Irène Jacob) takes a class of schoolchildren to see a puppet show. Because of the digital sound one can hear not only the sound of the piano accompanying the show, but also the very faint noises made by a group of children even when it is silent and attentive. Here the sound of the audience is, in its discretion, particularly moving, and it holds up a mirror to our own concentration.