Trust maverick Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul to come up with something just that little bit unexpected. In his Cannes jury prize winner Memoria, shot in Colombia with Tilda Swinton, the film’s abiding mystery concerns a certain sound. It’s huge, reverberating, like some grandiose sonic boom, except it hasn’t been created by a passing supersonic aircraft.
Tilda is intrigued to the point of obsession, and as we start listening intently with her just in case the damn thing happens again, it’s a salutary reminder of how often we take sound in cinema for granted – as something functional, descriptive, part of the grain of the overall viewing experience. It’s often just there – except in instances like this when we’re asked to stop for a moment and actually consider its meaning.
Once the novelty of synchronised dialogue and music wore off, probably not long after cinemas were refitted in the wake of 1927’s The Jazz Singer, audiences simply accepted sound as a standard part of the cinema experience. Yet it’s possible to trawl through cinema history and see how enterprising filmmakers have emphasised the audio part of the medium in various intriguing ways.
Sometimes that’s a by-product of the subject matter itself, as in submarine movies where the foes can’t actually see each other, so the ping cycle of sonar equipment allows them to hunt each other down. At other times, it allows directors from Hitchcock to Peter Strickland to deconstruct how we read a film, by highlighting or distorting the soundtrack so the audio isn’t just supporting the images but taken as a vital creative element in its own right.
It’s in that relationship between audio and video where things get fascinating, especially when films explore an altered balance between the senses, or tackle a situation where either sound or hearing is no longer part of the equation and human perception adjusts to compensate.
Here’s a selection of titles to have you thinking about audio as vision for the ears, augmenting and intensifying our viewing by showing us the benefits of listening that bit more closely.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The coming of sound presented all sorts of technical pitfalls, but Hitchcock saw only opportunity. He’d already shot much of this thriller as a silent movie, before the decision came to add dialogue for selected scenes plus a few background sound effects. Although early in his career, it remains a quintessential Hitchcockian offering, navigating a characteristically fine line between guilt and innocence, as a young woman fatally stabs a lecherous artist who tries to take advantage of her.
Hitchcock exploits the new sound technology for heightened dramatic effect. One famous scene sees the heroine wrestling with her conscience while a chattering old dear muses on the murder weapon. As the scene progresses, Hitchcock silences the rest of the dialogue yet keeps the repeated word “knife” audible – with sinister results. He already realised that sound was much more than a functional process; it was a valuable addition to his creative armoury, expanding the vocabulary of screen storytelling.
The Enemy Below (1957)
Director: Dick Powell
Poinng… poinng… poinng… The sound of naval sonar equipment sending out a signal to show up subaquatic enemy vessels remains the signature element in Second World War dramas like this dad-cinema classic. There’s built-in tension to scenes of listening and waiting, as a US destroyer and German U-boat engage in an extended set-to in the South Atlantic. They’re foes who can’t always see one another but use sound waves to detect each other’s presence.
As American captain Robert Mitchum and his wily opposite number Curd Jürgens develop a mutual respect, it’s a confrontation that seems tailor-made for the cinema, but required the full array of studio resources to bring it to life – including detailed mock-up sets, expert miniature work, military cooperation for the hardware, and the audio expertise to make those sonar blips really ping. It’s all here, mounted to perfection in a movie that spawned a late-50s sub-cycle, including Run Silent Run Deep (1958), Torpedo Run (1958) and Up Periscope (1959).
Director: Philip Dunne
In all honesty, ‘great’ is slightly pushing it for this 60s spy caper, but it does have an audio-centric central conceit that’s so clever it makes the ho-hum context worth persevering with. New York psychiatrist Rock Hudson is inveigled by mysterious military types into treating a troubled scientist held in seclusion at a top secret location – so he’s blindfolded on the journey there by plane, car and motorboat, while keeping his ears open for clues as to where he might be. Whaddaya know, sundry plot convolutions later, he must recreate the same trip as national security depends on it, and back on goes the blindfold.
Elsewhere it’s sub-Hitchcockian bubblegum, which leans a little too heavily on Hudson’s light comedy skills and rather undercuts the suspense element. Someday though, Hollywood will get round to remaking this, since the movie’s positively crying out for someone to take the central idea and run with it.
The Stone Tape (1972)
Director: Peter Sasdy
Christmas Day 1972 saw BBC2 viewers choking over their turkey sandwiches as Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale once again held the nation in his grasp. Speculative science and ghostly scares combine in characteristic Kneale fashion, as a team of consumer electronic boffins aiming to invent the next-generation of audio recording formats discover something else entirely in the English country house they’ve made their base.
Supernaturally sensitive researcher Jane Asher is the first to pick up the spooky vibes, as it becomes apparent the foundations of the building have somehow recorded centuries-old traumatic events, which might now be accessed if the scientists can muster the technical wherewithal. Shot on video, it all looks terribly dated in an authentic time-capsule fashion, and given limited visual effects resources, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop carry the day, conjuring up a whole array of hair-raising sounds realising the unearthly horrors of a distant past.
The Conversation (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola got this long-gestating project into production on condition that he would then agree to direct The Godfather Part II. In the event, it’s one of his strongest, most concentrated offerings, playing out like an audio equivalent of the photographer’s quest for meaning in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966).
Gene Hackman is inward and compelling as a surveillance wizard who achieves the near-impossible task of eavesdropping on a couple who meet in a busy San Francisco park precisely because they’re wary of being recorded. He gets it all on tape and uses mixing-desk trickery to clarify every word, but understanding exactly what he’s captured is a challenge that puts his modus operandi to the sternest test. Interpretation proves to be the one unknown and uncontrollable variable as this gripping affair uses movie thriller inflections to pose key questions about our fundamental perceptions of the world around us.
Director: Derek Jarman
The only film in this selection to have been broadcast separately on BBC Radio 3 and issued as a standalone audio CD. Complications from AIDS (which took his life four months after the film’s premiere) had severely reduced Derek Jarman’s vision when he embarked on this valedictory project, so we see only a screen filled with unchanging International Klein Blue as the soundtrack combines voiceover and Simon Fisher Turner’s evocative score to reflect the musings of an artist facing his final days.
The vividly engaging audio element is tenable in and of itself, but it’s only in conjunction with the visuals that the film achieves its full grandeur. The unyielding deep blue brings home the finality of mortality, yet also offers us a portal to the infinite. Hence Jarman at once presents an angry portrait of Britain during the fiercest years of the AIDS crisis, and offers a very personal contemplation of timelessness.
Touch the Sound (2004)
Director: Thomas Riedelsheimer
How can a deaf woman be one of the world’s greatest musicians? That’s the conundrum explored in this evocative feature-length portrait of Scotland’s Evelyn Glennie, who lost her hearing during childhood yet found herself at home in the school music room, threw away her hearing aids and became a globally renowned percussion virtuoso.
Cameras follow her through encounters with Latino musicians in New York to a Japanese drum ensemble and a remarkable recording session with egghead guitarist Fred Frith in an abandoned factory in Germany, as we realise how she experiences music by feeling the sound through her entire body. Along the way, director Thomas Reidelsheimer has his antenna out to pick up the sounds specific to every location she passes through, from urban tumult to crashing coastal waves. Altogether an inspiring affair that encourages us to revel in the vibes around us, now helpfully available on Netflix.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Director: Peter Strickland
Classic Italian cinema always had its own unique perspective on sound – shoot first, add the audio later. Inspired by the flamboyant excess of 70s Italo-horror, Peter Strickland’s brilliant idea was to draw on that dichotomy between vision and sound for the psychic fissure experienced by his vulnerable protagonist, a sheltered English audio geek invited to work on a project in Rome.
Charged with mixing the sound for a brutal tale of witch-hunting titled The Equestrian Vortex, Toby Jones’ central character is at first ashen-faced, but by providing the sounds to fit the on-screen carnage he finds himself subsumed into its universe of sadistic mayhem. Perhaps mercifully, we only see the credits sequence of this unrepentant shocker, and even if Strickland’s film lacks sustained story substance, it pointedly underlines the constructed fakery of our celluloid dreams while suggesting how sound insidiously speaks to the stirrings of the soul.
Notes on Blindness (2016)
Directors: Peter Middleton and James Spinney
Only through the spoken word can we begin to enter into the world of the blind – that’s the proposition at the core of this potent documentary based on audio recordings by John Hull, whose vision faded away when he was a theology professor, husband and father. At that point, he started taping his reflections on his new experience of complete blindness, and the slightly crackly home audio archive brings a telling authenticity when it’s lip-synced into life by actor Dan Skinner.
Debut directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney recreate his journey into the unknown, visually conveying Hull’s disorientating sense of being in the world yet somehow not quite part of it. We learn through his testimony of the frustrations of smiling when the gesture is never returned, and the remarkable way in which the rain makes the contours of the world so much clearer. Ultimately, it’s the moving story of a man recovering his purpose in life by helping others understand his plight.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Beguiling atmosphere has always been the key to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinematic oeuvre, which has rendered the byways of rural Thailand as a sort of waking dream world. This time, however, he’s headed to Colombia, working in English with leading lady Tilda Swinton, who’s thoroughly discombobulated by a sonic boom resounding from the sky one morning – which only she can hear. Thus begins a sort of detective story, unfolding in the director’s trademark serenely long takes, where the questions pile up a lot quicker than the answers, and the fundamental nature of our human existence is under discussion.
Here is slow cinema delivering an out-of-body experience, transporting us to a place where our senses are heightened. It might be a task to explain exactly what’s going on, but the film’s visual finesse allows us to trace the texture of the air, while its extraordinary sound design articulates the very grain of everyday ambience. A marvel for those able to surrender to it.
Memoria is in cinemas from 14 January 2022.
It had its UK premiere at the 65th BFI London Film Festival.
Originally published: 12 January 2022