jazz singerWe tend to think of film as a visual art form, and it is! But the great thing about film is that it isn’t just one thing: it’s certainly visual like painting or photography; it's kinetic like dance; narratively structured like books and oral storytelling; and aural like music (and real life...). The sound for a film gives us things like the human voice, diegetic sound (sound within the context of the story), incidental sound (to suggest mood), the musical score. There has pretty much always been sound in films, as even during the age of silent films music would have been played nearby in the theater to accompany the projection of the moving image. But the synchronized sound that we are accustomed to today had a difficult and uphill journey, as it required fairly sophisticated technology to synchronize both a film cameras with audio recording devices and projectors with speakers.

The first commercial, feature-length film to feature sync sound was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson, and back then it was pretty earth-shattering (not to mention totally racist). Though today we take sound for granted, we must recognize that it has had a complicated role in the history of film, and was largely bemoaned at first as a gimmick that cheapened the emerging artform that was film.

The Reading

Read Chapter 8 (pgs. 220 – 224) in The Art of Watching Films to learn about sound in film.

The Watching

Sound of Metal (2022) by Darius Marder

sound of metal

Oh boy... so this taut and deeply personal portrayal of a metal drummer who suddenly starts losing his hearing was directed by Darius Marder. It is a trully masterful look at how people deal with loss, adversity, and how disabilites can be seen as differences.  I won't tell you much else about the film as it is a very intimate experience that needs to be seen first, and then discussed. That said, you can probably already imagine how important sound is to the storytelling, the plot, and the trajectory of the main character Ruben Stone (played by the incredible Riz Ahmed).

My favorite scene?

Thanks for asking! This scene between the Ruben and a young student tells you everything you need to know about how to tell a story without any dialog (and not even much sound):

As you can see – I mean hear, you will will need to pay close attention to sound as you're watching and listening. Consider how it's used (and often subdued and obscured) to heighten the anxiety, sensitivity, and the tension throughout. Having seen Sunrise (A Song of Two Humans) by F.W. Murnau in Module 01, try to now imagine if a film like Sound of Metal could have been made in the age of silent film and still have been as effective. 

Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.


The Questions