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

The Humans (2021) by Stephen Karam


I don’t normally gravitate towards films that rely heavily upon dialog – film is a visual medium after all, and the makers of films should be showing, not telling. However, this particularly brilliant film began life as a stage play written by Stephen Karam (who also directs the film). Plays, of course, have been dialog-driven from their very beginnings, and indeed many of the first films ever made were formerly plays that were then simply filmed. And, because a film's dialog is essentially sound, it actually provides what I think is an interesting entree into just how important sound is to film.

This film, however, also relies on sound in entirely different ways than your typical film. The Humans centers around the Blake family, who have gathered at Brigid Blake’s newish apartment in NYC with her boyfriend Richard to celebrate a wholesome, though awkward, Thanksgiving dinner. What follows is an often disturbing journey deep into the Blake family’s individual and collective psyches, as they reminisce, argue, and confess over the course of a night. The majority of this story is told through sound, with an interesting and sometimes ironic interplay between dialog, environmental noises, and the onscreen action.

Listen carefully, as sound is incredibly important in a film that The Atlantic deemed what ‘might be the scariest movie of the year.’ Sound – both the off-screen dialog and environmental sound effects – effectively becomes the seventh character in The Humans, driving the story forward and spooking out its protagonists – and us – in the process. 

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


The Questions