The Sonic Destruction of a Novel

The Island Of Doctor Moreau

published in Real Time No.18, Sydney, 1997

A good formula for studying/experiencing contemporary sound design in the cinema: (a) if there's lots of loud sounds; & (b) realism isn't that important; & (c) the soundtrack was produced & mixed using hi-tech Dolby applications; & (d) the film is played in a theatre installed with a THX playback system - go hear it. Sounds like it might be a blunt formula. For an engineer focused on fidelity and state-of-the-art technology, issues of aural narratology and plain content may hold no interest. A cultural studies analyst observing the socio-political ramifications of imaging in the public domain may find the hyper-material audio-visual core of cinema invisible and indistinct. The film composer trading in the craft of musical composition may perceive the chaotic cacophony of the film soundtrack too threatening and oppressive to a score. A sound artist contemplating poetic and philosophical tangents of acoustic phenomenae may be aesthetically repulsed by the ungainly mix of ocular titillation and sheer sonic sensationalism in blockbuster cinema.

But film sound is all of the above perceptual streams and more. Practice any one of the above modes exclusively and you'll promulgate a limited reading of the essential materiality of sound. Consider: film sound is no single aspect of sound alone; it is multiple in every conceivable way. Film sound crazily manifests itself in a series of dimensional slashes across industrial concerns, star systems, monetary perimeters, symbolic histories, cliche terrains and experimental spikes. Every film presents its own one-off rule book on how sound might occur, for its soundtrack is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Film sound is where the sonic grows moist in the darkness of consciously privileged images.

There's one The Island Of Doctor Moreau. It's a book. By H. G. Wells, no less. The kind of 'horror/sci-fi/fantasy' it's OK to talk about over a learned dinner gathering. And there's another one. It's a movie. Made last year. Hollywood stars, big budget, a department of scriptwriters and one fired director. Obviously, the book is so much better. How could the film be better? This is how.

The themes of the book and its three films (The Island Of Lost Souls, 1933; The Island Of Doctor Moreau, 1976 & 1996) are consistent, clear and obvious. God, man, animals, science, behaviour, humanity, morality, drugs, ethics and so on. For many, 'grand' literary themes like these are clutched to their bosom like a child's snow dome: whenever they wish to see those themes articulated in life or art, they shake the dome for instant gratification, then look through the cascading flakes. But films are overpowering, overwhelming: when watching a film of literary origin, they sit in the audience and try to perceptually shake the film, to make it magically cough up a floating cloud of ... well, literary-ness.

Conversely and perversely, the recent ISLAND perceptually shakes its audience. It cinematically destroys its literary origin, doing so on two levels: the body and sound. Explorations and applications of both the body and sound are physically embedded in the film's audio-visual texture, creating forms, shapes, presences and spaces bent on disorienting the auditor/viewer. And this is perfectly in keeping with a psycho-dramatic line which runs strong within Wells' story: how do man and animal perceive each other. The plain freakishness of the film's exploitation of every actors' body will have to be discussed elsewhere. Here, let's talk about the sound design and its fluid construction of presences and spaces within which are situated the film's key disorienting devices.

As Edward (David Thewlis) recovers on a boat after being saved by Montgomery (Brad Pitt), he is vaguely aware of drugs careening through his body. He attempts to talk with Y; their voices clash in a Trans-Atlantic dialogue. Accent, grammar, timbre, sense, delivery and breath all perform solos on the other as Edward's disjointed scramble for explanation splutters a sonic sheen across Montgomery's racy non-sequitur's. All of it is close-miked. Spital, air and labials sprinkle our ear drums in detail. Their actual dialogue is a gasping collapse of meaning; in its place is an abundance of aural detail. This is the physicality of cinema sound design - foregrounding a moist vocal presence against crisp vocal projection. The spoken versus the written; the guttural versus the oratorical; the sound versus the word.

The dialogue editing of this scene is worthy of Glenn Gould's ruminations on the innate musicality of meandering talk. Yet this dialogue is framed by noise. Sprawled in the lower deck of the creaking, leaking boat, Edward & Montgomery's dialogue swirls within a sonorum of wood and water. Unseen liquid laps and booms at all sides; planks and breaches of wood groan and crack throughout the darkened space. In this druggy blur of ill communicated speech, the material world bends across the multi-channel sound field. Arcs of noise follow the contracting/expanding of wood and the shifting volume of water. The air in the cinema is alive with movement - shut your eyes and the theatre is dimensionally warping. The spatialization is heady, erotic, sensational. More like the musique concrete of Bernard Parmagiani than the final mix of a big budget Hollywood movie. And it's more than a mere hi-etch gimmick: it is actively dedicated to destroying the verisimility of the screen's photographic images by rendering the soundtrack more dimensionally encompassing than the screen's illusionary scope for containment. Which is what film sound does every waking electro-acoustic moment.

This scene - about ten minutes into the film - aurally signposts the purpose behind many scenes' sound design: the jungle surrounding Moreau's house; the underground chamber in the beast's domain; the nocturnal mutants inhabiting the moored boat; the tense atmosphere of the vivisection laboratory. Detailed movement is layered not to create 'background atmospheres' like some string of adjectives hanging limply at the start of a paragraph, but to cup and amplify the 'cinesconic' stage within which drama unfolds. Instead of existing as a flat scrim comprised of amorphous sonic textures, crystalline sonic events simultaneously occur and shift to form a multi-dimensional construct as sounds move across space. Island consistently does this and especially utilizes the alienating precision afforded by the discrete digital track (DDS) and its clarity in field placement within a mix intent on demonstrating these effects. In a sensitive Hal Hartley film about personal relationships, it might be out of place - too much aural competition with the 'meaningful' dialogue of actors endlessly warbling about their relationships. In a hedonistic, bombastic film staring Marlon Brando with a bunch of real and unreal freaks who speak more through their bodies, such a sensationally unsettling sound design is poetically apt and viscerally appropriate.

On many levels, the film de-cinematizes its photographic effects. That is to say, it confuses the degrees to which it subsumes the real within the image. Specifically, this destabilizes our external perception of what we might consider genetically normal or plausible. Take one ex-Adonis Marlon Brando, one hormonally spunky Val Kilmar, numerous genuine 'freaks', dress them all in freaky make-up, and one is left wondering who are the real freaks in this film? All in all, the visuality of ISLAND conveys the effect of staring at your own reflection in someone else's cataracts: your self image is milky, distorted, alien. The film's sound design is as perfectly keyed to this opacity of its visualization as it is to its collapse of articulate dialogue, its liquefaction of literary foundation, and its evaporation of grand themes. If ISLAND is a story of physical transmogrification and virtual morphology - from the human to the inhuman and back - what better means to manipulate and maintain this perceptual confusion than by inverting the visual screen with the aural space.

Consequently, the film charts two lines of transformation: humans becoming animals, and animals who were once humans 're-becoming' humans. It then cross-modulates these 're-becomings' with effects modes (optical, digital, chemical, make-up) and performative devices (vocal characterization, facial expression, body stance). Again, this wavering visual status of the screen image is too complex to detail here - yet it's worth noting that this is the most fertile ocular terrain which allows the sonic to grow moist within. Particularly, how the humans and 'humanimals' hear each other and mark the other's auditory presence is recreated at key moments on the soundtrack. Herein lies the root of the sound design's symbolic logic: we in the audience are subjected to the acoustic perspective of animals.

Remember that in the bulk of the animal kingdom, sound defines the visuals that follow. This is most so in the jungle: a realm of invisibility, camouflage, ariel vantage points and bodily stillness. Making sound renders one seen; being seen means death through visibility. Therefore most sound in the jungle is a complex signage system for obliterating one's visual presence - throwing one off-guard, signaling to mates approaching danger. (The Brando connection reminds one that the only other film which actively incorporated this into its sound design was Apocalypse Now with its numerous jungle settings and its pioneering 'quadrophonic' sound mix constructed by Walter Murch.) Many jungle scenes in Island feature space being activated through sound aimed at the audience. This effectively creates a virtual jungle within which we are disoriented, trapped, frightened. Our pathetic sense of personal visual space is strategically attacked by the sound mix: we are the dummy point of reference for all panning and tracking.

The Island Of Doctor Moreau is a messy, confused, aggressive, hysterical film. In accordance with the most basic of postmodern precepts, this makes it textually rich and materially ripe. This is not to say it's a 'rollercoaster ride', nor a lascivious call to celebrate imperception and presumption. Films like ISLAND - there are many - are knowledgable and informed constructs of audio-visual form, and as such are possibly more inventive and experimental than many examples of the cinema which stake those claims for themselves.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © New Line Cinema