Column on Surround Sound design/play-back in current films. Published in the On Screen section of Reel Time, Sydney
 


Cast Away
Human Cargo & Sonic Flotsam

published in Real Time No.42, Sydney, 2001


You know where you send your mail from; you know where it arrives. But what you don't know is where it goes to get to its point of arrival. Between the insertion of a letter into the vaginal void of the mailbox and the pressing of the weary envelope into the palm of its recipient, a black hole is constructed: a spatio-temporal dislocation which anchors the untold narrative of its journey in a swirl of unknowable sights and sounds. As the mail scurries across the globe, its sealed content - covered by law - is as much protected from in-transit scrutiny as it is prevented from disclosing all it saw and heard on its travels.

The quaintly named 'dead letter office' implies that the life cycle of a letter can be halted and short-circuited by not arriving at its deigned destination. Centred on a 'dead zone' in-transit, Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away (2000) is possibly less about the stranding of a human (Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks) on an uncharted island and more about the insertion of a human directly into the mail/freight system and its inanimate direction of matter. Therein he experiences the actuality of the uncharted: a passage of time and space which all mail and freight suffers, endures, overcomes. Noland becomes freight; Noland is delivered; Noland arrives.

Noland's reconstitution as freight is strongly forecasted early in the film through a series of jump cuts shot and recorded from the point-of-view of a handled package. From the middle of America to the centre of Russia, a package is shuttled. We see what it sees, hear what it hears. Subjectivity is heightened as we are lost in its dark jungle of illegible dialogue, muted atmospheres, murky light, askew angle. Sudden incursions of consciousness blast that unmappable jungle as we momentarily glimpse our location - a bench top here, a truck there - only to be thrown back into the unknown as a hand grabs us or a roller door slams down in front of us. Recalling Paul Schraeder's audiovisual reconstruction of Patty Hearst's interiorized terror through the mind-deprogramming techniques of the Red Army in The Patty Hearst Story (1981), Cast Away transforms the auditorium into a desensitizing zone where editing, layering and mixing work directly on the audience. The materiality of this sensation - very much the product of director Zemeckis' established relationship with sound designer Randy Thom - is a great example of how sound and image can be thoroughly aligned, combined and fused throughout a film. A clear self-reflexivity drives the film (right down to Noland 'time-charting' the journey of a FedEx package mailed to himself in another country) which has not merely 'allowed' such audiovisual precision in the creation of what it would be like to 'become' an item of lost freight, but also determined that it directly affect the film's narration.

The emphasis on subjective perception is handled in two distinct 'movements' which occur after the FedEx package allusion yet before the landing of Noland on the island. Firstly, the trip in the plane is a fascinating capture of the strange dimension that is 'air travel'. Whilst actually travelling great distances at incredible speed at impossible heights - all of which are far beyond the physical limitations of the human body - that same human body is confronted with opposite forces and sensations, as one is rendered immobile, inert and grounded. Journeys to the toilet become major points of navigation; communication with flight staff a logistical manoeuvre; and the simple stretching of limbs a luxury. (Interestingly, Zemeckis and Thom have imaginatively explored beyond these bodily constraints in the memorable scene from Contact, 1997, when Ellie - Jodie Foster - travels in the alien craft under alien dimensional-warp conditions.) During this numbing stasis, the drone of the airplane engines and its vibrational spread throughout the body of the plane creates a humming dynamo of still energy, which itself induces a psycho-acoustic claustrophobia of inertia. The atmospheres in Cast Away portray this with great effect. Secondly - after the plane has crashed into the ocean - the series of blackouts which appear between the sporadic flashes of lightning force the narrative to be gulped down into a spatio-temporal void. Rather than 'see' what we could not possibly see at sea in the dead of a black stormy night, we instead get glimpses which create a series of subjective points which tragically mark a line of dots on a map that no-one will find. Noland becomes a message in a bottle on a dead sea, not so much by floating into the unknown as by 'becoming the undelivered'.

The lost island in Cast Away is literally and figuratively the zone of the uncharted. It is a place where we - through Noland as 'reconstituted freight' - hear and see all that happens in the journey into the unknown which all mail and freight undertakes between point A and point B. Notably, Noland has to realign his audiovisual balance, and redress its pathetic lean on the optical in our culture. The most direct way to play on anyone's nerves is to subject them to the sound of the unknown - be it by obscuring the source, the point of emission, the agent of action, the clarified content or even the means of production/reproduction of a sound. Noland hears 'bumps in the night' which prove to be strange fruit falling from the trees. No living being generated these events; just the life of the island, devoid of such directional presence. Eventually, Noland gets to read the island in many ways, from the seasonal changes in wind directions to the movement of fish underwater to the many environmental sounds which define the terrain of the island. Gorgeous sonic detail and delicate spatial placement not only locate us within the aural dictates of Noland' new world, but also create this acute feeling of having one's audiovisual balance realigned.

When Alan Silvestri's music appears in the film - as Noland finally leaves the island on his makeshift raft - there is much to be considered in how and why it has been withheld from the soundtrack to that point. Firstly, the absence of music perfectly reflects the dehumanizing of Noland's status as freight. The film has deliberately refrained from using music so as to mark this absence of humanist commentary on Noland' plight, for he has entered another psychological dimension where there is little hope, scant aspiration and zero respite from the harsh reality of survival. It is apt that when the visibly dehumanized Noland appears on the island some years later that he is drained of 'humanness' and reconstituted as a walking pile of humus: part vegetable, part animal, part flotsam. A human, he no longer is; music, he no longer hears; sound, he has become. Secondly, the music - quite obviously yet with dramatically powerful effect - enters when hope and aspiration actually take hold within his psyche. As he passes the barrier of rocks which shield the island from the currents of the surrounding ocean, he is inserted back into the passage of freight along which the FedEx plane journeyed. Rooted on the island, he was a dead letter; caught in the flow of the sea, he is once again in circulation. The music cue's entrance symbolizes all this in a material way as it matches an airborne helicopter-shot which removes us from his horizon to evidence the space beyond the site of his plight, and in doing so liberates us from the sound of sand, the reverb of rocks, and the timbre of timber which had acoustically built a sonorum for his entrapment on the island.

'Realism' and 'naturalism' are highly suspect terms at the best of times, and while the sound design of Cast Away could very successfully be couched in those terms, there is a deeper narrational and psychological tone generated by Thom's work. Possibly one of the most beautifully empty moments in the film - and easily on such a list for the cinema as a whole - is when Noland is waiting for his wife at the airport. Behind him, a set of monitors replay his return to reality, coded within the official return of his status back to human as an honoured FedEx employee at a special press conference. The occurrence of this only minutes earlier is now being televised nationally on TV. Alone in a semi-soundproofed interior, he is still psychologically displaced. He is still fraught by being freight, caught in transit, ungrounded and as yet undelivered. Monitors play out of synch - showing him 'live' yet delayed, exuberant and relieved on TV but now tense and uncertain; large glass windows show planes in transit at the FedEx depot - yet their movement is muted by the double-glazed glass; the ambience of nothingness - air conditioners, fluorescents, carpet - hums uncomfortably, as its alien quality sonically scars his aural consciousness. There is no gradual rise of violins as we slowly track into Noland in anticipation of a clearly telecasted happy ending. Matching this unsettling existential moment, the film leaves us with just the distant ringing of nothing and the low hum of everything.

In a strange way, this scene is an inversion of the chilling climax to Michael Mann's Heat (1995) where Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro stealthily elude each other behind a network of cargo crates on the edge of the maze of runways at LAX. No music occurs during this scene as they fight to the death, accompanied by the most deafening roars of jet turbines winding up, planes taking off and subsonic rumbles trailing the departure of craft near and far. Heats zone of noise is the psychic sonorum for the death spectacle which ends the fatalistic arc of DeNiro's own dehumanized construction as a ruthless criminal. Cast Away's cone of silence is the flattened sonic plane on which Noland stands, dejected, abjected and about to be rejected by a wife who cannot even face him.

Fortunately for Noland, his new status not as freight but as a parcel stamped 'Return To Sender' awakens in him an act which he must perform. By returning to the sender the one parcel he never opened - the one item whose law of protection he never broke - he connects back to humanity and to his own self-determined status as human. Mushy it might be - but it must be noted that the beauty and power of Cast Away lies in the material and phenomenal force with which Zemeckis audiovisually narrates its story. Through such handling, the sound design inevitably comes to the fore, and the 'mushy' ending is a suitable narrative closure to a film that has already supplied a surfeit of existential aural density. As the credits roll - and long they are, too - the refrain of music which hardly marked the film sails forth. But then a quite magical thing happens which confirms the considered modulation of humanism of Castaway: the sound of waves gradually fades up and builds in mass, eventually overtaking the score. Not through mixing, but in a compositional dialogue which recalls the aquatic dialogue at the core of Michael Nyman's seminal work The Sinking of the Titanic (1977). Silvestri actively de-scores the orchestral theme by reducing its arrangement across of series of repeated motifs which diminish in length and tempo. The music thus becomes the ocean - an ebb and flow of tidal call-and-response to itself; the ocean thus becomes air - the totality of atmosphere which carries sound.

 

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