Markers of the Modern Soundtrack
1972 - Francis Ford Coppola (USA)
Distortion & misperception
Zones of audibility; private & public space; sonic
Profile: Francis Ford Coppola & Walter Murch
Francis Ford Coppola is part of the 70s group of American
directors trained in filmmaking from US film schools and
conversant in both the history of American cinema as well
as contemporary trends in European cinema. Along with other
directors like George Lucas, Stephen Speilberg, Martin Scorsese
et al, this group of filmmakers were interested in combining
the Hollywood studio style of story-telling but with an
auteur-driven model of direction. This had particular ramifications
for how these directors approached all technical aspects
of the filmmaking process - almost as if they were individually
overseeing all departments of the filmmaking process as
distinct to the tradtionally demarcated and divisional mode
of production developed within the Hollywood studio system.
In terms of sound, this meant that these directors were
integrally involved with the film score and sound design
of their films. All these directors were professed lovers
of music and have been responsible for fostering new talent,
styles and approaches to film scoring. They also were attracted
to new technological developments in location recording,
studio recording and post-production editing and mixing
(George Lucas being most notable in his development of the
THX sound system for hi-fidelity theatre-sound playback).
Coppola is notable for collaborating with sound designer
Walter Murch - the man responsible for coining the term.
Walter Murch sound designed THE CONVERSATION and APPOCALYPSE
NOW for Coppola, as well as AMERICAN GRAFITTI for George
Lucas. He was a key player in this largely Marin County-based
group of filmmakers who ultimately regarded themselves as
American filmmakers rather than Hollywood filmmakers, particular
as their methods of production (initially in their developing
period through the 70s) were displaced from the studio-related
facilities in Southern California.
Walter Murch has written on his approach to designing sound
and his ideas have been very influential o sound editor,
recordists, mixers and designers in the 80s and 90s working
in the US. Murch is notable for devloping the concept of
'worldizing' sound - that is, processing and treating any
sound to match the acoustic nature of its screen-related
depiction. AMERICAN GRAFITTI is his ultimate statement on
working sound according to these acoustic principles.
THE CONVERSATION (1971)
THE CONVERSATION is based around Harry Caul (Gene
Hackman) - a surveillance recordist, bugger and tapper whose
specialty is recording people's conversations. He is hired
by a variety of people for these clandestine operations,
but he is never concerned with their reasons for hiring
him, nor what they will do with his supplied tapes. Harry
is only concerned with obtaining a strong, clear, legible
recording: he is not interested in what people are saying,
only that you can hear what they are saying. He is thus
a dehumanized microphone. Harry is engaged in recording
a particular conversation which he ends up listening to
at a deeper level than usual - he actually wants to listen
to what this couple he is recording are saying, to understand
what exactly they are talking about and what consequences
may befall them and others if this recording is handed over.
In shifting his consiousness so fundamentally from his usual
mechanical mode of operation, Harry's world starts to fall
Opening scene. A single long shot with a slow zoom in onto
a crowded city square full of people on their lunch break.
The distant sound of a busking jazz band is audible. The
slow zoom in suggests we are being led to something, however
we have no idea who or waht to focus on. Throughout, strange
interjections of noise occur. These moments are revealed
to be distorted snippets of voice. It becomes apparent that
this perspective is a surveillance perspective of one of
the recordistics with a tele-photo microphone. The scene
then cuts between a variery of different perspectives, showing
eventually the undercover recording team moving within the
square, pluys the couple this team is attempting to record.
The sound, however, is continual and in uninterrupted real-time.
Sound therefore occupies the totality of space; visionis
the fragmented attempt to sonically match and encode that
totality. Moving into a mobile van, the sound of the square
continues, revealing that all the sound we have been hearing
is in fact the multi-track unmixed live recording (all simulated
for the film) which documents the attempt to capture the
couple's conversation. This recording will be replayed throughout
the film. This first version is its raw encoding on tape:
First piano cue. This covers shots of Harry leaving the
van, travellling, and returning home. The score by David
Shire is solo piano. It symbolizes the figure of Harry -
his disposition, his emotional self as viewed from the outside.
The piano music evokes the bar piano-player - a site where
depressed, lonely and insular people gather. The music semiologically
and phonologically evokes this style and presence of music.
The theme is like a down-tempoed ragtime, overlaid with
a trilling chromatic line which is like a slowed down quote
from Flight of the Bumble Bee. All these facets combined
present the music as drained of energy, lifeless and listeless,
lacking in momentum and isolated - characterizing Harry
Caul. Throughout the film, this theme appears over segues
and transitional moments when Harry is getting from A to
B: void moments where he is lost within himself. His body
language communicates his world-weariness as he slumps and
trudges forth, plastic raincoat trailing, framed as a solo
shape against the urban downtown spread of anonymous buildings.
This is the existential state and location of Harry, as
the music of these moments while soft in performance and
volume is mixed above any location sound, suggesting Harry
is always disconnected from his environment. His mind is
always somewhere else.
Harry's apartment. This space is a hermetically sealed zone.
It is bare and devoid of character because Harry is never
wishing to disclose anything about his personal life or
his personality. Within this space is silence: it is 'dead'
in both the acoustic sense - recording booths in studios
are 'dead' so as to not colour anything within with 'live'
characteristics - and the emotional sense - Harry hinself
is emotionally 'dead' and blends perfectly with this space.
The space is thus baffled, not unlike the acoustic baffling
used in recording studios to 'deaden' the reverberant quality
of the space. This zone is comfortable to Harry, because
his own inner being is emotionally baffled, giving rise
to the repression that shapes his pysche.
Harry's plays sax. Harry's only contact with life as such
is when he plays saxaphone along with a 'live' jazz recording.
Dead himself but appearing to be alive, his self-projected
intergration into the live recording is his fictious and
psychologically therapeutic way to deal with his 'deadness'.
Harry at work. Harry's loft space is similarly empty and
expansive. At one far end is his caged work area: symbolically
controlled and demarcated as a controlled environment. There
he works on the recording from the square. We witness his
mechanisms, techniques and techologies with which he procures
and remixes the recording into greater clarity. Over this
sequence, we see images from the beginning of the film replayed:
this is Harry re-picturing the layout and perspective of
the space. This second version of the recording is its sifting
and separation from background noise - clarified sound.
Harry's love interest. Harry's affair with Terri Garr isone
where he pays for her apartment as a love nest which he
frequents for emotional/physical contact. He doesn't listen
to him - just as she appears dead/dumb to his complete refusal
to reveal anything of himself to her. Harry treats her like
someone he is surveilling - paranoid of her true identity.
The apartment is a replica of both his work space and home
- it is another 'isolation booth' that maps out his world.
Harry listens to the tape. After becoming suspicious of
his employer and not being able to deliver the tape recording
to the actual person who hired him, Harry pays the tape
an even closer listen. He uncovers a line in one particularly
difficult section due to excessive background noise of congas:
"He'd kill us if he had the chance." Harry is
suddenly wracked with guilt and unease. He has crossed the
threshold from being a microphone to being an ear: he is
actively listening to the words spoken and making sense
of them. This second version of the recording is a personally
shaped and defined mix and mastering of the tape's contents
- interpreted sound.
Harry visits the priest. As a recorder of others' voices,
Harry eases his guilt by going to the confessional in an
act of 'speaking to the listener'. This is one of the few
moments where Harry can converse with others in a personal
way - but here it is under terms of his anonymity and the
priest's contract of silence.
Harry's party. During the party we are given a complete
overview of Harry's methods, procedeures and operations,
including the strategy for recrording the conversation at
the beginning of the film. During the party, Harry opens
up to a hooker who seems bent on finding something personal
about Harry. As his world is slowly transforming through
guilt, unease and his gradual corruption of personal ethic
to be nothing but a microphone, Harry talks intimately with
he. However Harry has had a bug planted on him by a colleague
- the colleague plays it to the party gathering causing
Harry to become enraged and throw everyone out. The ultimate
incursion and invasion for Harry is not just to open up,
but to be recorded.
As Harry's world starts to fall apart following his discomforting
conflicts with his corporate employer, the piano themes
accompany Harry, but now they are often distorted. They
use the same devices that Harry uses to clarify his recordings,
but now they render the score oppressive, claustrophobic
and noise-laden. As Harry gets his recording of the conversation
clearer, his musicalised self (as symbol of his lonely world-weariness)
becomes muddied and distorted, reflecting the build-up of
anxiety within him.
Harry in the hotel. Harry locates next door to the couple
of the conversation, thinking that they are going to be
killed. Immobile to confront them personally face-to-face,
he attempts to bug them. However his mind is so addled he
is no longer a microphone, but a mere human, bound to subjectively
interpret rather than objectively record. All sound thus
become noise: he imagines all sorts of sonic and visual
terror - including overlays of the wildly processed/distorted
piano themes - leading him to drown out the noise in his
head by turning up the TV loudly.
Harry returns to the corporation thoroughly wracked with
guilt but is powerless to do anything. There he witnesses
the two people he presumed dead - and also reads in the
newspaper that the girl's father who employed him is now
dead. Suddenly he hears in his head the salient line from
the recorded conversation and comprehends its true meaning:
"He'd kill US is he had the chance". He comprehends
that they killled the father.
Powerless, Harry returns to his home and plays silence.
But a phone call informs him that he is being bugged. Now
thoroughly exposed to himself and the outside world, he
rips apart his house not only to locate the bug (he doesn't
find it) but to pull asunder all the baffling and covering
and deadening he had been using to isolate and control his
inner feelings and responsibilities.