Somewhere within the cavernous din that is the soundtrack of Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones are two moments worth commenting on. These moments total less than 40 seconds. The film runs for 8,520 seconds. Within a darkened chamber, we are shuttled toward a booming rhythmic source. The unnatural transfigurative quality of its texture ruptures the musicalized wash of Maxfield Parrish soundzak which has danced irritatingly with John Williams' huff-and-puff orchestral bellowing for the preceding hour. This moment of difference fleetingly collapses sound and music into the other, conjuring techno echoes of Detroit's Jeff Mills, Berlin's Maurizio and London's Carl Cox. Could Star Wars possibly be projecting a sonic instance which acknowledges the vast terrain of human noise from the 20th Century? No. We exit the darkened chamber into yet another gaudy set piece, this one featuring pounding presses, cauldrons and conveyor belts whose sonic character pales even when compared to Giorgio Moroder's 80s synthscape for Metropolis' underground scenes.
But taking critical pot shots at Star Wars is like picking on Christians or pornographers (depending on your slant). The sound for Clones perfectly fits the revisionist, delusional dry-dream that is the Star Wars ethos. My prancing prose won't change anyone's view one way or the other. Still, it is irksome that 'sound design' is boldly spot-lit by the Lucas apparatus as if there is something wondrous happening in the dense hieroglyphic rendering of the Dolby soundstripe of the Star Wars colon. In terms of audiovisuality - especially at the start of a new century - Clones is irrelevant, thin, tiresome. It has naught of the fractal sonarization of Resident Evil (lo-bit biting and rhythmatized glitching); the musicological invention of Ghosts of Mars (Carpenter riffing with Anthrax); the inverted psychoacoustics of Mulholland Drive (Lynch's granular seepage into Badalamenti's chorales); the pan-Asiatic pastoralization of Princess Mononoke (Hisaishi's orchestral retoning for Miyazaki's global eco-pondering).
A cry from the auditorium: "What about the cool sound of the light sabers?" Grow up. A bit of high tension wire flanging for 1977 certainly goes a long way, and Ben Burtt's contribution to the lexicon of sci-fi SFX is undoubted. But even by 1982, Frank Serafine's work for the underrated Tron greatly broadened issues of environment, meta-acoustics and aural dispersion in the non-material realm. Come the OVA explosion in anime in Japan in the late 80s, and the work of sound designers like Yasunori Honda shifted sci-fi/fantasy sound design into wholly new dimensions. In this respect, the light saber battles of Clones - despite their high level of crafting - perform sonically like a 60s soul track in a white baby-boomer's coming-of-age flick: its nostalgic effect short-circuits any recontextualization of its purpose.
The points raised and countered in this slight comment on the sound design of Clones are impelled by the rampant ignorance which effectively drains the bulk of critical discourse in the cinema for the past one hundred years. Irrespective of Lucas' recap of the old 'movies died when sound came along' aphorism, film sound practice (via industrial demarcation in the USA particularly) and film sound theory (via the deaf bookishness of the cinematic intelligentsia worldwide) collectively reinforce divisions between sound and music. As if Toru Takemitsu had never scored a film, or Tregg Brown had never slammed an anvil for a Roadrunner/Coyote cartoon.
Clones eulogizes the death of cinema while animating its overdressed corpse in displays of sumptuous audiovisual entropy. Visually, its digital glory amounts to little but seamless patterning and golly-gosh phantasmagoria. Aurally, it trumpets its vision so as to infer that its sound is the result of new breakthroughs in precision and clarity. But fidelity is not synonymous with digitization. Orson Welles managed to morph the pitch drop of an opera singer into a hyper-reverberant transformation of a Bernard Herrmann string motif, and mix it with the faint, dying breath of Susan Alexander in a memorable sonic moment from Citizen Kane. Nowhere in Clones does sound and image fuse to transcend its moldy theatrics. Nowhere are we allowed the sensory flotation which occurs when music dissolves into atmosphere; when sound shimmers with narratological aura; when voice breathes symbolic density into dry dramaturgy.
Oh, yeah. That second interesting moment. In the gladiatorial spectacle some two thirds into the film, crowd shots are covered in sweeping widescreen panoramas. Many have enthused about how 'now with digital technology' such scenes can realize the scale of mass control previously the sole province of the DeMilles of a bygone cinematic era. As I am about to fall asleep in the face of such marvelous imagineering, I suddenly hear it. A jock lets loose with a plastic horn, blasting its mock flatulence across the crowd roar just like at any big sports event. An ironic touch, no doubt, but that sound alone symbolizes hope for the future: as the gilded custodians of the soundtrack find more advanced ways to distill sound from music and buffet music from sound, noise will prevail.Text © Philip Brophy 2002. Images © George Lucas