With Berberian Sound Studio out on Friday, we consider the rich history of sound engineers in cinema.
The release of Berberian Sound Studio this week marks the addition of another film into a little recognised but rich subgenre: films about sound engineers. From 1974's The Conversation to 2000's Séance, this small cluster of smartly crafted films bridges the thriller and horror genres, and sees sound treated as a source of obsession, malevolence and deception.
These films’ protagonists encounter something that haunts them; they experience a profound trauma; the attention to their craft is disturbed by a psychological unravelling. With Peter Strickland’s film entering the fold, it will be interesting to consider to what extent it is linked to, and where it departs from, the others.
In The Conversation, surveillance expert Harry Caul convinces himself that his latest recording foreshadows the murder of the young couple he has been hired to follow. His rigorous processing of one audio fragment reveals an exchange between the man and woman, not heard at first: ‘He’d kill us if he got the chance.’ We learn that one of Caul’s past assignments had fatal consequences, and so the tape here precipitates a descent into paranoia and dread that tears apart Caul’s highly disciplined and private existence.
The Shout from 1978 brings Aboriginal folklore to a quiet English village, as an enigmatic stranger, Crossley, intrudes on the life of a sound artist and his wife. Displaying unsettling psychic and physical powers, Crossley draws the woman to him and reveals to her husband that he has harnessed the power to produce a ‘terror shout’ which has a deadly effect – and the film certainly doesn’t disappoint when the titular shout is first heard.
Like Berberian Sound Studio, the technicians in 1981's Blow Out and Séance are foley artists for films. In Blow Out, while he is out at night collecting library samples for the low budget horror flick Co-ed Frenzy, Jack Terry’s reel-to-reel recorder captures the sound of a car crash. Listening back to the tape, Jack realises that he is a witness to an assassination attempt, on a governor tipped for the presidency who was in the vehicle.
Jack befriends Sally, who he manages to rescue from the car, but soon realises that those who arranged this political murder have their sights set on Sally and him too. The entire plot is driven by sound: the search for a sound, the source of a sound and the devastating power of sound.
It should not be surprising that film narratives about sound recordists should be well suited to exploring themes of death and the unknown, when we trace the history of cinema and audio recording back to their earliest periods. The contact afforded with that which has past, and with those no longer living is one of the characteristics of the medium of cinema, and among the motivations for early audio technology. The connection between audio recordings and the dead has been the focus of much interest for more than a century, particularly among spiritualists and occultists.
Thomas Edison, whose research lab was responsible for the early cinematic apparatus the Kinetoscope, also invented the phonograph, and is reported to have had a specific interest in spirit communication. This is directly referenced in Séance, a film whose female protagonist, a medium, also serves as a reminder that some of the earliest moving image devices had strong links to the fairground and stage illusions, where one might find such mediums claiming to communicate with the dead.
Just as claims about spirit communication are considered by skeptics to be a grand deception, this very theme – deception – is also foregrounded in these narratives. The emphasis on foley effects, overdubbing and sound editing usefully serves plots in which lies and illusions menace the central characters.
Harry Caul operates in a world where he believes only a "nice, fat recording" can guarantee truth; where corruption and conspiracy are rife, only his master tapes will reveal all. Yet he is misled by the very recording that obsesses him. The Shout’s peculiar narrator, a resident at a mental asylum, admits that he tells his story differently each time, and so we cannot be certain that the events that unfold are accurate.
At the beginning of Blow Out we see the post-production of a trashy film that is incomplete without a realistic scream — the sound is unconvincing — yet as the narrative develops, sound becomes the key to solving a murder plot and the real scream dubbed onto the fictional horror flick becomes unbearable for Jack to experience.
Terrifying sound effects – especially piercing screams – are, as one might expect, common elements among these films. Yet the complete absence of sound is used to achieve a very powerful effect also. Filmmaker Robert Bresson claimed that the soundtrack invented silence.
It has become so integral to the suspense film, usually an unsettling precursor to a sudden, violent episode. For sound editors, the subtraction of all of the elements in the sound mix has also been associated with death – at the level of recording terminology – the unusualness of which is usually masked by room tone and ambient sound.
In Séance, the presence of a ghost is indicated by low-frequency trembling, or pulsing, before it is seen, often followed by complete silence when it appears in the frame. The Conversation reaches a peak of tension when Caul hears nothing through the wall of the hotel room where he is expecting a horrific crime to take place.
Notably, it is within the realms of genre filmmaking such as horror that sound design, and suspense effects created by orchestrating sound, has often been most thoroughly explored, so it is fitting that this is the type of material that the protagonists should be working on in Blow Out and Berberian Sound Studio, and we might assume with Séance.
When the work of the sound technician is foregrounded, the disjunction between the sound and the image is brought into disquieting focus. In a medium where looking so often guides our understanding, a concentration on what we hear opens onto other, somewhat stranger and haunting aspects of the work and of the world; the mysterious spaces out of sight, and those things not explained by what we see.