Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Oscar rant obligato

(First and last Academy Award-themed item on this blog.) I generally side with Robert Bresson that the best movie music is diegetic — made by sources (on-or off-screen) understood to be part of the scene itself rather than an external accompaniment — and the handful of non-digetic scores I like are few and far between, so I've had to learn to not listen to scores. I do listen closely to sound editing and mixing, however, and find, as a composer, that the sound design is often the most interesting, subtle, and complex part of a film. As far as I'm concern, last year presented some classic examples of mainstream sound design done both very well and very poorly, particularly in the mix. But my ideas of what works or doesn't in a sound track seem to go against the grain: Inception took both sound Oscars this year, but boy, I thought it had a dog's breakfast of a mix. The look of the film was great, but there was almost no differentiation or detail to the sound mix, the leaden Zimmer score (how leaden? it manages to drain all life out of some perfectly good Philip Glass-y turn-around enharmonic chord sequences) was both too continuous and too dominant in the mix which, as a whole, was too dense in the lower registers. While I suppose that an acoustically oppressive sound design might have been chosen for some psychological resonance with the storyline, I think that there are alternatives which would have been even more effective. In fact, if the visuals were not so attractive, the relentless, all-boom, no bite of the sound would had me me walking out mid-film. (And that's saying a lot: I have managed to sit all the way through O.C. and Stiggs. Twice.) On the hand, Ren Klyce & Co.'s mix for The Social Network is a superb example of getting the sound design right. It works without calling overt attention to itself but strongly reinforces the narrative, whether in creating discrete acoustic spaces onstage (the isolated character of these spaces commenting, perhaps, ironically on the whole network topos) or in punctuating the flow of the film with a diverse set of elements, not least of which is the rhythm of the lead actor's speech. (Quite how impressive that the computer screen-based social network of the film was conveyed in the film most vividly by the sound track.)


jodru said...


I don't know what David Fincher did in a past life to get so consistently overlooked, but his film was far and away the best thing to come out this year.

Everything you said about Inception was right on. Plus, the story was a load of hooey.

Daniel Wolf said...

Jodru -

Typo corrected.

I actually don't mind the story in Inception, but the execution: isn't it ironic that the networks (within the filmic Harvard and beyond) expounded in the fist half hour of The Social Network both more vividly and less didactically than the dreams-within-dreams of Inception?