2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Raising questions by "lowering the boom"
review by Mark Kerins
Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound. Edited by Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).
It has become something of a cliché for aurally-inclined media scholars to bemoan film studies' marginalization of sound. Yet for those wondering whether sound would ever get its due recognition as crucial to the experience of cinema, the past few years have offered hope. A number of new music and sound-oriented journals are now available and publishers seem to be releasing more books in this area than ever before. Furthermore, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies now has an official “Sound Studies” interest group, thanks in large part to the editors of the collection reviewed here, whose meeting at the last SCMS conference met with standing room only. Indeed, in their introduction to the new essay collection Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound, editors Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda take an optimistic tone about the state of “sound” as an object of critical study, noting that
“the subject has most certainly arrived, and this notable shift over the past decade places sound at the vanguard of academic discourse” (2).
If sound has in fact “arrived,” that is partly because scholars in so many different areas with a stake in one form of “sound” or another have started sharing their work across disciplinary lines, creating what may finally constitute a critical mass of academic work in this broadly-defined category. As Beck and Grajeda astutely note, recent work falling under the loose rubric of “sound studies” tackles not only motion picture sound but also pop music, radio, new media, audio technology, and cultural analysis. And as this breadth of subjects suggests, current work approaches sound from a wide array of perspectives. One of the monumental tasks this book assigns itself is to bring together these different tactics in an orderly way, to “articulate cross-disciplinary methodologies and analytical approaches” (2) in a way useful specifically to those interested in film sound. Certainly this is a worthwhile task. Paradoxically, it is this very goal that is both the book’s biggest strength and its most glaring weakness.
A brief overview of the book will help explain this apparent contradiction. Lowering the Boom offers eighteen essays, grouped into five categories such as “Historicizing Sound” and “Sound and Genre.” Its authors hail from an impressive range of disciplines, including not just film but also music, English, cultural studies, and art, and collectively include a good mix of established film sound scholars (such as John Belton, Anahid Kassabian, and James Lastra) and less familiar names. The best of these essays tend to fall into two groups: those that productively reexamine seemingly familiar topics by looking at them through the lens of sound, and those that make us think about sound itself in new ways. In the former category are essays like Grajeda’s, which uses a close examination of voices and dialogue in Touch of Evil – probably one of the most-studied films around – as an entry point to a provocative consideration of the film’s use of race and border-crossing.
Similarly, David T. Johnson brings new life to the oft-discussed question of documentary ethics by arguing persuasively that the ethical considerations involved in altering sounds can be quite different from those involved in altering images, using Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up as a case-study. And as one more example, Paul Grainge follows in the footsteps of many others in looking at Hollywood industrial practices, but he takes on a heretofore unexplored corner of this world with his piece on Dolby as a brand. He demonstrates rather convincingly that Dolby’s marketing has changed not just how we view that company and its technologies, but how we understand the concept of “going to the movies.”
In the category of essays specifically about sound itself, Arnt Maasø’s piece, “The Proxemics of the Mediated Voice,” offers an excellent exploration of how to describe voices in television and film. Recognizing that the spatial characteristics of voices in the soundtrack come not just from the original performance but also from the microphone used, its placement, and the way it is mixed, he offers a useful scheme for characterizing voices and how they are perceived by the audience. The value of his work goes beyond this, as portions of his structure could be easily be used to describe non-dialogue elements of the soundtrack, like sound effects and music. Paul Théberge’s essay, on what exactly “silence” means and its use as a structuring device, is another piece that should prove useful for anyone really interested in thinking about how sound design functions over the course of an entire movie. Lastly, as my own interests in sound originate in multi-channel technologies, I must mention Jay Beck’s essay on mixing practices during the early Dolby Stereo era, which provides a key industrial and technological context for studying sound design in any films from the last thirty years.
Lowering the Boom is refreshing in the breadth of topics it includes, as the essay descriptions above should make clear, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the range of films explored. Much film sound scholarship has focused on Hollywood product, and this area is not neglected. Essays examining classics like Touch of Evil and Fantasia, modern blockbusters like Pearl Harbor and Saving Private Ryan, and other studio releases (from the 1930s to the present) make up about half the book. But the other half incorporates writings on a variety of areas that have too often been ignored by sound theorists, such as documentary, experimental film, foreign cinema, and punk film. As the editors note (16), these essays mark a conscious effort to focus attention and effort on the un- or under-explored areas Rick Altman labeled “sound’s dark corners” in the landmark 1992 collection Sound Theory / Sound Practice. Here it is encouraging to see new work addressing these areas, although simultaneously depressing to note how little progress has been made in addressing these “dark corners” in the sixteen years between the two books.
Nevertheless, Lowering the Boom’s inclusive strategy also has a downside, specifically that its emphasis on showcasing different entry points into film sound comes at the expense of really pushing forward our conception of what that sound is. The collection deploys an array of new theoretical approaches, but it does little to augment the limited range of film sound that film studies has deemed worth of analysis. Yes, as noted above, many of the essays tackle categories of film often ignored by sound studies, but they do so with the same boundaries commonly seen in analyses of mainstream Hollywood film as to what parts of the film soundtrack to study. So sound effects, the sonic properties of the voice (with the notable exception of Maasø’s piece), and most importantly the soundtrack as a whole are given short shrift, while music and the text of the dialogue — which has more to do with the script than with “sound” per se — take center stage.
Fully a quarter of the essays, for instance, are about film music. Beck and Grajeda posit in the introduction that the essays on music included here take an unique approach by positioning film music “as sound.” In fact, this claim is not necessarily borne out in the essays themselves, the hardly-novel argument that sound effects and music sometimes overlap or interact not withstanding. But even if this were true, it seems odd to devote so much of the book to a topic that even the editors admit is one of the few areas of film sound to have already received significant attention (15) when other areas have been and remain virtually ignored.
To be sure, the “soundtrack” itself is not really the central concern of Lowering the Boom. Rather than focusing on the details of individual films’ soundtracks, as does so much sound scholarship, this is a book consciously about theory. As Beck and Grajeda note, many theoretical models ignore sound entirely. And even if “post-theory” is the current fashion, film sound “offers numerous possibilities for advancing, revisiting, and revising current feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, queer, and apparatus theories” (18) that were never even considered during "theory's" heydey. In the abstract, there's good reason to focus this book on theory. In practice, the book’s multi-disciplinary approach and short essay format make it somewhat unwieldy. The authors have little ability to build off one another and no way to ascertain which disciplines and models readers may already be familiar with. Thus, many of the essayists attempt to distill discussions of multiple theoretical frameworks, one or more films, and sound in general into a few short pages. In several essays, such extreme condensation results in writing that is provocative but raises more questions than the essay can even begin to answer. A number of other essays, meanwhile, include so many digressions that the central argument becomes difficult to follow and/or authors get bogged down in their own theoretical constructs.
I can hardly fault the book for focusing so much on theory, given Beck and Grajeda’s rock-solid rationale for this structure. Nevertheless, I wish more of the essays would have found a way to tie their theoretical concerns more tightly to solid textual analysis. Some of them accomplished this brilliantly, but too many of the essays were rather superficial in their analyses of actual movies. Certainly training is a contributing factor here, particularly for those coming from disciplines outside film. And the lack of a clear method for doing textual analysis of film sound continues to be a problem even for those who have focused on sound for some time. However, for a collection specifically on film sound, the rarity of in-depth close readings of soundtracks was surprising.
To use a simple example, Barry Mauer’s analysis of Land Without Bread focuses on the relation between image and narration. Analyzing the sound of the narrator’s voice, perhaps beginning with something like Maasø’s framework, would seem to me a crucial component of any argument about interplay between image and sound. Is the narrator's voice skeptical or serious? Is it in the same sonic space as the onscreen world, or somewhere else? Is it given an intimate presence or does it sound like a lecture to a large group? Yet Mauer’s essay treats the voice in Land Without Bread as merely a conveyor of words – the equivalent of onscreen titles – rather than as a sound, and the rest of the soundtrack (music, effects, ambiences) is similarly ignored. If we are ever to “place sound on equal footing with the image,” (3) as Beck and Grajeda hope, we must demand the same richness in close readings of the soundtrack as we expect of those considering the image.
Of course, it is a bit unfair to expect short essays to each lay out a whole theory, apply it to sound, and analyze a film or two in depth. But this is a way in which a little coherence between pieces might have helped. In some cases multiple essays reiterate some of the same background, which may make them work better as stand-alone essays but proves repetitive to anyone reading the entire book. To be sure, the editors split the essays into five categories to give the reader some guidance as to overarching “themes,” but this grouping of the essays by general “topic” is a tenuous arrangement at best. And being placed in the same section does not necessarily imply any relation between two essays in methodology or topic. The book’s insightful introduction explicitly acknowledges this dilemma, laying out multiple “alternative paths” such as “authorship” and “technological change” through the book (and by extension sound studies in general), suggesting that the organizational scheme the editors have provided is hardly the only one possible, and perhaps not even the most productive depending on the particular question at hand.
If I have offered a mixed review here, it is because I both find the book a valuable contribution to film studies and also remain disappointed that this first book-length collection of new essays about film sound in sixteen years does not push sound studies further than it does. I was hoping for this book to be a home run and am mildly frustrated that it is merely a solid single. But I should be clear that Lowering the Boom is a no-brainer recommendation for anyone interested in film sound. It has several really thought-provoking essays. And given the range of methodologies and topics represented, any sound scholar is bound to find some useful new entry points to film sound as well as some familiar questions and movies discussed in new ways.
The bigger question is how useful this book might be to film scholars who have not thought much about sound to this point. On the one hand, its breadth of topics and strategies gives a potent demonstration that audio has a crucial role to play in virtually every area of film/media studies. Film scholars in all areas of research – even if they approach the book with no particular concern for sound – will likely find something relevant to their own work and worth pursuing further. On the other hand, as noted earlier the book is notably lacking in its consideration of the soundtrack as a whole, and I worry that this limiting view positing what "parts" of the soundtrack to study provides a dangerous entry into sound studies. Thus I might suggest a book-length study like William Whittington’s Sound Design & Science Fiction or even a production-oriented book like David Sonnenschein’s Sound Design as a better entry point for sound neophytes, as these works rely on more comprehensive conceptions of film sound.
However, cinema scholars who have focused exclusively on the filmic image and ignored its aural counterpart may not be likely to pick up Whittington or Sonnenschein’s books. Thus I hope that Lowering the Boom’s more theoretical bent entices them to give it a read even if it's their first sound book. I cannot say that the book succeeds at its lofty goal of “reconceptualizing film studies to place sound on an equal footing with the image” (3) – at least not if this means bringing sound to the point where it can be considered apart from the image in the same way that image-based scholarship has often ignored the soundtrack. What the book does do is reclaim cinema as an “audiovisual” object, demonstrating conclusively that whatever the relative importance of the “audio” and “visual” parts, neither can be ignored. This is more realistic and useful way to conceptualize sound and image as pseudo-equals, and a great lesson for those who have previously neglected the soundtrack. For this “evangelical” effect alone, I hope Lowering the Boom is widely read, and I look forward to the increased discussion about sound and image together that it might inspire.
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