The Eloquent Screen: The Sound Sequences that Made Me Want to Re-Watch Three Films

In The Eloquent Screen, Gilberto Perez writes about film moments. Isn’t this what a film lover’s cinematic memory is comprised of? Moments rather than full-length features, details rather than genres, sounds and songs that take us on a journey. He explores the ways that lead to a seamless transition between filmmaker and audience by bringing into discussion such a varied film work, from Chaplin, Murnau and Renoir to Kiarostami, Malick and Hitchcock. I have singled out three films I want to rewatch after reading how Perez portrayed them focusing on one particularity: soundtracking, be it music, natural sound or voice-over.

”Toni”, 1935 | Les Films Marcel Pagnol

Toni, 1935, directed by Jean Renoir

Toni begins on that train, where migrant workers are coming to work in the south of France and singing songs of the home land they left behind. They pause to have a drink from a bottle of wine they pass among them, and we suddenly hear the loud sound of the train whistle and cut to a long shot of the train crossing the bridge leading to the station at Les Martigues. The sweet human sound of the folk songs contrasts with the harsh industrial sound recorded on the spot and a representation of the experience of peasants arriving in an alien land where they are to do alien industrial work. […] In keeping with Renoir’s preference for direct sound, there is no background music in Toni. The music is provided by the immigrants themselves singing their folk songs, which recur throughout the movie like the refrain of a ballad. […] Toni brings together and bounces off each other the modern form of realism and the traditional form of a ballad – which is the way the immigrants would tell the story themselves.”

Jean Renoir made Toni in 1934, before the emergence of the Italian neo-realism (Luchino Visconti was his assistant on Toni and the French filmmaker gave him the book The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, which would lead Visconti to directing his first film, the first neo-realist film, Ossessione, in 1943) and Renoir, nor I, did not understand how the Italians could dub the sound in the studio after shooting the picture on location, arguing that he preferred a sound that was technically bad but authentic. Using the music of the times, along with the direct sound of the outdoors where it was filmed, is one of the elements that portray a convincing image of that time and bear the mark of the place, a place that both unites and divides the characters and which is felt through language, food, dress, custom and music. André Bazin said about Toni that it was not the best or the most perfectly constructed of Renoir’s prewar movies, but it was the film “in which Renoir pushed his personal and cinematic quest the farthest”, which makes it all the more eloquent in view of the subsequent development of neorealism and of cinematic realism.

”Badlands”, 1973 | Warner Brothers

Badlands, 1973, directed by Terrence Malick

“Visually as well as verbally Malick is an exact craftsman. And verbally as well as visually he liberates his films from the tyranny of the plot line. Voice-over is the device he uses to embroider events with musings and reflections and also to fill in narrative gaps, releasing the images from their usual subordination to the story so that they can flourish in splendid autonomy.”

The use of voice-over is a characteristic of Malick’s, along with other distinctive elements in his movies, like the poetic approach to narrative and character, the innovative editing, the collision of human suffering or violence with natural beauty, and Badlands (1973) was the film that introduced us to the filmmaker’s unique talent. It was his particular film-making style that made a story that had been told many times, of two lovers who are criminals and are pursued across America, an original. In her autobiography, Sissy Spacek said: “Nothing has ever really matched the magic of discovery we all felt that summer in the Colorado desert, when we learned how a film could be a living, breathing, collaborative work of art.”

”In the Mood for Love”, 2000 | Block 2 Pictures, Jet Tone Production, Paradis Films

In the Mood for Love, 2000, directed by Wong Kar-Wai

“This is a film of fragments rather than long takes, of repetition rather than progression, elliptical, off-centered, oblique. I found it and still find it to be very sexy in the way it dwells on the aroused possibility, the sustained expectations of the mood rather than the fact of love. This is melodrama with the accent on melody rather than drama – particularly a recurring waltz accompanying slow-motion images in a transformation of ordinary movements into a kind of mating dance. […] This is a film about the promise rather than the fulfillment of love, the promise of happiness that for Stendhal defined beauty.”

In the Mood for Love depicts sensuality through light, colour, space and music alone – that haunting, recurring refrain of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme. It is the things that remain unworded and that are only grasped by sight and sound that say more. It evokes the essence of romantic love, while keeping everything wonderfully ambiguous. Wong Kar-Wai said in the book-length interview with John Powers that he designed the soundtrack of the film, from music to ambience, taking into consideration that in a neighborhood like that, you would hear Beijing opera and Shanghainese opera, and that he re-created the soundtrack of his childhood, hiring retired radio broadcasters to re-record radio programs and weather reports like they used to do and he conducted the soundtrack of the film like he was a radio DJ from the 60s. It is about the mood of the 1960s of Wong Kar-Wai’s childhood. Isn’t film a multi-sensory experience, isn’t it more about mood and feeling than fact?

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