The noises and sounds of Ebertfest
Matt McMahon | Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Champaign, Illinois’s News-Gazette film critic Chuck Koplinski introduced his contribution to the Ebertfest 2016 schedule, the Brian Wilson musical biopic “Love & Mercy,” as a film that completely surprised him on his initial viewing. The first-time contributor to the festival echoed familiar Roger Ebert sentiments about humanity and the delight in coming across movies that challenge their audience and change perceptions, characteristics “Love & Mercy” achieves by going beyond the conventions of the biopic by positioning central figure Brian Wilson and his humanity ahead of The Beach Boys or his music.
“Love & Mercy” acted as the opener in a surprisingly, if unintentionally, cogent double feature realized by the Saturday night Ebertfest programming. Paired with the 1981 political thriller “Blow Out,” which Ebert championed amidst the film’s underwhelming debut, the two films unexpectedly strung together an argument about what constitutes as noise, compared to sound.
In “Love & Mercy,” Brian Wilson’s mental state progressively deteriorates as he attempts, in grander and grander scale, to translate the noises he hears in his mind into something palatable and accessible not only to a mainstream audience, but, on a more significant level, to his bandmates and his family. Similarly, in “Blow Out,” Jack Terry, a sound technician for campy horror movies, becomes increasingly ostracized as he tries to convince others of a political assassination for which he only has scratchy audio evidence.
Both films feature men who can hear noises that no one else around them can accept. Their duties are to interpret these noises and recapitulate them into sounds, whether it be in song or special effect form, that others will understand. Sound begins as a passion, yet — because of this divide — it transforms just as much into traumatic obsession. It is the one source for connection to the outside world, but because of their unique relationships to their noise, their realities can never be reconciled with the realities of those for which they adapt their noise.
For Brian Wilson, the noises are the voices in his head and the perfected versions of every element of his music. He asks for three hours of takes to get the staccato rumblings of his session bassists just right for a snippet of “Good Vibrations” and cancels expensive studio time if the room’s vibe is off. For Jack Terry, the noises are the tapes of environmental sounds he captures by himself and reconstitutes as sound effects for movies. Brian and Jack are the only ones that hear the true source of the sounds they produce and become tormented by the inability to share those realities with anyone else. To Brian Wilson’s fans, his songs are their reality, divorced from the noises in his head; to Jack Terry’s audiences, the movie sound effects are their reality, while the original source of the sound remains off screen and unknown.
The two films convey this divide between artist and audience, noise and sound, in a number of ways, but the most important is where the two coalesce. The tiny workspaces of each character, Brian’s cramped studio and Jack’s cluttered office, represent their minds and how they are affected through the creative process. Initially, they are clean and act as a sanctuary to escape to in order to make sense of the noise.
Gradually, though, outsiders disturb them and their compromising of the space acts as a source of trauma. When Brian’s father — also his ex-manager — visits and plays him the new band he signed, Brian retreats to a booth in the studio and the song turns into a piercing noise in his headphones. When an intruder wipes Jack’s library of tapes clean, the clicks and whirrs of his machines crescendo in the film’s sound mixing.
During pivotal scenes in both films, accelerating circular pan shots within these workspaces mimic the claustrophobia caused by the inescapability of the noises in both tortured artists’ minds. Because they are contained in such small spaces, the noises swell and swell until something we might take as completely recognizable turns into a grating cacophony of disorienting panic. And despite either’s ultimate ability to release their reigned-in sounds unto the world, the fundamental disconnect between their realities and their audience’s leaves them alone and tormented.
With the double feature’s unintentional significance of sound and, specifically, sound in physical spaces, it was difficult not to be aware of being a member of an audience in Ebertfest’s Virginia Theatre on Saturday night. There is already a heightened sense of awareness created by watching a film in a theatre that houses over a thousand other critics, filmmakers and the general kind of discerning audience member that would attend a film festival established and named after the most important film critic of our time. The communal nature of films introduced by those directly involved with them, like Nancy Allen introducing “Blow Out,” to a knowingly receptive crowd fosters an increased intensity of feeling among the crowd. Moments of technical achievement or pivotal lines seem bigger when experienced as part of a perceivably actively-invested crowd.
So it was especially unfortunate when a fellow member of the audience audibly laughed during the emotional climax of “Blow Out.” While each and every audience member is entitled to their own reaction to a film, this kind of insensitivity was akin to using a cell phone in a theatre. Much like Steve Reich showed for music in his silent composition 4’33”, the environmental factors of an audience inherently become a part of a movie for those who experience the movie in that environment. As a result, it is extremely important to understand how any one person’s actions, be it looking at a cell phone or making extraneous noise, as one member of an audience affect the rest of that audience. After all, noise is something we all have to grapple with in our own manner, and it can mean wildly different things to different people.