Disappointment is a common feeling at events where filmmakers talk about their path into ‘the industry.’ For a start, no filmmakers really ever talk about luck (or, if applicable, connections) as helping them to get into ‘the industry.’
What is more, it generally strikes audiences as disappointing when the filmmaker simply says that you have simply to make films.
But even if they are not going to share their connections or admit their luck, these filmmakers are not wrong.
Indeed, filmmakers cannot explain to others how to get into ‘the industry’ (perhaps especially when they got in through luck and/or connections) because there is no set path (except perhaps via luck and/or connections, with the former appearing relatively randomly, while the latter you either have or you do not).
[To note: you can make your own luck, but you do this simply by carrying on making films, i.e. following the filmmaker’s advice. And you can create connections, but you do this simply by making films and showing them as wide a range of people as possible, i.e. by following the filmmaker’s advice.]
I would speculate that the general sense of disappointment stems, then, from a desire for people to know how to make the ‘right’ connections – which reveals the lie that they do not so much want to make films as want to have power and/or glory. Making films and having power are two different things – even if culturally we regularly conflate the two.
In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a priest recounts to Josef K the story ‘Before the Law,’ in which a man from the country seeks to gain access to the law. He is told to wait outside the door of the law until called. He is never called, in spite of trying to bribe the doorman – who of course takes his money and does nothing.
In a recent class, it struck me when a student was talking about wanting to get their project ‘green lit’ about how waiting for the green light (therefore about how waiting at a red light) is basically akin to the country bumpkin in Kafka’s story: if you sit around waiting for the light to turn green, it won’t. If you sit around waiting for permission to enter the law, you won’t get it.
You simply have to start doing it, and whatever happens after that does not matter. You are a filmmaker. You do have power. And the last person to tell you that you do not and/or that your films are not ‘real films’ is yourself – because there’ll be lots of others doing that for you as they seek to impose power over you by making you feel that somehow your own work somehow is not legitimate.
Don’t get me wrong; I have had many people say such things to me, and I am prone to believing it at times… and then I remember that I do not want to make films, which strikes me as a relatively banal and modest ambition at best. What I want to achieve is to change the very institution of cinema. And it is through the very illegitimate (‘bastard’) nature of my work, that cinema’s bloodline can change – because it certainly won’t via the nepotistic circles and/or via the processes of cinemas of conformity (people who make films that like pre-existing films, rather than people who make films that do not look like pre-existing films – even if my own films engage very consciously with their relationship to other films, e.g. by consistently having references to the work of people like Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Vigo, the Lumière brothers and the like – or what I might consider at times to be a lineage of bastard filmmakers whose work I want not simply to recreate but to take from behind).
Nonetheless, my relationship to film sound is at best ambivalent.
I may be completely wrong, but I suspect that my films would have reached far wider audiences if they had better sound. And I am torn consistently between wanting to reach and to please wider audiences than I do (since not to reach wider audiences gives one a sense of illegitimacy – and I have numerous tales of failed, fucked up and disappointing screenings that only reinforce this, even if bloody mindedly I will not stop making films).
And so if I am to reach wider audiences – if I am to appease my vanity rather than await the era when people want simply to listen to the sound of traffic and/or wind instead of dialogue – I feel compelled to strive for ‘better’ sound.
This, then, is my dilemma: should I strive for ‘better’ sound, or should I keep going as I am, with my films not just wearing their tiny budgets on their sleeves, but also in a different sense register having it audible for all to hear?
Hito Steyerl talks of the importance of the poor image, but she does not mention anything similar in relation to film sound. People will tolerate a movie shot an iPhone – as long as it sounds okay. But as soon as a film sounds cheap, then audiences run a mile.
Because if cinema aspires to be anything, it does not aspire to be cheap. It does not tolerate poverty, even if it pretends to by occasionally tolerating movies with ‘rough’ images – but very rarely movies with rough sound.
To rate movies by how rich or poor they appear, and in particular by how rich or poor they sound, is not to rate movies, but to rate wealth. If only the wealthy are deemed legitimate, then this is because we live in a society that elevates wealth above humanity – and wealth above cinema – such that only the wealthy are human and only the wealthy films are real films. In short, then, this is to worship money as humans believe that cinema is a god to which one can only enter when granted permission (when ‘green lit’). You do not ask permission; you storm the building, or you burn the light down, or you break the door, its lintel, you throw down the doorman, you burn the money you offered him, and you realise that there is no law.
I gave a talk recently in Abu Dhabi to a group of ‘young Arab media leaders.’ The talk was on propaganda and how media create a sense of power.
At the start of the talk, I refused to use a microphone, even though I have a relatively quiet voice and even though I was speaking in a large room in front of 100 or so people. For me, if you want to hear me talk, then don’t sit at the back of the room. And if you want to hear me talk, then listen.
The point is not about people expecting things to come to them (here, my voice) rather than making the effort themselves to come to me.
Rather, I did this gesture of refusing the microphone because the microphone gives the impression not that my voice comes from my body, but because of the surround sound speakers that my voice comes from everywhere.
In effect, the microphone disembodies my voice. And as soon as my voice does not have a body, it becomes less human and more divine (it is a voice that comes from nowhere – like the voice of God).
In effect, then, the microphone empowers me – and in conferring to me a sense of power, it induces in others a sense of deference, and as a result it functions through its form – amplified and as if from nowhere – as the structural basis upon which propagandistic contents can then be spread.
In short, propaganda relies as much on the seeming authority with which it is spread than it relies upon the actual messages that are conveyed. Propaganda begins by making you believe that what you are going to be told are the words of someone with power and thus someone to be believed – long before they actually tell you what it is that you are supposed to believe.
My practical exercise in some senses fell flat on its face. I was heckled to use the microphone because indeed some people at the back could not be bothered to sit in any of the fifty or so chairs that were empty next to the stage.
In other senses, though, the call for me to use the microphone proved my point. My point being not that some people want/need amplified and disembodied voices in order to listen – i.e. some people want propaganda, they want their own subjugation, they want to be at the red light. Rather, my point being when a voice is embodied – i.e. when it comes not from a god but from a mere human being – people generally are not interested.
I often feel this in my everyday life. It is a semi-regular experience that when I achieve anything of note, someone will come along and express disbelief that I could have done it. It is not simply that in the flesh I am a deeply unimpressive human being – even if this is the case for many people. It is also because these people know me in the flesh, i.e. as having a body, that – be I impressive or otherwise – they cannot take me for a god.
In other words, when we physically know someone, it is harder to confer on to that person any great power; when we do not personally know them, they are a disembodied image and/or voice, and thus we are prone to defer to them as being powerful. As a result, the disembodied person/voice can be granted god-like status, while we knock and disrespect the embodied person, even if they in fact are equal.
Now, my narcissistic tendencies towards megalomania do in some senses want to convince others that I am a god of sorts. But at the same time, I want to explode the entire structure of god-making through disembodied media.
You do not need money to make films. I am a human with a body. And my films do pick up random street sounds, buzzes, hums and other things as record sound live in real locations.
However, so much does ‘bad’ sound (noise) make films seem embodied and/or as taking place in the real world (as opposed to the amplified and disembodied nature of ‘good’ film sound, which contains little to no noise, and which thus take place in a fantasy realm – even if all films are mediations and thus fantasies to some extent), that I do feel at times as though I am coming up against a brick wall. Films that do not sound like god do not get listened to, since sound is god in cinema.
I recently did some additional dialogue recording (ADR) for my film, The Benefit of Doubt, even though I am trying – and very slowly succeeding – to edit
This is Cinema (which is not to mention that I am also hoping to re-record the voice over for Sculptures of London).
But in doing this ADR, in some senses I felt as though I was betraying my aim to destroy the hierarchies of cinema – even if that aim is quixotic, easy to laugh at, definitely the work of an embodied human being, and likely to end repeatedly in failure – and perhaps definitively so as my work is simply forgotten, ignored and eventually corrupted by time, rather than seen and heard by people as in some senses I of course want it to be.
My dilemma, then, is whether I continue to use this new sound, and perhaps even record more. Or whether I embrace poverty and the derision that the poor of cinema face in the same way that the poor of the earth are derided, too. Perhaps to want audiences and respect is hubristic – and we must instead embrace failure. But if no one will listen, maybe one does have to amplify one’s voice into a technologised shout.
Any thoughts on the topic are welcome.
One thought on “A Filmmaking Dilemma (The Sound of God/The God of Sound)”
There are times when clear sound is necessary and when rough sound is necessary. You are the crafts person, mixing in both ingredients within a film, in the right quantity to achieve your mental image (or audige?) of the film. This is your task as a filmmaker. You seem to apply high value to the alternate task of ‘shifting the paradigm’ (<not sure how correct this phrase) perhaps radicalize film or undermine the industry/ status quo… ofc this is a noble aim, and in so doing if you end up with rough sound it's ok, it is key to the struggle. Perhaps it is because I have some minor hearing problems but I have no problems with the sounds in your films.
The Benefit of Doubt – perhaps could use some sound rerecording, although from after my viewing of it, the original sound edit never bothered me. I kinda like the slightly violent moments when I was awaken from the story by rough sound. It contrasts well with seeing the characters perform some emotion that I am guilty of, and emphasizing too hard.
A New Hope – can I just say seeing this the second time round was the best (perhaps having recently read Don Quixote helped), you probs realize this but rough sound is essential for this film.
So our aim in making films is to undermine the industry or whatever.. as a sound op I should think; what is the purpose of this scene; or portion of the film; thus is rough sound ok or does dialogue need to be clear ect ect. Treat sound as another weapon in the fight.
for a little shameless self promotion: I made this video for the purpose of 'shooting to the edit' practice. for the sound I used some really simple online music editor. Choose the category (tense/sad/exciting and so on) then move some shapes to coincide with the image and the music editor does it for you. never before has a piece had post meaning ascribed to it as much as this one has. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFoBkoopcIQ