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„Eine ganze Welt öffnet sich diesem Erstaunen, dieser Bewunderung, Erkenntnis, Liebe und wird vom Blick aufgesogen.“ (Jean Epstein)

Brief Encounters with Sounds up Close

by Babos Anna

Distance from the subject is an essential aesthetical, ethical and practical question in filmmaking. Getting to know something necessitates time, a process of coming nearer. It is not about the necessity of having an establishing shot or the rejection of in medias res storytelling, but more about the relation of filmmaking with reality. Approaching a person, object or subject can lead to this reality, whether gaining permission to draw closer or finding the proximity to capture the essence of the subject of filming. This process is necessary for any kind of cinematic depiction, and ignoring to reflect on the approximation can lead to the misdirection of attention and takes the risk of provoking a strong emotional impact without having an idea about the context.

Beginning a film with an image of an instant close-up, for instance, creates an atmosphere of confusion within the audience: where are we and what are we looking at? Opening immediately with a close-up of a person may feel like an uncalled for intrusion: why do we enter so intrusively into a stranger’s personal space, body and face?

Distance is not only perceived through the image but also through sound – even when listening to mono sound, we feel when the recorder is close to or distant from the source. Auditive proximity has always been a tool for filmmakers to play with, not only for illustrating close-up images, but also in the case of point-of view-shots, when the person is talking but looking far away, or having a narrator who introduces the distant images from a closer position. While films are constantly exploring the ways sound and image can cohere or differ, recently there has been a tendency of favouring close-up sounds in cinema. 

Like sudden close-up images, close-up sounds also create a confusing feeling of intrusion; a stranger whispering right into our ears will feel impolite and disrespectful. Even if it’s quite rare to hear something so close in real life, there are some films that favour close sounds over a more realistic use of it. Their images are accompanied by intense humming, whispering, or other kinds of voices or noises heard from up close. This way, they not only skip the process of approximation, but also provoke and satisfy the viewer’s constant impatience and urgent need of being at the heart of the action. 

Through different ideas of silence, this question of abundance and satisfaction can be easily described. Silence has primarily been used as a tool to express and strengthen the emotional state of the characters, offering a subjective sound experience. This idea of stylized silence, when the moment of silence means the lack of sounds and music or is filled with one sound held on for a long time, is replaced by the idea of letting different sounds of everyday life prevail, which otherwise would remain unnoticed. Whereas the disappearance of silence might suggest a more realistic approach, a step towards objective sound, the way of portraying silence often means to make use of the infinite possibility of filling it with sounds. 

This acoustic abundance doesn’t necessarily mean a step towards realism, for instance the case of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Using Dolby Atmos, a surround sound technology which, by adding extra height channels, achieves a perception of sounds as three-dimensional objects in a 360-degree bubble, Roma starts with a close-up image and sound of swashing water. From the first scene on, this film works with slightly resounding steps, intense breaths, dripping water, barking dogs and the constant voice of the radio. The soundscape is far from being natural, we perceive an excessive and physically complicated auditive atmosphere. “Atmos was that extra step into complete immersion and that was the goal, to make this film as completely immersive as possible” says Craig Henighan, the re-recording mixer of the film. 

Understanding of the director’s stance towards sound becomes even clearer from his previous film, Gravity. Appreciating and making use of the idea of silence doesn’t necessitate actual silence for Cuarón. Sandra Bullock, working in space as an astronaut, answers George Clooney’s question referring to what she likes in space, she says “Silence” while we hear intense, elevating music. This scene raises a question though: the music can neither refer to her subjective experience, nor can it be chained to the camera’s hearing- and viewpoint. The only idea behind the sound design seems to be the perfection of the audience’s cinematic experience, not the elaboration of the cinematic expression. The concept is to fill each second with the most possible sound to a degree where it gives the expected amount of pleasure. Each noise of the atmosphere is designed primarily to bind our senses, and it seems to be only a side-effect that they describe the environment, feelings or objects. 

However, this idea of offering an immersive experience is not only present in major film productions, but also in independent films. This is even more problematic, as this phenomenon cannot be separated from new media or their contemporary cultural practices, defined by the desire for immediate access, dubious interest in pseudo-innovative subject matter and audio-visual pleasure. An example of a direct interplay between cinema and other audio-visual works could be the impact ASMR videos had on a certain type of film with a partly documentarian, but mostly avantgarde approach.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a pseudo-scientific term describing a ‘tingling’ physiological response given to sound videos primarily in the online space, combining auditory, visual and tactile triggers. When getting really close to the microphone, the voice or any other kind of sound gets lower and more sonorous, aiming at a more immersive auditive experience. Accentuating the mundane noises of everyday life, such as hair brushing, turning the pages of a book or stroking and crinkling different materials, these videos supposedly offer a relaxing, meditative experience, which, from outside of the ASMR community, is often referred to as ‘whisper porn’. There is not an exact scientific explanation to this feeling, but plenty of people have described it as a pleasant sensation moving down from the scalp through the neck to the upper spine. In the twenty-first century special stimulations are indispensable even for relaxing.

Some filmmakers openly use and reflect upon the triggers of ASMR culture, such as Peter Strickland, an artist committed to discovering different auditive experiences in his latest short, Cold Meridian. A woman is preparing for a performance, washing her hair or sketching the choreography. Massaging wet hair, a pencil scratching paper, the performers sorting documents; these are ideal and typical scenes for an ASMR video, which is, besides the audience, watched by another woman. The preparations are interrupted by the images of the actual performance, the woman and a man wrestling naked. The online intimacy between the female viewer and the performer is juxtaposed by the violence of the naked dance. This dissonance is not extended to the sound despite its emphasis. The whispering voice addressing the viewer and all the other triggering noises don’t get contrasted, ASMR dominates the intimacy and the naked dance at the same time. Even if Cold Meridian reads as a reflection on this online trend, it makes use of its triggers; in an undefined space between being critical and promotional the film remains hypocritical. 

Aiming at a similarly nightmarish effect with the use of close sounds, the uncanny images of Hong Kong in Simon Liu’s Signal 8 are contrasted by various noises. The film discovers the place and meaning of natural elements in the alienated city, but instead of creating a balance, it shows the upsetting presence of these elements. Water whooshing from a broken gutter recalls a waterfall, the images of welding slag evoke fireworks. All these associations and false illusions reinforce the atmosphere of chaos, rush and anonymity of the city. To this end, close sounds such as humming and murmuring voices, muffled music cues and some mechanical noises are used over and over again. These noises didactically push the obvious notion of a soulless metropolis, converting the ghostly atmosphere into a fancy music video.

An unexpected way of using this strange effect is tied to a certain kind of documentarian approach. Jessica Sarah Rinland has been using extreme close-up sounds and images in most of her films, including one of her latest works, Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another, which explores the nature of preservation and reproduction through the making of an ivory tusk’s replica and other ceramics. Plaster, slip casting and other ceramic techniques are shown focusing on their tactile quality in acoustically and visually pleasing shots. This high-quality ASMR film offers a one-hour-long meditation on the ceramicists and preservationists’ work, an immersive experience in various phases of work. The visual close-ups of hands play a crucial part in creating an intimate atmosphere; there is something utterly suggestive in the airy but also meticulous movements of the hand. It overshadows the fact that a work is being done, the dance of the hand resembles more of a performance than actual labour, raising the issue of exoticization and almost erotization of the otherwise exhausting and monotonous everyday work.

When watching this film, I kept thinking about my process when making mosaics. The procedure of work and creation begins with careful sand-drizzling, then smoothing the sand gently in the frame, cutting the glass mosaics to fit the whole shape and then pressing down every single little piece into the wet sand. Yet, it also means work, one gets tired or bored, pinches a finger instead of the small glasses with the clamp, cuts oneself several times with splintered pieces of glass and eventually one’s back starts hurting because of the hours, days and weeks spent bending over the frame. The depiction of the phases that are not mere pleasure are painfully missing from this film; this way, watching others working becomes unnecessarily comforting and spectacular.

Close-up sounds are dominant in other films of this documentary approach and idea to present places and materials. An example for that kind of exploration is Villa Empain directed by Katharina Kastner. A fusion between Bauhaus and Art Deco, the house was conceived by Louis Empain. Mesmerized by this idea, Kastner wanders around the house and combines her footage with old photographs of Normandy, where Empain used to spend his holidays with his family. Images and an excessive use of sounds illustrate associations of time and art, giving a sensual, deceptively vivid sense to the still parts of the building. The maximized diegetic sounds and the artificial soundtrack hinders the film to convey a sense of the villa’s spaces and quietness. The only character of the film is a woman, Tamar Kasparian, who makes nuanced imprints of leaves and some details of the villa’s floor. Not only the idea of reproducing but the material is also similar to Rinland’s film, the tactility of Villa Empain is perfected by the 16mm film. 

Connecting daily routine, work and remembrance in The Plastic House Allison Chhorn imagines the passing of her parents and shows the process of grief in a steamy greenhouse. The director performs the work she usually does to help her parents; work with dripping wet and wind-blown muslins, drapes and nettings. While these films that are often described as minimalist deal with work, the richness and small-grained nature of the audio add up to a rather immoderate whole. The unusually and unrealistically sharp sounds are exhibited in a way that would be impossible to perceive during actual work, thus the experience invokes a studio rather than a place that functions outside of the film’s world. 

However, the idea of close sound and the diverse possibilities of its combination with images has been approached in many meaningful ways. One of the most striking contemporary examples of that is Dieser Film ist ein Geschenk, a documentary about the life and art of Daniel Spoerri. Anja Salomonowitz’s film gives an insight into his work of redefining everyday objects, detaching them from their own context and putting them together in a piece of art. Salomonowitz reflects this method of artistic recycling by doing the same with the sound of these objects, creating a symphony of their rattling and clinking noises. This unique auditive atmosphere also resonates with the artist’s physical tremor which almost prevents him of making art. Another example could be Heinz Emigholz, who combines the hollow sounds of the empty rooms of a museum under construction and the dynamic noises of the work in the complex soundscape of Years of Construction.

Despite the above examples of close-up sounds, the phenomenon is disconcerting. It signifies an overstimulated state of mind that relies on ostentatiousness because it finds too little in moderation. In other cases, the trust in the attractive power of an online trend marks an unconscious surrender to marketability. Stripping manual labor of its environment and duration in order to intensify and accelerate the experience, or the adoption of a highly consumerist technique to increase auditive pleasure marks the way how fanciful, high-brow cinema satisfies commercialism and takes advantage of its products. The overwhelming extremities of sound aggressively swing the attention into one possible direction of interpretation. This way, artmaking becomes aimless and meaningless, prioritizing the satisfaction of the audience without confrontation, declaration or intellectual challenge.