Saturday, October 24, 2015

The sound that wasn't there: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

As always, David Bordwell's observations on very specific aspects of film art prompt us to search through our mental movie database for instances of particular cinematic techniques. Thinking about the movies we watch in a "transversal" way is an efficient test for checking how much attention we pay to film style, and trying to recall films featuring a particular framing, cut, camera movement, mise-en-scene etc. can actually turn out to be a surprisingly difficult and not always fruitful operation.

A recent entry in Bordwell's blog is dedicated to the use of sound in Nightmare Alley, a 1947 film featuring the downfall of an unscrupulous man working as a barker in a traveling carnival. In particular, Bordwell analyzes a scene in which a police siren is heard, but we can't clearly determine whether this sound is subjective (like an auditory hallucination), objective (probably coming from an off-screen police car), or whether it eludes both categories. He then contextualizes the scene within the overall film, showing that ambiguous sound cues form a motif and in certain cases represent a sort of commentary on the action. I invite you to read his astonishingly detailed, insanely entertaining analysis.

Nightmare Alley merits our attention because it employs sound in unusual ways. In fact, most 1940s films conform to the stylistic palette available at the time, choosing unambiguously between objective and subjective sound and abiding by well-established conventions (for instance, subjective sound is typically signaled by a rather close shot of the character hearing that sound). Nightmare Alley instead challenges those norms, and encourages us to think about things we normally take for granted in movies.

It seems natural at this point to ask whether Nightmare Alley's innovative use of sound is a one-off instance, or if more examples exist. Can you think of a film in which a particular sound doesn't strictly respect the objective/subjective distinction? Note that here we are not taking into consideration the diegetic/nondiegetic categories applied to music. I came up with just one example, Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Spoilers galore!