Repetition – Sound (Part 1)

More often than not, image and sound work together, and one understandably gets repeated when the other is. However, things get more interesting when a repetition of similar shots is used to support sound, or when speech is repeated to explain or reinforce the action.


Sound propagation

Sound is invisible. It’s immaterial. Sound is a vibration that propagates through the air (or other media). Propagation of sound (e.g. alarm signals, sirens, speakers or cries) is frequently referred to in scripts, but how is one to render that on film? This is when repetition can help. In The Fog (J. Carpenter, 1980), the propagation of the sound produced by fog horns to Antonio Bay and surrounding areas is suggested by a long series of ’empty’ scenery shots. Showing empty spaces repeatedly makes the audience focus on sound, which translates into ‘sound propagation’ in their minds.

Oftentimes, not only do typical series of ’empty’ shots convey the concept of sound propagation, but they also imply that it could or should be grabbing somebody else’s attention. In the TV series episode The Avengers: The Morning After (J. Hough, 1969), such series of scenery shots not only means that the alarm signal triggered by Steed can be heard from all parts of the town, but also that it doesn’t seem to attract anybody’s attention, which sounds pretty weird. In The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001), a similar series of ’empty’ shots — although more scattered — suggests that the noise caused by Pippin is bound to attract orcs’ attention throughout the Moria, which it does. The same technique is being used later in reverse by propagating the sound of orcs back to the sender. So in short, this storytelling technique can bear more than one meaning.

This very technique can be used to support the swelling effect of sound as opposed to its mere propagation — only the shots get more and more populated instead of remaining void of life. In Network (S. Lumet, 1976), people start chanting newscaster Beale’s catchphrase en masse. In this case, the repetitiveness of the shots brings out the swelling effect of sound on the neighborhood.


Repetitive speech

Apart from their propagating effect, repetitive speeches could be used to explain or reinforce the action. In Point Blank (J. Boorman, 1967), repetition is used to link fragments of flashback scenes to current Walker’s reminiscences in voice over. In The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995), repetitive speeches — which are also reminiscences — are used to back up written words and photographs in the office that customs special agent Kujan used for an interrogation. Note: Two distinct parts of the same scene have been stitched together to emphasize that specific sound effect.

Single phrases could be repeated over and over to hammer home a message which explains the action and gives it a whole new dimension, as in My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), when Jack Beauregard fights off the Wild Bunch on his own for glory of achievement.

Even single words could be repeated to emphasize the ‘comic-tragic’ overtones of a situation, as in the TV series episode The Avengers: Bizarre (L. Norman, 1969) or Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), when Lola tries to think of somebody who could help her boyfriend in deep trouble at the other end of the phone line (Note: Two different excerpts from the same scene are presented here).


What’s up?

In part 1, we focused on two different approaches to repetition. Series of ’empty’ scenery shots suggest the propagating or swelling effect of sound (i.e. image repetition supporting sound). Conversely, speech repetition can be used to underline or explain the action (i.e. sound repetition supporting images).

In part 2, we will explore the insidious effect of sound repetition on the audience.


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