Repetition – Sound (Part 2)

Repetition of sound can strongly affect the way the audience perceives the image stream. As repetition of sound feels less invasive and more natural than image repetition, it is all the more insidious — and hence more powerful in that respect — even when the trick is blatantly apparent.


Diegetic sounds

One of the most insidious aspects of sound repetition is when it originates from the scene itself — or let’s better say from the story world (i.e. diegetic). The audience accepts the sound merely because hey, it’s part of the environment. But then it starts to creep into their minds and ends up as a real pain, which surreptitiously distorts their perception of the action. Kind of Chinese water torture. This technique is put to good use in the first scene of Once Upon a Time in the West (S. Leone, 1968) for a ‘calm before the storm’ effect. The irritating sound of a windmill raises the tension of the scene where a bunch of gunmen are waiting for their victim at an isolated station. The same approach is used in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003) to get on the audience’s nerves during the last fight scene, as both opponents pause for breath.

Repetition of sound can have a haunting, even hypnotic effect on the audience — like road broken lines when one is driving at night. For instance, in The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), the repetitive alternation of sharp and muffled sounds that Danny’s tricycle generates as he pedals across the lounge of the Overlook Hotel makes the audience uncomfortable — and the deserted hotel an eerie place to be right from the start.

The emotional state of a character can be taken advantage of to let her generate repetitive sounds herself and put more strain on the audience, as in The Silence of the Lambs (J. Demme, 1991) where the last 6-minute long action scene is literally scored by Clarice’s short breath, or in The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986), when Jim’s footsteps add to his breath to emphasize the action in slow motion.


Non-diegetic sounds

When no natural sounds are generated by characters or their environment, it is still possible to inject non-diegetic sounds (i.e. not part of the story world) into a scene and obtain similar results. For instance, in My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), the ‘calm before the storm’ effect is achieved by adding the ticking of a clock to the soundtrack. There is no clock in the barbershop, the ticking sound is actually part of the film score!

Speaking of film scores, music can be made super-repetitive to put pressure on the audience in very much the same way as natural sounds. In The Abyss (J. Cameron, 1989), the same piano note is hammered over and over as Bud swims back to the platform, towing Lindsey’s body. In The Thing (J. Carpenter, 1982), music is minimal and sounds like heartbeats by way of one repeated couple of synthetic bass notes.

Apart from music, sounds of ‘real’ heartbeats are commonly added to the soundtrack to bring out the anxiety of a character, even though they are not part of the action. The repetitiveness of the sound of a palpitating heart can emphasize all kinds of tense scenes, be they slow and gradual as in Birdy (A. Parker, 1984) — when Al reminisces on the moment he was evacuated from Vietnam — or quick and sudden as in Wanted (T. Bekmambetov, 2008), when Wesley finds a pistol in his pocket.


What’s up?

Repetitive sounds put strain on the audience, whether they are actually part of the scene (e.g. originating from the environment or characters) or not (e.g. heartbeats or music).

In part 3, we will focus on rhythm and see how repetitive sounds can be made both diegetic and non-diegetic depending on the shot.


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