Repetition – Sound (Part 3)

The line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound can become really blurred when remote — almost inaudible — repetitive sound is deliberately incorporated into the action. Sound repetition can itself turn into musical rhythm and completely reverse the relationship between image and sound for powerful storytelling effects.


Incorporating remote sound into the action

When no repetitive sound originates from the set — or when it does from too long a distance — it can still be incorporated into a scene by way of alternation. Here are the beginning and the end — all in one clip — of the scene from Angel Heart (A. Parker, 1987) where Angel discovers the dead body of Margaret Krusemark at her apartment. By repeatedly inserting shots of a street boy tap dancing outside at the foot of the building as a leitmotiv, the tension of the scene rises until it reaches break point even though that very sound can barely be heard from within the apartment. Note: One of the shots have been substituted with a drawing due to the violence of its content.

Repetition of remote sound can also interfere with the action by covering it entirely — as opposed to being edited as outright alternation. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (S. Peckinpah, 1974), by covering the scene where henchmen haul Teresa before her father, the underlying sound of their spurs leaves little doubt as to the violent nature of the action — even though the assembly can’t possibly hear it from within the building. In Alien (R. Scott, 1979), the nerve-shredding beep sound of the motion sensor covers the entire scene where Dallas hunts the Alien in air shafts, even though he can barely hear it — if at all — through his headset. The action is all the more tense as it is spread with repetitive sound, whether the effect is realistic or not.

Point Blank (J. Boorman, 1967) pushes the limits of that technique by letting the audience listen to Walker’s footsteps at the airport, then throughout the following scene where he can be seen driving, until he barges into his cheating wife’s place.


Slave to the rhythm

One step further, a scene can be made to match the look and feel of a music video provided that sound is rhythmic enough. The usual scheme then gets reversed: Rhythm takes over the visual aspect of the film, and images start supporting sound rather than the opposite, which shifts our relationship to the action. In Kick-Ass (M. Vaughn, 2010), the scene where Hit-Girl gets trapped behind a pedestal reaches its climax with the synchronization of the shots of D’Amico’s henchmen with music beats. Likewise, in A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971), Alex’s blasphemous visions are supported by the rhythmic pounding of Beethoven’s music, itself supported by shot repetition for a powerful effect.

Associating sound repetition with musical rhythm isn’t as anecdotal as it may seem, and can find its way into very different kinds of movies — although it will certainly not fit all storytelling styles. Some genres (e.g. musical comedies), though, might be partly or entirely built upon musical rhythm, and music video clips have only been pushing the limits for decades. In Pink Floyd: The Wall (A. Parker, 1982), repetition of sound and image is at the core of Pink’s infamous visions. In Dancer in the Dark (L. von Trier, 2000), the film literally turns into a musical comedy as Selma slips into daydream and lets her imagination turn the noise of factory machines into musical rhythm.


What’s up?

And here we are at the end of our tour of repetition as storytelling techniques in movies. But this chapter would be incomplete without thoroughly exploring montage sequences, and prior to that, jump cuts which we will be studying very soon.

But before moving on to jump cuts, let’s take a look at their simplest form: subliminal shots.


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