Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 22, 2023 2:13 pm 
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An exploratory film about sound

Sam Green, who co-directed the Weather Underground documentary in 2002, also likes titles with numbers in them: Pie Fight '69, N Judah 5:30, Lot 63, Utopia in Four Movements, A Thousand Thoughts. Toward the end of his pleasant rambling personal narration he frankly admits to not knowing - yet - what his film is about. It's about sound, sure. But that's a pretty large topic, isn't it? The 32 sounds are an admittedly arbitrary narrowing-down for which he has borrowed from Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which in turn was based on Bach's Goldberg Variations, of which Gould's recordings are the most famous, and their organization into 30 variations plus an introductory aria and its concluding da capo repetition. This film is part about sounds as art and part sounds in nature. This isn't a scientific examination and doesn't pretend to be.

And I am an expert on this film only by proxy, having watched, and heard, it on a laptop, not in a large-screen theater wearing special theatrical headphones imported by the filmmakers for the occasion. The latter is the format for limited presentations of the film, which originally was presented as alive performance. The headphones Green considers uniquely capable of reproducing the special three-D effects that are included. If you like that sort of thing. Good ears and a good imagination can do wonders, but Green, and his non-binary collaborator for live performances, Le Tigre's JD Samson, have a special controlled experience in mind that relies on theatrical headphones. We're meant to be cooperative and participatory, and are asked to close or open our eyes, to sing along, even to get up and dance, during the course of the film.

There is a little of everything sound-related here, from tinkling wind chimes to the potentially spooky nighttime boom of foghorns, and the sound of a heartbeat in the womb recorded by Walter Murch's spouse, a midwife. An interesting deaf person, Christine Sun Kim, is heard from, as well as others who study or play with sound for a living, especially in an original or playful way. (Not musicians: "music" would be another impossibly large topic, harder to play around with than "sound.") There is Princeton's Professor Edgar Choueri from Lebanon who does that, plays around with sound; and he has his own system of three dimensional reproduction. But Green may be more interested in a tape this Choueri's father had him make, in Lebanese Arabic, when he was a boy of eleven, speaking to his future self. The tape was to be listened to only many years later, by that adult self, and by accident the tape was found. Another Lebanese, Mazen Kerbaj, an artist in Beirut, is heard from: he made a percussive musical sound recording from the explosion of Israeli bombs falling on the city.

Green points out how evocative, perhaps dangerously so, old telephone answering tapes can be, with the voices of family members now dead on them. Likewise we see how hearing a bit of McFadden & Whitehead’s "Ain’t No Stoppin' Us Now" momentarily transports a black woman political radical living in exile in Cuba to 1979 Harlem. Sound recording can be a uniquely evocative way of preserving data. A precisely miked recording of the Moho braccatus bird’s mating call is rare and sad, because the bird was the last of his kind.

Often great documentarians follow their subject wherever it leads them when it gets good. Green might have done well to have jettisoned this too-vague theme and concentrated on the story of Ruth Anderson, from Kalispell, Montana, and Annea Lockwood, from Chist Church, New Zealand, two composers of electronic and avant-garde music, lesbians who fell instantly in love - and lived together in a small white house in New York exploring sound and enjoying each other for 47 years.

Ruth, alas, had died a couple of years before at 91, When Green got to Annea, still sitting in the sun outside that house, smiling and vibrant and pretty, as she was in her youth when she presided over the burning of a piano, and a musical piece exclusively composed of smashing glass. When they met, the sparks flew. They were separated for some time at first, but talked on the phone once or twice a day for weeks, and Ruth recorded these conversations and made a composition out of excerpts. Their story, full of the blending of art and life and playful sound, might make a brilliant movie.(Green did make a short film about Annea - who now likes to record the varied chatter of the underwater life of rivers, and in the evening just sit in the backyard listening to the buzz of insects.)

Annea's early musical events connect to the work of John Cage, the composer famous for his silences. (Music as such , except for a moment of the Goldberg, is avoided.). Cage himself is seen outdoors with people around as he performs his most famous piece 4′33″, four and a half minutes of silence - of not playing an instrument. In his case it's a piano, but it can be any instrument. The lack of sound is a kind of sound, just as Ad Reinhardt's black paintings are celebrations of color.

We meet Joanna Fang, a Foley artist whose outfit is Alchemy Post Sound, and that says it all. Using old fashioned physical materials as were used in the great days of radio to fake the bumps and smashes and scratches and fart sounds and rustles, all those sounds that, added to a film, make actions sound more real than their actual recorded sound would.

The subject is considered from the point of view of human art and technology as well as nature. Whatever we are hearing in the film, however nice the headphones and multi-directional the recording methods, is a reproduction of sound in nature. On the other hand, Green must show a diagram of the ear to show how the cochlea transfers vibrations that are turned into electrical signals that are sent to be interpreted by the brain. How does a bat hear? How does a cat hear? These are questions not considered. But Green's film is thought-provoking and wide-ranging, even if it's a collection of detours.

32 Sounds, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 20, 2022, showing also at SXSW, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Screened for this review for its presentation July 28-30, 2023 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Individual presentations continue into September and move to the East Coast: see 32 Sounds.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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