Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kubrickism Part 3: Sound design and other elements

  1. Sound  design to manipulate emotions:

Kubrick is one of the pioneers in sound design from which lots of post modern cinema like of Tarentino’s takes inspiration from.  He not only made intelligent use of digetic sound to convey various meanings but also very interesting used non-digetic sound and pioneered the use of music.
  1. Use of digetic sound:  Kubrick picked and chose the relevant digetic sounds to highlight the narrative. I mentioned above in case of showing the expanse and material of the architecture how he cleverly used the sound design in The Shining. In other places he used it to create mood – like the suicide of Bomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket where one hear a periodic metallic sound, the sound of shields cutting the air in Spartacus. Infact the tune of the songs sung by the prisoners in Full Metal Jacket resonated in my ears for the following two days, such was the impact of the song without music and sung in the same tune.

In Spartacus, in the battle scene, the cuts are around the sound of trumpet and the drums.  Something like this is later seen in Lord of the Rings.
In 2001 A space Odyssey, he used the sound of the astronaut breathing inside the helmet to highlight the point of him being suffocated to death later when the tube of oxygen supply tune is broken. Note that the sound effect contains no sound except him breathing. Similarly in Full Metal Jacket when the men are charging towards the sniper, the sound is only of their footsteps, all the ambience sound was brought down to zero. Another example is in Clockwork Orange where we hear the sound of the cat lady hitting Alex but not Alex hitting the cat lady.
  1. Use of non-digetic sound effects: In Paths of Glory, one noticed the sound of Lion’s roar when the hero walks in through the trench, and the sound of military march when the General walks in, the scary piano keys in Eyes Wide Shut when Tom Cruise is caught during the orgy scene and is in the verge of being caught later. The sound design of the shining leading to a high point and then cutting to a slide showing Tuesday, not giving a moment of relief.

  1. Pioneering use of music: In later movies, Kubrick increasingly became mood centric rather than plot centric. He felt that a movie should be succession of mood and minimized the use of dialogues for it to have more universal appeal. He started believing that movie is more a medium of visual story-telling and less dialogue based.  In here I will point out two unparalled use of sound till that date.  

The first is in ClockWork Orange where he manipulates us to see violence from Alex point of you. Since it is an enjoyable experience for him, it should be an enjoyable experience for us too. So the violence happens in slow-motion with music going on in the background. Ofcourse lots of people have now taken inspiration from it but this was the first time something like this was done. Using almost contrasting soothing music to show violence.
The second is in 2001 A Space Odyssey where the space ships were shown. Lots of Hollywood flicks shows it zooming right across but no one celebrates it with music, the way Kubrick does. The spaceship experience with that music feels like a mundane experience.
  1. Language and accent as product of the environment and narrative device

In every Kubrick’s movie, the language/accent with which the characters spoke was product of the environment they were in. It lent itself to the authenticity of the characters. Following are the examples:
  1. Full metal jacket – the abusive, firm language of the instructor
  2. Clockwork orange – the invented language of Alex and his gang
  3. 2001, A Space Odyssey   - The precise Brit accent of HAL computer
  4. Lolita – Humbert was from European (Paris) and from his accent itself he was different from the Americans. It gave him a distinct characteristic and set him apart from everyone else.

  1. Accuracy of details

Accuracy of small details helped in building up the reliability. As mentioned earlier Kubrick nursed ideas for long periods. Right from the various elements put in the military packet in Dr. Strangelove,  food in 2001 A Space Odessey, pieces of brains being blown out in Full Metal Jacket . His attention and thoughts given to every detail was exemplary.  Because of this, his story telling was more realistic, and less stereotype.

The attention was not just limited to the production design element but also gestures like Humbert applying nail polish on the foot of Lolita after placing cotton to separate the fingers. These new images that we saw were the ones that stayed with us long after the movie was seen. These details added the repeatability of the movie.

His characters were nuanced, none completely black and completely white. A little unpredictable.

Even at the script level, there were layers talking about various things, like violence as integral part of infantile nature of man in Clockwork Orange, the history of violence (esp against Red Indians) in The Shining, having a tender love for the person whom you are betraying in Eyes Wide Shut. These details did not exhaust the movie in the first viewing. Every viewing infact provided something new. Also we knew that apart from the entertainment the movie provided, there were treasures tucked in the movie which kept bringing us back to the movie.
This gave his movie his unique fingerprint and repeatability and an aftertaste that lingered on.

  1. Use of colors:  Every color has a psychological impact on us. It is difficult to state but is certainly felt. The colors like bright red unsettles us and the colors like blue gives us some calmness. Kubrick plays a lot with those colors and their use is clearly seen in all his movies.  I particularly like The Shining where he used warm red tones and well-lighted corridors. A departure from lots of horror movies where the ghosts are found in the dark. In lot of places he used warm and cold lights together in the same frame – e.g. bathroom scene of eyes wide shut.  

Kubrick used a narrator in most of his movies, in Clockwork Orange, it was Alex himself and in some like Barry Lyndon it was a third narrator. There are various other features of Kubrick’s work like use of bold shots – he never did anything small, great casting (The Shining is a good example), and maintaining a narrative tension – in none of his movies at no point one felt that there is nothing to be discovered.
Some might debate that Kubrick’s movies though flawless left them cold, really didn’t move them emotionally.  Kubrick really never gave a happy chocolate ending, except for Paths of Glory where the soldiers hummed to the tune. Lot many times he left audience with an unsettled feeling. For me “Eyes Wide Shut” had the most disappointing ending in that Nicole Kidman says “Fuck”. Interestingly, this movie was released after Kubrick’s death and that remains the last word we heard from him.

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