The filmmakers mentioned in this list are not the only ones to use sound in an inventive way, but they are most high on virtually any list about narrative use of sound in cinema, which is one of the most important tasks of a cinematic work’s acoustic potential. Sound doesn’t have to be a secondary element used only to complete and assist the visual narration. It has its own narrative potential and can be used separately from its visual reference to evoke a personal referring image in the mind of spectator.
In the modern era it is hard to imagine a film without sonorous information, although there are films based on this very challenge. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) is a perfect example of this as the almost two hour long silence of the film ends in the brief sound of the actor panting. It is precisely the long silence that makes the panting sound stand out.
1. Robert Bresson
“When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.” – Robert Bresson
This is how Bresson developed most of his scenes. He maintained a passive image and moved the most significant act out of sight. Often all that can be heard is something like the sound of an occurrence right behind the street corner while the viewer is watching the character’s hands gripping the steering wheel, waiting for his fellow thieves to come back.
The fact that the sound of this incident can be heard can testify that the event is happening quite close to camera range, so the sound can reach the viewer’s ears while it is geographically distant and out of visual camera range. Sound in such scenes is the only element that testifies to the actual occurrence of that fact and the only visual reference is the one that the spectator imagines.
The passive image sometimes can be total darkness and sometimes it’s actually a dramatically passive image which means that the main dramatic action is happening out of frame while the camera is looking elsewhere, such as the above mentioned scene in L’argent (1983), and also A Man Escaped (1956), Mouchette (1967) and most other films of Bresson.
2. Rouben Mamoulian
“It’s curious really. Here I had been recruited as a stage expert on dialogue and all I could think of was the marvelous things one could do with the camera and the exciting new potentials of sound recording. The camera fascinated me.” – Rouben Mamoulian
Mamoulian’s notable use of sound effects in rhythm in films like Love Me Tonight (1932) evidenced an influence years later in Dancer in the Dark from director Lars Von Trier.
Innovatively in the same film the director utilized diegetic music: one of the characters (a composer) overhears a man singing a tune (and this man too has overheard the same song while a tailor, the protagonist, in love with the princess, was singing it). The composer hums the same tune while sitting in the train, a group of soldiers are sitting nearby and the song turns to a march.
Ultimately the very same melody reaches the ears of a village musician who plays the same tune on the guitar and people start singing and dancing with him to form the distant song that finally reaches the very ears of the princess who is listening out from her isolated balcony.
In some cases, Mamoulian used sound effects in a diverse manner from the main sound that belongs to the subject. For instance, the picture of old women tottering down the stairs and breathing nosily out of excitement is accompanied by the sharp sound of a group of dogs barking. The combination, consequently, reflects the interpretation and subjectivism of the cinematographic work’s author.
That is the very method Milos Forman used in Amadeus (1984): the disturbing shrinking voice of Mozart’s mother in law turns into the soprano performing in The Magic Flute. The resulting interpretation is that Mozart is not even listening to those who blame him, only hearing his own music.
3. Francis Ford Coppola
Although the music in Godfather (1972) and other previous works of Coppola is actually extra-diegetic, there’s a huge number of situations in his films benefiting diegetic sound.
He presented one of the most famous scenes with diegetic music ever filmed: the playing of “Ride of the Valkyries” over the helicopters while they are attacking the village in Apocalypse Now (1979), and also some exceptional examples such as the closing sequence of The Conversation (1974) featuring Gene Hackman’s character playing saxophone in a corner of his room, when the phone starts ringing, interrupting his rehearsal. He stops playing and goes to the phone.
No one is on the line, but he can overhear the recorded melody he already has played, repeated on the phone; ultimately some one’s voice utters: “we’re listening”. The sequence is followed by the emotionally overwhelming scene of the character searching every corner of his house for hidden microphones by tearing out the outer the walls and practically destroying the whole house.
Playing Ride of the Valkyries is justified by the logic of Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who uses the music to psychologically evoke the sense of defeat and consequently causing the enemy to lose the war without actually fighting back.
What is exceptional about this scene is what Walter Murch has does afterward: sound editing the scene, respecting the geographical distance between the source of sound and the position of the camera in each shot. Something that especially evident during the scene’s final shots is how this is altered.
In this sense until that very moment (the end of invasion) the music is heard distantly when the helicopters weren’t above the village and the music becomes sharper when they are descending on the village.
When the helicopters were geographically far from the village, the dominant acoustic layer was the ambient sound of the village, while during the attack the music has the upper hand. In the final shots of the scene, the ambient sound is almost completely dissolved in the Wagner’s music which dramatically means that they’ve won.
Various narrative plots ask for various acoustic approaches. There are examples of both usages of diegetic and extra diegetic music in Godfather II (1974). The repetitive theme is obviously extra diegetic, imminent from an invisible source, only audible to the spectator.
The music is playing faintly in the background of the scene where young Vito (Robert De Niro) kills Don Fanucci is diegetic. There’s a religious parade (processione) going on outside in New York’s Italian quarter, so no one actually hears the shots.
4. Lars Von Trier
Von Trier’s innovative use of voice-over narration in Europe (1991) gives this sonorous approach a task which is not merely a method of explaining or foreseeing narrative facts. The voice-over narration in Europe commands the protagonist to follow a pre-ordained storyline.
The director orders the character to sleep, walk away, spot something special and ultimately die. This is one of the most notable examples in cinematographic experience which has utilized voice-over not as an element to assist the easy and fluid development of the story but as one of the main characters and obstacles in the narration.
As previously mentioned, Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) used sound effects in rhythm as a dramatic excuse to put two various visual textures and directing styles together. In scenes that are considered“real” the camera takes in all action including many extraneous movements which give the impression of documentary film making.
The scenes which are actually Selma’s (played by singer Bijork) dreams are closer to the setting and recognizable choreography of a musical. There is no unwanted movement of the camera and the visual texture and quality is utterly altered.
Stimulating the visual imagination of the spectator is what, Van Trier counted on in Nymphomaniac (2013). The film begins with darkness (there’s no visual reference present) and the sound of a kind of liquid flowing, while a metal repetitive sound is going on. Since the audience expecting sex scenes in Nymphomaniac, presumes that this is the noise that perhaps an old bed would make when someone is having sex on it.
Only afterwards does the viewer realize that this initial sound was just the sound of raindrops falling down on the upper metal structure of the building and a rusty fan rolling back and forth. After the storm, the film constantly returns to the present time for what is practically a long flash back. During the opening sequence, Von Trier spends a long time presenting the visual references of the sounds heard previously on the dark screen (the entire part before the sudden beginning of Rammstein music).
What is obvious in most of the director’s films is the remarkable courage shown in putting a step over the known, accepted narrative and structural lines. He eliminated physical walls and played around with architectural limitations in Dogville and used wrong, willingly casual visual compositions in The Boss of It All (2006) and altered the sacred image of martyr is Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark and Nymphomaniac.
5. Abbas Kiarostami
“My films have been progressing towards a certain kind of minimalism, even though it was never intended. Elements that can be eliminated have been eliminated. This was pointed out to me by somebody who referred to the paintings of Rembrandt and his use of light: some elements are highlighted while others are obscured or even pushed back into the dark. And it’s something that we do – we bring out elements that we want to emphasize.” – Abbas Kiarostami
Kiarostami is known for his own unique use of “subjective sound” which is always dramatically justified. For example, in his episode in Tickets (2005), the old woman starts searching the train for the young man who has left her out of anger. She feels lost.
Instead of just using a distorted train sound which can be a subjective sonorous expression for her mental state, Kiarostami makes her stride all the way to get closer to the loco motor (the very first carriage). This can justify the high dominant growling sound of the train. The sound is subjective and at the same time real.
“Out of frame sound” is an approach the director has repeated in almost all his works. There’s always someone out of frame talking back to the protagonist, reminding the viewer of the visual element which the camera is not showing. In Shirin (2008), the whole story is happening out of camera range and the film is merely about the reactions of the spectators. What the viewer looking at is not the story but the reactions that the story provokes in the audience.
In Taste of Cherry (1997), the represented landscape during the course of the story seems to be the same, a sort of desert. There’s one specific spot in this whole plain landscape which is important for the main character ,the spot he where wants to be buried. Each time he gets back to this spot, we hear the distant sound of a dog moaning (we never actually see the dog) and this moaning sound assists us as a sign to recognize the spot.