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Creating Tension With Sound Film Studies Essay

In my own work I am exploring the psychological impact caused by a break-down in a relationship. The use of sound to create tension is of great importance to support what is happening on screen in order to reflect upon the viewer the emotions felt by the characters.

As someone who is creating a film which relies on sound to enhance atmosphere, the work of David Lynch is an unavoidable resource because sound is just as important as imagery. He uses sound in order to create moods and atmosphere which propel the stories of his films forwards.

The works of Lynch have covered many genres such as murder mystery and science fiction, with each film being very different from another. However each film is distinctly recognisable as a David Lynch film in that his films are unique auditory and visual spectacles full of symbolism. Lynch employs an almost perfectionist approach to every aspect of his films. It seems the unique captivating power of his films stems from this attention to detail in both the visuals and sound.

This essay is an investigation into an important characteristic of Lynch's films; the use of sound and it's relationship with the imagery. I will use examples from Lynch's major film projects focusing on three films in particular in order to investigate this relationship: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Inland Empire. Firstly I will explore how sound is used as a narrative force in conjunction with on-screen imagery.

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Sound as narrative

David Lynch's first foray into mainstream cinema was with his first feature film Eraserhead. It established him as director but also demonstrated his understanding of sound as a means of narrative within film.

“Sound is 50 per cent of a film, at least. In some scenes it's almost 100 per cent.”. This statement by Lynch himself underlines the importance of sound in his films, to me, suggesting that the sound is what carries the narrative forward in a continuum. For example, in Eraserhead the viewer is subjected to an almost nonsensical visual narrative, leaving one feeling bemused as to what is actually happening in the film. However, as Michel Chion states “Sound has a precise function, propelling us through the film, giving us the sense of being inside it, wrapped within it's timespan.” He goes on to argue that although there is a lack of visual narrative the sound makes up for it. If we take this into hand it is as if the sounds that we are hearing in the film creates a sort of audio narrative, that can be heard throughout, but never seen, creating a dense atmosphere of tension and loneliness.

An example of this can be found in the introduction of Eraserhead (00:00:00 – 00:05:50), where the viewer is subjected to sounds of machinery working, seemingly industrial rumblings. However we don't actually see any visual representation of any kind of machinery. What we see is something which appears to be out of a sci-fi film with a close up shot of Henry Spencer's head (the film's protagonist). Behind him is what appears to be a mass of rock hanging in empty space devoid of any stars. As the camera zooms into this rock we are presented by a grotesque figure of a man sitting by a broken window and some levers. This is followed by a shot of Henry again, as what appears to be a deformed sperm exits his mouth and floats in space. The scene then moves back to the man by the levers, and as he pulls one of the levers, seemingly sets the sperm into motion which eventually plummets into a fluid of some kind. It is as if what you are seeing and hearing is the journey of the sperm on it's way to fertilise an egg. The visuals accompanied with the sounds convey the feeling that you are inside Henry's mind experiencing his thoughts, Eraserhead has often been thought as a portrayal of a nightmare. The scene eventually ends with the camera coming out of the darkness through a hole in the ground into the world of Henry. The continuous sound acts as a seamless link between the introduction and the next scene (which is essentially the beginning of the film). With the choice of sound one cannot help but feel a sense of distress and isolation, feelings that are synonymous with Henry throughout the film. This introduction seems to be a precursor as to what happens later on in the film, though the viewer is not aware of it.

David Lynch also uses silence as a narrative tool by creating an instance for the viewer to think and ponder. He refers to this silence as 'room tone' saying “It's the sound that you hear when there's silence, in between words or sentences.”. In Eraserhead these instances of silence do not contain natural sounds of any kind, just the constant ambient sound of the industrial droning, creating tension and a sense of isolation. This ambient sound of machinery is heard throughout the film, acting as a constant, bringing the imagery together.

Another example of 'room tone' is in Lynch's latest film Inland Empire where one of Laura Dern's characters is sitting opposite an unknown man in a small dark room (01:18:00 – 01:20:45). Dern's character begins talking, and pauses every now and then as she speaks to the man. The man in turn does not respond and merely sits listening. The character is talking about a gruesome incident that has occurred, which appears to be completely irrelevant to what has taken place so far in the film. Yet the silence in between the dialogue carries an almost electric buzzing sound which creates tension and discomfort, drawing the viewer further into the scene.

Use of music and song

“Music is the primary instrument of emotional direction in film – it tells us what to feel about a character, a place, a situation.”

Although sound is the primary element in Lynch's audio-scape, he also uses music and song as a means to create mood and to reflect emotional states of his characters.

It was the teaming up with the composer Angelo Badalamenti during the filming of Blue Velvet, which caused Lynch to be liberated musically. Badalamenti's ghostly musical scores often complimented and enhanced the dream like visual imagery of Lynch's films. Badalamenti's score in Blue Velvet is gloomy and daring and often compliments and contrasts the harsh sound effects created by sound designer Alan Splet (a long time collaborator of Lynch) and the on-screen imagery. An example where the musical score heightens the atmosphere of a scene in Blue Velvet is when Isabella Rossellini's character Dorothy Vallens walks over to her closet, in which Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) is hiding. Dorothy is holding a knife and the music rises in tempo and volume creating an almost stifling tension as she opens the closet and discovers Jeffrey (00:38:00 – 00:38:19).

In a number of Lynch's films elements of the musical film create startling contrasts as characters suddenly burst into singing, or a song is playing over imagery that it does not quite belong to. There is almost a feeling of abstract fantasy about these instances just as there is in musicals, however these songs serve a purpose to transform visual imagery, uphold narrative and to give an added dimension to the characters themselves. The writer Chris Rodley comments on this use of music as something that alters how the on-screen imagery of the the films is viewed, but as a result takes on a new meaning itself causing both to become intertwined0. In the opening scene of Blue Velvet we hear Bobby Vinton's song 'Blue Velvet' (from which the film apparently gained it's name),a 1960's hit song reminiscing about love which is now lost. Accompanying this song is on-screen imagery of idyllic picket fenced middle America, focussing on a man watering his lawn. At this point nothing seems to be out of the ordinary, however after having trouble with his hosepipe the man suddenly collapses squirming clutching his neck. The scene ends with a close up of the lawn as the camera seemingly goes into the dirt, with the song fading, revealing a scurrying mass of beetles(00:01:40 – 00:03:45). This stark contrast between what the viewer is seeing and hearing, creates a sense that not all is as it seems in Lumberton, the imaginary town in which the action of the film takes place.

Later in Blue Velvet we have an example where the song 'In Dreams' by Roy Orbison is given double meaning when mimed by the antagonist Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper. Frank is an extremely foul mouthed and violent character who deals drugs and can be viewed as the essence of evil in the film. What the song does is to give an insight into the subconscious workings of Franks mind, as it shows him in a very different light to how he usually is throughout the film. 'In Dreams' also serves as a narrative to the hopeless situation which Jeffrey has got himself into, being held captive by Frank and his men,as well as getting punched.

However music is the main factor in Inland Empire that carries the narrative forward which will be covered further on.

General overview of Lynch's films

what does sound achieve in his films

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