Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

15 October 2010

Film sound clichés

DOGS THAT ALWAYS bark at bad people, dream sequences with added reverb – these are two examples from an entertaining list of cinematic sound clichés compiled by film expert Sven Carlsson. Here are some more he’s come up with:

* Bombs whistle when falling from a plane;

* Text being spelled out on screen MUST make some sort of typing and/or dot-matrix-printer type of sound;

* When a light bulb gets broken, there’s always a kind of electric sound;

* When a character pulls out a knife, even from his pants, you hear a sound of metal brushing metal;

* People in a wide open field or dense forest can make their voice echo if they yell loud enough; and

* Anytime a person speaks into a microphone, their first words will cause the mic to feed back.

You can read the whole article on Carlsson’s comprehensive FilmSound website here.

Carlsson also includes a couple of London-specific clichés, namely seeing Big Ben and hearing ‘Rule Britannia’ whenever the main character visits London, and all Cockney accents being modelled on Dick van Dyke’s efforts in Mary Poppins. I’m not sure if either of those have been true for a long time, but would add a couple of historical sound clichés which still crop up fairly regularly in films and TV costume dramas.

* No tavern scene from the Middle Ages to Victorian times is complete without raucous laughter and/or Brian Blessed shouting More ale, wench!; and

* Cobbled streets are always seen and heard in any drama set before around 1930 and after some indeterminate period of severe medieval squalor.

Otherwise British historical dramas err more on the side of what they leave out. A strong impression left from reading novels written over a hundred years ago is of the general forwardness and articulacy of many people, as harsher social conditions usually punish reticence. Street-sellers and beggars had to do their utmost to avoid either the workhouse or starvation. But film and TV portrayals of ye olde London tend instead towards people shuffling around listlessly.

Two films with interesting takes on London sounds are David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, with its gas-lamps making those rushing, dissociative sounds of the void which also appear in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and Roman Polanski’s ominous hearing of 1960s London through the ears of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion.

One scene in Repulsion has Deneuve setting out on an aimless, drifting walk around the city, when she comes across three old street musicians advancing towards her along an otherwise empty street. One plays the spoons, another scratches at a washboard, altogether they make a brilliantly sinister trio and the dry death-rattle of their music complements Deneuve’s quickening madness.

Surely each borough could sponsor such roaming memento moris today, instead of sending councillors on ‘fact-finding missions’ to exotic places? The scene isn’t among any of the film’s snippets on YouTube, but look out for it next time you watch Repulsion.