Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sound Basilica

My Man Godfrey (1936) / Gregory La Cava

My Man Godfrey (1936) may very well be declared devoid of any particular ambition: the social satire is as soggy as a teenage political protestor’s manifesto; the performances range from absolute hysteria to calculated mystery, there is no soundtrack, there is no particular purposefulness with the camera (though, a lot, with the manner in which actors move in relation to it) – but it is still one of the most significant films ever – because it demonstrates properly, unlike a lot of other films from its era, the manner in which a soundstage may effectively be employed. The idea of a soundstage may be understood as a bank every inch of whose floor is wired with an alarm sensor – each inch of its area sensitive to a touch that may evoke a startle – similarly, a sound may be picked anywhere on a soundstage, even if one were to speak in the background, or better still, from outside the frame itself. This quality of sound is not used in cinema much even now – and it is most often the source-distance from the camera that determines the level of sound it may emanate – therefore, since the mainstream almost always films its characters in the foreground, the sound of the scene also belongs to only one plane-of-action. But what La Cava does with Godfrey, apart from choreographing some of the most elaborate background action in cinema (no one is irrelevant in the frame, no one is provisional, the actors even in the far-background are relevant contributors to the scene), is that he choreographs background-sound as well – therefore, the sound is not merely three-dimensional (which the speaker-system in a theatre ensures), but also three-planar i.e., emanating from three planes of action, and ofcourse, from the off-screen. Which is particularly relevant too in the case of this film, because if it were to be defined as such, it is a screwball comedy – and more than any other film, depends for its humour on dialogue exchanges, monologues, sighs, grunts, queer laughters, and in general, dialogue-mayhem – therefore, La Cava takes care to ‘record’ each sound on the stage and the put it in the film too. The players in the film are perpetually speaking (or affecting a sound) – one dialogue exchange happens in the foreground, yes, but at the same time, you can hear someone crying hysterically in the background, and in some other room altogether, someone else conducting yet another affair – in a rare case in cinema then, it is the sound that evokes the image, and not the other way round.

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