14 Jan 2017

What Robert Altman's work can teach us about film audio

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Altman's use of sound reflects lead character Frances Austen's inner turmoil Altman's use of sound reflects lead character Frances Austen's inner turmoil Eureka Entertainment


Robert Altman was a leading light of 1970s US cinema movement who exploited audio technology in innovative creative ways. Kevin Hilton looks at the sound styles of his films, focusing on M*A*S*H and the lesser known but still pivotal That Cold Day in the Park. By Kevin Hilton.

A film director's style can develop over time but the key techniques and preoccupations are often already there. Robert Altman is known for his large ensemble casts, semi-improvised dialogue, zoom work and overlapping dialogue. All this came together on his breakthrough, M*A*S*H, in 1970 but the previous year's That Cold Day in the Park, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, shows these coming together, particularly his use of sound and fascination with what is heard and not heard.

Altman made attempts to break into mainstream features during the 1950s but spent the rest of that decade and much of the 60s directing TV episodes. He encountered resistance to his stylistic tics on shows such as Bonanza; similarly the producers of his first feature in ten years, Countdown (1968) objected to his use of zoom lenses and characters talking over each other.

The latter technique, borrowed from the films of Howard Hawks, became an Altman trademark. It is first heard to its full effect in M*A*S*H but features on That Cold Day in the Park (1969), a production that gave the then 44-year old director more creative freedom. There is definite experimentation in this film, ranging from almost incessant chatter and the ethereal, jazzy score of Johnny Mandel to near silence, punctuated only by background sounds.

The extremes of noise and quiet encapsulate the inner turmoil of Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis), a prim, glacial, rich thirty something woman who lives alone in the apartment she shared with her late mother. On the cold day in question Frances is hosting lunch for elderly friends 'inherited' from her parent. As they prattle inconsequentially in the background, she stands at the window staring at a young man sitting in the rain on a bench in the park opposite.

Frances later invites the young man, who is never named but referred to in the credits as The Boy (Michael Burns), inside to dry off and get warm. Mandel's music gives way to everyday, ordinary sounds - doors opening and closing, clothes rustling - which take on sinister qualities in the stillness. The creepiness is ratcheted up by her continual talking, as she fills the void created by the silent - but not mute - Boy.

Getting warm becomes staying in the guest room but once Frances has gone to bed The Boy climbs out the window and walks to his parents' house. The sounds of the street and fruit machines in amusement arcades he passes return us to some kind of normality after the quiet and isolation of Frances' ivory tower. When The Boy gets to his home the camera stays outside, tracking him in a crane shot. The audio mirrors this; noises shift from a baby crying to a radio to people talking upstairs as he moves through the house and out again.

This motif of observing life at a distance resurfaces when Frances, reassessing her life and priorities, visits a gynaecological clinic. The use of sound becomes more apparent during this sequence. While in the waiting room she listens uncomfortably to other women, filmed in long shot, discuss contraception and sex. This is filmed in a naturalistic, almost documentary style; the dialogue appears improvised but much of it is lost as the camera perspective changes.

Altman commented in Judith M Kass' book Robert Altman: American Innovator (1978), "Sound is meant to be heard but words are not necessarily meant to be heard." He added that what is important is what is not said, not what is said. This is evident during Frances' consultation with the gynaecologist, shot through the office window, giving the whole scene a vicarious, unsettling feel.

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