For a long time now I’ve had the habit of watching my television (on those occasions when I actually watch television) with remote control in hand. The reason I do this is to lessen the loud sounds and enhance the soft. More and more it appears to me that there is no in between, movies are either explosions or whispers.
Sure, you can blame it on my age. With each passing day that is the reason for much of what I do and how I perceive the outside world. But I’m really not that old yet (50), and besides, I’ve heard people far younger than myself say the same thing. So I imagine there is some truth in my observation. If this is so, then there is probably some reason for it being so, and since I love to dissect everything I observe to death, let me take a moment to ask why this is so.
A lot of it comes down to increases in technology. Advances in sound systems as well as production have enabled someone sitting at home to have a movie theater-like experience at home. Explosions played through a powerful bass unit played at proper level can literally get the windows shaking. And played at that level, well even the whispers can be clearly understood.
Movies and television didn’t have such options decades ago. Sound needed to be compressed in order that it would sound decent on the equipment available to them at the time. Heck, Purple Haze was recorded in a way that would make it sound good on a transistor radio.
But there is something more at work than technology, at least I like to entertain the possibility that there is. After all, every observation that floats into our consciousness gives us an opportunity to reflect on the world we live in and perhaps get to know it better as a result.
With that in mind, there may be cultural reasons for the louds being louder and the softs being softer. Perhaps actual words have become less important in the movies we watch today. Perhaps spectacle is a bigger part of our movies than ideas expressed through dialog. This might be an inevitable part of the improvement of technology, but it nevertheless alters the movie-going experience. To change that experience is to alter the nature of what we call film. Is it art or is it entertainment? Most any movie should be a mixture of some degree of the two, but increasing spectacle while decreasing the importance of dialog undeniably slides it away from art and towards entertainment. As Aristotle argued thousands of years ago, spectacle is the least important, least artistic aspect of drama.
Spectacle is playing a larger part in our drama today merely because the opportunities are so vast. We can now witness on the screen an army a hundred thousand strong lay siege to a city, using elephants and mythical creatures, as we did in Lord of the Rings. Of course, such spectacle is not cheap. And to acquire the needed investment for such special effects, investors want to lessen their exposure to risk. In other words, anything that might get in the way of profit, say a controversial idea or an actual message, must be trimmed or avoided. So if you want to compete with the big boys on special effects, you’re going to have to march to the beat of the investors. And the overall difference in the look and feel of a big studio and an indie film is going to grow wider, making ideas and messages riskier propositions.
But if we can perhaps explain why movies have grown louder, we have not yet addressed why movies have at the same time grown softer. Perhaps words and ideas have a lesser part to play in film nowadays, but that is no reason for the characters to not be intelligible. So why the whispering, why the softly-spoken lines?
Perhaps it is a wild assumption but there seems to be more intrigue in movies today. Nobody is direct anymore unless violence is imminent, in which case the whispers turn to yelling. Game of Thrones is all about the intrigue, all about the plotting behind other people’s backs.
John Wayne seldom whispered, nor did he often yell. He stated things plainly. He neither connived nor did he threaten. He was a man who spoke softly (that is to say at a normal level, not a whisper) and packed a punch. I don’t recall Humphrey Bogart ever whispering, nor Jimmy Stewart. Somehow they managed to pack a whole lot of personality into a rather limit decibel range. Clint Eastwood, that’s where it all started.
Tyrants rage and traitors whisper, but the honest man speaks in a normal tone. We seem to have lost track of the idea of the honest character as protagonist. Somewhere in the 70’s we were introduced to the flawed hero (Dirty Harry, for one), and it has only gotten worse since then. Before then you could tell who was who by the color of the hat they wore. That was obviously a simplistic way of viewing the world but it wasn’t all wrong. Good guys dressed like good guys because they wanted to display respect for others and for the law. Bad guys dressed like bad guys because they wanted to intimidate others and make them submit to force or threats. And that’s it: bullying calls for a raised voice while threats can be whispered in the ear of an intended victim. And the good guys who spoke plainly and in measured tones, well they’re not part of the narrative much these days.
Admittedly my observations are not backed with mountains of research and evidence. They are merely the observations of one man with an hour to waste on a Sunday afternoon. And yet I believe there is some truth to them. Movies are different today than they were a generation or more ago, and it goes beyond the technological changes that have occurred. Our society has embraced change like none other in history. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it is still important to note what changes occur and question why it is they have come to be. Let us not fall into the position that change is always for the better, lest we become no better than those who once believed that change was always to be repressed. We, each of us, have some degree of say in what changes do or do not occur in our society. We have a role to play, a part in the discussion of where our culture is headed. It’s what grownups do.