Monday, November 17, 2014

'Noise' As 'Art': the Case Of Christopher Nolan

On numerous occasions, including the highly-debated clip of The Dark Knight Rises when Bane (Tom Hardy) addresses the crowd at a stadium, and no one is able to "understand" what he said, we have discussed "noise" as a device used artistically to convey information, which is counter-intuitive because noise is often defined as that which "gets in the way" or "interferes" with information (please see Why Christopher Nolan Should Not Edit Bane's Audio for more). There are different types of "noise" (silence, low audio, static, other background noises, inarticulation, simultaneous conversations, etc.) but in each case, it offers a creative means of commentary exterior to what we immediately recognize as "the information" being presented. I am going to quote the article from Ace Show Biz in entirety--it's not long--because this provides some useful insight for us.
Another feature of this article, apart from the use of "noise," is that Nolan presents us with his "auteur signature," one of his flourishes that distinguishes his creativity from other directors in auteur theory. We could say that other distinguishing features of Nolan's work is a distinct counter-reality (Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar), or an emphasis on the cerebral, rather than the emotional element, that is, with a Nolan film, you are going to "think your way through" rather than "feel your way through." 
It was not the audience or the theater's fault if some of the dialogues in "Interstellar" were inaudible. Director Christopher Nolan has come forward to explain why some of the lines were not easy to hear. It was deliberate.

"I've always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it's the right approach for this experiential film," Nolan told THR. Describing the sound mix as "adventurous and creative," the director said he didn't agree "with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue."

He explained further, "There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it's mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is."

One of the scenes in discussion was when Michael Caine's character explained some important information to Jessica Chastain's. "We are following the emotional state of Jessica's character as she starts to understand what he's been saying. Information is communicated in various different ways over the next few scenes," Nolan said. "That's the way I like to work; I don't like to hang everything on one particular line."

Nolan was particularly grateful that the movie's sound was presented on theaters as he intended. "Interstellar" is on theaters now. It has just passed the $300 million mark at the global box office this weekend.

Like several other directors we know, Nolan enjoys working with the same actors on different films (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Tim Burton, to name a few). So, when he "brings in" a new actor he hasn't worked with before, that becomes its own source of information. Of all the actors Nolan could have chosen, why McConnaughey? Yes, he did just win the Oscar, but we might say his Texas accent has something to do with it as well since it contributes another level of "noise" in sifting through his accent to understand what he's saying (my mother has a heavy Alabama accent, so I know all about that).  Another example of "noise" in the film is the "noise" Cooper interprets to decipher Amelia's feelings for Emmonds: how on earth--or, in space--did Cooper know that when she never mentioned it? Cooper had just as much information about Amelia and Emmonds as we did, so how did he arrive at that conclusion and we didn't? He sifted through the "interference" of everything she had said and found the "real message" behind the noise she was making; we might add, that Cooper probably knew to do that because he was doing the same with his kids: every decision and move he made was to get back to his loved ones, and he could "see" in Amelia's arguments that she was hiding the same "code of conduct."
The moment I couldn't understand the dialogue very well was when Cooper was trying to say good-bye to Murphy in her bedroom, and he hugged her and said something about what her mother had told him; I couldn't understand what he was saying, so my mind automatically filled in the "missing" dialogue with my own experience and went back to what my father has told me and my siblings about us, and that became an "emotional mine" Nolan introduced for me into the events that heightened the level of the emotional stakes between father and daughter. In other words, by blocking the obvious means of gathering information (through the dialogue in that scene), Nolan challenged me to find another means of making sense of that scene, and I did. By leaving me to tap my own emotional swelling ground, I had a far more cathartic experience in the film than I would have if Nolan had intentionally tried presenting a "straight" cliche tear-jerker that we have all seen hundreds of times. But Nolan manages to achieve something else with this device of "noise" as well,...
Nolan is an intensive, hands-on kind of film maker, whereas others are content to leave duties and decisions to assistant directors and let other units film certain scenes, not Nolan. This can drive up the budget on a film, since shooting gets dragged out instead of having other scenes being filmed at the same, expedient time, but it also insures the quality of Nolan's films and his concentrated effort on detail that goes into a "total movie experience" with his films (like really maxing the IMAX effect for all it's worth). 
Noise can also funnel our attention when there is no noise: case in point, when Amelia tries convincing Cooper that her love for Emmonds might be an indication they are supposed to go to his planet instead of Mann's. We clearly understand every word that Amelia says, there is no noise or distraction, but do we understand what she's saying? The full implications of equating love and intelligence and what that entails regarding the emotions (I discuss this in Are You My Ghost?: Interstellar)? Again, there's no noise, but we have to ask, do we hear everything she is saying? In using noise, Nolan stratifies the dialogue and all the audio of his films so everything takes on a "deeper meaning" without having to be presented in an overly-complex manner.
"Attention to detail" should not be confused with "controlling and over-bearing." Nolan is "intimate" with all the ins and outs of scenes, and the different means available to him to exploit the screen's vocabulary, in audio, visual and symbolic terms.
We have seen other directors use noise: for example, Ridley Scott in the Prometheus trailers with the static on the television; Zack Snyder in Man Of Steel with General Zod's world-wide broadcast about turning over Superman and the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty, when we hear overlapping phone conversations on 9/11 and World War Z with the opening newscasts. In each of these cases, as with Nolan, even as the director "blots out" the information with some kind of "noise," only to direct our attention to the not-so-direct information they want us to search to find; why make it this difficult? Why not just flat out tell us what we are supposed to know? Because this is a "real-life" skill, we are supposed to do the same, not just in life, but in other films as well. It's usually the case that, the more a film engages our intellect, the more we have enjoyed it, and we can certainly say that of Interstellar, and all Nolan films.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner