I am just about the finish my 3rd Year of BA Film Studies at the University of Derby, feeling like an egghead and full of such vast knowledge about cinema. Being hopeful of getting a Masters Course in London, I thought that I would look back at my essays and plans and present them to you, hopefully educating a few people in this new segment 'Cutting Into The Scene'.
As I was browsing around Spill.com, I stumbled across a blog by Brendan, demonstarting the art of Musical Scenes in not so Musical movies. It is a very interesting blog and I would recommend reading it (click here).
One of these scenes was the classic ear-cutting sequence from Reservoir Dogs, a true honest classic that has been cut open and examined by nearly every film critic... now it is my turn. This blog will look into this scene as well as examine its brilliant use of sound. Comment below and tell me what you think...
Now Kids, class is in session!
Let's look at our scene:
Sound in modern cinema, in the eyes of the average cinemagoer, is secondary in comparison to the images and actions that are occurring on the scene. ‘In ordinary life, sound is often simply a background for our visual attention.’1 However, the placement of the sound track in a film can create very important moments in a film, producing emotions such as tension or distress, or enhancing the realism in the surroundings the scene is set. If a film was watched visually with no sound, depending on the direction of the scene, it may quickly become disorientating or uncomfortable to watch as the audience will only be receiving the mimetic side of the plot. The scene could lose its form and identifiable relationship with the images the screen. ‘The soundtrack is serving the visual and the narrative, giving greater communicative power to the film as a whole.’2 It is a strategic device that the filmmaker can control and manipulate to help subtly portray the importance of characters, motifs and significant messages, distorting what is considered to be an accurate recording. This could create a statement on symbolic expressionism. All these influential techniques are constantly being used in cinema to debatably manage the audience opinions and feelings on what is happening in the scene. A fine example of this can be found in the classic Quentin Tarantino film ‘Reservoir Dogs’, exploring deeply into the techniques used in famous ear-cutting scene and how the sound is connected and to the visual effects.
Throughout the scene, many different forms of sound are being mixed and explored. One expressive device that is used continuously in film is the placement of musical score. This can give multiple sensations to the viewer such as emotional tension or release. The music can also help foreshadow future events in the narrative. ‘The characters in a film drama never know what is going to happen to them, but the music always knows.’3 However, this scene has become notoriously famous for contradicting this theory by using the cheerful popular song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ in an otherwise grotesque torture sequence. The song is introduced as a diegetic source through the radio that Mr. Blonde turns on, played by Michael Madsen. What appeared at the beginning to be background music quickly becomes an ironic metaphor, representing the victim’s terrified predicament. The director’s choice for having such an upbeat tune playing as the backdrop to this serious setting was purposeful. ‘The relationship between sound and image was one of deliberate counterpoint’.4 The idea of the counterpoint is to have a twisted portrayal of a sequence using a contradicting source. This raises questions about how an audience should react to the mimetic narrative in comparison to the diegetic score. The audience could see the torture in a somewhat more comical manner, softening the blow of the ear-cutting and showing Mr. Blonde as the entertainer of this piece as he sings; dances and performs. But this scene could also be depicted in a far more sinister light, reflecting on Mr. Blonde’s sick enjoyment of such a demented act with the pleasant music being his accompaniment to help finish to the crime.
Every scene in a movie has continuous sound mixing; preferring certain sounds to others in order of what is considered important or relevant to the scene by raising or lowering the volume. ‘Film Sound constantly manipulates volume’5. In the ear-cutting scene, the radio begins really loud and clearly to help establish the mood and the ironic relevance of the upcoming song. But throughout the scene, the music fades lower or becomes muffled in order to hear the dialogue or certain actions. This diegetic source can now be questioned on its realism. It has now subtly become a non-diegetic score. The music itself has suddenly become aware of the actions occurring in the scene. Other sounds in this scene are removed in order to focus the viewer on gruesome acts. Mr. Blonde’s footsteps are barely heard in the scene, even though the viewer can see him move. This is because it isn’t as significant as the groans of the tortured policeman.
Sound in a scene is supposedly a realistic depiction of its environment. This can be highly debatable as ‘the representation of a space taken to be ‘real’ within the diegesis is at stake’6. This was seen in the alternating levels in the diegetic music, but this illusion of realism in terms of ambient sound is explored through the use of the point of audition sound, or POA. ‘The POA sound represents the experience of hearing within the diegesis, normally through the hearing of a character’.7 A fine example of this in the scene is when Mr. Blonde leaves the warehouse and walks towards his car in a single long shot. When Michael Madsen is walking towards the door in the warehouse, all the sounds such as the echoing music and the groans from his victim can be heard perfectly. The moment the door opens, the ambient sounds of the outside begin to creep in and quickly dominate as Mr. Blonde walks further into the car park towards his car. ‘An increase or decrease in volume can indicate the approach or retreat of the source.’8 The music, for that brief moment in time, disappears as it isn’t a part of the diegesis in that part of the scene, even though the track has osculated between being diegetic and non-diegetic. No sounds from the warehouse could be heard; giving both a realistic approach to the sequence and as well giving an even more horrific look at the situation inside the warehouse. It is only when we again follow the character back into the warehouse that the terrifying sounds of the torture and its accompanying music can he heard once again.
Michael Madsen’s character is walking towards the door with the warehouse sounds still being heard clearly.
When the door is opened, the sounds of the diegetic warehouse world begin to fade. A realistic approach to the character’s movement from one place…
… to another world, having the dominant sounds of this diegetic world take over. It is a representation of what the character is actually hearing at this moment.
Since this sequence is taken in a single long shot, the viewer gets to not only hear the diegetic changes, but also find the visual connections in its realism.
The Film soundtrack is a powerful tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. As seen in this short scene in ‘Reservoir Dogs’, it can generate many kinds of reactions to an audience. It can create awkwardness and tension, help the continuation of the story, subtly send symbolic tones about characters and recreate the illusion of a realistic world. ‘What is clearly at stake is not the sounds ‘themselves’ but the signs of those sounds – even in the case of supposedly strictly accurate recordings.’9 The visuals of a film can only be enhanced by the soundtrack supporting it.
‘Reservoir Dogs’, 1992, Quentin Tarantino
‘Film Art: An Introduction’, 2004, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
Quote 1 (Page 347)
Quote 5 (Page 350)
‘Understanding Film Texts: Meaning and Experience’, 2000, Patrick Phillips
Quote 2 (Page 101)
‘Hollywood Cinema: 2nd Edition’, 2003, Richard Maltby (Page 461)
Quote 3 (Page 461)
‘Sound Theory, Sound Practice’, 1992, Edited by Rick Altman
Quote 4 (Page 239)
Quote 7 (Page 76)
Quote 9 (Page 79)
‘Sound Theory, Sound Practice’, 1992, Edited by Rick Altman
Quote 6 and 8 (Page 77)
Right everyone, lecture dismissed! Hope you all come back next time!