By now, audiences eager to see “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated space epic starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway, have heard the word on the movie, which has received mixed-to-positive reviews.
The unanswered question is whether they’ll hear a word in the movie.
In what is becoming a distressingly predictable ritual for Nolan’s movies, “Interstellar” has been dinged in recent weeks by critics and other gadflies for a muddy, thuddingly loud sound design, in which Hans Zimmer’s booming score (he’s all about that bass) and similarly thumping sound effects render spoken dialogue a submerged garble. The sound was “so bassy and woofer-throbby and aimed at my rib cage that I couldn’t hear half the dialogue,” complained Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffery Wells after an October screening. “My ears felt left out, not to mention the part of my brain that enjoys hearing words and sentences.”
When “Interstellar” screened at the Regal Majestic earlier this week, I was actually able to hear most of the words, unlike “Inception,” which left me wondering to this day exactly what Ken Watanabe was saying. Then there’s the notorious case of “The Dark Knight Rises” and Tom Hardy’s Bane character, whose vocalizations were so impossible to discern in an early trailer that Nolan reportedly — grudgingly — re-recorded his vocal track.
When it comes to overseasoning the sonic soup, Nolan is in good company: Many people who went to see “Gone Girl” found themselves straining to make out what Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike’s characters were saying during a pivotal scene when their characters meet at a New York cocktail party. Like Nolan, “Gone Girl’s” director, David Fincher, is well known for his densely layered sound mixes, which in this case included lots of “walla” (background chatter) and a captivating musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
According to Fincher’s longtime sound designer Ren Klyce, Fincher purposefully broke the usual rule of upping the volume on Affleck and Pike’s dialogue in the scene, the better to re-create the real-life distracting thrill and thrum of a Manhattan soiree.
Fincher wanted it to “be like we’re in New York, we’re at a party and there’s a hundred people in the room they want to escape,” Klyce explained in an interview with the Web site Mixonline. “He was constantly pushing us to amp up the sound effects and he really wanted to feel that texture throughout.”
Fincher used the same technique in “The Social Network,” most memorably in a scene set at a San Francisco nightclub, where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) can barely hear a pitch from investor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) over the din of disco music and clinking glasses. What Fincher was going for, the director explained to Mixonline, was “a certain realistic density.”
If Fincher can be admired for his devotion to aural realism, his and Nolan’s push-me-pull-you approach to sound also exemplifies a dark side to auteurism, wherein a director insists on strong-arming his audience to the absolute brink — and sometimes beyond — of not just comfort, but coherence.
All too often, the privileges of being considered a visionary translate into believing that the filmmaking fundamentals of sense, clarity and concision don’t apply. Viewers could find value in the most confounding passages of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (which son was Sean Penn, again?) or the gnomic whispers of “To the Wonder” and still think both would have benefited from more rigorous editing.
Whereas Malick seems interested in exploring how much narrative content he can withhold without sacrificing meaning, others have made it their artistic mission to offend and outrage their viewers, not in service to any higher ideal or social message but as an exercise for its own sake.
Few filmmakers test their audiences’ tolerance as aggressively as Alex Ross Perry, whose last film, “The Color Wheel,” followed two unhappy, unfunny, thoroughly unpleasant siblings on a desultory road trip (ending with a de rigueur transgressive flourish). In Perry’s “Listen Up Philip,” which opens Friday, Jason Schwartzman stars as a similarly self-absorbed, misanthropic figure, a Philip Roth-like author who spends the entire movie verbally and emotionally abusing his friends and colleagues.
As a sour portrait of artistic ego run amok, “Listen Up Philip” possesses its share of mordant humor, along with a moving performance from Elisabeth Moss and a gorgeous production design that includes some imaginary book jackets that evoke their eras with wonderfully spot-on fonts. But Perry’s enterprise — to see how far he can take such a contemptible character — betrays his own contempt for an audience he believes should somehow be punished for wanting to care about the people they’re watching.
Admittedly, Perry has staked out an extreme position in regards to the very audience that keeps him in business (“The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip” recently played at the New York Film Festival). But his stance is a familiar one, especially in the art-film world, where the audience is treated either with indifference, ambivalence or outright antagonism. As an independent film producer admitted last weekend at the Middleburg Film Festival, when asked what he thought the audience was for one of his films, “I don’t really think about the audience when I’m producing a film. Maybe I should.”
It’s understandable that, for some filmmakers, being conscious of the audience’s enjoyment has become tantamount to pandering: In Hollywood, movies are habitually test-marketed and focus-grouped into a bland mush, their distributors shamelessly catering to their target demographic’s every whim. But the slavish catering to mainstream tastes has created its own reflexive bias, with filmmakers believing that they must either disregard or alienate their audiences to be taken seriously. (It’s the same sensibility that dismisses anything that endeavors to be accessible or, heaven forbid, optimistic, as hopelessly middlebrow.)
So far, viewers have been surprisingly forgiving of the directors who get off on toying with their eardrums and expectations: Having already earned almost $150 million at the box office, “Gone Girl” is on its way to becoming the most commercially successful film of Fincher’s career. “Interstellar” is tracking similarly well for Nolan. It’s gratifying that what easily could have been generic blockbusters are being tackled by filmmakers of distinctive, even risk-taking vision. But they should have long since realized that the choice between pleasing themselves and pleasing their audience is a false one. Push-me-pull-you is a perfectly legitimate artistic gambit, but pleasure — and plain old comprehensibility — deserve to be part of the game as well.