Gilbey on Film: A little "huh?" can go a long way

Why muddy sound can sometimes improve a film.

Much consternation among people who care about such things -- ie fanboys/girls and studio executives -- over the upcoming Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, and the question of whether anyone will be understand what the villain is saying. Not Catwoman, who is played by Anne Hathaway, but Bane -- seen here in illustrated form and here as played by Tom Hardy. Not being conversant in superhero lore, I have no idea why Bane wears over his face a device resembling a steampunk version of one of those children's toys which makes a mooing sound when you turn it upside down. (They're called Moo Boxes, apparently, though you may know them by some udder name.) I could find out more about Bane's unorthodox taste in accessories with a quick internet search, but do I really want to spoil the surprise ahead of seeing the movie in the summer?

Okay, okay, the curiosity is too much. The website Batman.wikia reports that Bane is "an escaped convict from an island prison in South America... [who] has abnormal strength as a result of having had experiments with a derivative of the drug Venom performed on him... [H]e needs to take [Venom] every 12 hours (via a system of cables pumped directly into his brain) or he would suffer debilitating side-effects."

So now we know. Bizarre that a dystopian future can't produce Venom in handy, wallet-friendly patch form, thereby enabling a person to remain generally intelligible and pleasing to the eye (even super-villains have human rights) but there you have it.

The concern is that audiences cannot understand what the character is saying from behind all that hardware, with reports circulating that an IMAX preview of the film's six-minute prologue produced a resounding "Huh?" One "huh?" on its own is no big deal, you understand, but try to imagine a whole cinema full of them.

Now it seems that a new sound mix of that footage has been delivered to cinemas, which I find slightly disappointing. I love a good "huh?" In fact, my favourite film -- Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller -- begins with one of the longest "huh?"s in cinema, a sequence in a crowded saloon in which no effort is expended in the cause of aural clarity. That film's editor, Lou Lombardo, remarked: "The sound was fucked but [Altman] never changed it. I think he accomplished what he wanted to do with sound in M*A*S*H -- where it was audible but it was overlapped. He did it well. But on McCabe it was recorded in there -- a dirty track, a muddy track. It was like trying to get an out-of-focus picture in focus."

Realism is the greatest gain made by the sound design in McCabe -- like the dirty grain of the film stock, which is exposed in Altman's frequent zoom shots, it adds to the general grubbiness. But the key attraction of inaudible dialogue, I think, is that it forces you to work harder -- your ears prick up, you may lean closer to the screen, you concentrate on trying to figure out what's being said. Passivity is ruled out, at least if you choose not to walk out. In common with the long, unbroken, static take, it reminds you to ask: What's going on, and how can I make sense of it?

It certainly didn't harm The Usual Suspects, where Benicio del Toro's mangled line readings as Fenster were like an appetising precursor to the film's greater puzzles and bewilderments. (Anyone willing to muddle through his dialogue would surely be a sporting type receptive to the mischief to come.) Del Toro has explained his distorted diction by saying that he saw the character as a "Black Chinese Puerto Rican Jew"; his co-star, Kevin Spacey, though he was "from Mars." Audiences loved him. I'm sure they'll feel the same way about Bane, regardless of whether they know what he's yapping on about. A little "huh?" can go a long way.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.