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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.