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.

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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

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.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad