Hearing is Understanding: A perspective on film sound tracks

By Elsie Walker, Salisbury/Cinema Studies*
Walker Film book cover
Eric Garner’s last words—“I can’t breathe”—have been repeated by millions of people to signify a new recognition of current racial politics. Such a phenomenon drives home the potential significance of a single utterance and why it might matter for all Americans, from the street right up to the Supreme Court. This recent tragedy also suggests that sometimes hearing means more than seeing, especially in our visually-saturated culture. Live video footage showed Garner in Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold shortly before he died, but this did not lead a grand jury to indict Pantaleo. Garner’s last words have become a resonating, rallying cry that just might inspire a different kind of justice.

The worldwide response to Garner’s death reminds me of the director Michael Haneke’s argument that what we hear potentially affects us more than what we see:

It seems to me that the ear is fundamentally more sensitive than the eye. To put it another way, the ear provides a more direct path to the imagination and to the heart of human beings.[1]

Sometimes it takes a tragedy like Garner’s death to reawaken our alertness to difficult realities beyond our own experiences. But I also believe that many films can provide a similar lesson, and without a real-life cost.

My research is on the importance of hearing cinema, especially as it allows us to experience others’ lives from a position of empathy. I wrote my current book, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory, because I was inspired by filmmakers like Haneke who are unafraid of making unfashionably broad claims for the capacity of art to enlighten humankind.

My book is divided into several chapters approaching films from various theoretical angles, and each with the express purpose of listening to what films can teach us about others’ perspectives. With each chapter, I consider representative films that play out a given theory’s preoccupations: I provide a feminist reading, for instance, of the show-stopping songs performed by Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not and the empowering piano pieces played by Holly Hunter in The Piano. I apply genre studies to the sound tracks of two westerns, especially in terms of racial politics, by exploring how Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers insists upon a lyrical, all-too-consoling response to the overt racism expressed by the central character of that movie (Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne) as opposed to the experimental subversiveness of Neil Young’s improvisatory score for Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist western, Dead Man. I use postcolonial theory to analyze Peter Gabriel’s rousing world music for Rabbit-Proof Fence as it invokes our sympathy for its Aboriginal protagonists and communicates a transcendent sense of space as it accompanies many panoramic views of the Australian desert. I compare this with the dialogue and localized sounds effects of Ten Canoes, the first Australian feature film entirely in Aboriginal languages, a production that provides us with a more “direct” experience of cultural authenticity. I use queer theory to explain the importance of Franz Waxman’s orchestral score for Hitchcock’s Rebecca, especially as it invokes most interest in the film’s queerest characters (Mrs. Danvers and the woman she loves, the ironically absent Rebecca). I then analyze the operatic extracts, heightened sound effects, and patterns of speech in the based-on-a-true-story film directed by Peter Jackson, Heavenly Creatures, which also subversively insists on our alignment with its queer protagonists. I delve into more personal politics by applying psychoanalysis to David Raksin’s score for Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray’s shockingly candid film of 1956 that deals directly with domestic violence, and to the sound effects and avant-garde compilation score for Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster hit Shutter Island, a film that deals with the impact of post-natal depression in an atypically compassionate, as well as tragic, way. Finally, I turn to the sound track of the recent Academy-Award-winning film Gravity as it demands our complicity with its central character: a queer, feminist icon named Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock. Gravity features an emotive original score by Steven Price that is meant to match “the tempo of Stone’s heartbeat,”[2] and sound effects through Dolby Atmos technology that provide us with an immersive sonic experience of space much as she might feel it. Throughout this book, I draw upon hundreds of well-established and contemporary theoretical works. That said, when I was asked to write this article about my book, I realized that my belief in the power of sound tracks extends beyond the boundaries of any or all theoretical approaches.

Garner’s death is a humbling reminder that we must continue to hear others’ voices. Though I can never fully realize what Garner endured, the repetition of his last words has prompted me to repeatedly attempt to understand his final moments. Similarly, all the sound tracks I analyze are exceptional in that they enforce our attachment to others’ lives, and give us the extraordinary impression of hearing everything in a place and time beyond our own. The transportive and affective power of such sound tracksdemands an empathetic response to experiences we can never have. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of cinema. In short, we should embrace the audio-visual power of the medium. As sound designer John Currie writes:


Cinema overall is 70% sound. Because your ears are far more developed than your eyes. You cannot stop yourself hearing, even if you put your finger in your ears, you still hear. Because it goes through the cheek bones and everything. But eyes are . . . you can shut your eyes and that’s it.[3]


*Elsie Walker is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at Salisbury University. She has published many articles on sound tracks and film adaptations of Shakespeare. She is also coeditor of Literature Film Quarterly.Her Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory is published by Oxford University Press (2015).


[1] Haneke, Michael. 2000. “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance: Notes to the Film.” In After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition, edited by Willy Riemer, 171-75 (174). Riverside, CA: Ariadne

[2] Ayers, Mike. “Secrets of the Gravity Soundtrack: Composer Steven Price on the score of 2013’s biggest movie.” Rolling Stone. 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/secrets-of-the-gravity-soundtrack-20131009&gt;.

[3] Starrs, Bruno. “Aural Auteur: sound in the films of Rolf de Heer. Diss. Queensland University of Technology. 2009. Web <http://eprints.qut.edu.au/29302/2/Bruno_Starrs_Thesis.pdf&gt;. Dec. 4. 2013 (249).


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