April 22, 2006

What I hate about movies.

I've been avoiding going to the movie theater for a while. After years of weekly attendance, I've cut down to perhaps five times a year. Recently, I developed the suspicion that what keeps me away is the sound.

My sudden decline in attendance coincides with dramatic sound enhancements made at the local theaters. Movie sound had been bothering me for years. This 1997 movie had sound effects that drove me up the wall. No one could walk anywhere -- even when they are sneaking up on someone -- without tromping footsteps. I avoided seeing the movie "Gladiator" after I heard the trailer: the clanking sound effects were absurd and distracting.

Worst of all is movie music. Are you supposed to be able to ignore it? The music is terrible, loud, and intrusive. It is constantly ordering you about, telling you when to feel what. You don't have the chance to have your own feelings based on what is happening on the screen.

Yesterday, I was flipping channels on the television, and the movie "Troy" came on. There was a big battle scene, with spears and shields and burning arrows. It was semi-ridiculous. Still, I might have been able to imagine what it would have been like to be there, fighting like that. They went to a lot of trouble to depict the battle techniques. But the blaring, insane music made that kind of engagement with the story utterly impossible.

I know "Troy" is supposed to be a bad movie. But looking at it yesterday crystallized my thinking about what I hate about movies. It's the sound. What torture "Troy" would have been in a theater with all those oppressive speakers bearing down on me!

Making movies into an intensely physical auditory experience has ruined them.


Dale B said...

The last movie I saw in a theater was the third Lord of the Rings (don't remember the real name). It, as well as several previous movies, was way too loud.

My pet peeve though is the excessive base frequency volume in many films. The theaters have installed these huge woofers and drive them hard enough to vibrate the seats and sometimes the floor. Why?

Turn down the volume!

me said...

The previews I think are even louder, or one's ears just adjust to the loud noise after that initial blast. Sometimes it is literally painful. Having spent most of my life involved in sound recording, I am acutely sensitive to sound tracks. Most big picture sound tracks are now gimmicky, and the added surround sound just multiplies the bad quality.

SippicanCottage said...

I don't go to movie theaters because people behave abominably in them; but the problem you discern manifests itself in the home setting: It's impossible to make out the dialogue in a typical movie unless the sound is turned way up. It's impossible to view a movie in my house after anyone goes to bed.

It wasn't always so; Lawrence of Arabia was blowing up half the Ottoman Empire and I could hear every word that was uttered. And the music was better, too.

George Lucas should be taken out back and switched for THX. It's all just audio spackle to try and patch the enormous holes in the movies.

Simon Kenton said...

Gosh, I thought it was just me. My wife and I each insert our earplugs as we sit down in the theatre. I have been planning to experiment with some of the wave suppression technology units - the ones that, like a Peltor shooting muff, produce counterwaves that suppress a sharp sound impulse, but let dialog through. There are supposed to be miniaturized versions.

knoxgirl said...

The theater experience is disappointing now for all sorts of reasons. I was really excited when stadium seating came out--if you get there early enough, there's really no such thing as a bad seat--but there are so many factors that offset that.

It's sad but true that people really don't know how to behave in the theater anymore... or don't care. I really don't like having to tell people to "shut up!" or to stop kicking my chair.

Add in the number of trailers you have to sit through before the movies even starts, the addition of commercials, and yes, the obnoxious sound, and I pretty much no longer go to the movies unless there's something I'm dying to see.

It used to be an "event" and now it's something to tolerate.

al said...

Much like Sippican I don't go to movies much anymore due to the way people act in them (and the little kids being in theaters showing R rated movies) but, except for when the dialogue gets washed out, I like the sound effects. I have started taking foam earplugs (NRR 26) and using them if the audio is muffled. They seem to fix the problem for me.

It just occurred to me - the rise in volume could be a change to help the iPod generation hear the movie.

Oscar Madison said...

That's a minibreakthrough to figure out that problem. I still haven't figured out what's keeping me out of theatres.

I feel the same way about manipulative and overbearing movie music, and about bad sound. But I think there's also well done sound, just like any other aspect of movies, which can be well or badly done. To me, the sound in "Saving Private Ryan" was amazingly vivid and contributed to making that a great movie. Though, interestingly, one of that movie's major flaws was its terrible, sappy music...

knoxgirl said...

"Though, interestingly, one of that movie's major flaws was its terrible, sappy music..."

omigosh, yes! I don't think Spielberg can pass up an opportunity to be emotionally manipulative.

(Giovanni Ribisi has this dumb monologue moment in that movie that is burned into my brain as one of the most uncomfortable bad acting/bad dialogue/bad directing moments I've ever seen.)

Ann Althouse said...

Spielberg's problem is John Williams. But I must add that the music in "Catch Me If You Can" was really good. And I remember when I was a sucker for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," where aliens traveled to Earth, just to play us all a little tune.

Dave said...

I saw Kurosawa's movie Ran when it was re-released in theaters here in NYC a couple of years ago and the absence of sound during the battle sequences was oddly fascinating. Same with 2001.

And the Sopranos often uses an absence of sound well.

I've never been much of a Spielberg fan. I was 7 when E.T. came out and as soon as I saw et moving across the face of the moon I turned to my Dad and said "This is stupid. I want to leave."

As for THX--well, all I have to say is: buy THX certified equipment, pop in Led Zeppelin and get back to me. Or Mozart if that's more your liking. Lucas is a genius in that regard.

Palladian said...

Just like a lot of other aspects of filmmaking, sound design and music have gone down the toilet. Everything is now made to be easy, manipulative; it's emotional authoritarianism.

Watch something like Hitchcock's "The Birds" and notice that there's no music at all. A brilliant choice that turns an absurd concept (killer sparrows!) into a truly creepy, upsetting movie. Or Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", which judiciously uses orchestral and choral music (Strauss, Ligeti) to great effect and whose most tense moments are completely silent (space is a vacuum, therefore silent!) save for the close, rhythmic breathing of the main character in his space suit.

Jeff said...

Spielberg and Williams love to "Mickey Mouse" every single scene in their movies. ie to score every single moment with buisy, manipulative music. For a taste of truly intelligent sound design, see any David Lynch film, eith the possible exception of Eraserhead. Lynch learned his stuff from Hitchcock, who did nothing in a film without a reason, including sound. They both use sound to set mood, impart information, and advance the plot. No "Mickey Mouse"-ing!

tiggeril said...

I personally prefer John Williams and the rest's orchestral scores to movies that try to shoehorn in THE LATEST POP HITS...of ten months ago, to try and eke out some soundtrack sales and wind up instantly dating the movie.

Also: Viva Netflix!

Rick Lee said...

The main reason that I don't go to movies any more is the behavior problem. I'm generally a very mild-mannered person but something happens to me in the theater. I become "behavior-cop" and I have to tell everybody to shut up. I'll even get out of my seat and walk to a different area to tell people to shut up. I've been thinking for some time that the loud sound in today's movies is part and parcel of the behavior problem... they are making is so loud that you can't hear your neighbor's cell phone. Perhaps.

PatCA said...

I echo what others say about the behaviour at movies. Bring back ushers!! With big flashlights to smack the talkers, even the ones with white hair! I also bring earplugs for the deafening soundtrack.

The best place to see a movie is Pasadena. Lots of movie people live there and they are reverently quiet inside and will hiss at talkers even during the trailers.

I think what Ann is saying is that the story is not paramount (heh) anymore, but sensory experience. I think it's because movies are aimed at international audiences who don't necessarily speak English.

Bissage said...

PatCa said: "I think what Ann is saying is that the story is not paramount (heh) anymore, but sensory experience. I think it's because movies are aimed at international audiences who don't necessarily speak English.

Your explanation is better than mine. I've lately come to think the bells and whistles are to distract the audience from realizing it's seen the same movie, more or less, a gazillion times before.

Case in point: "Corpse Bride." We watched it the other night (Netflix strikes again!) and it was very watchable, but only because of the eye candy and the big voice acting. It wasn't much of a story, though, and I kept getting the feeling that I'd seen it before.

I don't mean to be critical, merely descriptive. There's nothing so very wrong about taking a story that's been done before (or many times before) and putting a fresh spin on it. West Side Story comes to mind. I guess the problems start when volume and flashing lights and meaningless computer generated swooping visuals are slapped on, seemingly as an afterthought. They become instant cliches.

Word Verification: "vyoyi" Part of the call-and-response chant from Bob Marley and the Wailers' Live version of "Get Up, Stand Up?"

alistreview said...

During some of the Lord of the Rings battles there was no music, which was great. But then Pete Jackson ruined it with those stupid slow motion inserts.

I only go to the theatre if the movie has been out a while, it is late in the evening (fewer small children)and the cinematography needs a large screen to really appreciate the movie.

CB said...

I second all that's been said--the half-hour of previews, the obnoxious, cell-phone-talking-on audience, the sound, etc, and would add the quarter-mile walk to the bathroom that makes you miss twenty minutes of the movie if you have to go.
Also, a film score is one of those things that is only noticed if it is done poorly.

Ricardo said...

You would think that the movie industry would be more "senior sensitive", given the economic clout that the boomer-generation has, and often the greater free-time to go and see movies. But the loud movie noises, gigantic distracting screens, obnoxious audiences, inflated popcorn prices, and other irritants have driven many people back to their homes. My local library system now has thousands of DVDs which they loan for free, and Blockbuster is only a few blocks away for the latest releases. For the same price as going to a megaplex (with snacks and drinks), I made a small dinner party at home with lobster and wine, and showed the just-released-on-DVD "The Chronicles of Narnia" as the entertainment for the evening. Why would anyone ever go to a regular theater?

PatCA said...

Hwood execs refuse to acknowledge any moviegoer over 39, because domestic ticket sales are no longer the big profit center they once were. Plus, they like to think they are all edgy and young and hip!

Notice the lack of publicity about the writer of Spiderman 2 and now 3: Alvin Sargent, age 70-something! 2 was much better and more successful than 1, but nobody wants to talk about why.

knoxgirl said...

tiggeril said: "movies that try to shoehorn in THE LATEST POP HITS..."

I agree. Here's a really good example of how clumsily that gimmick is applied. The following is about the Disney film "The Tigger Movie" :

The original theatrical trailer for the film featured the song "Semi-Charmed Life" by alternative band Third Eye Blind. The song is about crystal meth addiction, but was presumably chosen for the trailer because of its bright, catchy sound. Although the portions of the song used in the trailer don't feature the most explicit lyrics (about both drugs and sex), there was still a public outcry about the inappropriateness of its use in the trailer for a children's movie. Once informed of the song's meaning, Disney recalled the original trailer and substituted a different song.

I remember when that trailer came out being like ????

Ricardo said...

PatCA: That was very interesting. I didn't know that about Spiderman 2 and 3.

And I realize now that my comments might seem that I'm knocking Hollywood. That's not true at all. I'm a long-standing movie-buff. I'm only knocking the theaters which force audiences to pay for what turns out to be a painful experience. But in the best Darwinian sense (and in the best capitalistic sense), I know that what doesn't work will eventually perish, and what does work will thrive. DVDs actually seem to be invigorating the industry in a lot of ways.

Marghlar said...

Overloud movies is also a pet peeve of mine (as is modern Spielberg in general) -- but I've found it varies from theatre to theatre. The one I currently frequent is usually fairly decent about it -- I rarely feel at risk of injury while watching a flick.

I personally love watching movies out at a theatre -- even if the movie isn't a great one, and even if the crowd is a little rowdy. It's a communal experience, and I feel that it is just different in kind from watching a movie on even a nice home theatre. Plus my wife is a popcorn addict.

PatCA said...

I also think studios do not do themselves any favors by trailers that give away the plot or the best/funniest lines. Or all the "making of" segments on DVDs and in publicity. It makes everybody a filmmaker, sort of, but it diminishes the surprise and wonderment important to the movie viewing experience, IMO.

SteveR said...

Due to much loud rock when I was young I do not hear as well as i should but some scenes are too loud and then they change to a quiet scene and I can't hear the conversation at all. At home I usualy use tye captions so i don't have to adjust the volume every couple seconds.

I also don't like dark scenes, where you have to try to figure out what's happening, while you are trying to understand what they say. I have to say I can't think of a black and white film with any of the problems discussed here.

Bruce Boyden said...

Movie sound had been bothering me for years.... tromping footsteps.... clanking sound effects.... Worst of all is movie music.

And all we had was hot gravel for breakfast!

Hot gravel? We had to eat our gravel cold!

OddD said...

Hee hee. Bruce said it so I don't have to.

Henry said...

Just saw The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in the $2 theatre. The soundtrack was, by far, the worst thing about an otherwise good movie. The music determined a dramatic narrative of its own -- surprise when there was no reason for surprise (aha! the scary thing behind that rock is a ... tiny beaver!); drama, when the drama was static (da da dum! THIS is the WARDDROBE!); and pageantry when the move was dramatically done (the white witch is dead. All of you are NOW kings or queens!). Disappointing, but long ago I saw Ladyhawke with music by the Alan Parson's Project, so I would hardly claim that bad movie music is a new phenomenon.

Michael Farris said...

"'Corpse Bride.' We watched it the other night ... It wasn't much of a story, though, and I kept getting the feeling that I'd seen it before."

As in the Flying Dutchman? The redeemer doesn't have to die or even really love the damned spirit, but otherwise pretty similar.

The Corpse Bride was also the latest (and last for a while) movie I've seen in a movie theater. The sound was _so_ jacked up my ears were ringing for two hours afterward.

Bob said...

Post production sound is handled by the foley editor. In Albert Brook's 1981 movie Modern Romance that is what he did to great comic effect.

Maxine Weiss said...

"It's a communal experience"

Join a Commune.

The individual experience is what makes life interesting. Individualism. Rugged individualist.

Peace, Maxine

Marghlar said...

Ah, Maxine.

If you ever came out of your log-cabin out in the wilderness, you'd realize that there are certain activities that are far more enjoyable when more than one person gets involved.