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Noise and ‘Gravity’

November 6, 2013

If, as was suggested here last week, noise is sound that is out of place—something unwanted, inappropriate, and otherwise prompting aversion—you might ask, “Was that noise or sound in the movie ‘Gravity’?”

A modern movie has a soundtrack, after all, not a noisetrack, but I shall declare ‘Gravity’ too loud. I went back a second time to confirm this.

There is a slight bowing to the silence of Space, but not enough. I consider it a missed opportunity in the art of film; however, I also enjoyed the film as much the second time.

It seems to be a surprise hit. Despite the marquee names of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, they were not the first or even second choices for their roles. They did well, and combined with that psychological tweak we do in which our second or third choice becomes optimal once we’ve made it, it’s hard to imagine other occupants of those roles.

‘Gravity’ is, on its face, a high-tech space adventure, and if one sees it in 3-D, one may be so overwhelmed as to miss other aspects of the story. It can be watched—and enjoyed—as the tale of a space walk gone bad and the improbable, dreamlike struggle to get back to Earth.

But as my second visit confirmed things about the soundtrack, it also confirmed the underlying story for which the improbable events serve as supporting metaphor. ‘Gravity’ is about the experience of loneliness and loss. I believe this explains its surprising appeal, pulling in a creakier demographic than might be expected for a space thriller.

Part of the mission for my second viewing was to see if the movie-makers had indeed provided sound effects for things, such as explosions, that would not be heard in space. Soundtracks are so manipulative that after the first viewing, I couldn’t be sure. I remembered too much noise but not the specific nature of it.

Indeed, I think there may have been a few such occasions, but largely the editors seemed to have been careful about that. In place of the sounds of explosions, crashing, tearing, banging, they substituted music. Loud, emotional, reflex-jarring music.

I suppose they had to serve the space adventure aspect of the film, but I believe many scenes would have been all the more affecting in silence.

One can easily picture the scene in Hollywood: a man at his desk leaning back with a cigar, saying, “I’m not putting up fifty million for a bleeping silent movie! I gotta hear something!”

Ah, well. There are ten thousand decisions leading to a finished film. From the idea, writing, funding, casting, re-writing, re-casting, filming, re-writing, editing, re-editing, to testing some “final” cuts. With ‘Gravity,’ there were years developing technology to simulate motion in weightlessness.

I thought about this while wondering if they had ever presented a quieter version to test audiences. A favorite metaphor came to mind, helpful for thinking about the future versus the past.

Picture a large tree, something with an enormous crown, like some oaks. If you’re on a single leaf in the crown somewhere, you can always find your way to the trunk. However, if you’re on the trunk, the chances of finding your way to any one leaf are very small, especially on the first try.

The first path is what we take when, after scratching our heads, we think, “What just happened?” The second is what we face every moment choosing where to place our intentions. And thus, I forgive the makers of ‘Gravity’ for not consulting me first.

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