Particularly in an era of greatly refined camera technology (even dirt-cheap features seldom actually look cheap anymore) and computerized FX, we’re accustomed to—jaded about, even—getting plenty of eye candy at the movies. But ear candy is something else, unless you count the usual Dolby din of explosions, screeching car wheels, and such in multiplex action extravaganzas. The medium has increasingly used sound as a means of assault, of heightening experiences already designed to overwhelm on a primitive (if expensive) level, rather than asking us to actually listen.
For that reason alone, along with many others, erstwhile SF-based filmmaker Sam Green’s new 32 Sounds manages to provide something quite novel while addressing some very simple questions about the nature of sound and how it effects us. Supposedly hearing is the first sense we develop; fittingly, the sounds of the womb are the first ones heard here.
The rest of the feature is a characteristically digressive, probing, first-person investigation of phenomena that Green chases from the British Library Sound Archive (which has over seven million sonic items, including the mating calls of extinct species) to professional foley artists, from avant-garde composers to physicists, from a Lebanese musician’s incorporation of a Beirut bombing to answering machine messages the director himself has kept from departed loved ones. We’re reminded what a mindblower it was when Edison first introduced the phonograph: For the first time ever, humanity could hear the preserved voices of the dead.
Though it will mostly be seen this week around the Bay Area in a standard theatrical form with pre-recorded narration (albeit with Green present for Q&As), 32 Sounds extends the filmmaker’s prior use of the documentary as a sort of multimedia solo performance, sometimes accompanied by personages from Yo La Tengo to this film’s composer-collaborator JD Samson. Even without the “live” aspect (which will be available only at the Exploratorium Thu/27), it’s an immersive experience deploying individual viewer headphones for closer listening—of everything from Green’s own voice to Ella Fitzgerald’s, not to mention a cat’s purr, whoopie cushions, and one giant falling tree.
Amid the gamut of artfully assembled archival footage, interviews, animation, and hard science, we get some great trivia, such as the Japanese word for falling snow—which is, in fact, a word for the silence deepened by falling snow. 32 Sounds is almost certainly the only movie you will “see” this year that at several points asks you to close your eyes. In addition to the Exploratorium date noted above, it also plays the Smith Rafael Film Center (Fri/28, Sat/29, Sun/30), SF’s Roxie Theater (Sat/29) and Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (Sun/30). Showtimes and more info available here (click on the venue listing to see details).
Also opening at the Rafael this Fri/28 is Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd, about one of rock’s great enigmas: The man who played a huge role in shaping psychedelic music and culture’s first wave, then dropped out completely, himself an apparent acid casualty. Cambridge-raised Roger Barrett was “quite a star in our small firmament” even as a teenager, one friend recalls, a “born painter” who naturally moved to London for art school. But his sideline as musician “Syd” soon proved all-consuming—well, along with the consumption of drugs. He was the original leader of Pink Floyd, whom he gave its name. It was his aesthetic that first shaped their sound, and introduced multimedia light shows to the British rock concert milieu.
Quickly building a following in the Swinging mid-’60s capital, Pink Floyd recorded their first album—comprised mostly of Syd’s songs—in the studio next to the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper. But the wider success it brought turned out to be Barrett’s undoing; he didn’t enjoy stardom, the pressure, the travel (including an awkward American Bandstand appearance, with Dick Clark hastily wrapping up his chat with the monosyllabic Syd). Increasingly “unreliable” and “a problem,” he was soon out of Floyd, evidently too wrapped up in his lysergic questing to care. He recorded a couple solo albums, but between their weak sales and his inability to focus in the studio, that led nowhere.
Eventually Barrett was back in his family’s home, painting again (but also painting over or otherwise destroying his own canvases), alienating his last-ever girlfriend, being unemployable, declining to discuss or even acknowledge the short strange trip of fame he’d had. Which of course only heightened the mystery around him, particularly as his erstwhile band became one of the biggest acts in rock history. He died at 60 in 2006 from pancreatic cancer, a recluse to the end.
Roddy Bogawa and Storm Thorgerson’s documentary doesn’t reveal much that wasn’t previously known about this elusive yet much-discussed figure. But it does have a lot of fascinating archival footage, as well as a starry array of interviewees including Floyd personnel, other fellow Sixties travelers, family and friends, and latterday musicians (from Blur, et al.) who count him as a major inspiration. No less than Pete Townsend says “Syd defined the whole of that moment in the ’60s—the color, the vivacity of it, the psychedelic freedom.”
Sound of a very different sort—all-American snappy, slangy wiseguy patter—was the primary gift attributed to the subject of a BAMPFA series starting this week that will greatly brighten the rest of the summer. Preston Sturges: More Than Comedy is a four-week tribute to a genius that flared as brightly—and almost as frustratingly briefly—as Syd Barrett’s.
Has any American director of comedy after the silent era had a run to equal Sturges from 1940-1944? (Or to 1948, if you want to include three more movies that were almost equally great, but failed commercially.) Probably not, even allowing for the streaks of Lubitsch. Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, or whoever else you might name. Like another enfant terrible of his generation, Orson Welles, Sturges came from an indulged, privileged background, and his hubris eventually seemed to tick Hollywood off. All the more so because he really could “do it all,” and had so little need or desire for front-office micromanagement. But unlike Welles, his tastes were also precisely in synch with the public’s, at least for a while.
The series begins this Thurs/27 with his 1940 directorial debut The Great McGinty, a reward from Paramount for his stellar screenwriting contributions to prior films—examples included in the program here are William Wyler’s 1935 The Good Fairy and two from Mitchell Leisen, the 1937 screwball classic Easy Living and excellent 1940 seriocomedy Remember the Night. That modestly budgeted political satire was a sleeper hit with audiences as well as critics, so for the next few years Sturges was king of the lot.
There’s no space here to extol the individual glories of the same year’s Christmas in July,The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels (both 1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, or Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944). But suffice it to say that if you haven’t seen them… well, not only is your cinematic education woefully incomplete, but your life has missed the boat on several hours of pure pleasure.
Sturges’ brash sensibility, at once razor-witted and cheerfully vulgar, critiqued all aspects of American society without cynicism, just as he loved his characters without sentimentality. He utilized a regular stock company of support players (as well as marquee stars who seldom did work as good for anyone else, like Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, and Barbara Stanwyck) to superb effect. Some quailed that his penchant for lowbrow slapstick could feel forced in a way his dialogue never was. They were right—but that stuff is funny, nonetheless.
It seemed Preston Sturges could do no wrong. Then suddenly he could do no right, in a series of failures not included in the Berkeley retrospective. An atypical (relatively) serious project, The Great Moment, flopped after being re-edited without his consent. That quarrel led to his leaving Paramount, which turned out to be a catastrophic mistake.
Two independent productions (1947’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock aka Mad Wednesday, the next year’s Unfaithfully Yours) were back on form, but did not find public favor. And after that, the fizz seemed to go out of his champagne: There is not much to be said for 1949’s The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, a Betty Grable bomb, or 1955’s limp The French, They Are a Funny Race, made in Europe in retreat from US tax woes. Like Syd Barrett, he was gone at 60, from a heart attack. It was a depressing downward trajectory for a man who had scaled so many giddy heights with such apparent ease.
For info on the entire Preston Sturges: More Than Comedy series, which runs July 27-August 26 at Berkeley’s BAMPFA, go here.