Friday, July 11, 2008

Finding the right "ka-lunk"

Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now

Walter Murch's contributions to film sound are even more impressive than his work as an editor (see Part One). He's created some of the most memorable soundscapes in movie history. Many of the films he's worked on linger in memory as aural experiences, conjuring up characters and emotions based solely on sound. The mind's ear recalls the distant snatches of Wolfman Jack coming from the radios of the cruising hot rods in American Graffiti, the quiet hum of Harry Caul's tape machines in The Conversation, or the menacing whir of Huey rotors in Apocalypse Now. Murch creates sounds that are both realistic and metaphoric. What do I mean? It's the ability to conjure up something intangible about a character or location through subtle manipulation of commonplace sounds -- the drip of a faucet, a distant belltower, the sound of a door closing. In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film novelist Michael Ondaatje asks Murch about the famous door-closing-on-Diane Keaton scene that ends The Godfather Part I.

Ondaatje: Speaking of specific everyday sounds that can be made metaphorical, there is the famous use of the sound of the door closing at the end of The Godfather. I believe you spent a good deal of time testing doors...

Murch: That's a small but interesting example of the kind of stuff that happens routinely. Something as innocent as a door-close. If you approach it coherently and seriously, you understand that there are many door-closes that would have been wrong for that scene. First of all because this is the last sound in the film--other than the music--and second because it is the decisive moment in which Michael is closing the door on his wife, and on a whole part of his emotional life, which ultimately leads to the tragedy of Godfather II, where you see the results of that decision on a very large scale.

The door-close...has to be true to what we perceive objectively: the physicality of the door and the space around it. But it also has to be true to the metaphorical impact of that door-close, which is, "I'm not going to talk about my business, Kay." That ka-lunk, that articulated sound of solidity, has to express something of the finality of the decision.

Here's the scene starring Al Pacino, Talia Shire and Diane Keaton -- framed by the opening and closing of a door. It marks a point of no return for Michael Corleone, and Pacino plays it brilliantly (it's hard to believe that Paramount tried to have him fired from the picture). Yes, he's already "crossed the Rubicon" with his up-close-and-personal assassination of McCluskey and Solazzo -- as well as ordering the killings alluded to in this scene -- but one can make the case that they had it coming. Somehow, the way Michael calmly lies to his trusting wife carries more existential weight than murder. It's an example of how on-screen emotional violence is often more disturbing than the physical kind. Notice also how Nino Rota's score comes in at just the right moment.

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