Making Mincemeat of Movie Sound and Movie History



I find it astonishing, really jaw-dropping, that Midge Costin’s mainly enjoyable Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound can seemingly base much of its film history around a ridiculous falsehood — the notion that stereophonic, multi-track cinema was invented in the 70s by the Movie Brats, Walter Murch working with his chums George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who finally allowed the film industry to raise itself technically and aesthetically to the level already attained by The Beatles.

In other words, let’s forget all about the stereo sound used by Walt Disney in some of the theaters showing Fantasia (1940) and then the multi-track speakers heard in hundreds of other theaters across the country throughout much of the 50s showing scores of films in CinemaScope, Cinerama, and Todd-AO, by pretending that none of this ever happened or existed. In its place we get a new version of events in which Apocalypse Now becomes the pioneering feature that did for Hollywood something like what The Jazz Singer did decades earlier. Or so we’re seemingly asked to assume.

To be fair, this documentary isn’t so much concerned with film history per se as it is with introducing a general audience to what sound work in commercial cinema consists of, and the creative contributions made by a few talented individuals–tasks it performs pretty well. One could complain that it’s so Hollywood-centric that “world cinema” is pretty much restricted to hasty references to M, The Seventh Seal, Breathless, Lawrence of Arabia, and Roma — in short, the usual suspects — though predictably, this is a limitation that seems to be shared by most of the people interviewed (Murch may be the only cosmopolitan exception) as well as the film’s assumed target audience. But such myopia has its consequences, including a highly selective view of both history and the planet that can only mislead young viewers who don’t know better.

I mean, Jeez. I’m as much of a Murch fan as anyone, but having him invent stereophonic movie sound is a bit of a stretch, no? And even though his sound-bite about The Godfather (1972) being originally shown in mono just like Gone with the Wind (1939) is what seems to foster this expurgated history, Costin is clearly the one to blame, for not showing us anything of significance happening in between those two releases. So we also get the Barbara Streisand A Star is Born (1976) without even a whisper about the 1954 Judy Garland version, and its own remarkable stereo sound design. [9/30/19]

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