The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

My Growing Fury at the Sounds of Media

movie soundtracks hate "baby boomers." I swear it.

It's not "breaking news" that, rather than "going out to a movie," more people now wait for films to be released on DVD or PPV, or premium cable movie channels -- even young people. In fact, were it not for rising ticket prices, domestic box office revenue would be dismally flat or declining. I should have done that with The Black Swan.  More on that later.

 According to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners the average ticket price at theaters in the U.S. in 2011 rose to an all-time annual high of $8.01, up 8% from the year-ago. In L .A. it's 10 bucks and in NYC it's $13. For 3-D, add another 3-4 dollars in major metro areas.

There are other factors that bite into the urge to go to the movies besides ticket prices. One is convenience: the comforts of home and the option to freeze a film and take a break or back-up a scene.  Just as important, Netflix discs and streaming video serve both the "convenience" population and the population of movie lovers that demand a wide variety of foreign, independent and classic films. These are often unavailable from nearby video rental or restrictive multiplexes that increasingly narrow-focus, and cater largely to mass appeal fans of blockbuster, family, horror, action-adventure genres. Today, you don't have to go out. The movies come in.

A third factor in audience migration from multiplex theaters to home theater screens are lower prices for large-screen, HD, Blu-ray video players and hi-fi stereo, 7.1 surround sound, home theater systems. Its devotees include people who find that going out for the "movie theater sound" doesn't hold a candle to modern home audio technology with the capacity to please almost any sound taste: Want a church sound? Here. A cave or club sound? There you go. Oh, just a plain movie sound?  Okay.  And affordable 60" screens are quite large enough.

These factors often address the hearing and language needs of older and diverse populations, including the hearing or physically handicapped, or immigrants who want foreign language subtitle. Increasingly, they are nudged out of the multiplexes and into home theaters with friendly, flexible sound systems and spectrums.

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Yet, there are plauging, "unfriendly" shifts in the audio tracks of entertainment media.  They take the following forms:

Intelligibility of speech: Actors in film and on TV are talking too fast. This speed talking is found in many movies and TV series where, because of plot or story complexity and limiting time strictures, there are two options: either actors talk faster or screenwriters write less. This fast-talk trend originated, I believe, on series like The West Wing or Boston Legal, (or really any series from the minds of Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelly), and on medical dramas like Gray's Anatomy, which force actors to unleash volumes of complex, jargon-speech, in breathless nanoseconds.

Time-compressing speech techniques, such as removing silences between words also speed up and generally -- but by no means always-- keeps the dialogue intelligible and allows more words to be spoken in a briefer amount of time -- thereby allowing either more commercials or more plot detail.

The recent animated film, Rango, seemed to wrestle with this speed-affecting-intelligibility mash-up. In several scenes, Beans, the hero's female lizard love-object , spoke too fast to be clearly understood, no matter how often you replayed the scene on your home system.

Other audio concerns are sound track volume in thin-walled multiplexes, indecipherable accents, and dialects, Method Acting mumbling, and the especially rankling deliberate subordination of dialogue or speech to music or special effects (f/x).

These variants on speech intelligibility may play out in a rash of ugly ways:

1. Do you have a gnawing suspicion that Hollywood-produced films now give sound effects (booms, clangs, crashes, sirens, explosions, crackles, snaps and pops, etc.) a higher prominence than dialogue because the sound track, special effects, and music score are now presumed more important to an audience than the storyline?

"Why?" you ask, are they doing that? Possibly because audiences actively and readily process music and sensation more routinely than they process what people are saying. It's a central vs. a peripheral information processing thing.

Apparently, what people are saying is deemed increasingly less significant than what they're doing and how it looks, feels, sounds -- and impacts sensorially on the audience. Foreign distribution and the golden goose, otherwise known as the 18-35 youth market, account for a lot of the shift away from dialogic importance. Maybe living in a TM and Twitter world factors in as well.

2. Do you also suspect that multiplexes which promise you the digital surround sound, THX, Dolby 12.1 experience undercut their promise by a lower than optimal volume so that your film's sound track won't interfere with adjacent theater's film sound track?

If so, don't look for the theater's management to admit any of this when you confront them about anemic sound. I suffered through The Black Swan with pallid Tchaikovsky at a local AMC multiplex. They explained it away with mechanical excuses like, "Sorry, but it can't be corrected without stopping the movie." For my aesthetic troubles, I was offered free passes and popcorn!

Sounds good and fair, right? Maybe not. Such restitution is a lot cheaper than updating the equipment or improving the soundproofing between screening rooms. Experience tells management that most audience members won't complain or will self-blame for the disappointing audio experience, and management can buy off the openly, disgruntled few with the free pass and free popcorn gambit.

3. What about this: Do you reach for the English subtitles on the TV remote when you can't understand the English spoken by The Help's Black Southern maids, Dubliners, Liverpud'lians (like John Lennon), Scots or Welshmen, only to discover that's not an option on your DVD since it's purportedly an English language movie -- which it is, but just barely!

Ah, Plan B! You go to the menu on your TV and rustle up the closed captions for the hearing impaired -- which you are not. Exceptions- all of us are hearing impaired when the English spoken is unintelligible -- such as Brad Pitt's intentional unintelligibility as the Irish fighter, Mickey, in the British film Snatch, and Dustin Hoffman's character, Mumbles in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.

The accent problem with British, Scottish or Irish film and TV product was once thought to be only a problem for American ears -- say, Dr. Who and Torchwood, and on the PBS's Masterpiece trio series Classic, Mystery and Contemporary. Surprise! It now may be as much a problem for Brits as it is for Americans.

Former Monty Python comedic treasure, John Cleese, had this to say about the state of British films: "No older person goes any more," ... your hearing starts to go in your early 30s, and it's hard to pick out the voices from the ambient sound ... Another problem is that when sound people mix (set the sound track) movies now, they forget the audiences ... They've all heard the dialogue hundreds of times and take it for granted." His words imply, ‘Well, the damned audience hasn't!'

Cleese also griped, "You go into the cinema, you sit down, and you find you can't hear what people are saying. Or at the very least, you can't hear every single word they're saying. These days, people mumble in films. Sometimes they speak in accents or dialects you can't quite make out ... Then there's the sound track problem. Sometimes you can't get every word because there's music in the background, or traffic noise, or explosions that override the dialogue."

On TV, even on news shows, music is inserted when, as Cleese might say, ‘there's no bloody reason for it to be there.'  CNN is a prime felon in this regard. You're trying to listen to what the anchorperson is saying but you can't catch key words because of the dramatic, busy, bouncy, music underscoring. Some producers obviously fear you will switch the channel if all you hear is someone speaking without some musical accompaniment. Forget that you deliberately turned to an all-news network just to get the news information. CNN believes that, in your wired, fevered brain, news without music is like a day without sunshine - or watching Wolf Blitzer sleep.

I conclude my rant: In the beginning there was the word. Apparently, the beginning has ended and audible, unadorned, intelligible words have become bastard children searching for a home in a storm of sound and fury, signifying...nothing but sound and fury.

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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