We cannot see sound – only the objects that make or conduct it. In film however, sound often plays an enabling role that allows us to see beyond the limits of sight, to be temporarily immersed within the worlds that filmmakers create.
In Death of the Sound Man by Sorayos Prapapan, Burt and Nicky are at the zoo recording foley. In a shot of a sleeping cheetah, Burt lists the noises that audience make over their work at the cinema, and from outside of the screen he comments “so it seems that no one listen to what we’re doing”. Addressed as a viewer, I felt embarrassed. My film watching practices and flaws were being called out by the sound in this film. The part of film I am guilty of paying least attention to, was holding me accountable to it! Although I was not chewing crunchy snacks, the voice in my head trying to find meaning and analyzing frame was actually distracting me from fully listening and, from fully immersing myself in the film.
This was a short film that was so aware and intentional about its own construction in an audio-visual medium that I too was pushed to actively reflect on my experience as a viewer. The two sound men are working on a film within a film, painting its aural imagery. We follow Burt and Nicky across a montage of distinct sound recordings that they weave together to create an “ambience”. During a screening of their work-in-progress, the camera sits below the screen the characters are watching – we observe them viewing the projected film, but we cannot see its images. Withholding internal visuals where sound works in the service of visual imagery, and instead showing us the material processes of sound production, Prapapan makes visible what was invisible in filmmaking.
In order to watch his film, listening is imperative. Though a story about the underappreciated work of sound artists, this film exists within a form where characters and visual imagery work in the service of sound. Indeed, during a central conversation of the film, Burt and Nicky are off-screen whilst we watch the slumbering cheetah. The protagonists become the “dialogue” and sound their very labour produces.
By emphasizing sound in relation to visual image, Prapapan taught me an important lesson on how paying attention to what we don’t necessarily see in film, can help us to experience more fully. It was after watching Death of the Sound Man, that I revisited 83 Soi Soonvijai 14 by “Pete” T-Thawat Taifayongvichit.
In this ode to his family, Taifayongvichit uses sound to expand the viewer’s experience of the space surrounding what is directly visible in the rectangular screen before us. During the first breakfast scene, Grandpa is framed in-between his two sons who sit half inside, and half outside the edges of the screen. One looks out to the off-screen television we can only hear, and the other reads a newspaper. Thus the space of the set is expanded, we almost feel like we are inside the scene as the TV sounds as if it is behind us. With grandpa sitting at the centre, eyes downturned at his bowl, we sense isolation. No eye-contact is made between the three, the drone of the television fills in the silence, helping to forgive the lack of social interaction between the three characters.
This normalized social isolation is perhaps what prompts Grandpa’s urgency in shooting his film with his family all present – it is the opportunity for social interaction within the frame of completing a larger project. In a scene when Grandpa (tellingly frustrated by the lack of progress made on the film) makes a routine visit to Grandma Lena, he turns on the television and increases the volume until it surpasses background sound and dominates the image. After leaving the frame where Grandma is left a captive audience to the overly dominating TV commentary, Grandpa hurries back in to lower the volume. With the retreat of the TV’s loud droning, we sense a tension subside; the volume of the TV’s sounds is used as a proxy for Grandpa’s unspoken and unresolved frustrations. When it becomes gentle again, we know that inside our protagonist has also calmed down. Grandpa’s communication with Grandma isn’t verbal, most probably because she is unable to respond, and his self-expression takes form through the objects around them.
In 83 Soi Soonvijai 14, as in many of our own homes, the sounds of our TVs help to fill in the blanks, giving us distraction from the mundanity of life and escape from the silence of isolation. It comforts but also reaffirms loneliness. When Grandpa addresses Grandma Lena directly through the TV screen, he is trying to interact with her in one of the only ways he knows how – by digitizing his own sound and image. What is both sobering and painfully beautiful, is that Grandpa cannot really expect a response from his primary viewer. Her response is silence, but that doesn’t stop him from looking for one.
However, Grandpa has succeeded in bringing together his large family. They bring the house and its many still, framed memories to life. Whether it is in the scene where Grandpa keeps getting interrupted by a woman shouting “the noodles are swelling!” from off-screen, or in the final scene where Grandpa is surrounded by his family, we find ourselves nestled in the expanded space of the filmmakers’ (plural) home. It is this inclusion into the space of film and of family that fills 83 Soi Soonvijai 14 with emotional truth.
Within the filmic space of Death of the Sound Man, sound develops agency. Although Burt and Nicky lament that no one is listening, Prapapan holds us to this imperative. In 83 Soi Soonvijai 14, Taifayongvichit chooses moments to deny the audience’s ability to see the objects that make and conduct sound. By playing with the ways sound and image interact within the frame and outside of it, both films question perceived boundaries of the screen and its relation to the viewer. In pushing us to use our senses and therefore to see more fully, Sorayos Prapapan and T-Thawat Taifayongvichit immerse us in the sensorial, emotional and experiential spaces of film.