Winner, Best Undergraduate Essay in Film Studies, 2020-21
Intervening Hands: Building Discoursal Legacies of Film Sound with Apocalypse Now and A Man Escaped
Capt. Willard is tormented by his memories of the Vietnam War in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.
Film sound has traditionally been an underappreciated and less prestigious element of the cinematic form. This is less true for filmmakers and film scholars (albeit still somewhat true) but is extremely true for the mediums through which popular discourse about films is generated, which almost never feature discussion heavily focused on film sound. If one were to look for films of which the popular discourse about them features a prominent discussion of the use of sound design and sound-scaping, one would find precious few. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) are examples of this precious few. Both these films and the marketing attached to them have come to heavily feature discussion of their soundscape and sound design. Advertising materials and online articles about sound in both films are abound on the internet, and if one were to look into either film, one would quickly become inundated with information about the sound in these films.
Yet, while these films share this fairly rarified position, the actual nature of discourse on these films’ sound is far from similar. Discourse on A Man Escaped focuses on the innovative nature of the offscreen sound in the film. It is a discourse that is dominated by auteurism (as are most discourses that involve director Robert Bresson) and celebrates primarily the artistic achievement of the film’s innovative use of sound. Contrastingly, discourse around the film sound of Apocalypse Now is primarily focused on the technical “revolution” that is associated with Apocalypse Now. As the story goes, the production company responsible for the film, United Artists, sent out a letter before the release of Apocalypse Now, asking theaters to install the Dolby SA-5 Stereo system so that the sound of Apocalypse Now could be made to surround audiences by sending some signals to rear loudspeakers (Dienstfrey 167-170). This system was the predecessor to the modern surround sound systems that currently exist and the first system to allow for the directional control of sound playback within theaters. The implication was that the sonic experience of Apocalypse Now was such a thing to behold it required a massive technological advancement on the part of the theater to accommodate. Audiences were purportedly stunned by this technological advancement in combination with the visceral nature of the film. Histories have since positioned these two things “Dolby Stereo” and Apocalypse Now as being intrinsically tied (some even telling the story as the two being released alongside each other) and being co-responsible for a “revolution” in cinema sound (Dienstfrey 167-170). Scholars have noted that this telling is something of a mythologization of the real course of events, but that has not prevented this narrative and the film sound associated with it from coming to feature prominently in the discussion of Apocalypse Now.
While these themes and narratives dominate the current discourse on these films, it hasn’t always been this way. English-language reviews of both A Man Escaped and Apocalypse Now published when the films were released make scant mention of sound in either of these films, and only some publications of Apocalypse Now addressed the sound aspect of the film and viewing experience. In both cases, discourse at the time focused more on classically emphasized elements of film form such as cinematography and performance (in the case of Apocalypse Now, many contemporary reviews also focus heavily on the literary influence of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”). This begs the question, how did film sound, which is so rarely discussed, come to be an essential element of discourse in the wake of the release of both these films? In this paper I will examine the intervening hands of scholars and film industry figures, whose promotional efforts and publications had transformative impacts on the discourse surrounding these two films, shaping those discourses from that of their initial reception into what they are today.
To discuss Apocalypse Now it is necessary to address the mythological nature of the film sound discourse that is now so prevalent around the film. Eric Dienstfrey first sought to correct the misgivings surrounding the “Dolby Stereo Revolution” supposedly brought on by Apocalypse Now in “The Myth of the Speakers: A Critical Reexamination of Dolby History”. In it, Dienstfrey asserts that while the Dolby SA-5 Stereo system was made available to theaters in 1975, (years before the release of Apocalypse Now) it hadn’t yet been widely adopted by theaters even by the release of the film, and still hadn’t been even as the film was released. In fact, these surround sound systems were only actually installed in a tiny handful of theaters in the US despite theaters advertising Dolby Stereo in reference to the SA-5, when in fact they were operating on a Dolby system that was not the SA-5 and thus did not include the rear loudspeakers. The letter sent out by United Artists was thus largely a savvy promotional move, rather than a genuine demand (167-175). Dienstfrey notes that audiences would not have been privy to this information however, due to the misleading labeling by Dolby Audio of two different systems as “Dolby Stereo”, only one of which, the SA-5, actually had rear loudspeakers. So, while audiences thought they were experiencing something revolutionary, they in fact were almost certainly not (Dienstfrey 170-175).
This somewhat explains why initial reviews were mixed in their paying of attention to what has gone on to be considered by many a complete revolution of cinematic sound and the theatrical experience. Most publications at the time made little or only some mention of Apocalypse Now’s use of sound, and the general discourse is a far cry from modern discourse that heralds Apocalypse Now as a watershed moment for film sound. Roger Ebert’s 1979 review of Apocalypse Now makes no real mention of the film’s sound design or any “revolutionary” sonic experience, focusing instead on the narration, performances, casting, and influence of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Ebert). The same can be said for the reviews published upon the film’s release by the New Yorker Magazine (Geng), The Guardian (Roud), and the New York Times (Canby). A review published by Variety upon release features only one mention of sound at the end when author Dale Pollock writes:
“Apocalypse Now” is emblazoned with firsts: a 70mm presentation without credits, a director putting himself personally on the hook for the film’s $18 million cost overrun, and then obtaining rights to the pic in perpetuity, and a revolutionary sound system that adds immeasurably to the film’s impact.
While Pollock calls the sound system, referring to Dolby Stereo, “revolutionary”, the statement seems more a nod to the promotional efforts of United Artists regarding the sound of the film than a genuine statement, given that this is the only place the “immeasurable impact” of Dolby Stereo is discussed throughout the whole review. Publications from the LA Weekly (Martini) and Edmonton Journal (Dodd) of the time meanwhile gave more praise and focus to the visceral sounds of Apocalypse Now, although not going quite so far as to call it revolutionary. What is revealed across these publications, however, is a reticence to focus on the sound of the film, and an even greater reticence to christen it “revolutionary” in the same way modern discourse around the film’s achievements does. The cause for this is likely the incredibly sensationalized production of Apocalypse Now. While the promotional efforts of United Artists related to the film’s sound were certainly audacious, so too were many other aspects of the film’s production, a production that was laden with delays, difficulties, and expenses that generated huge amounts of headlines. Thus, while the film’s sound was emphasized by United Artists in the lead-up to the film’s release, the public and critics alike already had a lot to chew on in relation to the film. This shows in the reviews, many of which discuss the difficulties of filming and financing the film experienced by Coppola, as well as some more personal gossip about Coppola and his wife’s marriage and the effects the making of the film had on it. In his 1979 review, Roger Ebert predicts (quite correctly) that these production issues and other elements that were essential to the build-up of mystique prior to the release of the film will be lost to the sands of time and only the legacy of the film’s artistic achievements will remain (Ebert). Yet, the falsified myths of the film’s relationship to a “revolution” in film sound and the theatrical experience have not only persisted in the wake of the seemingly fairly mixed enthusiasm for the film’s supposedly monumental sonic significance in public discourse, but they have grown in both popularity and in the scope of importance with which the film’s supposed achievements are viewed. So, how come?
Dienstfrey posits that the continued legacy of Apocalypse Now’s mythological film sound “revolution” is due to the intervening hands of film-audio industry professionals, as well as some scholars. While the ramp-up to the release of Apocalypse Now began the formation of this myth it was in the years and decades following the release of the film during which lead sound designer for Apocalypse Now, Walter Murch, would go on to heavily promote the purported achievements of Apocalypse Now in interviews and publications (Dienstfrey, 170-175). The rest of the audio industry followed Murch’s lead and over the next decades have continued to consistently release materials, interviews, and publications celebrating the achievements of Murch and Apocalypse Now, ultimately reinforcing and expanding the myth of the Dolby Stereo “revolution” even beyond the audacious claims on which it was originally staked.
Capt. Willard prepares to confront Col. Walter Kurtz and complete his mission.
The progression of this mythologization and the effect it has had on popular discourse around Apocalypse Now can be easily tracked in articles and interviews about the sound and sound technology of Apocalypse Now (most of which are released in concert with promotional schedules for re-releases of the film). The sound of the helicopter played at the beginning of Apocalypse Now became instrumental to this mythologizing of the film’s sound and technology. Through continued discussion of this moment, which begins the film, Murch and his peers have created an association between the moment audiences theoretically heard this sound moving through the SA-5 surround system and the moment stereo sound in film theaters began as well, merging these two mythological moments into one. Of course, the sound of the helicopter at the outset of the film would have been a great example of the way sound can move through a surround sound system to mirror onscreen movement, however, as previously mentioned audiences watching the film would not have actually experienced this (with a few exceptions). In a 1980 interview published in the Journal of the University Film Association Murch discusses heavily the process of recording the helicopter sound and the “link between image and sound” and treats it as a pivotal moment for the film (Murch & Paine 17). In articles such as Salon magazine’s “The Sound of Vietnam” (Sragow), published in 2000, and Film Quarterly’s “Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch” (Jarrett & Murch, 5-6), also published in 2000, Murch not only discusses the process of recording the helicopter sound further but also identifies the moment the sound of the helicopters in the opening sequence as the beginning of a “whole new way to listen to movies”. Further mythologization can be seen in places such as the extras on a 2006 re-release of Apocalypse Now, which features audio engineers who also worked on Apocalypse Now, including Richard Beggs and Ioan Allen, discussing how the sound of the helicopter at the beginning of the film was panned around theaters to match the onscreen movement and showing an animated graphic that shows the theoretical decibel output levels of each speaker at each position in a theater equipped with an SA-5 (Macauley). Some scholars have also lent credence to this myth in writing, such as Gianluca Sergi who wrote in “The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood” that the introduction of this Dolby stereo that came with Apocalypse Now was “nothing less than a comprehensive industry-wide transformation, from studio attitudes to sound, filtering through to filmmakers’ creative use of sound and audience expectation. (Sergi 12-15). A 2019 article published by IndieWire titled “Walter Murch: The Godfather of Modern Sound Reflects on a Career That Changed Filmmaking” captures well the state of the myth presently, featuring excerpts such as:
It was Murch’s work on Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” however, that changed how sound was edited and mixed for film forever. Right from the opening sequence, Murch built a soundscape that forced the audience to experience the film through Captain Willard’s warped and war-wary psychological point-of-view (O’falt).
Dienstfrey theorizes that the building of this myth on the part of both the audio industry at large and by Murch was purposefully done to shape discourse on Apocalypse Now to be more focused on the work and accomplishments of the audio industry and audio technologies when considering the legacy of the film. In doing so, Dienstfrey theorizes, they were able to combat the growing struggles and instabilities looming in the audio industry’s future at the time, ultimately positing that this mythologization was an effort to assert the necessity and importance of the audio industry relative to filmmaking (Dienstfrey 186-187). Efforts such as these, which range from misrepresentative (Murch’s claims in “The Sound of Vietnam” that the SA-5 setup is now an industry standard, as well as the implication that the system was developed specifically for Apocalypse Now) to outright untruthful (the animated graphic in the extras of the 2006 re-release of Apocalypse Now, which claims to illustrate the stereo layout of the original soundtrack but fails to represent the struggles with signal cancellation that would have led to muted tracks in multiple channels during the film’s original run) have nonetheless been remarkably effective, not just at building up and maintaining the myth directly, but in shifting attention towards Dolby sound technologies in the discussion of Apocalypse Now.
This is clearly reflected in the reviews and published discourse surrounding Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, a distinctly edited re-release of the film (one of many that followed the original release in the intervening decades) released in 2019. In fairly stark contrast to the attention paid to the sound technology of the original film, reviews of the final cut almost unanimously mention or discuss the adaptation of the old soundtrack into Dolby Atmos sound, the modern surround sound progenitor of the SA-5 system Apocalypse Now’s stereo mix was created for. In this discussion of the sound and Dolby Atmos across blog posts and reviews, descriptions of the sound echo curiously the major tenets of the mythologized version of the story dispersed by Murch and the industry at large. A review of the final cut for The Jam Report touches on the mythological moment of the helicopter sound panning across the stereo field on top of mentioning explicitly Dolby Sound:
The re-release also utilises state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos surround sound technology to genuinely stunning effect. The echoes of war truly encompass the entire cinema, as helicopters zoom from speaker to speaker and bullets and bombs shake the theatre as if you’re right there in Vietnam. It’s a remarkably visceral experience that only adds to the startling visuals presented on the screen (Jamieson).
Both a review published by Roger Ebert (Kenny) and The Hollywood Reporter’s (Defore) review of the final cut explicitly recommends to readers that they see it in a theater equipped specifically with Dolby Atmos, the modern-day equivalent to Dolby SA-5. An article published by IndieWire discussing Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut and notable developments between the final cut and previous versions features a lengthy discussion about Walter Murch’s “revolutionary” work on the film’s sound, writing:
For “Final Cut,” Mockoski and the film’s original sound designer Walter Murch were able to locate (it had been tossed in a dumpster) one of the 1979 film’s original six track print masters. This gave the “Final Cut” team the ability to create significantly clearer sound, but it also meant being able to go inside sound designer Murch’s revolutionary work and adapt it to the modern tools of post-production and in theaters… Murch’s 5.1 sound design for the 1979 release was not only a technical breakthrough, but on an artistic level, it remains at the pinnacle of surround sound. Murch’s work in enveloping the audience in war and the way sound traveled inside the theater is still a textbook example that virtually all sound designers and mixers study when honing their craft. Murch’s protegé, Pete Horner, who first worked with Murch on “Redux,” oversaw the mix, which adapts the 5.1 surround mix to Dolby Atmos and has the ability to pinpoint sound anywhere in theater, including the ceiling” (O’falt).
What becomes clear is that the tenets of the myth of Apocalypse Now’s Dolby “revolution” has effectively seeped into the discourse of Apocalypse Now at large in the intervening years between the original release and the present. While it isn’t always explicitly addressed across reviews, the rhetoric and misinformation from the myth have made their clear mark. Furthermore, the goal Dienstfrey theorizes motivated Murch and the audio industry to propagate this myth seems to have been achieved, with almost all reviews for Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut placing clear and explicit value on the audio industry’s contribution to the film, essentially promoting the industry for free. Murch’s personal reputation, as well, seems to have been permanently transformed by this process. While Murch is hardly mentioned in most reviews of Apocalypse Now from the original release (including those that explicitly deal with sound), he is frequently mentioned as a vital collaborator of Coppola in almost all published works concerning Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut. What is startling about this is the ability of the film audio industry, a part of the film industry that at the time was historically fairly disregarded and undervalued, to transform its standing within popular discourse through the consistent and repetitive release of self-promoting media material across re-releases and decades.
In contrast, the shift in popular discourse, specifically popular discourse in the English language, around A Man Escaped, and its unique use of offscreen film sound, has not been so much stewarded by industry figures and publications, but rather by scholarly ones. Unlike Apocalypse Now, this discourse that scholars intervened in and helped build is not a mythological one – it holds real water. A Man Escaped makes ingenious use of offscreen sound, creating a sonic world outside the camera’s view, and a view confined with the main character Fontaine in imprisoned and limited spaces. However, despite the differences between the discourses surrounding these two films’ relation to sound and sound technology, the patterns through which the discourses were built are very similar.
Fontaine, a member of the French Resistance, dreams of his escape from prison in A Man Escaped.
On the initial release of A Man Escaped in France in 1956, French publications such as Cahiers du Cinema and Le Monde both published lengthy French language reviews that engaged heavily with the film and director Robert Bresson’s innovative use of sound, which these reviews saw as essential to the experience of the film (Monod). A contemporary review published in Le Monde translates one section to:
The sound system in this film is exception. Here the object is just as important as the men. For the prisoner, the noises compose a double soundscape: landscape of imprisonment (sound of the key rubbed against the bars of the cage by the jailer, crunching of boots, gusts of machine gun fire announcing the assassination of comrades, dull knock on the walls of the cell, etc.) and a landscape of freedom brought by the city noises, neighbors, train whistles, by a children’s song… All these sounds the director orchestrates, musing them, amplifies them or mutes them as it pleases according to the arc of the story. The effect is extraordinary” (Baroncelli)
A Man Escaped did not appear on the international stage until its premiere at the 10th annual Cannes film festival in 1957. Upon its appearance at this festival, reviews began to be published by English-language publications. Unlike French publications, these publications of the time seem to have missed the memo on film sound being a pivotal element of A Man Escaped. A review of A Man Escaped published by The New York Times (Crowther) in 1957 makes no mention of sound, focusing instead on the film’s focus on showing procedural events in detail. The Irish Times coverage of the 10th annual Cannes film festival also discusses A Man Escaped, but like The New York Times review, it makes no mention of the film’s use of sound, commending instead the way the film uses the camera to create an effect of imprisonment (Special Correspondent). London’s Monthly Film Bulletin also published a review of A Man Escaped in 1957 – while it makes brief mention of the film’s “sound effects”, it identifies the film’s dialogue and moments of character interaction as the true centerpiece of the film (D.R.). Thus, while there is evidence of some minimal awareness of the unique and innovative use of sound in this film in English language reviews published at the time, the discourse on the film hardly resembles that which appears in French publications. The lack of attention paid to sound may have been a result of the fact that A Man Escaped was a foreign film, which also explains why these English language reviews are comparatively much shorter and less engaged with the film overall, however, even English language popular discourse that came substantially after the initial English language reception of the film, such as a review of the film published by Empire in 2006 (Parkinson), does not necessarily mention sound despite its paramount importance to the film. Thus, it remains a curiosity why English language popular critics on the whole generally failed to recognize what is clearly a standout aspect of the film for some time.
Much like Apocalypse Now, in the years following the initial release of A Man Escaped significant shifts in the discourse occurred. In recent years, the popular English language discourse on A Man Escaped has both grown vastly and shifted substantially to focus primarily on the film’s innovative use of sound. The primary drivers of this shift in discourse have been academics who, through publishing an extensive analysis of the film’s use of sound, built a reputation for A Man Escaped as a film staked on innovative sound. That reputation eventually made it to more popular discourse, appearing in retrospective reviews and promotional materials associated with the film’s re-releases on DVD, Blu-Ray, and onto the Criterion Collection in the 2000s and 2010s. However, English language academics did not immediately begin publishing such analyses of A Man Escaped. Rather, it appears that a more permeable barrier between French and English discourse in the academic setting, as opposed to the more rigid one between French and English popular discourses, may have helped English language academics catch on to the unique and notable use of sound in A Man Escaped.
Michel Chion, a French film scholar who was often published by Cahiers du Cinéma, a marquee French film publication, wrote mostly in French throughout his career. Since then, however, many of his works have been translated into English. Chion’s proximity to more popular French film discourse through Cahiers du Cinema almost certainly exposed him to the popular French notion of A Man Escaped’s innovative use of sound. Chion commented on and further developed this unique use of sound in numerous publications, including “La Voix au Cinéma” in 1982 (translated to “The Voice in Cinema” in 1999) and “L’Audio-Vision Son et Image au Cinéma” in 1991 (translated to “Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen” in 1993) (Chion). These works were originally published in French and later translated into English in the 90s. Later, Chion made one of the most definitive accounts of A Man Escaped’s use of film sound in his 2003 book “Un arte sonore, le cinéma” (translated to “Film: A Sound Art” in 2009) (Chion). In “Film: A Sound Art”, Chion mounts a comprehensive analysis of A Man Escaped’s deployment of offscreen-sourced sounds and the meaning they generate in the film. He further develops this by dividing the offscreen space into further “zones”, the acousmatic (diegetic sound offscreen) and the non-diegetic (sound that is not sourced from within the filmic world) further unraveling the complex and sometimes impressionistic nature of the offscreen sound in the film. He also singles out particular examples in the film, such as the sounds of bells and city life heard from the city surrounding the prison, or the sound of the train as it passes from onscreen to offscreen, or vice versa. Chion posits that this use of sound helps define the visceral, almost phenomenological sense of imprisonment that A Man Escaped delivers to viewers (Chion 249-260). Chion’s analysis is both startling and original, using an entirely original schema of sound “zones” conceived of by Chion, and supported by thorough interrogation of specific elements in the film. Chion began with the same base observations on A Man Escaped expressed in contemporary French film reviews, but would go on to develop and celebrate the film for years after. Chion’s work, and their later translations, may have been a crucial bridge for French discourse on sound in A Man Escaped to cross over into English language discourse on the film.
David Bordwell, famed American film scholar, later commented on the offscreen sound in A Man Escaped in a section of the 8th edition (published 2008) of his book “Film Art: An Introduction” called “Functions of Film Sound: A Man Escaped”. Bordwell writes:
One set of auditory motifs emphasizes the space outside Fontaine’s cell. We see a streetcar in the opening scene, and the bell and motor of a streetcar are heard offscreen every time Fontaine speaks to someone through his cell window. The noise remind us of his goal of reaching the streets beyond the walls. During the second half of the film, the sounds of trains also become important. When Fontaine is first able to leave his cell and walk in the hall unobserved, we hear a train whistle. It returns at other moments when he leaves his cell clandestinely, until the train provides the noise to cover the sounds Fontaine and Jost make during their escape (Bordwell 293-300).
Bordwell’s analysis bears striking resemblance to Chion’s work in “Film: A Sound Art”, it touches (albeit with much less detail) on not only many of the same points but the same specific examples within the film. While it is impossible to ascertain if Bordwell was as influenced by Chion for sure, Chion’s work with A Man Escaped is still the most significant and thorough analysis of the use of sound in the film to date. Given this and the resemblance between the two analyses, it is not unreasonable to think that Bordwell looked to one of the foremost theorists on film sound when constructing his treatise on A Man Escaped. Bordwell was also later involved in a promotional video concerning A Man Escaped. The video, which was published online in 2013, was put together by the Criterion Collection to coincide with the re-release of A Man Escaped through the Criterion Collection. Titled “Bordwell and Thompson on A Man Escaped”, the video is essentially a mediatized version of Bordwell’s analysis as it appears in the 8th edition of “Film Art: An Introduction”, including the same subheadings, organization, and basic analytic points (Bordwell & Thompson).
Similar scholarly focus on offscreen sound can be found in the notes of Kevin Jack Hagopian, senior lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Hagopian published notes from a lecture on A Man Escaped for the New York State Writer’s Institute, writing:
The way that Bresson recreates war’s physically limited view is through sound; A Man Escaped could even be said to be about sound. Because Fontaine must live in punishing silence, and because the view from his little cell is so limited, he can only construct his cognitive map of the world he cannot see through the sounds, many of them painfully small, which are so infrequently scattered about him. Those sounds begin to expand and mutate inside his head, and inside ours, becoming inordinately important, freighted with mortal danger one moment, blissful hope the next (Hagiopan).
Fontaine and his fellow prisoner François attempt their escape.
Examples of less well-known scholars commentating on the use of sound in A Man Escaped abound on the internet as well. Ian Bryce Jones, lecturer at DePaul University and the University of Chicago, published an article in 2019 on sound in A Man Escaped on his academic blog Intermittent Mechanism called “A Man Escaped (1956) – The Many Uses of Sound in Film”. In it, he writes:
One such example that comes early in the film and is quite apparent is the sound of a bell and car engines that recur every time Fontaine speaks to the men outside his window assisting him, but never when he sits alone even though the window always remains open. This could simply be a means to set the scene, but it also serves to remind the audience of the close proximity of freedom to Fontaine’s cell, and perhaps is even suggestive of Fontaine’s thoughts and the freedom he so dearly seeks (Tandon).
More material still can be found in blogs with a scholarly bent or academic aspirations, such as filmslie.com, which published an article, “Robert Bresson on Film Sound and Music: Part Three of Notes on Cinematography”, that seeks to dissect Bresson’s own notes on film sound published in his 1975 book “Notes on Cinematography” and examine how A Man Escaped specifically bears out these characteristics (Ignoramous). While these discourses are from less notable sources, the influence of Chion’s work on English language academics’ discourse on A Man Escaped seems palpable; they touch on many of the same examples and echo Chion’s assertions of how the offscreen sound generates emotional meaning and a more palpable physiological and psychological sense of imprisonment. Thus, it seems that English language academics came to recognize A Man Escaped’s unique sonic qualities at least in part due to a more permeable barrier between English and French language academic discourses.
The resulting English language publications that emphasized the unique use of sound in the film staged something of a scholarly intervention, redefining A Man Escaped as a film significant for its use of sound in English language discourse. This discourse then passed through yet another permeable discursive barrier, between academic and popular discourse. Reviews of A Man Escaped published since significant English language academic discourse on the film exploded range from reliably making mention of the film’s use of offscreen sound to devoting entire sections of review to that element of the film alone to even referencing directly scholarly analysis on the film’s use of sound. A retrospective article published in High on Films, published 2019, overviews multiple aspects of the film, including a discussion of the film’s use of soundscape and narration (Verma) that includes a direct link to David Bordwell’s promotional video for A Man Escaped’s debut on the Criterion Collection. A review of A Man Escaped for borrowingtape.com, a site that publishes reviews on both new and classic films (published date not listed, but borrowingtape.com was est. in 2014), makes significant mention of A Man Escaped’s use of sound and offscreen sound, writing:
Fontaine’s methodic routines, his ingenuity, and the dangers that come with it are emphasized through the use of sound. The silence that encompasses the jail absorbs the audience. We can sense it and become as aware of it as Fontaine is. When he sharpens a spoon on the ground, the sound of the scraping is uncomfortably loud. Possibly loud enough to cover the sound of approaching footsteps. It’s easy to understand this as it happens. We understand his world as he does. We experience it as he does. In the background, we can hear the whistling of trains, the streetcars, and sometimes the gunshots from the offscreen executions. Sound carries information to Fontaine. Men being beaten, the slight tapping on walls, the clanging of a baton on a banister. Fontaine and the audience become intertwined in this way. So each time Fontaine makes a sound during his attempts to escape you’re left to wonder: what information is he passing on and to whom? Other prisoners acknowledge that they can hear him, and so the unease the film creates is very identifiable and immediate (Wolfe).
A review of A Man Escaped published by Senses of Cinema, published 2012, also makes significant mention of offscreen sound in the film:
This “extremely reserved, very cool tone” certainly matched Bresson’s own approach to the cinema, in which he always tried to use as little as possible to achieve his desired effects, with a considerable amount of the film’s action actually taking place off-screen, conveyed to us only through the soundtrack as background noise. Bresson himself had spent some time in a Nazi prison during the early part of the war, and as Tony Pipolo notes, Bresson “was in cell and heard someone being whipped through a door and then a body falling”. For Bresson, the experience was “ten times worse than if I had seen the whipping”, and exemplifies the filmmaker’s essential strategy of letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the supposed “gaps” in the visuals. It’s a classic use of off-screen violence; whatever we might be shown, it can’t possibly have the same power as something that has been suggested, or implied (Foster).
Even a review of A Man Escaped published on decentfilms.com, a film criticism and review site focused on the Christian faith makes mention of the film’s use of offscreen sound, writing, “Among Bresson’s hallmarks is the juxtaposition of onscreen images with sounds from unseen, offscreen sources — a device that seems uniquely suited to the world of a narrow prison cell, where Fontaine has both a limited range of vision and ample reason to attend to every boot scrape and unknown creak” (SDG). What is clear from these reviews is that the discourse first built and exchanged between French and English language scholars through academic discoursal hubs online and print media has ultimately deeply penetrated the popular English language discourse on the film. In doing so French language popular discourse and English language popular discourse have converged despite the startling contrast between the two at the time of the film’s initial release.
Both Apocalypse Now and A Man Escaped have undergone deeply separate journeys as objects of popular cinematic discourse, and yet the pathways of these two very different discussions are simultaneously remarkably similar. Ultimately, the discoursal pathways each film has been subject to have revealed the power of both film-industry figures (even those in parts of the industry considered somewhat fringe) and scholars to stage discoursal interventions that lead to lasting and radical changes in how we perceive films and those films’ legacy as art pieces and technological entities. Preserved in media records, these shifting discourses can also allow us to interrogate our own perceptions of these films and their associated technologies, innovations, and events. Why did English language critics fail to see the innovative approach Bresson took to sound in A Man Escaped? Why has the myth of Dolby Stereo sound persisted? Why did some scholars validate it? Is the role of popular discourse only to be shifted by industry-insider and scholarly discourses, or could popular discourse shift industry and academic discourse as well?
Baroncelli, Jean de, “’Un condamne à mort s’est échappé’ ou ‘le ventsoufle où il veut’”, Le Monde, November 15, 1956.
Bordwell, David, Film Art: An Introduction – 8th Edition (McGraw Hill, 2008), 293-300.
“Bordwell and Thompson on A Man Escaped,” criterioncollection, Youtube, last modified Mar 27, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJUieYP5Fs0.
Canby, Vincent, “The Screen: ‘Apocalypse Now’: Faces of War,” The New York Times, August 15, 1979.
Chion, Michel, Film: A Sound Art (Columbia University Press, 2009), 249-260.
———. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Columbia University Press, 1994.
———. The Voice in Cinema. Columbia University Press, 1999.
———. Un art sonore, le cinéma: histoire, esthétique, poétique. Cahiers du cinéma, 2003.
Crowther, Bosley, “Screen: ‘Man Escaped’; Baronet Shows New Import From France,” The New York Times, August 27, 1957.
Defore, John, “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut Film Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 1, 2019.
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