Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bad recording, or bad output?

While watching Gran Torino last night, we had to do something that we usually only do for movies released in the 1930s: We turned the volume up to the maximum, without observing any measurable difference in how well we could hear the dialogue.

(There's a joke in there somewhere about Clint Eastwood being from the 1930s, about how it doesn't matter how loud you turn up the volume for deaf old men.)

We could have turned off the fan, but it's July in Los Angeles, and it's finally been really hot for the last three weeks. So we strained and squinted (because squinting helps you listen better, don't you know?) in order to hear Eastwood's gruff whispering and the the less-than-perfect English of the teenage Hmong actors. (I'll let them off the hook for their less-than-perfect acting).

Like I said, we're used to this in films that were made during the Roosevelt administration, when the original sound recordings can't be improved upon by remastering. But Gran Torino from 2008? What gives?

And it made me realize something: When reviewing a film, I will almost never criticize the sound, because I haven't figured out how to be confident that the problem is in the film, not in the equipment that's projecting it.

I think it was while watching The Da Vinci Code a couple years back that I recognized an inability to judge these things just by listening. There was something weird and warbly in the soundtrack during the final reel, and it was quite distracting. However, this being a collaboration between Ron Howard and Tom Hanks with a budget over $100 million, I knew it couldn't be a flaw in the film itself. The projection had to be at fault.

And so I've over-applied this logic to other movies with lesser means. When I've had to turn the volume down because the music came in too loud, but then turn it up again to hear the dialogue, but then hurriedly recoiled again to quieter levels when the guitars blew my ears out, I've blamed the projection, not the movie. It has to be either my TV, my DVD player or the actual way the DVD was pressed. Not the original movie. Right?

But some movies clearly deserve to have their sound mixing criticized. How am I supposed to know which ones?

It's not a rhetorical question. If you have the answer, let me know. Seriously.

I guess the domination of one type of sound (music) over another (dialogue) probably is a good tip-off, after all. But then I think about the fact that I never have this problem in the movie theater itself -- only at home. Given the number of movies where I have to do this, odds are that I'd see some of them in the theater, right? And that, therefore, it must have to do with either the DVD or my home equipment.

But my Da Vinci Code example demonstrates how you can't always trust theaters either.

Are any of my readers actual critics? If so, let me know how you handle this.


gimpadelic said...

I had the same problem with Gran Torino. I watched the whole thing with the subtitles on.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the validation of my experience -- that was pretty unlikely that I'd get such an immediate verification of the phenomenon I witnessed.