Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Sound and the Glory

Documentaries are not always notable for their soundscapes. Unless, of course, one looks at a particular subset of nature films. In situations where a narrator's voice does not accompany the film, music can make a critical difference in an audience's reaction.

Popular documentaries about nature, such as Planet Earth, Sweetgrass, and most recently Oceans, offer a mix of sounds from those made by wind, ocean, and animals to those created in a recording studio by musicians reading a score. The choices made by their respective filmmakers with regard to which sounds should be incorporated into each film have had a profound effect on the final product.

Three documentaries recently screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival offered peculiar contrasts in how a film can be enhanced by exploring the sounds of nature as well as the nature of sound. Each film is wrapped in a unique acoustical framework. Each documentarian succeeds in capturing a unique feeling, fascination, or fervor in his film.

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The opening moments of a new nature documentary directed by Nina Hedenius can be a bit disconcerting. It's a dark, snowy afternoon on a Swedish farm. Trees, houses and barns are draped in deep layers of snow that bring a quiet hush to the area. As the camera moves silently around the landscape, one begins to wonder if there is something wrong with the film's soundtrack. Or if there is one.

However, as soon as the camera enters one of the farm buildings, the audience hears the familiar sound of cows mooing and embarks on a journey that will follow the natural life of a farm through the four seasons of the year. As Way of Nature progresses, colts and calves will be born, cows will be milked, butter will be churned, and fences mended. The only time human voices are heard are during televised newscasts, a recording of traditional Swedish music, a brief passage of solo singing, and the muffled voices of the farm workers as they go about their work.

As the year progresses, Way of Nature unfolds before the audience like a tone poem in which horses, roosters, and goats are seen doing what comes naturally while the farm's dogs cuddle up beside their humans and monitor their daily chores. Watching intently as eggs are collected, cows receive their cowbells, and livestock is moved from one pasture to another, the dogs never tire of watching the local spectacle. Nor do the flowers or animals ever lose their beauty (the camera's attention to the detail of a rooster's feathers becomes a meditation on the brilliance of nature's art).

I always find it interesting when watching documentaries like Way of Nature to observe the audience's emotional reactions (often quite joyous) as animals behave like animals, unintentionally provoking laughter and satisfaction from onlookers they will never meet. Throughout the film, the constant cacophony of farm life becomes a symphony of bells, baas, and bleats, of groans, grunts, and glissandi, as the animals routinely meet, mate, and munch.

Way of Nature is the kind of documentary that requires enough patience to sit back and watch nature in action, to abandon the pretenses of modern civilization and just listen to the beauty of the beasts. It is the kind of film where man's ego is minimized and the animals dominate (without the slightest need for anthropomorphic cartoon characters). By the time winter skies start to darken and snow once again blankets the farm, the audience feels strangely charmed and reassured about the cycle of life.

Save Way of Nature for one of those special nights when you're cold, lonely, or depressed. Its special magic provides a wonderful and warm tonic for the soul. Here's a brief trailer:

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In his director's note for Yellow Sheep River: The Last Utopia on the Silk Road, Taiwanese filmmaker Liu Suong writes:
"Here in Yellow Sheep River, the endless repetition is the rhythm of life. I witness their way of life, so simple, that only trifles and details are left. It is hard to imagine how dull days are replayed over and over for hundreds of years there in unbelievable sameness. Nevertheless, from this never-ending cycle of living on earth, a kind of harmony emerges from this rhythm, and a unique sense of beauty follows.
The feeling I get from this beauty is very different from that given by lovely objects and grand works of art. I believe that this kind of beauty can be understood on the simplest level. Without the need of language, dialogue, voice-over, story, or the need for dramatic tension, leading and supporting roles, I am sure that one can experience this beauty and, above all, the sense of tranquility that is hidden behind it."
Stunning work by Wang Po-Wen (Suong's director of photography) makes this film so visually gratifying that it's hard to imagine the camera actually capturing such physical beauty. As in Way of Nature, much of Suong's film is devoted to the yearly cycle of agricultural crops and herding livestock.

However, unlike the sheep who got sheared with electric tools in Sweetgrass, the sheep in Suong's film get shorn the old fashioned way. With the exception of a few small tractors, wheat crops are harvested the same way they've been for centuries.

Suong's breathtaking panoramas of the Taiwanese landscape are enhanced by a phenomenal musical score by Chen Kai-Yo that varies between a solo flute, banjo, and full-blown symphony orchestra (with some musical themes that are surprisingly reminiscent of music by George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Ferde Grofé).

There are a few small touches of modernity creeping into the Yellow Sheep River, however. My favorite is the local photographer who is seen getting family elders to pose for him. He later Photoshops their images so that it looks as if they had their picture taken in front of the Eiffel Tower!

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There are many reasons to fall in love with Pianomania, but the primary one is the fanatic devotion of Stefan Knupfer as he attempts to provide world-class pianists with the exact sound and touch they want from a piano. Knupfer, who is the chief technician for the Austrian branch of Steinway & Sons, is seen throughout the film racing up and down the back stairways of the Vienna Concert House in between acoustical tests and trial tunings on a fleet of grand pianos.

Stefan Knupfer at work

The challenge he faces is a unique one. Whereas many people would be thrilled to achieve 90% of accuracy in their work, Knupfer must satisfy a clientele of international artists whose quest for perfection makes neurosurgery seem like Jackson Pollock's approach to painting.

Working with pianists like Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, and Till Fellner keeps Knupfer intimately involved in the tuning of Steinway pianos for key performances as well as trying to accommodate the peculiar habits of each artist (Lang Lang requires a heavier music bench because of his tendency to throw his body around while performing).

While Knupfer is a master technician, he also has a wicked sense of humor, as demonstrated in this scene with Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo (two classical musicians who have become famous for their comedic classical music cabaret shows).

While much of Pianomania follows a year's preparation for pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard's recording of The Art of the Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, momentary crises can range from Lang Lang's need to choose a piano for his upcoming performance -- and the revelation that piano #109 (which Aimard had planned to use during his recording session) is no longer available because it has been sold to an Australian buyer -- to the arrival of a set of piano hammers that are .7 mm too narrow.

Stefan Knupfer checking the sound in the auditorium

As directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Pianomania will tantalize musical purists as well musicians who are, at heart, nerdy engineers. This is a rare chance to see Steinway pianos taken apart and adjusted by someone who is as passionate about their sound as a race car driver's mechanic is about his automobiles. The film also allows audiences the opportunity to see classical musicians (who are usually only photographed under the most formal circumstances) relaxing at work while trying to practice their craft without the presence of an audience as they continue on the lonely quest for the perfect tone.

Whether Knupfer and his artists are trying to recreate the sound of a harpsichord or clavichord in order to be as historically accurate as possible when recording a particular piece of music, their collective acuity makes for a surprisingly entertaining and rewarding film experience. Here's the trailer:

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