When Al Jolson hollered “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, audiences were amazed by the union of image and sound. Before long, however, the audio component of the cinematic experience got relegated to the background. Sure, there were exceptions (who remembers the “Rumble-Rama” of 1974’s Earthquake?), and the emergence of multi-channel sound and giant subwoofers has definitely made movies louder over the past few decades. But it’s been rare to find a film that invites its viewers to be fully invested listeners as well.
Director Sam Green aims to change that with the innovative and immersive 32 Sounds, the new “live documentary” that he’ll be presenting with composer JD Samson (of the seminal riot grrl band “Le Tigre”) at PAM CUT this weekend. Green has been working in this “live documentary” mode for over a decade, screening films accompanied by live narration and musical performance, and 32 Sounds is a sort of culmination of those efforts. Audience members will be given headphones to wear for portions of the presentation and will be instructed at times to close their eyes and focus on what’s hitting their eardrums.
The film will also exist in a “normal” format for eventual theatrical and streaming engagements, but it’s meant to be seen in a communal environment where every screening is, in some way, unique. I spoke with Green, who was in New York City working on a 50th anniversary video for his frequent collaborators the Kronos Quartet. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Oregon ArtsWatch: Thanks for making it possible for me to preview the film. It was a fascinating experience, and I’m glad you insisted that I wear headphones. I’m a little envious, though, of folks who will get to see it live. Can you describe some of the differences of that theatrical version, not just logistically, but experientially?
Sam Green: Somebody gave me an analogy, which I think is helpful. You can buy a record (and I’m dating myself by using the term “record”) and listen to it and like it, and then go see the band perform the songs. It’s the same music, but it’s a different experience. The sound will be very big and you’ll feel it. Not to get New Agey about it, but it’s vibrationally a different experience. Also, with live performance, there’s always that notion that it could all fall apart, they could fuck up.
OAW: You’re walking a high wire.
Sam: Also, I started making live documentaries many years ago, and I’ve worked with a lot of musicians. The first one where I was really struck by this was one I did with Yo La Tengo. We actually performed this in Portland many years ago. When they came out, you could feel the energy shift in the room because people love them. People love bands way more than they ever love filmmakers. JD Samson is there in the room with you, so that’s neat.
OAW: Not even in a New Agey way, but there’s a section on subwoofers in the film, and the best headphones in the world aren’t going to make your sternum vibrate.
Sam: Exactly. We will have a big subwoofer out that people can come put their hands on.
OAW: What either inspired you to move into the live documentary space or frustrated you about the limitations of the traditional format?
Sam: [laughs] It’s kind of both. I was making a documentary about utopia after I made [the Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary] The Weather Underground. It was a complicated movie. It was four different stories about utopia that were totally unconnected, and I just hoped people would watch it and fill in the dots. I edited this movie together and showed people as a rough cut, and everybody said, “This makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t get it.” I was crushed and paralyzed. Then somebody asked me to do a talk about the project. I said, “Okay, I’ll show some clips and I’ll talk, but it sounds really boring, so I’ll get my friend to do live music for it.” This actually was Matt McCormick many years ago at the PDX Festival.
I did it thinking it would be a one-off. We showed it at Sundance and then people all over the world were like, “Hey, will you come show that live documentary here?” What I was racing against was that that was the beginning of people watching movies at home on their computer. I do that too, so I’m not going to take the moral high ground about it, but it’s definitely a diminished way to experience film. It’s great for Ted Lasso, but the live format has interested me because it’s like going to church: you turn off your phone, you sit down, you give yourself over to the experience.
OAW: Events like this are a great way to get people back in theaters, which is economically and culturally a big deal right now. Switching gears a bit, all the sounds, or nearly all, of the 32 sounds featured in the films are what you’d call analog in origin. It’s like it’s a bell ringing or it’s a wave crashing, or it’s a stick moving through the wind. Now, when we (or an AI) can create virtual images and even digital sounds that are indistinguishable from the real thing, how does that play into the notion of a sound, the way a sound connects us to the world, which is something you talk about?
Sam: There are many sounds that I worked on that didn’t make it into the film for one reason or another, and one that I wanted to do was synthetic speech that mirrors regular speech. You know, I could record you reading a couple paragraphs and then make you say all sorts of things that you didn’t say.
Mark: Audio deep fakes, sort of?
Sam: Yes. I never found the right way to include it, and also, that technology’s very fast-moving so I was a little worried if I did it now, in two years it’d be out of date. But it’s profound because before Edison’s phonograph, you never heard the voice of a dead person. You never heard any music that wasn’t played right in front of you. The phonograph radically changed the way we experienced the world, the way we experienced time, the way we think about life, and for the past 100 and so years, one thing that was part of that is that recording was real. If you heard something, a recording of your mother who’s no longer alive, you knew it was real, and in this new era we’re entering, that is changing.
OAW: As you say in the film, there was no way to preserve the voice of someone who was no longer living before there was a phonograph, but even before that, we did have a way to preserve visual images of people who were dead. What is it about a voice or, as in the beginning of the film, a bird call that seems to create a deeper connection to something that’s no longer around than even a picture?
Sam: It’s a good question, and it’s kind of a mystery. I don’t have a good answer. If you have a painting and it’s on your wall, when you come back tomorrow, it’s going to be there. There’s a kind of stability to visual phenomenon that we count on and understand. Sound is different. It’s fleeting and it’s ephemeral. It happens and it’s gone, and you can never put your finger on it literally or figuratively.
There’s also the way in which it goes very directly into our brains. I’m not a neurologist or anything, but it seems like visual phenomena go through the rational part of your brain and then get into your thoughts. I feel like sound goes almost directly into your emotions. If I hear a dial telephone sound, for example, which I remember from my childhood, that’ll trigger a lot of feelings. I’ll remember having a crush in middle school and calling somebody and being really nervous. Sound is so evocative and emotional.
Not to go on and on, but voices are so profoundly complex. They communicate so much. It’s just some cord in your throat vibrating, but no two people’s voices are the same, and we can glean so much from a voice. It’s miraculous in a way, how rich voices are and how much they contain. All of that is a stab at answering your question, but I don’t know if there’s any real answer.
OAW: With a project like this, is there an extra challenge to crafting the sound design? Is there a basic default hearing range that you’re designing this for?
Sam: Yes. You’re right about sound being more subjective. A lot of the experience of sound is what you bring to it. One of the sounds that I didn’t include was this thing called the Orgasms Library. It’s a Spanish company that sells adult products, and on their website you can upload audio recordings of yourself coming, and you can listen to many other people. I wanted to include it because that’s a strong sound. Almost everybody reacts to it, but there’s a wide range of reactions. Some people are really embarrassed and put off, or some people are turned on, some people are annoyed, some people are intrigued. It’s the same sound everybody’s hearing, but we’re all bringing different things to it.
OAW: I wish you had included that! Maybe there’ll be some deleted scenes down the road that you can put out there.
Sam: Yes, 32 More Sounds.
OAW: It’s a given that the audience has this unique experience during a live documentary. What do you and your collaborators get out of it? It’s a lot of work to make a movie and then to follow that up by going out on the road with it. What makes that worthwhile for you?
Sam: I love it. It’s a huge privilege to be able to show the movie and be there and have people respond to it. Some filmmakers make a film and just want to give it to somebody else to let them show it and go back to making another movie, but I really love being in a room with people and seeing them experience the work. You make something so that it will hopefully resonate with other people. Joanna Fang, the Foley artist we interview, says something similar in the movie. She says something like, “Isn’t that the purpose of art? To make something and have people feel the way you’re feeling too?” Being in a room with an audience, and especially doing a live presentation of 32 Sounds, is the greatest thing in the world because hopefully people do feel things and it’s a communal experience. It’s not everybody at home watching it on their computer doing Facebook. We’re doing something together, and there’s a magic in that.
OAW: You’ve mentioned a couple sounds that you did choose not to include, which makes me realize even more that the number 32 was probably a conscious choice, and is that a 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould reference?
Sam: Yes, that was a reference to the Glenn Gould movie, which I’ve always loved. That had taken its number from the Goldberg Variations, Gould’s sort of signature work that had 32 sections, so I felt like it was multiple allusions.
OAW: Then it in turn inspired one of the best Simpsons episodes.
Sam: What is that?
OAW: It’s called 22 Short Films about Springfield. It’s a classic.
Sam: Oh my God, I ‘ve got to see that. I didn’t know. That’s amazing. [laughs] The Simpsons is always one step ahead of anything I do.
(32 Sounds screens on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8 & 9, at the Portland Art Museum. Tickets are available here.)