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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 17 - Under fire in ear-splitting, over-amplified filmic sound caverns

WHILE not as old as Methuselah’s aunt, I have enough years to remember when the 1933 film of King Kong was doing a roaring trade among Edinburgh audiences and, even then, as a discerning infant, wondered what the super simian saw in screaming, squirming Fay Wray.

It was a satisfactory film for sound; native drummers ogled the dancing girls, white men yelled in terror, rifles went rat-a-tat, King Kong beat his chest with a noise like a salvo of trench mortar explosions and fighter planes goaded the ape atop New York’ s Empire State building like midges harrying Highlanders.

As a film aficionado from the days when movies were called "talkies" and silent films had just been snipped up the middle by fickle box-office fates, to the present wide-screen, wrap-around-sound, multi-cinema constructions, I have been shaken by earthquakes, tidal waves, the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting and the staccato threnody of Mr Thompson’s "Chicago piano" pumping good, car-exhaust-filled, American daylight into the King Kongs of gangsterland.

Oh say, can you see by the screen’ s flickering light, the Red Sea closing over Israelite-pursuing Egyptian warriors with the sound of 10,000 flushing toilets, the volcano Krakatoa erupting like an unsafe firework, American Civil War Atlanta burning and Clark Gable clutching Vivien Leigh in an incendiary gesture, eyes alight and heart aglow, and kissing her with the searing impact of a branding iron.

All that I have endured with a veteran film watcher’ s equanimity. The cinema has been, for me, in a manner of loose speaking, an enchanted place, like Prospero’ s isle in Shakespeare’ s The Tempest - "full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not ... " No longer. Many cinemas are, in my excruciating experience, becoming over-amplified sound caverns where ear-drums ache, heads throb and nerves are pounded.

Today’ s cinemas are booming and my wife and I are considering using ear-plugs to dampen down the noise. Recently, in one of Edinburgh’s popular, so-called multiplex cinemas, the advertisements were of a sound level that almost blew us from our seats and stopped hot dog eaters in mid-bite and juice suckers in mid-slurp.

Advertising contractors, Pearl & Dean and Carlton, apparently believe in the big bang approach to commercial creativity by which filmic products need sound levels equal to artillery barrages, or tons of coal falling on sheet tin. Younger cinema-goers may be impressed by such cataclysmic presentations but for us, and from the actions of nearby middle-aged, ear-clutching audience members, minds were fixed only on the ear-splitting sound effects, not on the advertisements.

Technical acrobatics and sometimes violent and cryptic scenarios seem to be replacing the simplicity of message apparent in older cinema advertisements. One advertisement, for a well-known confection, was brought to audience attention with sounds more appropriate to hailing the arrival of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Film trailers, can be equally noisy. One, for Spiderman, produced the sensation of being in the middle of an earthquake. I complained to a cinema official who apologised but said that since film sound levels were fixed by distributors, the management could not alter them.

We endured the advertisements but after 30 minutes of disagreeably-loud sound in the main film, we left, ear-battered and baffled at the rationale that appeared to consider it commercially acceptable to subject audiences to any discomfort.

A Cinema Exhibitors’ Association spokeswoman told me that film distributors made spot-checks to confirm that their recommended sound levels were maintained. These, she claimed, were generally "comfortable". With present-day, top-quality, cinema sound equipment, it should not be necessary to have levels that upset audiences.

Cinemas which received complaints - sometimes, she admitted, they came in spates - should inform their head office which in turn, should discuss them with distributors. A Carlton official said that the Cinema Advertising Association were undertaking research into film sound levels and took complaints about them seriously. A Pearl & Dean spokesman commented that it was counter-productive to have levels that made audiences uncomfortable. They were awaiting the research’s findings.

Such matters must be put bang to rights. As one who may be going as deaf as Methuselah’s aunt these cinema-going days, I would welcome a return of silent movies, even advertisements, to give my aching, overstrained eardrums a rest.

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