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
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.