the sound of noise

keith gallasch listens to matthew saville’s feature film

Noise

Noise

WRITER-DIRECTOR MATTHEW SAVILLE HAS REALISED THE PROMISE HE SHOWED IN ROY HOLSDOTTER LIVE (52MINS, 2003) WITH NOISE (108MINS, 2007), A SHARPLY OBSERVED, SUSPENSEFUL AND OFTEN QUIETLY FUNNY ACCOUNT OF A NAIVE YOUNG POLICEMAN (GRAHAM MCGANN PLAYED SUPERBLY BY BRENDAN COWELL) STRUGGLING WITH TINNITUS, INCIPIENT DEAFNESS AND THE FEAR OF SOMETHING WORSE, LIKE A TUMOUR. HE’S UNKNOWINGLY ON A FATEFUl JOURNEY AMIDST MURDER INVESTIGATIONS IN SUBURBAN AUSTRALIA. WITH THE TINNITUS AS THEIR STARTING POINT, SAVILLE, COMPOSER BRYONY MARKS AND SOUND DESIGNER EMMA BORTIGNON; HAVE CREATED ONE OF THE MOST INVOLVING, HAUNTING AND DEEPLY INTEGRATED SOUND WORLDS IN AUSTRALIAN CINEMA.

Noise warrants a more detailed response to its construction, cinematography and performances than I can offer here. I want to focus on the sound. There’s a handful of Australian films in which sound plays a significantly heightened role. I admired Kiss or Kill (1997) directed by Bill Bennett with its heightened buzz of the outback, of wind and wire, for being eerily music-less (sound design Wayne Pashley, Toivo Lember, Gethin Creagh, Best Achievement in Sound, AFI Award 1997). A friend reminded me recently that the sense of interiority achieved in Rolf de Heer’s claustrophobic Bad Boy Bubby (1993) had been created in part by using a binaural head microphone (sound design James Currie, microphone engineer Frederick Stahl). In Matthew Saville’s Noise, Graham’s aural world and ours, alternates between sharply etched everyday sounds (trains squeal, a spoon in a cup clatters, a toy car roars, a street light buzzes) and the painful high, thin hum of the policeman’s tinnitus, competing with and muting the world.

The music score too has a wiry hum, filling out, as the tension builds, with a deep, dark ostinato. Through-composed, it moves deftly across narrative strands (not all the scenes focus on Graham) connecting episodes and enhancing a sense of continuity and escalating tension.

Small details relating to sound are threaded through the narrative—the murder witness wears headphones, one of the reasons she doesn’t at first see the bodies littering the carriage she enters (in later flashbacks to this episode we hear the high treble screech from the phones when she pulls them off); Graham says he’s not getting a signal on his walkie-talkie in the railway station; his girlfriend is gradually revealed to be a trombonist in a police band; she offers a theory of phasing to suggest a way his condition might be treated; words are calculatedy misheard (a senior cop replaces tinnitus with tinea). In contrast to these moments or a momentary focus on a sound (often with a close-up of the object—a grasscutter, a fax machine) there are three key events which envelope Graham and come close to overwhelming us with their sonic intensity.

Distraught with the pressures of home, job and his intermittent but growing deafness, Graham turns on everything in his apartment that can make a noise—radios, alarms, TVs, taps and a giant sound system and sits amidst it all, expressionless, face to face with us, sharing the roar but also an inescapable, tourtuous high pitched whine. In a subsequent episode he finds himself in a sudden fog of deafness, panicky, fighting off his girlfriend’s reassuring touch and, like us, unable to make out her distant blurred words. In the film’s climax, the murderer fires a shotgun into the police caravan that Graham inhabits for a good part of the film (a little sonic cosmos in itself). The blast deafens Graham and, as the killer pursues him and the policeman fires back, we enter two aural realms at once. It’s as if we’re in the deafened man’s occluded world while at the same time taking in the escalating aggregation of Carols by Candlelight (where the girlfriend is playing) on the police caravan televison, Graham’s high whimpering as he struggles to reload his gun, a locked car horn, a baby crying and finally a police helicopter roaring above, its spotlight cast down on Graham like a ray from heaven, offering grace.

The sound we hear now above all is of words recalled from a few scenes earlier when, in a philosophical moment, Graham mused over the prospect of eternal life after death. He speculated that in the “nanoseconds of dying…if all the time you were a fuckwit” you’d be doomed “to be a fuck-knuckle for eternity.” But “if all the time you managed in your life not to be an embrassment, that would be heaven.” In the end Graham is a hero. Our growing empathy for this apparently obtuse young man, out of kilter with his job and his partner, but whose quiet wit has become evident in exchanges with nightshift visitors to the caravan, has been principally developed through virtuosic deployment of sound and music evolving out of and working in perfect tandem with Matthew Saville’s expert script and by placing us deep inside the aural action.

Noise, writer, director Matthew Saville, cinematographer László Baranyai, editor Geoff Hitchins, composer Bryony Marks, sound design Emma Bortignon, producer Trevor Blainey, Retro Active Films, Australian distributor Madman Films

See giveaways (p56)

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 24

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007