Greetings again from the darkness. We tend to believe that we are either participating in an activity (cooking a meal, riding a bike, playing a sport, etc), or sitting idly as a spectator (watching TV, listening to the radio, attending a kid’s play, etc). However, documentarian Sam Green is here to prove that there is another option, participatory listening. This is the action of listening “with”, rather than listening “to” … being fully present and attuned as you take in and process the vibrations of life occurring all around you. This could be a babbling stream, the rustling of leaves, or even the grinding of icemaker gears in your ten-year-old refrigerator. OK, Mr. Green doesn’t mention that last one, but you get the point.
Whether Director Green, whose 2003 documentary THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND was nominated for an Oscar, would agree with this being described as ‘experimental’ filmmaking, it’s clearly a different approach. At SXSW, he had an experiential set-up for viewers, and he recommends headphones for full effect. At a minimum, the film deserves an elite sound system, and some audience participation (closing of eyes, etc).
Most movie lovers appreciate when sound effects are used effectively and creatively, but Green is not just interested in the use of sound in cinema, but also in everyday settings. We get a clip of a ‘bad educational film’ used in schools to explain the physiology of the inner ear, and he even uses a whoopee cushion to make a point about ‘funny’ sounds and the expectations we have for specific sounds. We see Foley artist Joanna Fang creating sounds, and how her ‘cheat’ sounds are often more readily accepted than the real thing due to those expectations.
Annea Lockwood, the subject of Green’s 2021 documentary short, has spent a lifetime making and analyzing different sounds. She’s now 81 years old and studies the difference of underwater vs surface level sounds at a river, and the value of listening ‘with’, rather than listening ‘to’. She also shares her favorite quote from Roman Poet Ovid, “Everything changes, and nothing is lost”. This quote ties into the theory of Charles Babbage who suggested that all sounds throughout history are still floating in the air, and that we might be able to recapture those – meaning nothing is lost.
Green isn’t fully committed to numbering the 32 sounds for us, although it seems like the number is easily exceeded during the runtime. There is a fascinating story about how the last surviving bird of its species repeatedly sent out a mating call, one which could no longer be answered. Most of us love the sound of waves crashing, but how about the striking of a match, or the whoosh of a golf ball being struck? And of course, Green touches on music and how it can bring back the memory of a certain moment. One premise is that it can be easier to hear if you can’t see, so there are a few segments where we are asked to close our eyes. Mostly this helps us realize that not only should we stop and smell the roses, we should also stop and listen to them … or even the ‘room tone.’
A nationwide rollout of the film begins April 28, 2023 at Film Forum in NYC.