I don’t know when it was exactly that I began to resign myself to the not-quite-good-enough sound systems in most (or certainly many) plexes. I know I’ve come to expect movie sound to not be all that terrific, and to accept the fact that I probably won’t clearly hear certain portions of the dialogue in certain films. I know I’ll never really hear a film the way it was meant to be heard until I watch it on Bluray or DVD at home and can manipulate the sound until it’s exactly right and flowing right into my soul.
There’s a scene in Public Enemies between Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard that has twice bothered me over the past week. Despite her uncertain accent Cotillard’s lines were fairly discernible, but Depp was brought down by the combination of John Dillinger’s Midwestern drawl (i.e., his conception of it) and the mud-soup sound system in the Leows’ 84th Street (where I caught the all-media screening) and the AMC 34th Street (where I saw it last Thursday night with Jett).
Twice I’ve heard Depp say to Cotillard, “Aughkunuhpallam,” and twice I’ve said to myself “what the…?” I’ve looked through the script and all of Dillinger’s lines are concise and cleanly written. It’s not my hearing — it’s Depp over-muttering with the cornfield accent plus the cheapskates who nickle-and-dimed the sound-system budgets for those theatres.
I tried asking the help to turn up the volume at the AMC 34th Street, and it took about 10 to 12 minutes for (a) the message to be passed down to the manager, (b) for me to return to my seat and realize that they hadn’t turned it up at all, (c) to return downstairs and complain a second time and convey my disappointment in a slightly-more-forceful-but-at-the-same-time-gently-patient tone, and (d) to return to my seat and realize/acknowledge at long last that the sound had improved somewhat.
What got me thinking about aural quality was listening last week to the superb sound in the big downstairs theatre at Manhattan’s Sunshine Cinemas. I wanted to hear how The Hurt Locker sounded before Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal dropped by for their q & a appearance, so I went in and caught about 15 minutes’ worth. Pleasure! I was blown away by the sharp trebles and rich bottoms, by the fullness and crackling aliveness of it all. Great sound turns you on and wakes you up to a film.
I was a licensed projectionist in the early ’80s, and worked at a repertory cinema in Norwalk, Connecticut. I would always ignore the suggested sound levels. I would crank up the bass and sharpen the highs until the crowd was fluttering. I remember showing a print of The Big Sleep once and making it almost sound symphonic. Trust me — most theatre managers want the sound as low and muffled as possible in order to save on wear and tear.
What a shame it still is that 90% of the paying audience never hears movies this way. Don’t even talk about the sound systems in backwater theatres in rural New Jersey or Mississippi or wherever. Houses like these aren’t even in the game.