Date Night Double Feature #5: Hearing is Believing

“Intermittently she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, 
as one picks up the striking of a clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind.” 
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Photographer Ansel Adams helped solidify photography as fine art through his work in landscapes. An ardent environmentalist, the U.S Department of the Interior contracted Adams to make a series of photographs for the U.S National Park System, back when we had a government that cared about such things. Describing his work, Adams stated, “There are no forms in nature. Nature is a vast, chaotic collection of shapes. You as an artist create configurations out of chaos. You make a formal statement where there was none to begin with.” Like Adams creating meaning from the chaos of abstract shapes, the sounds of our surroundings are chaotic, but when combined, formalize our experience with a meaningful soundscape. 

Originally coined by urban designer Michael Southworth, a soundscape, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is “an atmosphere or environment created by or with sound.” Whereas landscapes allow you to view the entirety of a space, soundscapes allow you to exist within them. If you take a moment to pause and observe the sounds of the space in which you have chosen to read this, you can map the soundtrack of your reality. Whether it is the sound of the refrigerator humming, the murmur of people conversing, or the buzzing of a florescent light, this is the soundtrack to you actualizing your present moment. 

Filmmakers use soundscapes to form a connection between the images on the screen and the emotional experiences taking place inside of the viewer’s body. Most of the time, the soundscape is invisible to the audience, as we focus on story and cinematography. However, there are some films, being otherworldly or absent of a linear timeline, that rely on sound to help audiences navigate a story.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, 
the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” 
― Carl Sagan

Sunshine (2007)

Throughout the civilizations of antiquity, ancient traditions have incorporated sun worship as part of their religious practices. In Egypt, Horus, Ra and Osiris represented the gods of the rising, noon, and setting sun. The Greeks worshiped Helios. Multiple archaeological structures in Europe, South America, and Mexico reflect observations of the solstice. Even today, some Native American Plains Tribes still perform a yearly Sun Dance to renew their bond with the growing season. Danny Boyle’s 2007 Sunshine is a science fiction horror film surrounding the omnipotence of our closest star. A combination of mythology and science, the film explores man’s relationship with the Sun, as it blurs the lines between them. 

Its classification as horror/sci-fi has caused some moviegoers to disregard this film, siting a problematic tonal shift in the third act, as the film moves between the genres. Upon first viewing, without giving the film’s symbolism much thought, I can see why some viewers feel this way. Science education has taught us that universe and gods are separate, therefore viewing science-based entertainment requires a cold, impersonal lens grounded in scientific theory.  However, writer Alex Garland, known for mixing science with the metaphysical, gives us signposts in the film’s script, and when taken into consideration, cleverly help to bind this shift. 

The film contains what director Danny Boyle says are the three key elements of any serious sci-fi film: A ship, a crew and a signal. The year is 2057, our sun is dying, and the crew of the Icarus II is on its way to drop a bomb the size of Manhattan into the center of it. Humanity’s survival relies on their ability to create a star within a star. Sunshine opens with physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) explaining that seven years ago, the Icarus Project sent a crew to restart the Sun but was lost. Now, sixteen months into a second mission, the crew of the Icarus II is Earth’s last hope, because, as we discover later in the film, our planet has no more resources left to send a third mission.

In order to reach the Sun, both missions would have to coordinate their voyage with the transit of Mercury in order to slingshot the spacecraft into the star’s orbit. Mercury only transits with the Earth and the Sun 13 times a century, falling in early May and November. These dates coincide within the astrological signs of Taurus and Scorpio. If we take the plot of Sunshine to be an allegory for man’s relationship with God, represented by the Sun, then these astrological signs have significance, as they also have biblical meaning.  Scorpio is the sign of Judas, the kiss of death, and the holder of serpents. Taurus is the sign of Bartholomew, son of the furrows, and connected with the Earth. Additionally, Mercury is the god of communication, serving as a messenger between realms, and a soul guide. It is also when the crew of Icarus II reach Mercury they discover news of the first mission’s outcome. Although not explicit in the film, the symbolism of Taurus and Scorpio via Mercury explain the fate of the two crews of the Icarus Project, which culminates in a battle between ideologies. From this point of view, act three no longer feels separate from the first two.

While compelling, this mythological symbolism is not the reason I chose Sunshine as one of the films in this double feature. It is for the film’s sound. British electronic music group Underworld and composer John Murphy team up to create an appropriately ethereal film score. Its dreamlike ambience is efficacious in allowing the audience the feeling of walking among celestial gods. It hits you in the gut, and radiates down into your bones, bringing the viewers into the Sun’s cathedral. The special effects used for the Sun are still breathtakingly beautiful today and combine harmoniously with Sunshine’s celestial soundscape to bring us in communion with our life-giving star. Available on Amazon Prime.

“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” -Henry David Thoreau

Upstream Color (2013)

For two years, two months and two days, Henry David Thoreau lived in a cabin he built on Walden Pond. While there, he conducted an experiment stripping himself of social conditioning as a mode of spiritual discovery, a declaration of independence, and self-reliance. The result was his infamous memoir Walden, now considered a classic in American Literature. Shane Carruth’s 2013 film Upstream Color explores themes similar to Thoreau’s Walden and even uses excerpts directly. Carruth explained the concept for his film stemmed from a desire to explore “whether behavior dictates identity or is it the other way around”. In Thoreauvian style, Upstream Color strips down its characters requiring them to construct a new narrative from the fragmented pieces of their lives.

Starring Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth, Upstream Color is the story of two people drawn together through a shared traumatic experience, which has shattered their world. As they try to make sense of it all, they find they are but one piece in the eternal churning of a cyclical organism. If this all sounds vague, it is because it should. Carruth sought to tell a mostly non-verbal story, using very little in the way of a narrative dialogue. In a 2018 interview, he explains, “everything must be non-verbal…because if it is, we have something universal”, going further to say he wanted the characters affected at a distance. 

In order to immerse the audience in this fragmented experience Upstream Color heavily employs the use of close ups and jump cuts to communicate essential information. The small amount of dialogue that exists is mostly jumbled and nonlinear. The words are replaced with a hyper-soundscape causing viewers to first emotionally react before finding logical meaning. In fact, sound is the only stability the film gives the audience, and as we grasp for meaning through intuition and gut instinct we form a direct bond with the characters. Ambient noise and volume shifts in diegetic sound, backed by a score composed by the director himself, wash over the audience in an impassioned journey.  You are not watching Upstream Color; you are existing in an elegant and haunting world, with only your antennae to guide you. 

Like Ansel Adams creating forms out of chaos, Upstream Color also confronts the chaotic. However, unlike Adams’ landscape photos, Carruth’s cinematography creates the chaos, pulling us out from inside ourselves, echoing Thoreau in the woods. It is an excellent example of how cinema can rely on sound to tell a story. The film’s soundscape is our map, which acts simultaneously as a lighthouse guiding us to safety and the rough sea, daring us to live in a sort of pandemonium. Like composer R. Murray Schafer said, “Today all sounds belong to a continuous field of possibilities lying within the comprehensive dominion of music. Behold the new orchestra: the sonic universe! And the musicians: anyone and anything that sounds!” 
Available on Amazon Prime

-Dawn Stronski