Arthur Saltzman

Trompe L’Oreille

In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-

--T. S. Eliot, East Coker

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, during one of the precious suspensions of the Shakespearean progress whose conditions our heroes have unwittingly inherited, the Player relates how he arranged to have one of the actors in his troupe, who had been condemned to hang for stealing, put to death as part of that day’s performance. The results, theatrically speaking, were dreadful: "He just wasn’t convincing! It was impossible to suspend one’s disbelief-and what with the audience jeering and throwing peanuts, the whole thing was a disaster!-he did nothing but cry all the time-right out of character-just stood there and cried. . . . Never again." The problem for the Player is that the actual actually isn’t dramatically effective or all that believable, not to an audience that’s been weaned on artifice. The audience expects the condemned to die on cue and according to Hoyle, to keep to the script when they cough their last, and to collapse onto the appropriately marked part of the stage. Unless it’s a phrase that’s familiar, a gesture they recognize, a triumph or a tragedy that’s true to routine, they can’t relate.

The technological advancement from stage to screen does not solve but intensifies the predicament. A man crosses a gravel pathway toward his car, and the mikes can’t pick up his progress at all, so that like a stereotypical Indian running soundlessly on moccasins, he remains unnaturally baffled wherever he treads. Or the mikes pick up too much, turning his simple passage across the driveway into a gargle of machinery louder than the car he starts up. Or, paradoxically, the reception is precise, but for one reason or another, in the translation from the action to the screen, the sound of the gravel pathway just doesn’t persuade.

Here is where the foley artist comes in. Named for Jack Foley, one of the pioneers of this method, the foley artist synchronizes on-screen action with homemade effects that he records on a separate track for later superimposition onto the "parent" film. Although especially in contemporary movies it is true that high-tech special effects get much of the publicity and most of the budget, it turns out that verisimilitude still depends on cheap tricks. Some of them are ordinary enough, such as banging empty coconut shells together to create the sound of horses’ hooves or shaking a flexible metal sheet to make thunder. However, in such cases familiarity does not breed contempt or cliché; rather, it establishes authority and faith, so that, ideally, the foley artist joins James Joyce’s literary artist as another superintending deity, at once invisible and intimately, perpetually involved in the proceedings. For that matter, we may have already reached the point when the sound of a space ship shifting to hyper drive is incontrovertibly that of a bar room brawl played backwards, all alternatives being dismissed by jaded kids in the theatre as unrealistic. And when we watch a monster spaghetti some poor guy’s guts, the revelation that actual pasta was involved in the effect does not in the slightest dampen our gasps or cheapen the glee.

Flannery O’Connor explained that she resorted to the grotesque in her fiction to influence readers who were weaned on the distortions of the modern world. "To the hard of hearing you shout," she said. If plot outrages and metaphorical excesses may be viewed as correlatives for shouting, so, too, are the Foley artist’s hyperbolic devices, the bait-and-switch gimmickry of his trade, justifiable as means of winning the otherwise insensible audience over synthetically. A rose is a rose, argued Gertrude Stein, but the foley artist knows that a body falling down stairs could be plums dumped on the linoleum; a mounted knight’s armor jouncing, the clatter of C batteries in a milk can; the opening of a coffin, a toilet lid slid off its seat; the crunching of leaves, the balling of audio tape. What activity doesn’t find its sonic equivalent in the foley artist’s files? The secret of replicating a flying bat is to flap a golf umbrella. To accompany a body blow, slam the head of a baseball bat against a sack of wet sand. Fart by scraping a butter knife against a vinyl-covered couch cushion. When an earthquake buckles a bridge, rub an inflated balloon against your forearm. When an alien emerges from a mucky womb, overturn an open can of meaty dog food to sell the birth.

As any chemist will tell you, from such peculiar compounds are the basics of existence made, from salt to water to the very air. To indicate the labored braking of a city bus, the cunning foley artist can consult a whole thesaurus of hisses for mixing and mimicry: bacon frying, an asthmatic radiator, a 16mm projector fan, a shower strong enough to blast out toxins in a chemical plant, a popcorn pan deposited directly from the burner into a sink full of water, a freshly opened bottle of Sprite. Snapping vegetables instead of bones preserves fingers and credibility at the same time; similarly, biting into an apple avoids both the legal and ethical hassles of piercing an extra with a spear. These aren’t absolute rules, of course, and thanks to constant trial and error, the equations are constantly being tweaked in an effort to achieve the highest fidelity inventions. A good foley artist’s warehouse is as massive and as endlessly recombinant as a dictionary. To disqualify his creations for being counterfeit would be as dismaying as to balk at literature for its poetic license.

After all, under restrictive jurisdiction, how would creative writing fare? "Take mothball and vagina," suggests Donald Barthelme, "and put them together and see if they mean anything together; maybe you’re not happy with the combination and you throw that on the floor and pick up the next two and so on." And who knows but that the sound that those discarded terms make when they strike the floor won’t be useful in another context? Certainly the foley artist’s mingling of a rocket launch with a lion’s roar or chewing sausage with gushing blood is the same order of experimental zeal, of weapons-grade figuration, that Barthelme prescribes for the page. Flaubert famously complained that "no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs," particularly in words: "human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity." Perhaps. But the poet and the foley artist are both wise enough to welcome that cracked cauldron into their auditory arsenals, rightly guessing that it might eventually prove useful to simulate something recognizable, compelling, and for all intents and purposes, true.

"That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It’s as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears . . . from sponge." Thus William Gass lays bare the devices that readers tacitly agree not to see. Are we any less startled to learn that a given film star’s swoon-worthy love is amplified mechanically? Are we any less in love? As Gass says, words are not only the technique but the target of desire; it is not only through words but upon words that love is lavished. So if consenting adults bring prosthetic devices to bed, they extend their pleasures the way that metaphors enhance the poems in which they are introduced. "The priming is a negligee," wrote the poet Alice Fulton, and the converse is true, too. By this principle are catachresis and Cialis, Victoria’s Secret and figures of speech, equally justified.

Since so much of modern literature is devoted to bemoaning its own futility-witness T. S. Eliot’s distress in East Coker that even his extensive vocabulary comes down to "shabby equipment always deteriorating"-I would think that writers would welcome a more dependable method of communicating their feelings. Instead of resorting to words, one could indicate that he burned with desire by slowly compressing a bag of Doritos to imply the fire. Anxiety could be identified by the twisting of fresh celery. Grief could be a saturated Sunday Times slopped repeatedly against the mattress. Existential doubt could sound in the crush of cellos beneath a steamroller, while despair is the noise made by a single stone dropped down a dry well. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" asks the Zen master. Somewhere in the junk pile lie its components like a new metaphor waiting to be yoked. And hope, which poet and honorary foley artist Emily Dickinson maintained was best understood as "that thing with feathers," might also be realized as the shiver of bottles packed tightly in the fridge or jouncing about in bags aboard a child’s wagon on the way to the recycling center. Should he end up objecting, like the poet in the wake of a questionable phrase, that "That was a way of putting it-not very convincing," he might try to cultivate hope somewhat more subtly, say, as the sound of a stem breaking through soil. It is elusive and open to debate, as one would expect of any art worthy of the name.

And should another Annunciation come, recent upgrades in achieving believability will ensure that there is no question about its issue. For His idiolect could consternate even the Chosen, and His embouchure confuse. Fortunately, we could look forward to a sophisticated collation of sounds, with deftly measured percentages of jet engine, underwater organ, earthquake, sea breeze, ovum burst, and perhaps a dash of Eliot’s "hollow rumble of wings"-I leave it to the artists to concoct God’s sotto voce properly. As for willing suspension of disbelief, experience and Eliot together dictate that "We are only undeceived/Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm." Ingenuity urges us not to succumb to that mood of crushed cellos or of the plummet of a lonely stone. Listen: let us have faith that the expertise of whoever is in charge will lead to something irresolvable and convincing.


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