Rabbit Holes and Sound Landscapes

in 36th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Agustin Acevedo Kanopa

The Latin American premiere of Dune at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, or FICG, functioned more as an omen than a preview.

In any festival, trying to find a copper wire which connects all the films is a somewhat forced task, but design and sound editing—more metaphorical than tonal, more conceptual than metaphorical—were two of the more remarkable aspects among several of the films exhibited.

In this latest gargantuan production by Denis Villeneuve, sound takes on a role that transcends the ornamental and in some ways overtakes the visual. Based on the famous Frank Herbert literary saga, Dune is a new attempt to adapt material that is dense with meticulously crafted cosmogony, the sort that typically sends other films and franchises running aground. The main pitfall afflicting all Dune adaptations has been, not the expensive recreation of the desert world in which the characters roam, but how to dose exposition in a way that provides insight and orientation while still being cinematic. This same quicksand sank none other than David Lynch, an inherently plastic artist, who chose to use what felt like a kilometer-long scrolling text (akin to the one used at the beginning of Star Wars) and allow characters to didactically narrate a lot of nonsensical plot details. It is not that there are not moments such as these in Villeneuve’s Dune, but one can perceive how the Canadian director anticipated this curveball by reducing the information to a minimum and focus, instead, on a more sensorial aspect—non-narrative, almost abstract—that the pages of the book emanated. In this way, Dune sometimes plays as a strange opera, where we perceive internal intensities more than events, and where sometimes we not only don’t know where we are in the story, we don’t know what’s happening in the moment. We witness of the definitive Harkonnen blitzkrieg, but the portrayal of the catastrophe goes beyond the characters and their bodies: the terrain of conflict and drama would seem to be reduced to something more primal, where the missiles and the explosions are stamped on the screen as a fusion of light and shadow, where people run and perish in their flight like thick lumps of oil that protrude from the surface of a canvas. Even in the film’s climax, in which Paul Atrides (Timothée Chalamet) faces off against the great sandworm, the monster’s mouth is not revealed to us in the hyper-detailed way any production with a billion-dollar CGI department today would choose; on the contrary, the terrifying peril is depicted as, instead of a succession of serrated lamprey teeth, a black hole that denotes an unfathomable void, something that is dangerous in a metaphysical, rather than organic, dimension.

This is one of the many examples where the film proves more operatic and incorporeally musical than visual or narrative. It would not be daring to say, in this regard, that the authorship of Dune could be credited equally to Villeneuve and composer Hans Zimmer. In this search for new sounds that overlap the classical, Zimmer fits in with a persistent dimension of Villeneuve’s body of work, where something is always imposing, is as elusive as it is unbearable to assimilate, something that overpowers the protagonists who face it. In Incendies, this ominous and overwhelming dimension was encapsulated in that mathematical formula that mirrors the pregnancy of a mother at the hands of her own child, a truth that, echoing the Medusa myth, ends up petrifying her in life. In Arrival this overwhelming dimension is embodied both by the seed-shaped ship hanging vertically right above the earth and by those strange pachydermic beings with whom humans try to communicate. And in Sicario, although there is not a gigantic monster or alien, the idea that the true evil is chameleonically infiltrated among the forces of order acquires a new ominous and omnipresent dimension.

Dune is traversed by this shocking game of scales all the time, but the real effect is more sonorous than visual, with those strange white noises that Zimmer overlaps like strenuous horns or aphasic sirens, that in the room are felt more with the viscera than the ears. Indeed, at the time of leaving the cinema, some of my fellow attendees were semi-deaf, but they recognized in these strange tonal effects something that gave the pleasure of skipping explanations and simply indulging in a cinematic frenzy.

The Devil’s radio

Another film that is inextricably constructed around sound design is To Kill the Beast (Matar a la bestia, Agustina San Martin, 2021). With some reminiscences of the Argentine Murder Me, Monster (Muere Monstruo, Muere, Alejandro Fadel, 2018), the film is set on the jungle border between Argentina and Brazil where the protagonist sets out to find an elusive brother with whom she shared a violent past. Here, the plot is almost accessory: the film is a (worthy) example of a new current of horror whose functioning is articulated as a palimpsest of images and possible metaphors (sometimes contradictory) that are offered to the viewer as an Intricate tangram puzzle. In this way, the beast, and its confrontation, can mean both a parable of coming out of the closet, and an incarnation of that violent brother that must be sacrificed to be free again. However, what is truly sensual and fascinating about the film is how it plays with a persistent sound of static, which sometimes registers as white noise and sometimes is coupled with other percussive rhythms, like a kind of disembodied and fluttering libido shared by all the town’s people. The true origin of this sound, however, is a very real one, which is that of the radio transmitters from both countries that overlap and compete for the dial in a border town. Thus, amidst the static, the protagonist wanders between Brazil and Argentina, but also between love and fear and in a queer gradient of sexual identifications and desires.

Glitches of absenc

In Mostro (José Pablo Escamilla, 2021) there is a similar treatment of this interference, but with different meanings. In the movie, we have two youths from an industrial city in Mexico who wander through open fields on a friendly and romantic outing until they are chased by the police. During their attempt to escape, the young woman who came with the protagonist disappears, who is unable to verify whether she was captured or vanished in thin air. In this search, also aided by the psychotropic effects of chemical products, the protagonist enters a constant state of intermittence, where that absence looks like a gigantic barbed wire emitting sparks everywhere. The results are a little more uneven than in To Kill the Beast (at times it seems that the filmmakers wanted to insert too much in the final product), but there is something interesting in this idea of portraying an absence like a systemic glitch that continues to flash, generating freezeframes and strange intrusions of other stories and memories. ​​Mostro, with its reference to the harrowing and ongoing disappearances of women in Mexico, would seem to suggest that an absence is not something that simply ceases to exist but, rather, a failure in the system that continues to emit unexpected screeches and jumps like a shredded DVD, despite all the efforts to silence it.

Sonic brass battle

Finally, They made us the night (Nos hicieron noche, by José Antonio Fernández Martinez, the FIPRESCI prize winner for Best Mexican Film) at first seems like a rather constrained film, but after the first third of the footage, it begins to acquire greater formal freedom, where what stands out the most is the dazzling sound production work. Chino Ortega’s work in sound, sound design and music takes on a definitive and truly fascinating dimension when he portrays a funeral rite of the afromestiza community on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica. There, the sound of some squeaky, insomniac brass bands begin to fill the film amid the lamentations of the town’s women, but at a certain moment this whole mixture acquires another texture. There, what at first seemed like a live sound acquires new designs and we find ourselves in a complex manipulation where percussions and winds are heard in reverse, until everything becomes a great mass, a strange rabbit hole from which myth and reality, documentary and fiction merge into one and neither the film nor we are ever the same again.

Agustin Acevedo Kanopa
Edited by José Teodoro