Movie MVP of the Month: American Sign Language in “Rampage” and “A Quiet Place”
Posted on April 11, 2018 at 8:22 am
Two April movies feature ASL (American Sign Language), the beautiful, complex language based on hands, gestures, and facial expressions that is used by Deaf and non-speaking people in America and English-speaking Canada. “A Quiet Place” is about a family trying to survive in a world overrun with vicious blind animals who attack by using their hyper-acute hearing. So they communicate via ASL, which they all know because they have a Deaf daughter, played by Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds of “Wonderstruck.”
In this week’s “Rampage,” the primatologist played by Dwayne Johnson uses ASL to communicate with an ape called George, along the lines of the famous experiments with Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimp.
And the 2017 Oscar-winner for Best Picture and Best Director was “The Shape of Water,” which also featured ASL, as Sally Hawkins played a mute woman who communicated with a highly evolved amphibian.
Other movies featuring character using ASL to communicate include: “Children of a Lesser God,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Johnny Bedelia,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Baby Driver.”
Kyle Buchananand Jordan Crucchiola lead off with one of the most vivid characters in the history of movies, aging theatrical star Margo Channing, as played by Bette Davis in “All About Eve :”
How do you create a memorable female character? It helps if you get it right from the very beginning, as Joseph L. Mankiewicz did in his screenplay for All About Eve when he introduced the woman who would be played by Bette Davis. “The CAMERA follows the bottle to MARGO CHANNING,” wrote Mankiewicz in his stage directions. “An attractive, strong face. She is childish, adult, reasonable, unreasonable — usually one when she should be the other, but always positive.”
Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a flickering light. She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses.
Few women but Audrey Hepburn could truly live up to this description in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”
The girl walks briskly up the block in her low cut evening dress. We get a look at her now for the first time. For all her chic thinness she has an almost breakfast-cereal air of health. Her mouth is large, her nose upturned. Her sunglasses blot out her eyes. She could be anywhere from sixteen to thirty. As it happens she is two months short of nineteen. Her name (as we will soon discover) is HOLLY GOLIGHTLY.
One of the best screen couples has got to be Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man.” If you haven’t had the pleasure of falling in love with them onscreen, rest assured that this description of Nora will do it for you:
NORA CHARLES, Nick’s wife, is coming through. She is a woman of about twenty-six… a tremendously vital person, interested in everybody and everything, in contrast to Nick’s apparent indifference to anything except when he is going to get his next drink. There is a warm understanding relationship between them. They are really crazy about each other, but undemonstrative and humorous in their companionship. They are tolerant, easy-going, taking drink for drink, and battling their way together with a dry humor.
It’s the climax of the film. The hero and heroine finally kiss. The power of the moment comes from the emotion built up by the story, by the acting talent and screen charisma of the performers, by the heart-tugging swell of the music — and by the sound of the kiss itself, probably so subtle you don’t notice it, but if it wasn’t there, you would notice its absence. That sound was not made by the tender touch of two beautiful movie stars’ lips. It was made by a Foley artist, the “actor of sound,” whose profession is the subject of this documentary.
Skip this next part and go to the next paragraph if you want to preserve the illusion: the slight smacky sound you hear is probably some burly guy kissing the back of his hand. And when a beautiful actress walks down a hall or street in high heels, that same burly guy is probably wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and high heels, stepping on one of the dozen or so different surfaces in the studio to match the shot. The sound of the trudging footsteps of the enormous football player in “The Blind Side” was created by a woman, who explains, “I had to become a 300 pound man who was feeling alone and like no one cared about him…I gave myself a sense of heaviness.” Another woman “was” Mr. T in “The A-Team,” at least the sounds of his feet.
The Foley artist is the person who provides everything from hoofbeats on dirt to the clacks of high heels on a wood floor, from the sound E.T. makes when he walks to the sound of Walter White taking off the mask he uses for cooking meth to the sound Robert de Niro makes when he slams a baseball bat into a guy’s head in “The Untouchables.” That last one, we learn in this fascinating and engaging documentary, was made with a combination of a raw turkey (gizzards still inside) and a coconut. We learn about sounds like the snap of Batman’s cape, the flutter of paper floating through the air, and the “hyper-real” coin toss in “No Country for Old Men.”
Foley was a real person, a pioneer in the field. While the technology for recording and editing the sounds has advanced along with most other aspects of filmmaking, the technology for creating the sounds has not. They are still using the same kinds of props — and sometimes even the exact same props — that go back to the heyday of radio. If it’s a period film and someone needs to dial a phone, you’re going to need a dial phone to create that sound. And nothing beats corn starch for the sound of walking on snow.
The documentary includes archival footage showing how sounds were created for some of the most iconic moments in film history. ET’s walk? Let’s just say that when the Foley artists were served Jello at lunch, it gave them a good idea. It also includes Foley artists from around the world and some discussion of how changes in the industry and technology may affect the future of the profession.
All of the participants are wonderfully imaginative and dedicated, and their stories and perspective make this essential viewing for anyone who is interested in film. “The sound has to pan, too,” to help create the illusion of movement. And they will do anything to get the sound just right — even a condom over the microphone.
As one of them says, a Foley artist has to be “an athlete, a musician, and an actor all in one,” and as another says, they are “painting a picture with sound.” So far, no one has been able to produce sounds digitally or via a sound library that feel real, not robotic. Being a Foley artist requires “imagination, tempo, coordination, and love,” and this film is filled with all of that as well, a welcome appreciation for an essential and often overlooked profession.
Parents should know that this film includes brief violent footage from films being discussed.
Family discussion: What movie sounds do you remember? How will this movie make you listen more closely?
A Community, a Drive-In, and Some Movie Magic: Jan 3 at Alamo Drafthouse in Virginia
Posted on December 30, 2017 at 11:20 pm
In the 1950s, there were over 4000 drive-in theaters across the country. There are only about 330 left today. Don’t miss “At The Drive-In,” the award-winning true story of the Mahoning Drive-In Theater (@MahoningDIT), with a live Q&A with director Alexander Monelli (@Monellifilms), January 3, 2018 at 7:20pm.