It’s A Cinema, Not A Heavy Metal Gig.

Tony Berry

During the lull between lockdowns I ventured out to the cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s film “Tenet”. Doing my bit to support the Arts and all that. The cinema was a Birmingham Odeon with a top-notch surround-sound system. Maybe a couple of dozen  people in the audience, nicely spaced apart, so great. Except, for the first time ever, I walked out after less than 30 minutes. Why? Not because the film was awful, but because the soundtrack was so loud as to be physically painful. It begins with a set-piece featuring an attack by unknown forces on a concert hall, so lots of gunfire and explosions. This had me shrunk down in my seat as I winced and stuck my fingers in my ears. And it didn’t get any better as the film progressed, with the dialogue at normal or quiet volumes, punctuated by Really Loud bursts of action and music. I decided that I couldn’t face this any more and left to go home, where I actually emailed the Odeon chain with a complaint and a demand for my money back. They replied with some guff about “we think it’s OK, it meets noise requirements (I bet it bloody doesn’t) and besides it’s not our fault it’s the way the sound is mixed by the director”. This is actually true.

It turned out I’m not alone here. A week or so after I’d seen the film I read an article by a reviewer who said he was looking forward to watching “Tenet” at home on his TV so he could turn on the subtitles. It seems Nolan likes to mix the soundtrack of his films like this. “My films are for modern cinemas with good sound systems”. Well OK, but that doesn’t mean you have to give your audiences tinnitus while they struggle to hear the dialogue. Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a decent enough film with a really good score; in fact I like the score so much I bought it on CD. It features a real church organ (recorded in Temple Church in London) and when I crank up my stereo I can rattle the windows out of their frames, which is fine because I’m enjoying a piece of music, not trying to figure out what Matthew McConaughey is mumbling (he does have a habit of saying his lines like he’s sucking a Werthers Original, but it’s the Director’s job to tell him not to do it). 

I suppose we should be used to this because of the endless Superhero films which, with a few exceptions, are BANG, quiet bit, CRASHING MUSIC, quiet bit, BANG, quiet bit WITH CRASHING MUSIC, and so on. Well, it ain’t good enough. I pay a car-loan to go and see a film and I want to enjoy it, not have to sit there in expectation of being temporarily deafened so I can’t hear the dialogue anyway. Directors like Nolan may think it all makes their films more dynamic, but he’s producing the bloody things for an audience of millions. He might reply “well this is my vision and if you don’t like it you can fuck off”, but let’s be reasonable here; I am willing to look at his vision because it’s unlikely to send me blind. On the other hand I don’t see why I should suffer damage to my hearing at the same time. No, I never got my money back.

One thought on “It’s A Cinema, Not A Heavy Metal Gig.

  1. This appears to be a habit of Nolan’s, going back at least as far as his adaptation of Chris Priest’s “The Prestige”. In Chris P’s book “The Magic”, about the experience of having his novel turned into a film, one of his few grumbles about the film is that much key dialogue, which is crucial in revealing the truth behind the mysteries of the story, is whispered and/or mumbled in such a way that it’s near impossible to catch every word. And that’s without the deafening action music which mars most of Nolan’s other films. Sound editing is definitely one of Nolan’s achilles heels.

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