The New York Times published a nice article by Virginia Heffernan on the nominees for Academy Award in sound editing. The article opens with this evocative bit of writing on The Hurt Locker, which I agree should win the Oscar:
”The Hurt Locker” is a bomb movie that mutes its booms. It derives suspense by withholding the expected “boomala, boomala” . . .
“The Hurt Locker” is not cool. It’s hot and dry, a heaving desert parable with a mounting sandstorm howl at the center. The internal explosions matter more than the fireworks. . . . The top notes in the soundtrack are arid metallic clicks, snips, squeaks and creaks, the chatter of wrenches and wire clippers, as bombs are defused in air so parched as to seem combustible itself. Men can hardly summon the spit or breath to speak.
After running through three other nominees—Up , Star Trek and Inglorious Basterds—rather harshly (and I would say a bit unfairly), Heffernan turns to Avatar, calling its sound "brazenly cartoonish”; this characterization is in fact a positive.
What stands out is the whoosh of muscular—not fluttery—reptile wings as they flap and glide. This has to be the sound of flying in dreams. The dragonlike creatures vie for sonic dominance with the machinery in the film and particularly with the man-machine tanks that have their own distinctive sounds, especially in the fantasyland of Pandora, where a clash of resounding arms takes place in an atmosphere of no oxygen.
Heffernan understands sound as one of the best avenues filmmakers have for opening up to the representation of the other worldly, especially one deprived of oxygen, which must then stage the breath of life.
It’s intriguing that both “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” have built otherworldly environments in which humans are intoxicated—in part by being deprived of oxygen. You can hear this danger much better than you can see it, and it falls to sound editors to exploit its dimensions. What a great challenge in moviemaking: the various sounds of breath—gasping, sighing, speaking, expiring—may be film’s first and most consequential sound effect. Here’s to films that revisit and rethink the sounds of breath and breathlessness.
I would caution against valorizing the breath in this way, however, as it couples rather too easily with the naive authenticity of location sound—Heffernan goes out of the way to inform us that the dialogue for The Hurt Locker "was almost all recorded on location in Jordan (and not looped in a studio)." Surely, like the sound of the breath itself, it is the effective representation of the dialogue—the way its difficult mediation through technology and body is rendered—not the location of its recording that matters.