A few years ago I was lucky enough to attend an advance screening of Interstellar. Sitting in the dark with a group of bleary-eyed critics in the morning as Christopher Nolan‘s space odyssey unfolded, I found the movie poignant, mind-expanding and loud. Very, very loud.
When the spaceships shook, so did the seats in the cinema. The sound effects and the score decimated our senses. I’d presumed this was deliberate on the part of the filmmaker. I also thanked God my parents weren’t there. They wouldn’t have been able to handle that level of noise, an idea proved during a high volume trip to see South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut in the previous century.
Flash forward to last week. Me and Mum went to see Dunkirk. It was everything you’d expect from a Nolan film and more: for once he told a simple story using an intelligent yet visceral approach. The action was both stunning and harrowing. As the bombs fell and the bleakness of the situation grew ever more apparent, it drew us in and held the assembled in a powerful grip.
Unfortunately I only saw half of it. I’d forgotten about this but Mum couldn’t take the full-blown and immersive audio experience. This wasn’t just noisy. When you put your fingers in your ears the blasts threatened to rip your nails apart. Reluctantly we decided to go, emerging into daylight. It was the first time in ages I’d had to be snapped out of a cinematic trance but I understood why. The levels were simply too loud.
It feels impudent in a way complaining about this given the burning historical context but when I did some research I discovered some viewers complaining about Nolan’s methods, which take a complex and unforgiving approach to sound design. Interstellar too had its sonic opponents, though its subject matter pales in comparison next to the director’s latest.
Mum was shaking after leaving the cinema that day. It took her some time to decompress. In a sense that’s the way it should be for a brutal depiction of war. But my mother is no shrinking violet. If a film is rocking her to her foundations, what’s it doing to people with weaker constitutions? Should they put warnings up for patrons of a sensitive disposition, or is it up to those individuals to work this out for themselves?
Bearing in mind there were elderly people and little children in the audience, is it fair for Nolan to be so prescriptive with his technical choices? He will only tailor his work to optimum screening conditions. That’s all well and good for the majority of multiplexes but we saw Dunkirk at one of the country’s most respected arthouse cinemas, which clearly can’t afford a massive upgrade. What does the artist say to them, that they shouldn’t be showing the movie in the first place?
I love Christopher Nolan‘s films. He never fails to produce something that fascinates and his CV will echo long after he’s hung up his megaphone. I’ll be going back to see the whole story. But I say this as someone with the required stamina and correctly-functioning organs to do so.
He’s unlikely to be reading this. If he is… Chris. Turn the sound down a bit will you mate?