Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Secret Science Club Movie Night: The Sound of Silence

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for a joint film premier sponsored by The Secret Science Club and IFC Films. The film details the work of a self-proclaimed 'house tuner', who obsessively tests the pitch of various neighborhoods of New York City and consults with homeowners who believe that their anxieties are rooted in the ambient noise of their homes. The film's protagonist, Peter Lucian (played by Peter Sarsgaard) is a musician who lives in a converted city fallout shelter, who leaves his soundproofed lair with his array of tuning forks to suss out the various chords of the city's neighborhoods, and attempting to establish a connection between sound an human behavior:

In the movie, each neighborhood has a background chord which determines the character of the neighborhood... in particular, Central Park evokes a 'nostalgic' mood.

The movie largely concerns Mr Lucian's efforts to pinpoint the source of client Ellen Chasen's stress. Rashida Jones, whose television comedies I am somewhat familiar with, seems to play against type as the harried Ms Chasen. In the course of his consultation, Lucian determines that Ms Chasen's toaster is the source of the discordant note in her apartment. As he works further to isolate the problem, he interacts with academics who inspire him to submit his research to a scientific journal and with representatives of a corporation which seeks to emulate his niche business.

The film was visually dark, with a muted palette, the better to concentrate on the role of sound. Sarsgaard's Lucian is socially awkward- perhaps a genius, perhaps a crank. Variety's Peter Debruge characterized the film as a deeply silly movie that takes itself incredibly seriously, but concedes that this is the movie's strength. There IS an undeniably funny aspect to a self-proclaimed expert convincing a stressed-out yuppie to buy a new toaster because her old one hums at the wrong pitch.

I immediately thought of the movie as a mirror-reflection of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 thriller The Conversation, which also portrayed a socially-awkward audio expert working for a client. The difference between Peter Lucian in The Sound of Silence and Henry Caul in The Conversation lies in the direction of their work- Caul seeks to isolate and amplify particular sounds in order to piece together a conversation, while Lucian seeks to isolate sounds in order to negate them to produce harmony. The anxieties of the city-denizens in The Sound of Silence come across as neuroses, while the paranoia in The Conversation is real, with the roles of villain and victim being ambiguous throughout.

Like all movies set in New York City, I keep a close look for the cues which say 'this is New York', and The Sound of Silence serves up crosstown traffic, subway and Metro North trains, the Roosevelt Island tram, and the various structures around Central Park. I had a lot of fun trying to pinpoint the various locations in the film.

After the film, there was a Q&A with neuroscientist Dr Bianca Jones Marlin of Columbia University (who delivered a SSC lecture last year) and movie co-writer Ben Nabors. The questions ran the gamut from the soundtrack to the creative process, to the science of hearing. Some Bastard in the audience asked Dr Jones Marlin about the role of aging in hearing perception (citing The Mosquito, inaudible to most adults)- could someone the protagonist's age really have a good shot at being a keen observer of background noise? She responded that the loss of perception of high-pitched sounds is due to the loss of hair cells as we age. She noted that she periodically tests her hearing, even though her research has shifted to the sense of smell. It was an engaging discussion, facilitated by the divine Dorian Devins.

As an aside, I was joined for the night by my great-and-good friend Handsome Johnny C, originally from Ireland but now a Brooklyn boy, his lovely wife, and their niece, who is in grad school in NYC. It was nice to bend an elbow with them. Johnny coaches soccer for the athletic program I coach judo for, and has been a great friend and mentor of mine for decades.

Kudos to the film's cast and crew, and Dr Jones Marlin for a night of thought-provoking entertainment, and high fives to Dorian and Margaret and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. If you are looking for a low-key drama about an eccentric crank/genius and his anxious client, you should check out The Sound of Silence... it's a nice meditation on the factors which might drive one to seek out 'alternative' treatments to physical or psychological problems, and the fine line between therapeutic measures and 'WOO!' that seekers of solutions have to navigate. While you're at it, pair it up with The Conversation, which is the perfect paranoid post-Watergate exploration of paranoia and the surveillance industrial complex.

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