For better and for worse, around this time of year, I find myself watching movies through the lens of the Academy Awards.
While competition and artistic expression might sound antithetical, pitting one movie against another can have the effect of getting the viewer to reckon with the basis of their artistic opinions, by juxtaposing their relative responses. Preferring one piece of art to another should beg the question: why? On what specific grounds do we value one more than the other? Put a different way: what are the personal foundations upon which our evaluations are built?
Additionally, engaging with movies while keeping specific technical categories in mind can spur us to notice those technical elements that otherwise may seamlessly fade — perhaps by design! — into the woodwork for more passive viewers. When dealing with the year’s best, nailing down exactly what separates, for instance, your favorite sound design from your second favorite can enlighten the nitty-gritty parameters of our subjective analyses.
That’s what happened with me and the sound design of La Llorona, Guatemala’s shortlisted entry for International Feature. Two pertinent thoughts:
- This will never come to pass, because the Oscars avoid rewarding anything that even whiffs of fear, but horror to Sound Design should really be like what musicals were to Sound Mixing. Not actually, because that sort of predictable dominance always reeks of overwhelming bias. But similar to how musicals are nothing without sound mixing, imagine what horror would be without sound design. Sound doesn’t constitute horror’s whole kit and caboodle, but since the genre’s visuals tend to deliberately mess with our clarity of sight — “WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST SEE IN THE DARKNESS?!?!” — sound plays a crucial role in hinting at what could be just beyond the frame, ready to pounce into our nightmares any second now.
- To overcome their budget-limited coffers, indie horror often relies upon amplified sound design to compensate for the horrific spectacle they can’t afford to bring to life on screen in its full glory. Maybe the Oscars should ease up on their obsession with the biggest sound designs and, instead, focus on which adds the most to their respective movies…