Thoughts on sound space

Understanding that sound has a ‘spatial dimension’ because it comes from a source (Bordwell and Thompson, 1997), a key sequence in The Wrestler is an intriguing study of edited space because it combines a myriad of sonic sources. The result is a creative exploration of temporal space, liminal space, diegetic sounds (where a sound’s source is visible on screen such as a character’s footsteps), non-diegetic sounds (where the sound’s source is not visible on screen like mood music) and the relationship between power and space.

Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, an ageing wrestler, dominates the space in the key sequence. He is down on his luck. Due to illness, he is forced to step out of the ring and work in a dingy deli. From wearing a compulsory misspelled name badge to covering his peroxide locks under a grim hair net, the audience become aware that this is not his natural space. The sequence’s sound design mirrors this uneasy fit. The camera tracks
him walking from the deli’s private back store out in to the public sphere of the deli. With each footstep, the soundscape’s diegetic mundane world becomes replaced by a grand non-diegetic world of wrestling.

This sound shift from diegetic to non-diegetic provides an extra dimension to the sequence. According to Michel Chion, ‘the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression, in the immediate or remembered experience’ (1994,p.5). In other words, sound provides ‘added value’ to images (Chion, 1994, p.5). One could argue that the key sequence’s soundscape provides added value because it creatively portrays both ‘immediate’ and ‘remembered’ experience. The mundane sounds of the immediate on-screen source (the deli’s back store) become drowned out by The Ram’s nostalgic remembered aural memories. Exuberant crowd cheers drip in to the sterile space of the immediate sequence.

Sound designer Brian Emrich also toys with the audience’s sense of ‘remembered’ experience. We cannot see the source of this non-diegetic sound effect so the listener does not know if the victorious cheers of the crowd are genuine memories from past wrestling victories or whether they are fantastical cheers from The Ram’s inner rose-tinted ear. Perhaps, the non-diegetic sound effects represent his unconscious desires. The mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds in the sequence presents a liminal space – an aural threshold between conscious and unconscious. The Ram is consciously walking down the back store corridor listening to his footsteps reluctantly edging closer to the deli counter. However, his inner ear is tuned in to his internal psychological desires: to reclaim the supposed loud cheers from his wrestling heyday glory. The soundscape offers the audience a satisfying deeper plane of knowledge: the opportunity to hear what the protagonist is potentially thinking.

At the end of this sequence, the shifting terrain between conscious and unconscious zones and boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic battle it out in a crescendo of cheers. The Ram dramatically stands still on the threshold of the dark space in the back store before entering the fluorescent lighting of the deli. One may argue this dark space visually represents Robynn J. Stillwell’s fantastical gap: an aural ‘transition between stable states’ (2007,p. 200). For Stilwell, this transition means ‘one moment we’re in the diegetic realm and in the blink of an eye, like walking through Alice’s mirror, we are in the non-diegetic looking glass world…a space of power and transformation’ (2007, p. 186). In this dark space of the fantastical gap, The Ram attempts to gain power over this unfamiliar space by recalling the cheers of wrestling matches; the only place in his life where he enjoyed an elevated sense of power. However, the transformation here in this space is negative. As the diegetic sounds of the deli creep back in to the frame, they remind both The Ram and the audience that he cannot escape the grim reality of his current

Ultimately, this uneasy destabilisation of his status and power is given the space to unravel because the sound effects, camera and lighting choices share the same integrated tightness building up to the threshold between diegetic /non-diegetic, internal / external and conscious and unconscious. One could argue the sequence’s technical choice are not arbitrary. Instead, they work together. Editor Don Fairservice likens this interlinking technical relationship to a string quartet (CineMe Editing Workshop, 2011). Thus, the harmonious technical space allows the sequence the creative freedom to explore the ambiguities of this liminal space of power and time.


David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Chapter 9 ‘Sound in the Cinema’ from Film Art: An Introduction: 5th Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1997)

Michel Chion, ‘The Audiovisual Contract’ from Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen trans. Claudia Gorbman, (1990: New York Columbia University Press, 1994)

Robynn J Stillwell, ‘The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic’ in Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer,and Richard Leppert (eds) Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema (Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 2007)

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