The Screaming of Subtle Sounds

Everything about Kitty Green’s The Assistant seems muted. The colors are drab. The office looks boring, indistinguishable from any other cubicle labyrinth. The voice of Julia Garner’s Jane barely rises above a whisper. But the sounds of the mundane, humdrum daily noises scream. You hear every click of a door opening and closing. When Jane scrapes a stain off the couch, the sponge seems to scratch directly on your ear drum. The tinkling of an earring, the unwrapping of a sandwich are deafening. The quiet sounds are shouting. It’s purposeful, and it’s brilliant.

We don’t tend to think too much about sound when we watch a movie. We think of movies for their namesake: moving images. At the Oscar party I go to every year (read: me sitting on my mom’s friend’s couch, drinking too much prosecco and yelling at the TV), none of us ever does well on the sound editing and sound mixing parts of our awards ballots. I’ve recently taken to grand lectures in response to any prosecco induced dismissal of the fact that there are two separate categories. I’m usually implored to settle down when the same, usually war films sweep both nominations. (Sorry, Sherry. I’ll behave this year. I promise).

But sound is essential. It lends reality to what you’re watching; it links shots into a single coherence; it signals what to feel and when. We are eye-trained. Proof is in the image; the picture is the province of thought and reason. Sound, on the other hand, gets under our skin. It worms around the defenses of our eyes, in through our ears. Michel Chion has a book called Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen where he explains how sound works in guiding how we feel during a movie experience. In good French film theorist fashion, he cites Ingmar Bergman to make his point. The opening scene of Persona (1966) is mega-unnerving (seriously, don’t watch it at work or before bed), but without sound, it’s just sort of weird.

Part of the reason it has you so on edge, is because of the scoring, the ominous hold of the violin that anticipates the abrupt arrival of some horror. The rhythm and tension added through music can be done with sound effects within the context of a scene as well. The persistent drip-dropping from some unseen source in a morgue can be just as harrowing as plucked strings. But, sound not only guides your emotions, it makes situations feel real. Three shots in Persona string together someone having a nail driven through their hand. On mute, it’s gross but you can see it dispassionately. You can even analytically separate each shot from the next. When the sound is on, you can feel the nail going through your hand. Sound is the reason that shutting your eyes and scrunching down into your seat is not enough when your friends drag you to the remake of Evil Dead. To escape the sound, you have to run out of the Magic Johnson Theater and wait at the bar next door until the movie’s over.

So, why am I talking about the sound design in a movie that has no gunshots or ghosts? Well, partially because the movie does have a ghost, or a haunting figure, and the effects of his ubiquitous, suffocating presence are conveyed viscerally through choices made about sound. Let’s recap:

The Assistant follows Jane, fresh in her first paid job in the movie industry, over the course of a regular Monday. In occasionally claustrophobic shots, it tracks every tedious task of a relentless but rather typical day working at the bottom rung of a New York production house. Shot choices and our normal movie watching patterns cause us to identify with the protagonist. But I feel the hazy, why-God-why of her job with every lonely click of light switches when she’s the first one in the office before sunrise.

Hovering in the atmosphere, always felt but never seen, is the Weinstein-esque boss at the top of the production house where Jane has gotten her first step to her dream career. Every single employee is affected by this bully and sexual predator. They’re choked, cowed and held up by his unchecked tempers and desires. They wait for his favor, fear his wrath. Fittingly, we never see him. He is muffled laughter behind a door; he is the ominous voice on the phone that speaks directly into Jane’s ear about what an unmitigated disappointment she is. The boss is all the more ominous because he never enters the realm of the image. We, like his employees, feel him constantly but are never given the opportunity to shrink him down to the human level of a body in a frame, to a picture made vulnerable to critique.

There is almost no music to signal what we should feel; there’s the buzzing of intercoms to let in rude busty blonds, the scratch of Jane’s pen filling out checks to unnamed recipients, the ding of an elevator as the one from last night comes to reclaim her earring. The volume of these sounds is literally turned up, and the daily noises mark the rhythm of Jane’s office life in this place. These diegetic sounds crescendo into a relentless heartbeat as she photocopies headshots of one vulnerable aspiring actress after another. The whir, beat beat, click of the papers seems to parallel the rising of her heartrate as it pulses in her ears and ours.

Boring, typically ignored sounds become absolutely overwhelming, and that’s the point. The boss’s tacitly accepted behavior and the toxic environment it creates are the willfully unexamined soundtrack of every moment. Beyond a joke and a sighing comment in the elevator, the boss’s predatory and abusive conduct is treated as normal. Pervasive but unremarkable, it constitutes the context of every second of the office reality. It is the unrelenting, deafening background noise of each second of Jane’s life as the assistant.

The sound therefore works multiply in the movie. It is the real, bone crunching sound of this reality. #Metoo is calling out an issue so commonplace that the sounds of its horror are the boring clicks, whirs, and humming, drumming beats of everyday office life. Jane tries to finally speak up on another woman’s behalf, and the bro-y head of HR shoves a box of tissues across the desk to the young assistant who has not even begun to cry. The sound of that metal travelling across glass is as violent a noise as the dull clang of a hammer hitting a nail head as it’s driven straight through your hand. The sounds of this violence are everyday noises. Ubiquitous, reality shaping and generally unconsidered, kind of like the actions of the predator ghost in this movie. The Assistant turns up the volume so that maybe we’ll finally hear all that carnage and all that silent shouting.

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