’32 Sounds’ Review: Immersive Doc About the Magic of Sound Will Leave You with Ears Wide Open

From a phonograph to a fart to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," Sam Green's playful film attunes your mind to the unique power of sound.
A still from 7 Pounds by Sam Green, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
Sam Green's "32 Sounds"

Shortly after the invention of the phonograph in 1877, a prominent newspaper of the time predicted that Thomas Edison’s machine was powerful enough to stop death itself. The human body was still ephemeral, but the human voice had effectively become immortal. It was now capable of being heard long after the person who produced it had decomposed into nothing more than bone and memory.

When AI broke into the mainstream some 150 years later, tech websites almost immediately began reporting about new digital tools that allow people to upload audio recordings of their loved ones in order to keep talking with them after they’re gone.

That development is a bit too recent to be included in “A Thousand Thoughts” and “The Weather Underground” director Sam Green’s “32 Sounds,” but it provides a perfect coda to this soft and semi-interactive documentary about the ambient power of acoustic vibration; to a scattershot TED Talk of a film that is somewhat counterintuitively obsessed with death, but only because the ephemeral nature of life on Earth offers the best evidence of sound’s power to connect us to the universe more strongly than any other sense.

Conceived alongside a live version of the same material, and designed to be enjoyed with a pair of headphones big enough to silence any unintended noise (Film Forum customers will be provided a pair at the door), “32 Sounds” wants nothing more than to send audiences back out into the world with ears wide open. With the on-screen help of Le Tigre musician and co-conspirator JD Samson, Green accomplishes that goal so well that it feels like he probably could’ve gotten the job done with just 16 sounds instead, but this playful and aggressively pleasant little film is an easy sit, and the strength of its individual episodes — in addition to the echoes that resonate between them — helps to absolve the discordant chaos of their arrangement.

Which isn’t to say that “32 Sounds” lacks structure (true to its title, each of the film’s segments focuses on a different sound), only that Green quickly allows us to lose our place in his sonic experiment. Only a few of the key sounds are enumerated onscreen, as the filmmaker prefers to hyper-focus our ears while letting our minds roam free.

The result is a documentary that blurs the line between sense and perception, science and poetry. An educational interlude about the invention of stereo sound — complete with dynamic in-ear illustrations of how it works — bleeds into a more ruminative passage about the eternalness of all sound, and Charles Babbage’s proposition that even the smallest vibrations continue to resonate around us forever, albeit at super low frequencies that people could never hope to hear. The faint pulse of a fetus’ heartbeat (recorded by Aggie Murch, wife of legendary sound designer Walter Murch) is used to illustrate that sound is the first sense that penetrates the womb; later, that morsel of information echoes through a later segment in which Green visits Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj, and listens to the percussive death music that he created from the sounds of Israeli bombs raining down on Beirut. The “miracle” of the whoopee cushion sits alongside the soul-altering splendor of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”

Of course, not all sound is so dramatic. At one point, Green shares a crucial quote from Skywalker Sound guru Randy Thom: “Sound is a second-class citizen of our consciousness, but it has a secret weapon: stealth.” And while “32 Sounds” has its share of jet engines and disco (it even pauses for a five-minute dance interlude towards the end), the film is no less concerned with sound’s latent power to shape our world, even in silence.

John Cage’s “4’33” makes a requisite cameo, of course, but I was more compelled by Green’s focus on deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim, who argues that the hearing community’s unfiltered exposure to sound deprives them a richer awareness of its details. And by the brief passage about a San Francisco man Green interviewed for a previous film, who was almost driven insane by the city’s nightly chorus of foghorns before he found a profound comfort in their bellowing calls — in the collectives symphony that continues around us at all times and denies our tendency towards isolation. Some parts of the movie even instruct you to close your eyes. “It’s easier to listen when you’re not seeing anything,” Green says.

Such insights and asides about the relationship between sound and life ultimately offer more food for thought than Green’s dominant focus on the relationship between sound and death, which is both heartrending and too hard to explore in non-obvious ways. Even 19th century newspaper writers recognized the phonograph as a time machine, and so Green’s sudden, climactic realization that his film is leading him to audio recordings of his late brother’s voice falls uncomfortably flat for something so tender and true.

More effective is the recorded mating call of the last known Moho braccatus, as the Hawaiian bird — unaware that a hurricane has rendered him the only living member of his species — sings a life-or-death love song to no one. Or maybe he did know, and he was singing for us. The saying goes that “Everything changes and nothing is lost,” but only if you learn how to hear the difference. After being exposed to these “32 Sounds,” you’ll likely find yourself listening for millions more.

Grade: B

Abramorama will release “32 Sounds” at Film Forum on Friday, April 28.

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