Friday, December 11, 2020

The Sounds of Silence in “Sound of Metal”

Movies about people with disabilities tend to lean heavily toward either pathos or uplift. Deafness, for instance, is both tragic and ultimately inspirational in the old 1948 weepy, Johnny Belinda. (It features a deaf-mute heroine who becomes a victim of rape, and later finds herself accused of murder.) A 2019 movie, Sound of Metal, couldn’t be more different. Its central deaf character is not a fragile female but a muscular young man who, as a drummer, is one half of a heavy metal duo. Though he’s a recovering drug addict, he leads a productive life, touring with his romantic partner in a well-equipped RV that doubles as living quarters and a sound studio. An early-morning sequence in which he rustles up breakfast for two, then drops to the floor for a few push-ups, suggests his total contentment with his lot.

 But it is not to last. In short order Ruben (an astonishing Riz Ahmed) discovers he’s rapidly losing his hearing. His first thought, after consulting with doctors, is to commit to the $70,000  surgery that will give him cochlear implants, in hopes of restoring his hearing and therefore his career. He is overridden by his lady love, who worries about his mental state and continued sobriety. That’s how he ends up in a peaceful community of deaf addicts, led by a former military man (and former alcoholic) who lives to share with others his respect for the strengths of the deaf community, which forms a world unto itself.

 So Ruben, would-be rock god, is suddenly learning American Sign Language, helping out in a school for deaf children, and coming to appreciate the sound of silence. Surprisingly, he seems boyishly happy in these idyllic scenes, but a part of him still yearns for the life that late he led. So he sells off all his assets and undergoes the knife in order to rejoin the hearing world.

 I won’t go into what happens next. It seems positive, yes, but not in an obvious way. Let’s just say this film makes room for the deaf community’s view that they are less victims than members of a unique and separate culture, with its own language and outlook. This puts it somewhat in the same league as 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, in which a young deaf woman refuses to accept the need to learn oral speech.

 There are certain films that, by their nature, showcase a particular aspect of the filmmaker’s craft. Phantom Thread was of course highly indebted to its superb costume design, and lives-of-the-painters movies like Turner depend heavily on exquisite cinematography that captures the essence of their subjects’ visual style. In Sound of Metal, it is of course sound design that plays an essential role. Early in the film, when Ruben rises early—grinding coffee beans, whipping up a green juice in a blender, grooving to classic jazz on the stereo—we’re distinctly aware of all that he’s hearing. As his ability to hear drops away, we slip in and out of his aural perspective, sometimes registering the sounds of a local drug store and the speech of its employees only as a garbled mass of faint noises and sometimes returning to the normal world of those who are not hearing-impaired. By the time he’s at ease within the nurturing deaf community, the film is completely silent, with subtitles helping those of us not fluent in ASL to approach a world we can’t entirely enter. Which of course makes it a shock to our senses when the implants restore auditory sensations into Ruben’s now-quiet world.  



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