- Documentary NoiseThe Soundscape of Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A.
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The most shocking moment in Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) looks at first like an abstract painting. An organic shape, small and shiny and pinkish white, sits on a dark, rough ground. Even after an enormous disembodied finger pokes into the frame, the visual alone remains indecipherable. Previous scenes have shown striking miner Lawrence Jones lying in a coma in the hospital, the sounds of the breathing machine keeping him alive and the clicks and beeps of hospital monitors clearly audible. The quick cut to the scene of the glistening glob leaves the viewer visually bewildered. What makes the scene so difficult to watch and hear is not the visual image, however, but the words. The soundtrack gives the image meaning. "That's the brains of a goddamned fellow who tried to do something," a male voice says. The camera then pans up from the finger to an arm, a man's naked shoulder and chest, and then a face as the voice speaks again, coming out of the lips that at last appear: "Piss ants carrying off a man's brains while they are in the hospital dying." It is the sound—this first disembodied and then located voice—that tells viewers what they have seen in this scene.1
In her 1976 Academy Award–winning documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple labors to wring a sense of visceral realism out of the overexposed visual landscape of Appalachian poverty. Images of the raw materials of life in eastern Kentucky help convey the struggles of Brookside miners and their families during the 1973–1974 strike against mine owner Duke Power for the right to work under a United Mine Workers contract. In the film, bits of brain blasted into a dirt road, mucus coughed up by miners with black lung, chunks of coal hacked out of the earth, and cigarette smoke drifting from the noses of miners and their wives on the picket line struggle to counter romanticized images of poor Appalachians. Kopple cannot directly engage all of the senses, but she certainly tries, visually evoking touch (the finger and the piece of brain) and smell (the bodies of people who do not have indoor plumbing) and taste (the endless white bread and baloney sandwiches of the picket line). Harlan County, U.S.A. does some of its most compelling work, however, by engaging the sense of hearing. In Harlan, sound anchors, explains, and makes "authentic" visual imagery compromised by the long history of documentary making in Appalachia.
As Michel Chion, Rick Altman, Claudia Gorbman, and other scholars of film sound have argued, film works visually as well as aurally, even in the misnamed era of "silent" film. Film sound affects what the viewer simultaneously sees, even as film images affect what the viewer simultaneously hears. Sound interprets visual images, provides continuity and context, hides edits, eases scene changes, creates mood, and makes montage possible. It also plays an essential role in creating what the film scholar Bill Nichols calls the "voice of documentary": how a film imagines and addresses its audience. Voice here functions materially and metaphorically, as both recorded voices and ambient and other sound contribute to the "voice" of the film.2 [End Page 11]
Barbara Kopple not only directed and produced Harlan County, U.S.A., but she also served as the film's sound person, carrying the microphone on a boom and the Nagra recording equipment on her body. The invention and distribution of this relatively cheap and portable sync sound equipment in the early 1960s enabled even independent, poorly-funded documentary filmmakers to begin recording sound on location. Harlan County, U.S...