Sonic Movie Memories: Sound, Childhood, and American Cinema
Cote, Paul James
Auerbach, Jonathan D.
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Though the trend rarely receives attention, since the 1970s many American filmmakers have been taking sound and music tropes from children’s films, television shows, and other forms of media and incorporating those sounds into films intended for adult audiences. Initially, these references might seem like regressive attempts at targeting some nostalgic desire to relive childhood. However, this dissertation asserts that these children’s sounds are instead designed to reconnect audience members with the multi-faceted fantasies and coping mechanisms that once, through children’s media, helped these audience members manage life’s anxieties. Because sound is the sense that Western audiences most associate with emotion and memory, it offers audiences immediate connection with these barely conscious longings. The first chapter turns to children’s media itself and analyzes Disney’s 1950s forays into television. The chapter argues that by selectively repurposing the gentlest sonic devices from the studio’s films, television shows like Disneyland created the studio’s signature sentimental “Disney sound.” As a result, a generation of baby boomers like Steven Spielberg comes of age and longs to recreate that comforting sound world. The second chapter thus focuses on Spielberg, who incorporates Disney music in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Rather than recreate Disney’s sound world, Spielberg uses this music as a springboard into a new realm I refer to as “sublime refuge” - an acoustic haven that combines overpowering sublimity and soothing comfort into one fantastical experience. The second half of the dissertation pivots into more experimental children’s cartoons like Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951) - cartoons that embrace audio-visual dissonance in ways that soothe even as they create tension through a phenomenon I call “comfortable discord.” In the final chapter, director Wes Anderson reveals that these sonic tensions have just as much appeal to adults. In films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Anderson demonstrates that comfortable discord can simultaneously provide a balm for anxiety and create an open-ended space that makes empathetic connections between characters possible. The dissertation closes with a call to rethink nostalgia, not as a romanticization of the past, but rather as a reconnection with forgotten affective channels.