One's reaction to Touch the Sound (2004), a documentary about deaf solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie and her journey of discovery through a redefined world of physical and visual senses, will largely depend upon how predisposed the viewer is to the material. In other words, if you're a musicologist, are deaf, or like Glennie's music than you'll probably love this film. If you go into it intrigued by its subject matter but not necessarily presold on the concept, it may leave you wanting, which is what happened with this reviewer.
Unfortunately, Docurama hasn't helped matters by totally botching the DVD. For starters, it's an eye-straining PAL conversion that looks particularly bad on big-screen TVs, but the larger issue couldn't be more ironic. This is a film whose central character is a profoundly deaf woman talking about her relationship with sound despite her hearing impairment, yet the DVD leaves deaf viewers out in the cold: it has no subtitles nor is it close-captioned.
It's not as if they didn't see it coming. During its theatrical run the filmmakers and the picture's distributors received numerous emails wondering why 35mm prints weren't subtitled. For his part, director Thomas Riedelsheimer explained, "From my point of view I can say I never refused to make a subtitled version, but I would not like all the prints to be subtitled. The main reason for that is that I never intended to make a special interest film for the hearing-impaired audience, but I wanted to give the generality of people a sensual experience. In saying that, I do not want to exclude the hearing impaired from seeing the film in the cinema, but on the other hand I find it strange for the others to be distracted by subtitles in their own language. As a cameraman I also put a lot of effort in each single frame, so from my aesthetic point of view subtitles are always difficult. So for me the problem cannot easily be solved in a satisfying way."
Fair enough, but of course subtitles are almost always on optional feature on DVDs, and shouldn't have been an issue here. In a Producers' Statement on Touch the Sound's official website Leslie Hills promised, "There will of course be English and other subtitles on the DVDs," one can only assume that Docurama simply made the decision not to include them for cost reasons. (However, the filmmakers offer a free, downloadable transcript of the film.)
Riedelsheimer's reasoning makes sense after seeing the film, as it pretty much succeeds in demonstrating visually Glennie's unique perspective of things, looking at everything and anything from a sound perspective with a childlike sense of wonder. (It would be interesting to put Glennie in a room with someone like Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. I'd bet they'd have a lot to talk about.) Riedelsheimer does an excellent job zeroing in on ordinary, daily life kinds of objects and situations giving off interesting and often unexpected sounds. The editing is particularly good, integrating all this (with the cutting of two shots seemingly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey's most-famous edit).
Rather like Naked World, the film follows Glennie on a globe-trotting search for new sounds: recording a CD in some kind of abandoned factory in Cologne, Germany with experimental composer Fred Firth; checking out taiko drums near Mt. Fuji in Japan (as the Japanese drummers explore her suitcases jammed with unusual "found" instruments); teaching music to a deaf teenager in Scotland (a particularly sweet and enlightening scene).
This is intercut with performance footage that sounds wonderfully atmospheric and otherworldly, but whether it's music or art (or not) or something else this viewer cannot say.
Still, Glennie's personal story is involving and her enthusiasm is infectious. Attracted to music at an early age, she went deaf in her teens and advised to give up any hopes she had on becoming a musician. But, as she tells it, she may "hear less through the ear, but more through the body," which is pretty much the foundation of Touch the Sound's thesis.
Video & Audio
As mentioned above, Touch the Sound carefully-crafted visuals are sabotaged by a bad PAL conversion. Though 16:9 (at 1.77:1) the image has become soft and distorted during the PAL-to-NTSC process, and it really did give this reviewer a splitting headache before it was over, not exactly a glowing recommendation. Despite the lack of the subtitles, there's a wealth of audio options: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and DTS 5.1 Surround.
There are also a lot of supplements, many apparently carried over from the German DVD (which has German and French subtitles). Included are 30 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, six in all, as well as a U.S. theatrical Trailer. Both are 4:3 matted.
The Making of Touch the Sound runs 22 minutes, is full frame, and is mostly in German with English subtitles. Finally, okay text Biographies discuss the careers of director and subject.
Touch the Sound falls short of the best documentaries, the kind that can completely win you over or fascinate the viewer with subjects that didn't seem like they'd be all that interesting going in (Docurama's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill being one example). If you have a strong interest in the material, Touch the Sound is for you; others may have a less enthusiastic reaction.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.