Rental with a good sound system
When Gordon Hempton was 27, he abruptly abandoned his botanical career for his life’s passion, recording the audio of nature. His vocation occasionally borders on mania as he criss crosses the world looking for the elusive silence that features no sound of civilization. Director/writer/producer Nicholas Sherman follows Hempton on one of his lengthy, itinerary-free trips to find these dwindling spaces of pure nature sounds, unmolested by airplane or powerline noise.
Hempton at first seems to be a chronicler, an archivist, preserving the sounds of the earth with no man in it. As his frustration mounts, we in the audience are forced to look at him as a Quixotic figure. His desire for the purity of sound drives away other, positive experiences in his life, like family or just the beauty in places that are interrupted. My first impulse was to listen and revere and quiet my insides to emulate his capacity for stillness, his deep connection to nature through his ears. As he tilts at a very specific confluence of sounds he decides he wants to make into a portrait, the darker side of his obsessive perfectionism starts to shine through his heavy sighs.
He’s focused on knowing what we wants, but his medium occludes his message by his being so particular about acceptable content. His mission of capturing the ephemeral peace of the dwindling wild places on earth is a noble one, but one that drives him into moods; you can almost see him bricking the walls around him as he tries and fails to be a mellow advocate for the sounds of nature.
As a film, Soundtracker has an interesting subject, a gentle score when we’re not listening to the audio portraits, and delicate audio of course. It is also the longest 82 minutes you may have ever experienced (unless you count Cat in the Hat). As a subject, Hempton is interesting but a little off-putting. His “work,” as in a final product beyond spools of tape, is akin to very modern and abstract art. His portraiture is not as clear to the viewer as it clearly is to him. The titles of his pieces tend to be semi-abstract — “At Dawn,” “Stream” — rather than informative of the source, leaving us lesser audiophiles to flounder, wondering his intent.
Surely he makes his living selling sound effects tracks and Brookstone sleep machine cartridges, but he is driven to make art and to use his art to preserve something the world does not realize it’s losing. His message is being lost and he’s off on the road (in a jouncing, rattling, sputtering VW bus of all things) to collect more before we have a chance to hear his intent. He’s a little obsessive and yet happy chasing his dream, but I wished his focus could be applied to solving the issue of noise pollution rather than furiously chasing meadowlarks to have them “pose” with a passing train.
I saw this film on DVD, which is notable for two extras. One is a feature about One Square Inch, a spot in Oregon which local and federal government is diligently trying to keep as one of these places where no automation or civilization can be heard. As a result of focusing on that pinpoint, the adjoining miles benefit from its protection. The other feature is a 72-minute continuous track of 56 of Hempton’s worldwide recordings, a soothing and varied exploration that invites you to lie very still with headphones on and relive our primeval origins.
MPAA Rating Not rated; mild swearing
Release date 9/7/10
Time in minutes 82
Director Nicholas Sherman
Studio IndiPix / Fou Films