Having come of age in the 1980’s, it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine a time when “Silent Cinema” would even be a possibility. The notion that audio and video were, in the beginning, separate makes sense now, but as a kid I would never have thought to think of them that way. Sound in film was so pervasive, so complete, and so ingrained in the experience of watching a movie that I never even paid attention to the way sound functions until I began taking film classes.
Fans are already aware of this, but sound is a HUGE element of Lost, and not just the musical score (though that plays a big part in the show, too). For a show that is as convoluted, sprawling, and interconnected as it has become, the act of watching a single episode often becomes an epic unto itself, sifting through clues and plot-points to try and connect what has happened with what is happening. To help make this easier, sound (and the way it’s used) helps guide viewers through the garbled layers of the show, and encodes the experience of watching it with audio-cues that adjust our viewing experience as we bob and weave our way through any given episode.
Like with many things that I enjoy, the humble beginnings are never perfect, and Season One of Lost is no exception. As the show stumbles to gain solid footing during it’s first cautious outings, it is hard not to feel that something is “off” as the Season progresses. My first impression was that the Season merely started slow. It wasn’t until 11 episodes in that I really felt like the show hit it’s stride, and even then the style, form, and flow didn’t really begin to become codified until near the end of the Season (which is carried over into Season Two, and becomes the dominant form the show takes). With a single viewing, it’s easy to see many of these growth spurts as indicators of the art and artifice trying to maintain the right balance. However, with an ear for the sound and how it’s used with regards to Hurly, Season One manages to communicate to us so much more than what is on the surface.
In the opening scenes of the Pilot episode, Jack is the character we meet first, and for many he is the point of entry when it comes to the world of the show. He is central to most of the storylines, appears in a larger number of flashbacks than most, and quickly becomes the leader of the main characters. But, more realistically, Hurly serves the function of our in-story proxy much better than Jack. Lost fans are, if anything, pop-culture junkies, searching for clues in the referenced media within minutes of the show’s initial broadcast. We connect to his interests because they are our interests. And, unlike Jack, we have more in common with the skillset Hurly has at his disposal. Chances are, we are not Doctors or Leaders of that kind, and when faced with survival on an Island, wouldn’t have many practical skills to contribute to the cause. Instead, we ARE good at looking for ways to relieve stress, pusuing interests for fun, and nit-picking about Star Wars… just like Hurly.
While the mysteries of the Island are not unfathomable, even for someone “in the know” they are extremely difficult to make sense of, an element of the show the writers are highly attuned to. The structure makes sure this does not overwhelm us with regards to this aspect of the show: each little mystery is revealed one at a time, adding to what we already know while never completely illuminating everything. This makes it easier to take, for both the characters and the audience. If first-time viewers were suddenly dropped into the middle of a story involving an Island-Monster, mysterious residents, and a “Hatch” that rapidly becomes the obsessive focus of the weirdest person you know, it would be far too easy for those viewers to change the channel. To keep us tuned in, these plot-elements are revealed one at a time, and slowly. And to help ease viewers into these mysteries, we are guided by the clever use of sound.
Lost utilizes sound in a variety of ways to help direct our experiences as viewers. Primarily this is achieved through the use of diegetic sound, elements that have a source that all the characters can hear and interact with. (Dialog, crashes, explosions, a radio playing, etc.) The show also employs sountrack music to wonderful effect. The score is both creepy and beautiful, compelling and nerve-bending, horrific and mundane, and always at the service of the story. This music is always non-diegetic: the characters cannot hear it because it only exists as a sound-texture to contrast against / work with the images we see on the screen. The effects of this sound, then, can only really be understood in relation to us, and the way we interact with what we see / hear on screen. Nearly every piece of film produced now has at least some diegetic sound elements, and more often than not, non-diegetic ones, too.
In Lost, sound is used in two additional ways to a tremendous effect, first with non-/diegetic sound sources evolving from one to the other, and second with the “cues” used to indicate the beginning and end of a flashback. The flashback cues are a unique feature of Lost; they are entirely non-diegetic, but rather than working with the images on screen to create an emotional response, their entire function is to telegraph the beginnings and ends of Flashbacks. This sound is never heard by characters on-screen, and while they are heard in conjunction with on-screen images, rarely does this cue work to give us emotional insight into what we’ve seen. This becomes extremely helpful as the show progresses. While the flashbacks in and of themselves are rarely difficult to make sense of, the cue clarifies to us (within an already confusing narrative) what is “real-time” vs. “flashback.” (Or, in the case of the end of Season 3 “flash-forward.”)
In the first 17 episodes of Season One, Lost uses the American Audio-Montage technique to “wrap-up” more than a few of their stories. For a first-time viewer, this schmaltzy ending comes off as extremely corny, like an element of the WB’s / CW’s Prime-Time Soap form of storytelling, where a pop song is used to convey how everyone feels much more effectively than “dialog” or “story.” In three specific cases, these audio-montages in Lost begin as diegetic sound that evolves into a non-diegetic source, and in all three cases, the sound begins as a song that Hurly listens to on his CD Player.
The effect of the use of this convention on-screen works as a means of reinforcing Hurly’s role as our in-show proxy. Through the simple act of listening to a song, Hurly triggers an audio-montage that we are led-through, and summarizes the emotional trajectories of the characters through his careful selection of songs. After all, Lost is not something you can just jump into, and by easing us into the kind of show that it becomes near the end of the Season, we are able to better acclimate to this with Hurly as our guide. Very quickly, when there is a pop-song playing, it works as a “cue” to indicate that what we are seeing is now from his POV.
With this in mind, the ending of the third episode takes on a much more Lost sense of structure than the schmaltzy audio montage would indicate. In the closing scene of the episode, Jack suggests to Kate that everyone on the Island gets to “start over,” and when Hurly listens to his CD Player, everyone appears to be doing just that: the tensions between Jin & Sun, Shannon & Boone, Sayid & Sawyer, Michael & Walt (& Locke), etc., all seem to have melted away in favor of a family-drama kind of closure. The first time through this scene, one is struck with a sense of how much like the rest of one-hour television it actually looks.
However, a closer look reveals that this pop-pap moment conveys something else entirely: we know that Jack is wrong, as the emphasis on flashbacks illustrates that who they were is as important as who they are, now (or, at least, the former informs the later). And while everyone seems to be ending this particular episode “happily ever after,” anyone who watches past this episode (or even past the audio-montage to hear the end-credits theme music) knows that the problems and tensions that everyone faces are nowhere near close to being resolved. It only appears to end that way because, for Hurly, that’s how he wants to see it. His upbeat character and happy-go-lucky attitude manages to affect even the POV of the audience.
When he listens to his CD Player in the sixth episode, we already know that the POV has switched to that of Hurly’s, but the tone is drastically different this time. The song itself says it all, “Are You Sure (This Is Where You Want To Be?)” by Willie Nelson. At the end of a story about making choices about where to live (the caves or the beach), Hurly’s Audio-Montage leads us through a series of close-ups that illustrate the outcome of everyone’s decision. No one is happy, not even Hurly, who is normally able to go with the flow. While the song works perfectly in the context of the episode, it also works to further drive home the point that everyone wants off the island. Our relationship to the show is also aptly summarized, too: the real story is about to unfold, and we are left asking ourselves if this is the kind of show we want to be watching.
Like the set-up of a well-told joke, the third and last time Hurly attempts an Audio-Montage is in episode 17. Much has happened, story-wise, since this gimmick has been used before, and as viewers we have become invested in the mysteries despite the actual amount of screen-time they may have been given. Initially the montage appears very much like the ones we’ve seen before: Michael and Jin set aside their differences to work together on rebuilding the boat. Shannon & Sayid appear to be working on their budding relationship, etc. But we’ve just seen Boone warn Sayid about just that, and we know this is by far the happiest resolution for everyone. Then we see Sun, alone, nervously flaunting a freedom she never had before, as we know that the next chapter of her story will be difficult for everyone. By the time Charlie brings Claire some water, we’ve already connected to the idea that their story will end anything but happy. When Hurly’s CD Player finally starts skipping, breaking the fantasy entirely, we are not surprised when his batteries have run out. Hurly’s last source of escapism is gone, and the mysteries of the island can no longer be ignored.
It is no wonder that the following episode is Hurly-centric, and even takes a jab at these audio-montages when we see Hurly hiking to what sounds like a Hip-Hop track. It’s jarring, and we know his CD Player shouldn’t be working, until we realize that the sound is actually part of the impending flashback, coming out of the stereo that Hurly is listening to in the past. We are also not surprised that from here on out, the pace of the season picks up tremendously, as if the mysteries can no longer be contained and held back through Audio Montages. In fact, in light of Hurly’s connection to the numbers, our identification with Hurly not only seems to be a better way of reading Season One as a whole, but begs the question: why we weren’t more conscious of this the first time through?