I am back teaching in Viborg, and while my supposed-to-be-ten-day class is once again cut down to eight, this time it's not a national holiday or a school function but because we have a fabulous guest speaker
for two days, and as I'm here I get to benefit from it too.
This afternoon he showed the classic short film Father and Daughter
(warning: tears) which gave me a surprise of the kind I've come to find familiar when revisiting European things I haven't seen since moving to Europe. At about 6 minutes in, you hear a skylark, and you know that what was once water has been drained and is a field, even before you see it, because you only get skylarks singing above open fields – and this is not a happy accident, because at 6:15 you see the skylark doing its thing, so it's a decision made by someone who knows the associations of the bird.
I've always been a bit into birds – more than a bit, at some times – but I have to say European birds are a different ball game when it comes to what they tell you about the world, when you're familiar with them. I can think of a few North American birds with which I have seasonal associations: mockingbirds in the spring and summer in California, prominently, and the sing-song spring song of the chickadee; when I hear a particular regional variant of the white-crowned sparrow in a film, I know it's shot in BC. But it hardly compares to the richness of communication in European birdlife, which can put you in a place and season and even time of day more effectively than any title card. The song of a blackbird carries all the promise and fulfillment of burgeoning summer, even when they start singing in February. The wing slaps of fighting woodpigeons puts you in tall trees with fresh young leaves, the trilling of long-tailed tits in a winter hedgerow, a cuckoo into bright flowery woodland, the chucks of jackdaws down an old city street with eclectic chimney pots, and the screams of swifts belong in the bright blue summer sky with puffy clouds turning to thunderheads. (Britain's relationship with the robin
warrants an entire post of its own ... )
And the thing is, European filmmakers (and radio producers) know this, and use it, because it means something to their audience, even if the audience doesn't realise it. I find it hard to imagine an LA filmmaker using a mockingbird's song to elicit the atmosphere of a warm jasmine-scented night, though it's as much a part of that as anything else. The white-crowned sparrow mentioned above is usually accidental, as the thing shot in BC is almost never supposed to be set there. But then, why should they use communicative bird sounds when their audience isn't going to get the cue either? The long-term urbanisation and population density of Europe means its people rub shoulders more comfortably with their wildlife than Americans/Canadians do with theirs, and are more perceptive of its habits; it helps, too, that European birds have such distinctive characteristics that they're more identifiable than, say, the umpteen variations on "brown thing that goes 'chirp'" which are resident in LA. But it'd still be nice to see more of that sort of attention paid to what makes up one's surroundings, and less in the vein of the quacking Canada goose in Source Code
. It's not something you notice being absent from your entertainment until it becomes commonplace ...
FURTHER FEATHERED FILM FACT: I'm almost entirely certain that whatever bird sound was used for the flightless cormorant in Master and Commander
was also used for an orc or orc-like creature in Return of the King
, something which threw me when I saw the latter. It sounds a bit like the shag
, if you want to try spotting it yourself.