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White noise: 'Euphonia' exposes the horrors of our tech-mediated reality

euphonia

I first got to know Danny Madden when he would do late night editing jobs in the cubicle over from mine. While I sat slumped over my computer for hours on end, he’d get up at regular intervals to do handstands, or ride my skateboard around the Verge office. He’s a restless, nomadic artist, who has recently lived in New York, New Orleans, Africa, and currently resides near San Francisco.

His new film, Euphonia, which premieres at the SXSW film festival this year, was created on a zero budget, crewed by and starring friends and family, in his Georgia hometown.

The film follows the story of a high schooler, played by Madden’s younger brother Will, who purchases a sound recording device in search of better sounds in his life, and slowly becomes obsessed with it. He roams his small town and nearby Atlanta, capturing audio, and starts to experience the world through those sound bites.

The simple premise, originally intended for a short, unfolds beautifully and convincingly over the 55-minute runtime. Madden wrote, directed, edited, and did sound design for the film. Much of the film’s audio was captured while filming, by the sound recorder at the center of the story itself. “Here’s a kid going around with a sound recorder,” explains Madden. “We should feel like a kid going around with a camera and capturing it.”

The naturalistic style of the film was a departure for Madden — he usually plans and storyboards his films meticulously, and is best acquainted with animation. His last film, the action-packed animated short Notes on Biology, won a Jury Award for best animated short at SXSW in 2012. The ultimate effect he achieves in Euphonia is a hybrid of his sensibilities, somewhere between a gentle Terrence Malick meditation, and a jarring David Lynch deconstruction.

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In a strange coincidence, I saw a near-final cut of the film on my first day without the internet, back in May of last year. I’m sure I’m biased, but I’m also sure that the film is incredible and unique. Aside from being excellent cinema, the film originates from some of Madden’s general views on technology, which I found fascinating enough to beg an interview of him right there in my living room.

“We’re hanging out, why do we have to have your cellphone between us?”

Madden is well known in my circle of friends for his sporadic use of phone and email. Basically, he uses them on his own terms. When he’s spending time with a friend, he typically shuts off his phone. He doesn’t text, and doesn’t make plans or commitments flippantly. His own dad calls him a luddite. To me, he’s a bit of a hero.

For Madden, it’s simple: “We’re hanging out, why do we have to have your cellphone between us?”

Euphonia speaks to the mediation and distance technology can introduce into our relationships. Ironically, as I was agreeing vehemently with his approach to communication, my phone rang and I had to take it, and so he played my guitar for a half hour while I spoke on the phone with a reporter.

The film also explores our “obsessive” use of mobile devices. Madden researched the story by using a sound recorder himself, and started to feel an “attachment” to the device. The recorder gave him a new lens to notice and recognize things around him, little moments he calls the “happy time.” The film is about what happens when that sensation gets abused and overused, a feeling I can relate to — it’s part of the reason I left the internet.

Endless hours in headphones made him feel separate from people

In post-production, deep into the film’s sound design, Madden found his premise to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Endless hours in headphones made him feel separate from people.

Perhaps it’s telling that Madden paces himself through productions, splitting up obsessive, heads-down work with pays-the-bills jobs and travel. While Euphonia was shot in the summer of 2010 — a month after Notes on Biology, using much of the same cast and crew — it wasn’t edited until almost a year later, and the version I saw in early 2012 was still unfinished.

While completing the film, Madden spent time in New Orleans, where he taught middle school kids animation after school to pay rent — and found inspiration from their enthusiasm. Now that Euphonia is finished and ready for the festival circuit, Madden is hard at work on his next film, an animated short about the confusions of desert warfare. The upcoming film’s distinctive, frenetic, hand-drawn style is another stylistic departure. It shows Madden as someone who isn’t just restless geographically, but creatively.

“I like to keep things fresh,” he says.

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