But suddenly, everything goes horribly wrong (an oil seal in one of the props has failed, causing the prop to start rotating backward—a problem impossible to diagnose from the cockpit, since both props appear to be spinning correctly). The soundtrack becomes progressively more intense as Hughes struggles, unsuccessfully, to keep the XF-11 aloft. In the end, the best he can manage is a semi-controlled crash landing in Beverly Hills. We watch—and listen—in horror as the landing gear tears through the tile roof of one mansion, the right wingtip slices open the sidewall of a second mansion like a giant filet knife, and the starboard engine tears off the wing and crashes through the kitchen window of a third home. Eventually, the battered fuselage of the XF-11—now shorn of both wings—grinds to a stop in alleyway, amid a pool of flames.
Amazingly, Hughes, though terribly injured, survives the crash but has trouble exiting the cockpit (we hear the sizzle of his fingertips and his screams as he tries to push open the clear canopy, which has been scorched by the flames outside). Eventually, Hughes frees himself, crawls from the wreckage and collapses with his clothes partially on fire. A passing military man comes to the rescue, putting out the flames and pulling Hughes away from the fiery crash site. Frantic, Hughes pulls the man close and asserts, in a thick, distorted, phase-shifted voice, “I’m Howard Hughes, the aviator.” It is perhaps at that moment that we fully grasp how tightly Hughes’ self-image is tied, not to his great wealth, but to flight itself.
• “Flying Boat” shows the surprise flight of Hughes’ Hercules flying boat, which was then (and may still be) the largest airplane ever constructed. The scene begins with a stunning sequence where Hughes and his lead aircraft designer go through an elaborate startup procedure for the eight huge, radial aircraft engines that power the Hercules. Your hear the scene as if perched on the airplane’s nose and facing aft, hearing four engines to your left and four to your right, each starting up in turn and joining a thundering chorus of internal combustion. If your system has the dynamic clout to pull it off, the sound is very realistic and full of impact. Later, you’ll hear a flashback to Hughes’ passionate testimony before Congress, where he fiercely asserted that if the Hercules failed to fly he would “leave the country and never come back.” By the end of the scene, of course, the Hercules does fly, creating a soul stirring sound as it passes overhead.
3. House of Flying Daggers. This Zhang Yimou film combines, in equal parts, a highly stylized martial arts movie and an implausible but touching love story, and has become one of the most popular surround sound demos ever. A big part of this has to do with the two innovative chapters discussed below, whose surround soundtracks are so compelling (when reproduced properly) that they seem artful and appealing even to viewers who don’t much care for the film’s genre.
Recommended Chapters: “The Echo Game” and “Assassination Attempt”.
• In “The Echo Game” and “Assassination Attempt” we see that Mei, an ostensibly blind dancer, is challenged to play a game that is itself based on real-world surround sounds. Mei stands in the center of a semi-circle of drums mounted on stands, while a Chinese garrison captain throws beans at the drumheads. Mei’s task is to identify the locations of the drums by sound alone, and then—through a stylized dance—to point out which drums had sounded by flicking the weighted sleeves of her dance costume against the correct drums.
• Mei performs this feat first with one drum, then two, then four, and finally with the entire set of drums, as the Chinese officer—tacitly acknowledging her great skills—throws an entire bowlful of beans at the drums, giving Mei the opportunity to dance and interact with all of them at once. It’s a spectacular scene and one that, with a good surround system, should sound highly enveloping and three-dimensional while conveying the subjective “feel” of what it might be like have the heightened hearing sensitivity of a blind person who has learned to navigate the world through sound.
• At the end of the game, Mei makes what appears to be an assassination attempt on the captain, using the long sleeves of her dance gown to snatch a sword and to swing it in the direction of the commander’s head. An elaborate, stylized fight scene ensues with the sighted captain dueling with the blind dancer. Interestingly, for surround sound enthusiasts at least, the fight ends with captain luring Mei into a room that contains a bubbling fountain and whose multiple entrances are hung with strands of glass beads. The captain craftily drags the tip of his sword against one set of beads after another—so that all of them ring out at once, creating a swirl of noise the keeps Mei from pinpointing point the captain’s location. Before the ringing of the beads can subside, the captain approaches Mei from behind and takes her captive.