Sound Thinking

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was first published in Film Comment, September-October 1978, and was found on

#1. The bias against sound thinking is so deeply ingrained that it shapes and invades the most casual parts of our speech. Whenever we ask “What movie did you see?”, or discuss film as a visual medium, or refer to viewers or spectators, we participate in a communal agreement to privilege one aspect of a film text by masking another, identifying the part as a whole. Some might argue that this bias is a carryover from the silent era; yet once we acknowledge that silence is as integral to sound as empty space is to image – not so much a neutral terrain as a variable to be defined and/or filled in relation to an infinite variety of contexts – we can’t really claim that the problem started with the “talkies.” Indeed, we can’t even allude to “talkies” without agreeing to privilege speech over silence, sound effects and music, thereby participating in a related form of suppression.

#2. The point is that none of the terms we use are innocent, and the ones we have for discussing sound still aren’t far removed from Neanderthal grunts. Consider the brutal inadequacy of “sound effects”: it would seem barbaric if we spoke of visual composition in Eisenstein or Renoir as “visual effects,” if only because we perceive composition as a complex of interrelated decisions. To reduce all the nonverbal and nonmusical sounds that we hear to the status of “effects” is to impoverish our sense of relationships in the world(s) that we inhabit. And the movies validating such terms are reflections of that impoverishment.

From this standpoint, the voluptuous, intricate uses of direct sound in Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour and the Straub-Huillet’s Moses and Aaron have moral and political consequences by proposing that we live in much richer, more symbiotic places than the insulated box frames conjured up by most movies.

In a persuasive ideological study of the dominant practices of sound editing and mixing (modes of production that filmgoers significantly know next to nothing about), Mary Ann Doane suggests that these practices should be examined in relation to “a certain structure of oppositions which split ‘knowledge’ within bourgeois ideology — oppositions between intellect and emotion, the intelligible and the sensible, reason and intuition.” Her plausible assumption is that “not only the techniques of sound track construction but the language of technicians and the discourses on technique symptomatic of particular ideological aims.”

#3. Correspondingly, in the uses of nonverbal sound most often singled out for attention within these dominant frames, such as the short gasps at the start of Kiss Me, Deadly, the Bernard Herrmann scores for Hitchcock, or the “heavy” Dolby vibrations of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sound is praised when it’s aimed directly at the gut, bypassing the brain while contriving to persuade one that the images are “more”than they actually are: scarier, funnier, bolder, sadder, wiser, truer–literally, more meaningful. If such coercion was direct-–assuming that the patient survives.

#4. When we try to describe non-dominant methods of sound production, we generally run smack-dab against one or more daunting obstacles: a) the relative unavailability of most movies that use such methods, (b) lack of detailed technical information about them, (c) an inadequate vocabulary for describing them.

Occasionally, some of these obstacles can be overcome in relation to one another: see Lucy Fischer’s careful analysis of Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm, which coincided with the acquisition of the film by Anthology Film Archives. More often, they conspire to keep essential works outside the scope of film history proposed by most surveys — perhaps most notoriously in the cases of the first sound features of other Soviet directors (Barnett’s Okraina, Dovzhenko’s lvan, Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler, and Pudovkin’s Deserter — although in the case of the latter, we at least have Pudovkin’s descriptive essays).

A related problem crops up regarding the more official signposts of film history. In his recent economic studies of the establishment of sound in American cinema, Douglas Gomery has challenged the centrality of The Jazz Singer by drawing attention to the importance of the musical and vaudeville shorts of Warners and the sound newsreels of Fox, adding that most of the latter “are only now becoming available to researchers.”

#5. A common difficulty related to (c), above, is the primacy of the visual metaphor in our culture. This can make even some of the most valuable writing about sound an exercise in indirect sign language. Thus Noël Burch writes about “an extreme auditory “close-up”, while Claudia Gorbman (whose remarkable analysis of Jaubert’s Zéro de conduite score already seems like a model of its kind) notes elsewhere, in reference to the perceptibility of dialogue, that “‘Soft focus’ exists in many scenes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller; and sharp and ‘deep’ focus in films by Welles.”

In a context where so many levels and aspects of auditory definition are as yet unnamed, such short-cuts seem inevitable. and are likely to remain so. The evidence of my ears suggests that the ranges of dialogue perceptibility in McCabe and California Split deviate significantly from industrial norms in ways that more recent Altman movies do not; in order to demonstrate this in a verbal analysis, an arsenal of precise categories would be needed-most of which I don’t have. Visual adjectives like “foggy” or “blurry,” for all their temptations, might actually wind up clouding the issues, while a more flexible word like “indistinct” would only take us part of the way.

#6. Consequences of sound thinking (Exhibit A, liberal): André Bazin’s defense of Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, which I had the job of translating a few years ago, shocked me at the time for what seemed to verge on a fascist argument in the midst of humanist discourse. Acknowledging, with his customary scrupulousness, that his moral interpretation differs from that of Welles, Bazin implies that Quinlan is justified in his framing of suspects, not only because “without him . . . the guilty would pass for innocent,” but also because of his innate superiority:

Quinlan is physically monstrous, but is he morally monstrous as well? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because he is guilty of committing a crime to defend himself; no, because from a higher moral standpoint, he is, at least in certain respects, above the honest, just, intelligent Vargas, who will always lack that sense of life which I shall call Shakespearean. These exceptional beings should not be judged by ordinary laws. They are both weaker and stronger than others. Weaker: “When I start ut to make a fool of myself, there’s little enough can stop me,” confesses the sailor Michael O’Hara at the start of The Lady from Shanghai. But also so much stronger because directly in touch with the true nature of things, or perhaps one should say, with God.” Much as Bazin’s taste for Welles’ low camera angles often seems to have an unstated affinity with the position of someone kneeling in church, this curious apologia for Quinlan’s swinishness has never convinced me.

What has any of this to do with sound? A lot. Phyllis Goldfarb has ably shown how the repeated “fragmentation of the relationship be tween a sound and its source” in Touch of Evil produces a series of visual and aural dislocations — a material counterpart, one might add, to the moral ambiguities that undeniably infuse the film. And one of the fascinations of the longer version of the movie that surfaced recently is its somewhat different sound-mix — including, for the first time, the off-screen sound of Sanchez (Victor Millan) being slugged by Quinlan during the latter’s interrogation of the former.

The point is that this single addition to the soundtrack — preceded by Quinlan saying, “Back in the old days we gave it to them like this,” and followed by a cry of pain from Sanchez — might have tipped the scales for Bazin against Quinlan, had he seen and heard this longer version. The ironic “footnote” that Sanchez proves to be guilty after all remains unchanged; the crucial issue here is Quinlan’s police methods. And the sound of a fist hitting a stomach while the camera focuses on Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Schwartz (Mort Mills) in another room is only one more instance of the moral difference that a sound can make.

#7. In a partial defense of sound bullying (as opposed to sound thinking) — which extends to such attractive examples as Chaplin’s theme songs, Val Lewton’s shock effects, Julia Solntseva’s stereophonic evocations of childhood in The Enchanted Desna, and Miklos Rosza’s Providence score – one could submit the thesis that conscious acts of analysis are much easier to provoke through sight than through sound, which appeals more to unconscious and collective impulses.

I’ve never had a chance to study the soundtrack of Jacques Tati’s PlayTime in stereo, but I’m already convinced that a level of aural density approaching the movie’s visual density would be indecipherable. Barring an exceptionally well-trained ear, I doubt that hearing can differentiate between simultaneous sounds as systematically as seeing can sort out simultaneous actions.

#8. Whether a filmmaker chooses to work with or against this inequality is an other matter. Robert Bresson argues that a sound always evokes an image (but never the reverse), and follows this principle by replacing images with sounds whenever he can — a practice especially apparent in his Lancelot du lac.

Related strategies can be found in Sternberg’s Anatahan, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Ozu’s Her Only Son, Marguerite Duras’ India Song, La Nuit du Carrefour, Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew…, Marcel Hanoun’s Une Simple Histoire, and Straub-Huillet’s films. All of these depend to some degree on qualities of visual sparseness — such as empty space, immobility, flatness, or darkness-in relation to the richness of their soundtracks.

What’s still needed is an erotics of sound that could accommodate sensation as well as thought — bringing the two together rather than separating them into the “structure of oppositions” described by Doane, which define the paramerers of our film experience. Such an erotics might include the tactile quality of the synchronized studio recording in Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud as well as the disembodied assemblage of dubbed noises in his Vampyr; the frenzied babble of certain Preston Sturges comedies (and of Straub-Huillet’s Othon);the witty off-screen injections of ping-pong and Mozart in Polanski’s What? and the direct sound subtly overlaid by piano patter in Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating; the integrations of dialogue, music, and other sounds in Chikamatsu Monogatari, Love Me Tonight, Rivette’s La Réligieuse, and the Tavianis’ Padre, Padrone –– as well as the ambitious work of Jean Grémillon, which so far I’ve only managed to read about.

#9. Consequences of sound thinking (Exhibit B, radical): A friend who observed part of Elaine May’s editing of Mikey and Nicky — a film whose flagrant disregard of conventional continuity matches [2021 afterword: in the studio’s original release version, unauthorized by May] has upset many reviewers, incidentally distracting them from the controlled fury of the script – reports an interesting piece of information about May’s procedures. It appears that her first criterion in selecting takes was the quality of the sound recording and the line readings and all the ordinary rules of cutting were sacrificed to this bias.

If May had sacrificed sound quality for the sake of conventional editing, one doubts that anyone would have objected, or even noticed. (2017 footnote: The friend who observed this was Todd McCarthy, working as a May assistant, and the version I saw later turned out to be May’s rough cut, later replaced by her more conventionally edited final cut.) As Altman’s apparent retreat from aural explorations also implies, sound thinking — as opposed to sound bullying — isn’t likely to win any industry prizes.

#10. Renoir put it succinctly: “If we were living in the twelfth century, a period of lofty civilization, the practitioners of dubbing would be burnt in the market-place for heresy. Dubbing is equivalent to a belief in the duality of the soul.” The argument that dubbing is aesthetically defensible continues to rest upon a rejection of the signifier as a producer of aesthetic meaning.

Even without this caveat, the functions of dubbing in relation to the signified are sufficiently revealing to warrant a separate study. Four brief examples must suffice here, each in a different language: in the French-dubbed version of Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, the Cold War Communist spy villains are transformed into drug traffickers; in the Spanish-dubbed version of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the gangster played by Louis Calhern is no longer Marilyn Monroe’s sugar daddy but her literal father; in the Italian Contempt, Georgia Moll no longer serves as translator in Jack Palance’s conversations, so that all her lines have been changed into utterances of her own; and in the American-dubbed Alphaville, the line “Le jour se lève” that accompanies the flickering on of fluorescent lights is replaced by “Sunrise” — replacing one film reference with another.

#11. Sunrise is almost invariably referred to as a silent picture; yet the soundtrack that appears on many prints — a music score with sound effects that is credited to Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld — has always seemed to me to be an essential part of its experience. Achieving at times a synthesis of aural layers that matches separate visual strains in the mise en scène or certain superimpositions, it often functions as an appreciation of Murnau’s multiple rhythms.

A more conventional accompaniment to the City Woman’s delirious evocations of urban excitement would entail a strict fadeout of the moody marsh music followed by a fade-in of the jazzy orchestra; superimposing the two creates a disquieting cacophony that beautifully captures the ambivalence of the moment. Another complex blend is effected when the mysterious raft with a bonfire and figures dancing around it passes behind the Couple’s rowboat on their night journey home, and the ecstatic swaying of the Wife to the raft’s music becomes part of the polyrhythmic poetry.

An appealing aspect of many early sound films is the way that sounds are played off against silence, setting off their special characteristics like precious stones: think of Blackmail, City Lights, M, and Thunderbolt. The same principles of this dialectic can be found in contemporary films ranging from Mr. Hulot’s Holiday to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to Portabella’s Vampir and Umbracle, each of which utilizes the equivalent of a blank canvas to frame some of its sound “objects.”

#12. Consequences of sound thinking (Exhibit C, conservative): Evidences of sound thinking in and about film are probably as plentiful today as they were in the late Twenties and early Thirties. Yet the lack of a common rallying point and the persistence of an inadequate vocabulary has tended to place most examples of this thinking into a kind of disorganized ghetto, perpetually stranded on the fringes of mainstream film thought.

To evoke a few residents of this ghetto here (and in the bibliography below) and sketch some of the conditions leading to their containment is only to scratch the surface of a basic dilemma. A related ambition has led to the planning of a season of two dozen sound features with the same title as this article, programmed by Carrie Rickey and myself for Carnegie Hall Cinema this fall — a weekly series of double-features chosen to illustrate diverse aspects of the subject rather than to construct a monolithic theory around it. At this stage of the proceedings, it seems to make more sense to broach issues than to attempt to settle them — which is what I’ve tried to do in this abbreviated survey.

Some Readings in Sound Thinking
* Brakhage, Stanley, “The Silent Sound Sense,” Film Culture No. 2l, Summer 1960, pp. 65-67
* Bresson, Robert, Notes on Cinematography, Urizen Books, 1977
* Burch, Noël, “On the Structural Use of Sound,” in Theory of Film Practice, Praeger, 1973, pp. 90-101.
* Cornwell, Regina, study of Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew in Afterimage No. 7, 1978, London (forthcoming)
* Doane, Mary Ann, “Ideology and the Practices of Sound Editing and Mixing,” paper delivered at Milwaukee Conference on the Cinematic Apparatus, 1978 (forthcoming in conference proceedings)
* Eisenstein, Sergei, “A Statement on the Sound-Film” (co-signed by Pudovkin and Alexandrcv), in Film Form. Harvest Books 1949, pp. 257-260.
* Fischer, Lucy, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (on PlayTime), Sight and Sound, Autumn t976, pp.236-238
* Fischer, Lucy, “Enthusiasm: From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye,” Film Quarterly, Winter 197 7 -7 8, printed with Peter Kubelka interview about restoration of film, pp.25-36.
* Goldfarb, Phyllis, “Orson Welles’s Use of Sound,” Take One ,Yol.3, No. 6, July-August 1971, pp. l0-14.
* Gomery, Douglas, “Problems in Film History: How Fox Innovated Sound,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, August 1976, pp.3l5-330.
* Gomery, Douglas, “Toward a Materialistic History of the Cinema: An Economic Analysis of the Coming of Sound to the American Cinema.” paper delivered at the Milwaukee Conference on the Cinematic Apparatus, 1978 (forthcoming in conference proceedings).
* Gomery, Douglas, “Tri-Ergon, Tobis-Klangfilm, and the Coming of Sound,” Cinema Journal, Fall 1976, pp.5l-61.
* Gomery, Douglas, “Writing the History of the American Film Industry: Warner Brothers and Sound,” Screen, Spring 1976, pp. 40-53.
* Gorbman, Claudia, “Clair’s Sound Hierarchy and the Creation of Auditory Space,” 1976 Purdue Film Studies Annual, pp. ll3-123.
* Gorbman, Claudia, “Teaching the Soundtrack,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, November 1976, pp. 446-452.
* Gorbman, Claudia, “Vigo/Jaubert,” Ciné-Tracts No. 2, Summer 1977, pp.65-80.
* Leyda, Jay, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, Macmillan, 1960.
* Pudovkin, V.I., “Asynchronism as a Principle of Sound Film,””Rhythmic Problems in My First Sound Film,” “Dual Rhythm of Sound and Image,” in Film Technique and Film Acting, Grove, 1960, pp. 183-202, 308-3l6.
* Rainer, Yvonne, script of Kristina Talking Pictures in Afterimage No. 7, 1978, London (forthcoming)
* Renoir, Jean, My Life and My Films, Atheneum, 1974.
* Rivette, Jacques, “Time Overflowing” (interview), in Rivette : Texts and Interviews, British Film Institute,1977, pp. 30-31.
* Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac,” Sight and Sound, Summer 1974, pp. 128-130.
* Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Sternberg’s Sayonara Gesture” (on Anatahan), Film Comment, January-February 1978, pp. 56-59.
* Roud, Richard, Straub, Cinema One (Viking), 1972.
* Snow, Michael, “Notes for Rameau’s Nephew,” October No. 4, Fall 1977, pp. 43-51.
* Walsh, Martin, ” Moses and Aaron: Straub and Huillet’s Schoenberg.” Jump Cut No. l2/13, 1976, printed with Straub/Huillet interview by Joel Rogers, pp.57-64

In French (with thanks to Bertrand Augst and Sandy Flitterman):
* Avron, Dominique, “Remarques sur Ie travail du son dans la production cinématographique standardisé,” in Cinéma: Théorie, Lectures (special issue of Revue d’Esthétique), Klincksieck, 1973, pp. 207 -266.
* Fano, Michel, interview in Cinéthique No. 2.
* Image et Son no. 215, March 1968 (special issue on sound).
* Marie, Michel, chapter on sound in Lectures du Film, Editions Albatros, 1976, pp. 198-211 (includes bibliography on sound).
* Marie, Michel, chapter on sound in Muriel: Histoire d’un récherche, Editions Galilée, 1974, pp. 61-122.
* Mitry, Jean, “Le Parole et le son” in Esthétique et Psychologie du Cinéma, Vol. 2, Editions Universitaires, 1965, pp. 87-l76.
* Morin, Edgar, Le Cinéma ou I’homme imaginaire, Editions de Minuit, 1956.
* Percheron Daniel, “Le son au cinéma dans ses rapports à I’image et à la diégse,” Ça/Cinéma No. 3, lanuary 1974.
* Straub, Jean-Marie and Danièle Huillet, interview in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 260-261, October 1975, printed in dossier on Moses and Aaron, pp. 5-84 (see also interview with Straub and Huiller on Othon in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 223, August-September 1970, pp. 48-57).

Shadows of the Unseen / Movement Radio 18

Eighteenth episode of “Shadows of the Unseen” for movement_radio Athens. Aired May 2022

1. Rafael Toral, Portal (From By Flávio, Pedro Cabeleira, 2022)
2. Alex Zhang Hungtai & Pierre Guerineau, Eclipse (From I Was a Simple Man, Christopher Makoto Yogi, 2021)
3. David Lynch & Alan R. Splet, Dinah’s Stomp (From Eraserhead, David Lynch, 1977)
4. Jeff Keen, Annea Lockwood, Bob Cobbing, Marco Movie Natter (From Marvo Movie, Jeff Keen, 1967)
5. Michèle Bokanowski, Flammes (From Flammes, Patrick Bokanowski, 1998)
6. Vladimir Ussachevsky, Alice Fields, Pril Smiley, Line of Apogee 4 (From Line of Apogee, Lloyd Williams, 1968)
7. François Bayle, Lignes et points (From Lignes et points, Piotr Kamler, 1961)
8. Rafael Toral, Long Meeting (From By Flávio, Pedro Cabeleira, 2022)
9. Excerpt from Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly, 2001
10. Haruomi Hosono, Island (From Mall, Edmund Yeo, 2020)
11. Stomu Yamashta, 33 1/3 (From The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
12. Sandro Brugnolini, Preludio Al Delitto (From L’uomo dagli occhiali a specchio, Mario Foglietti, 1975)
13. François Tusques, Golden Panther (From Le viol du vampire, Jean Rollin, 1967)
14. Gianfranco & Gian Piero Reverberi, Nel Cimitero Di Tucson (From Preparati la bara! [Django, Prepare a Coffin], Ferdinando Baldi, 1968)
15. Giovanni Fusco, La guerre est finie (From La guerre est finie, Alain Resnais, 1966)
16. Stomu Yamashta, Wind Words (From The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
17. Gianfranco & Gian Piero Reverberi, La Mitragliatrice (From Preparati la bara! [Django, Prepare a Coffin], Ferdinando Baldi, 1968)

The Organ and the Vacuum Cleaner (Bresson, the Devil, the voice-over and other things)

By Serge Daney

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was first published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 278-280, Aug-Sept 1977 and reprinted in La Rampe: Cahiers critique 1970-82 (Cahiers du Cinema/Gallimard, 1983). Published in English in Literary Debate: texts and contexts, volume 2, edited by Dennis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman, The New Press, 1999. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer.

“… given that air being a heavy body, and therefore (according to the system of Epicurus) continually descending, it will descend even more so, when loaded and pressed down by words; which are also bodies of much weight and gravity, as it is manifest from those deep impressions they make and leave upon us; and therefore must be delivered from a due altitude, or else they will neither carry a good aim, nor fall down with a sufficient force.”(Swift)

I would like to describe the sound setup (dispositif sonore) in a scene close to the beginning of Robert Bresson’s 1977 film The Devil Probably. The scene in question is the one in which Charles and his friends enter a church (we have already seen them hooted out of a political rally) and immediately find themselves involved in a rather lugubrious debate, whose subject, we quickly discover, is postconcilial Catholicism. How can I describe this scene (or fragment of a scene: Bresson’s films have long since dispensed with scenes) from the standpoint of sound?

– Nothing prepares for it. At no point does the viewer anticipate where things are going. We are quickly (all too quickly for those who did not like the film) plunged into the middle of a debate, which, because it is reduced to this middle, is immediately denaturalized.

– There are no sides in the debate; everyone is against everyone else. It might be better to call it a round of speeches rather than a debate, and those speeches are delivered in an irritatingly toneless, zombielike manner. Or perhaps one should call it a series of questions without pause for response or reply.

– Everyone speaks, but each person utters only a single sentence. Each sentence is punctuated by a loud, sustained organ note. The vehemence lacking in the words seems to have been shifted to these impromptu interruptions. In a previous quick shot, we caught a glimpse of the organist as he sat down at his instrument and lifted the cover of the keyboard.

– In addition to these two sounds, that of the organ above and the discussion below, each oblivious of the other, there is a third sound, of a vacuum cleaner being run over a red carpet.

What holds this fragment together? Where is the thread, the logic? Not in the presumed psychology of the characters (Charles has supposedly decided to join this debate) or in the dramatization of the scene (in which he is supposed to have had a hand). It lies elsewhere, namely, in the fact that from the moment Charles and his friends enter the church, they are caught up in a random, heterogeneous system of sounds, a montage consisting of the debate, the organ, and the vacuum cleaner, which literally disposes of them. This Bressonian heterology consists of three terms: the high (organ), the low (debate), and a third term that destroys the opposition between high and low, namely, the trivial (vacuum cleaner). All the newcomers can do is add their own sounds to the ambient sound configuration, or, rather, chaos, which is the true “subject” of the film. Or perhaps, as we are told in Godard’s 1976 Here and Elsewhere, sound is always too loud.

There is something paradoxical about The Devil Probably. Never before has Bresson seemed so concerned with being topical, yet at the same time he has never been more vehemently, radically insistent on his contempt for all discourse. Not only because talk and speechifying inevitably lead to theatre (bombast, pathos), thereby transforming “models” into actors, histrionic performers, but also because all discourse, insofar as it aims at triviality (or worse, edification) presupposes an emitter, and for Bresson the human emitter is ridiculously inadequate as a sonic system (dispositif sonore).

There is a sonic hierarchy, in which speech and speechifiers occupy the bottom rung. Charles encounters several of the latter in the course of his (elegant) Calvary, from the bookseller who “preaches destruction” in a crypt to the ineffable Dr. Mime, the great psychoanalyst. If the speechifiers are (irrevocably) condemned, it is because they are reasoners without resonance. Their talk is dull, colorless, and stilted. Their attitude toward money is similar: think of the checkbook with which the bookseller wants to buy the prostitute, or the stack of banknotes and checks that we glimpse in Dr. Mime’s half-open drawer. In paper money there is something solidified, turdlike, and soundless, something we can grasp more fully if we look again at the “inspired” scene in the film, the one that shows the second visit to the church. When Valentin follows Charles into the church “conditionally” (he is under the influence of drugs), it is under the sign of sacrilege (Valentin breaks open the poorbox) and simulacrum (Charles plays Monteverdi on a record player) that the simultaneous clinking of coins and tinkle of music set up the metaphor voice/gold.

Yet another reasoner is Michel, the ecologist. He is a well-known Bressonian figure: the “best friend” who makes edifying speeches and is usually sexually desired (but not loved) by the heroine, a situation of which he takes advantage (think of Jacques, the fiend in Pickpocket). In The Devil Probably, Michel is working on a militant film about ecology which we see him showing to (or perhaps in collaboration with) a group of friends. Some critics have poked fun at this scene, which they see as an indication that a senile Bresson is willing to do anything to make his supposed portrait of youth credible. But the scene is anything but simple. The film without a film is silent, and Michel and his friends “speak” the commentary as it is projected. As to the commentary (commentaire), there is no better example of what Pascal Bonitzer has termed the comment-taire (how to silence): the young people read it, mouth the words, mumble their way through the text. What we see is nothing less than the fabrication of a voice-over narrative.

There is a disturbing quality in the alternation, in the film within the film, between oftentimes violent images (the washing of the oil tanker, the red slime, the slaughter of a baby seal) and the moving hands of the commentators, who hold electric lamps that pick out the words on paper that are to be read or recited – posted over the images, as it were. The fabrication of a voice-over: it is quite bold of Bresson to film these well-dressed youths, who, as they watch images that illustrate their own cause, can respond only with words that have already ceased to resonate and begun to stagnate. Enough has already been said in the Cahiers about the dubious facility of the voice “over” (the rationale for the quotation marks will become clear in a moment) that one cannot fail to be struck by what is going on before our very eyes: the separation of the silent violence of the images from the blasé commentary, the distancing of the silent visual cry from the voice keeping “out of sight” in obscurity.

Here we confront the inability of human discourse (and of the human voice) to bear the violence of the world. Bresson’s pessimism is hardly new: in The Devil, it is simply more naked. Clearly, the problem is not what Charles is looking for (his quest) or what he thinks (his convictions). It does not matter whether or not he opposes the ecological crusade or the macrobiotic diet. Indeed, the debate over ideas invariably takes off against a deafening background of sounds (the shouts in the crypt, the trees being cut down); the decibel level is high. The sound is always too loud. And if Michel is discredited in Charles’s eyes, it is not because the cutting of the trees (to which he consents) contradicts his ecological convictions but because the horrible sound that the falling trees make makes all debate pointless in advance, because it is inaudible.

So much for Bresson’s “materialism”: so far as discourse is concerned, it is the ear, not the brain, that decides. The voice is only a noise, one of the softest kinds of noise. And what Charles wants is not to be convinced (for he is certain of his superiority) or to convince (since he is prepared to say virtually anything in order to have the last word) but to be vanquished. And in the Bressonian logic of sonic bodies (corps sonores) he can be vanquished only by a noise louder than all the rest: a gunshot into the water and then into the back of the neck.

At the risk of disappointing, therefore, the question of whether Charles is a symbol of present-day youth as seen by Bresson has to be set aside. Bresson is not at last, in old age, turning his attention to young people; youth has always been the only subject that interests him. The Bressonian “model” is never more than thirty years old. It is better to study Charles as one sonic body among others – the chosen one.

At bottom, Charles cares only about one thing: having the last word – not, however, in the manner of the glib talker who wins arguments intellectually but more in the manner of a parrot. Amid the bedlam produced by machines out of control, he has the last word only because he never has the first. He is best compared to the nymph Echo, who, according to Ovil, “cannot speak first, / cannot keep silent when spoken to, / and repeats the last words of the last voice she hears.”

A poor transmitter-receiver, the Bressonian hero-nymph can sand up to the overwhelming volume of sound only by being, like the twice-empty church, a mere conduit, a resonance chamber. In Charles’s sham tirade against Dr. Mime, all he can do is read, in the thick voice of an exasperated snob, a list of the “horrors” of modern civilization that he has torn from a magazine. He can only repeat. Living – up to the moment when he buys the right to die from the silent Valentin – is merely a matter of allowing the world, whose sounds is too loud for him, to resonate within, without speaking for himself or even opening his mouth; he is an accompanist of the world’s din. He is and old-fashioned form of resistance, known to schoolchildren the world over: he hums with his mouth closed. In this there is, of course, religious nostalgia: he the Middle Ages, the term neume was applied to musical phrases emitted in a single breath (uno pneumate) – without opening the mouth, because if one did open it, who knows what might enter in? Probably the devil.

“Vocal chords can vibrate in the absence of any airflow and under the sole effect of nervous stimulations.” (Moulonguet and Portmann)

Thus, we must digress a moment to consider the voice. In Lacanian terms, it is a question of an object “a”, and one of its partial objects is the mouth. But the voice is not produced exclusively in the mouth. It always originates deeper down. The voice involves the entire body.

What distinguishes the cinematic voice is that it can have a visual double, a shadow that seems to prey on it. It never seems easier to grasp or more tangible than at the moment when it is emitted, when it leaves the body through purposefully twisted lips. This mentonymy is crucial: what is seen (the moving lips, the open mouth, the tongue and teeth) justifies the belief in the reality of what is heard at the same time.

There is no other way of assigning a body to a voice than by way of such a visual stand-in: it is the image that ascribes reality to what remains invisible by definition. Silent film lived off this emtonymy (no smoke without fire, no moving lips without voice) resolved into metaphor (the interpolated title took the place of the voice). As Anne-Marie Miéville says in Godard’s 1978 Comment ça va, the eyes are in command. We blame the discrepancy between image and sound when a film is poorly synchronised or dubbed. But to appreciate the full import of such complaints, one has to ask if we are capable of recognizing a poorly synchronised foot or back. Obviously, this question comes from Bresson, who was once of the first to take the fragmentary bodies of his “models” as the ghost of the voice, its visual stand-in, as it were.

“Dubbing is crude and naïve,” he writes in Notes sur le cinématographe. “Unreal voices, inconsistent with the movement of the lips. Out of sync with the lungs and the heart. Coming ‘from the wrong mouths.’” Bresson is one filmmaker (Jacques Tati is another) who has always insisted on a certain realism of sound. In this respect, he was deeply influential on the most innovative New Wave filmmakers. Note, however, that he mentions not only the mouth and lips but also the lungs and heart. Although he insisted on realism, he never made a fetish of directly recorded sound; rather, he stubbornly insisted on meticulous postsynchronization of carefully mixed and orchestrated tracks. Why? Precisely because he drew a distinction between the voice and the mouth. If one looks at the mouth, it is easy (and takes no effort) to see that something is being said. But the voice involves the whole body, including the heart and lungs, which cannot be seen.

In order to pursue this theme further, on needs to be wary of such terms as “voice-over” and the like, which are altogether too dependent on the visual and, as such, surreptitiously extend the hegemony of the eye, with the inevitable consequence that the ear is mutilated: film, we are told, is primarily images, which “strike the eye” and “orient vision.” The advent of direct sound recording in televised news reports, ethnographic documentaries, and propaganda films, together with the wild enthusiasm for the essential immediacy of the audiovisual (Jean Rouch and Jean-Marie Straub, quickly copied but poorly understood), led people to pattern sonic space after visual space, which served to guarantee its veracity, to authenticate it. In fact, however, the two spaces are heterogeneous. A more precise description of each is required, along with terminology for specifying their interactions.

To begin with, there is always a danger of importing what is primarily a vocabulary of technical terms. One saw this in the phrase “images and sounds,” which became so overused after Godard introduced it that it lost all specific meaning. For whom does a film consist of images and sounds? For the person who makes it and the person who deconstructs it, the technician and the semiologist, but not for the person who watches it. Just when talking about “images and sounds” became the last word in materialism (although for Godard it was already the “and” that was interesting), people began to notice that this terminology made it impossible to discuss the place of the spectator, the system of which he was a part, of his desire. The problem had to be approached from a different angle – in terms of the gaze (which is neither the eye nor the image) and the voice (which is neither the mouth nor the ear nor the sound). And also in terms of drives (the “scopic” drive: to look is not the same as to see, to listen is not the same as to hear).

In terms of images, the distinction between on-screen and off-screen occurrences, while no doubt useful for writing a screenplay or critically analyzing a film, is not subtle enough for a theory of missing objects because there are different types of off-screen events. Some objects are permanently missing (either because they are unrepresentable – for instance, to take the standard example, the camera that cannot film itself filming the scene – or taboo, such as the prophet Muhammad), while others are temporarily out of sight, hence subject to the familiar alternation of presence and absence, of Fort Da, to use the Freudian metaphor. The possibility of eternal return is greeted by the spectator with either horror or relief. These are not the same, even if they happen off-screen.

The same on-screen/off-screen distinction that is already of dubious value in discussing the visual is altogether too crude for analyzing voices. Broadly speaking, the term voice-over refers to the voices of off-screen speakers. But this really depends on a distinction between sound that is synchronized and sound that is not: the voice is reduced to its visual stand-in, which is itself reduced to the configuration and shape of the lips. The voice-over is then identified with an absence in the image. I favour the opposite approach: voices should be related to their effects in or on the image.

I will use the term voice-over narrowly to describe an off-screen voice that always runs parallel to the sequence of images and never intersects with it. For example, in a documentary about sardines, the voice-over can say whatever it likes (whether it describes sardines or slanders them makes no difference); it remains without measurable impact on the fish. This voice, superimposed on the image after the fact and linked to it by editing, is a purely metalanguistic phenomenon. It is addressed (both as statement and delivery) solely to the viewer, with whom it enters into an alliance or contract that ignores the image. Because the image serves only as the pretext for the wedding of commentary and viewer, the image is left in an enigmatic state of abandonment, of frantic disinheritance, which gives it a certain form of presence, of obtuse significance (Barthes’ third meaning), which (with a certain element of perversity) can be enjoyed incognito, as it were. To see this, mute the sound on your television and look at the images left to themselves. Voice-over of this kind can be coercive. If, speaking of sardines, I say that “these grotesque animals, driven by a suicidal compulsion, hasten toward the fisherman’s nets and end their lives in the most ridiculously way imaginable,” the statement will contaminate not the sardines but the gaze of the spectator, who is obliged to make what sense he can of it despite the obvious disparity between what he sees and what he hears. The voice-over narrative, which coerces the image, intimidates the gaze, and creates a double-bind, is one of the primary modes of propaganda in film.

This is the level at which a director like Godard operates: one might call it the “voice-over degree zero.” In his 1976 Leçons de chose (the second part of Six fois deux), the sudden intrusion of a shot of a marketplace (an intrusion that is as violent as it is sudden, since like all of Godard’s images it is totally unpredictable) is immediately baptized “fire” by the soundtrack. This is justified in part by a play on words (flambée des prix is French for “skyrocketing prices,” hence the connection to the image of the marketplace, but flambée also means “blaze,” hence the connection to the soundtrack), in part as a response to the intrusiveness of the image and the enunciation of the word, retroactively re-marking the violence. One sees the same thing in Here and Elsewhere with the sequence on “how to organize an assembly line.” With each new image, Godard’s voice hollowly repeats the words: “Well, this way… like this… but also like that.” In relation to the “one-by-one” sequence of images that the voice plays the same role as quotation marks in a text: it highlights but also distances.

The voice-over is the focal point of all power, all arbitrariness, all omission. In this respect, there is little difference between Marguerite Duras’s 1975 India Song, the documentary about sardines, a Situationist film, and the Chinese propaganda film on which it is based: the contract with the viewer (seduction, pedagogy, demagogy) depends on coercion of the image. The potential here for the exercise of power is unlimited. The only way to escape from this vicious circle is for the voice-over to take a risk, and to do so as voice: either by multiplication (not once voice but many voices, not one certitude but many enigmas) or, even more, by singularization. And the way to escape from the politics of the auteurs is through a “politics of voices, inimitable voices (Godard, Duras and, for some time now, Bresson). Radio takes is revenge on film, Dziga Vertov on Sergei Eisentstein, the simple voice on the constructed dialogue, and the feminine on the masculine.

By contract, I will use the term, “in voice” to refer to a voice that participates in the image, merges with it, and has material impact on it by way of a visual stand-in. If my commentary on sardines has the effect of leaving the poor fish stranded in their mere presence as sardines, my voice has a totally different effect if, in the course of a live report, I ask someone a question. Even if that question is spoken off-camera, my voice intrudes in the image, affecting my interlocutor’s face and body and triggering a furtive or perhaps overt reaction, a response. The viewer can measure the violence of my statement by the disturbance it causes in the person who receives it, as one might catch a bullet or a ball (or other small “a” objects), to one side or head on. This is the technique used by Jori Ivens and Marceline Loridan in their 1976 How Yukong Moved the Mountain. It is also the technique of horror films and of the “subjective” films of Robert Montgomery. One also sees it in the now somewhat outmoded technique of having a voice put familiar questions to the characters in a film, who halt their action long enough to respond. Think, for example, of Sacha Guitry’s paternalistic attitude toward his “creations,” or the complicity between the narrator and characters in films from Salah Abou Sefi’s Entre ciel et terre to Louis Berlanga’s Welcome, Mr. Marshall.

The “in” voice is the focal point of a different but just as redoubtable form of power. What is presented as the emergence of truth may well be merely the production of discomfort in the guinea pig forced to answer questions as the viewer looks on. There are at least two other kinds of voices: those spoken “within” the image, either through a mouth (“out voice”) or through an entire body (“through voice”).

The “out” voice is basically the voice as it emerges from a mouth. It is projected, dropped, thrown away: one of various objects expelled from the body (along with the gaze, blood, vomit, sperm, and so on). With the out voice we touch on the nature of the cinematographic image itself: though flat, it gives the illusion of depth. Both the voice-over and the in voice emanate from an imaginary space (whose position varies with the type of projection equipment, configuration of the theatre, placement of loudspeakers, and the location of the spectator). By contrast, the “out” voice emanates from an illusory space, a decoy. It emerges from the filmed body, which is a body of a problematic sort, a false surface and a false depth. It is a container with a false bottom, with no bottom at all, which expels (and therefore makes visible) objects as generously as Buster Keaton’s taxis can disgorge regiments. This filmed body is made in the image of the barracks in Cops or of the church in Seven Chances.

The out voice is a form of pornography in the sense that it fetishes the moment of emergence from the lips (stars’ lips, or, in X.27, Marlene foregoing lipstick before the firing squad). Similarly, porno films are entirely centered on the spectacle of the orgasm seen from the male side, that is, the most visible side. The out voice gives rise to a “material theatre” since it is central to every religious metaphor (passage from inside to outside with metamorphosis). To grasp the moment of emission of the voice is to grasp the moment when the object o separates from the partial object. Pornographic cinema is a denial of this separation, which threatens to reduce the object a to unproductive expenditure (waste) and the partial object to its status as orgasm (meat). It attempts to sustain as long as possible the fetish of an orgasm that can only be followed by another orgasm and so on, ad infinitum – the constant obligation of the visible, “the transparent sphere of seminal emission,” as Pascal Bruckner and Alan Finkielkraut nicely phrase it. There is a pornography of the voice comparable in every way to the pornography of sex (abusive use of interviews, mouths of political leaders, and so on). Clever writers have woven stories around this theme (such as Daniel Schmid’s Angels’ Shadow, in which a prostitute is paid to listen, and Le Sexe qui parle, in which a woman’s vagina expresses its insatiable appetite).

Finally, a “through” voice is a voice that originates within the image but does not emanate from the mouth. Certain types of shot, involving characters filmed from behind, from the side, or in three-quarter view or from behind a piece of furniture, screen, another person, or an obstacle of some sort, cause the voice to be separated from the mouth. The status of the through voice is ambiguous and enigmatic, because its visual stand-in is the body in all its opacity, the expressive body, in whole or in part. It is well known that for reasons of economy, poor filmmakers often film speaking characters from behind rather than in front. Of course, the backs in question are not “real.” For Bresson (and Straub) the whole problem is to shift the effect of frontal filming to some other part of the body, to something round and smooth. Modern filmmaking (since Bresson, in fact) has featured a large number of bodies filmed from behind (sometime in seductive and provocative ways). Direct and indirect, here and elsewhere. The latest (and not the least mysterious) of these back shots is of Anne-Marie Miéville in Comment ça va.

“The devil jumps in his mouth.” Do not make the devil jump in a mouth. “All husbands are ugly.” Do not show a multitude of ugly husbands. (Bresson)

I will conclude with a word on the famous “Bressonian voice,” which both exasperated and enchanted a generation or two of filmgoers. The timbre of the voice has been attributed to Bresson’s outspoken hatred of the theatre. A small number of critics has seen it as Bresson’s unavowed homage to a class (the grande bourgeoisie) whose children he fetishizes but at the cost of transforming them into young, déclassé aristocrats caught up in Dostoyevskian plots. Both these views are correct. But one can also say that the Bressonian voice is a voice that requires the minimum possible opening of the mouth, that limits, or reserves, the spectacle of emission as much as possible.

In The Devil Probably there is indeed a radical disjunction of voice and mouth. On the one hand, the voice involves the entire body, instruments, and machines (the organ blows, the vacuum cleaner breathes). Bresson’s slogan might be: Don’t look to see where the voice is coming from, don’t look for the visible origin of what you hear. To that end, after showing how voices are reduced to noise, he shows how noises begin to constitute voices (all of which Charles hears, except that he is not Joan of Arc, and to him the voices say nothing). On the other hand, he sees the mouth in terms of its function as orifice, or hole, and of the pleasure of its possessor – the mouth as an instrument of the devil’s pleasure.

Shadows of the Unseen / Movement Radio 17

Seventeenth episode of “Shadows of the Unseen” for movement_radio Athens. Aired April 2022

1. Excerpts from Ciao! Manhattan (John Palmer, 1972)
2. The Necks, The Boys 1 (From The Boys, Rowan Woods, 1998)
3. Roger Baudet, Comme un distance 1 & 2 (From Comme un distance, Dominique Genton, 1983)
4. K Leimer, The Outpost (From Land Of Look Behind, Alan Greenberg, 1982)
5. Gino Piserchio, Doctor Feelgood (From Ciao! Manhattan, John Palmer, 1972)
6. Lucretia Dalt, Blob on The Lawn + Alien Lullaby (From The Seed, Sam Walker, 2021)
7. David Lynch & Dean Hurley, Slow 30s Room (From Twin Peaks: The Return, Mark Frost, David Lynch, 2021)
8. Dirk Schaefer, Alpsee II (From Alpsee, Matthias Müller, 1995)
9. Bruno Maderna, Reflection in the Night (From La Morte ha fatto l’uovo / Death Laid an Egg, Giulio Questi, 1968)
10. Christaene F., Dave Ball, Genesis P. Orridge, William S. Burroughs, Dream (From Decoder, Jürgen Muschalek, 1984)
11. Goblin, Flashing (From Tenebre / Tenebrae, Dario Argento, 1982)
12. John Carpenter, Alan Horwath, 69th Street Bridge (From Escape from New York, John Carpenter, 1981)
13. Lucretia Dalt, Leonid’s Temple (From The Seed, Sam Walker, 2021)
14. Wendy Carlos, The Rock Mountains + A Ghost Piano (From The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
15. Stephan Wittwer – End Title (From Der rechte Weg, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, 1983)
16. Egisto Macchi, Perquisizione (From Nucleo centrale investigative, RAI TV series, 1974)
17. Toshi Ichiyanagi, untitled (From Eros + Massacre, Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)
18. Pierre Raph/Jane Weaver, La Rose De Fer (From La Rose de Fer / The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin, 1973)

Conversation with Trevor Mathison

In the context of the Courtisane festival 2022 (30 MArch – 3 April). Part of the event series Echoes of Dissent, produced by Courtisane, argos and Auguste Orts, in the context of the KASK and Conservatory School of Arts research project with the same title.

“Within the spectral temporality of the tape loop, the imperial anxieties of the early twentieth century resonate with the multiple fears of the present.” This is how Kodwo Eshun described the sound piece Trevor Mathison created for Expeditions, the very first work of the Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998). With this impressive composition, which incorporates elements from dub and musique concrète as well as the industrial mantras of Cabaret Voltaire or the neo-Constructivist anthems of Test Department, Mathison set the tone for the soundtracks that he would subsequently provide for the films of the collective. It is no coincidence that the collective’s name places as much emphasis on “audio” as “film”, or that several of their titles — such as Handsworth Songs (1985) or Three Songs on Pain, Light and Time (1996) — refer explicitly to sonic processes: the auditory was at least as important as the visual in their multi-layered and pioneering explorations of notions of race, ethnicity, colonialism, diaspora, identity and memory. When asked why sound and music occupy such a prominent place, John Akomfrah, one of the members of the collective, replied, “because there is so much we can’t say without it.”

For Twilight City (1989), Mathison created a hypnotic aural landscape of repetitive textures and melancholic timbres that expresses the psychogeographical relief of the British capital in the grip of gentrification and segregation. In Who Needs a Heart (1991), a portrait of political exhaustion and racial drift in the 1960-70s, dialogue is exchanged for a composition of fragments from the work of jazz greats such as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Anthony Braxton to evoke disharmony and dissonance. In The Last Angel of History (1996), Mathison’s mixture of wavering motifs and stuttering pulses accompanies a quest for the genealogy of Afrofuturism and its continuation within electronic music movements. In each case, Mathison produces deeply resonant sound worlds based on what he himself calls “post-soul noise”: “sounds that take their cue from pre-existing black musics… but they’ve been defamiliarised, put through a sonic box that renders them strange and unusual” (John Akomfrah).

After the dissolution of the Black Audio Film Collective, Mathison continued to work closely with Akomfrah, with whom he made numerous films and installations. With Anna Piva and Edward George, another former member of the collective, he formed the projects Flow Motion and Hallucinator, whose mutant techno dub featured on the leading record label Chain Reaction. Under the name Dubmorphology, he and Gary Stewart make installations that explore the relationship between culture, history and technology. He also recently produced the soundtrack for Garret Bradley’s America (2019), a reinterpretation of a forgotten history of African-American cinema.

This programme is the first chapter of Echoes of Dissent, a trajectory that aims to counter the hegemony of the eye and the subsequent disregard for the ear by considering the relationship between cinema and politics from the perspective of sound. It is therefore only fitting to begin this journey by focusing on the striking work of a sound artist who is rightly considered by Gaylene Gould as “the quiet centrifugal force behind what we now recognise as a black British aesthetic”.

What happens if critical analysis slows down the rate of perception and sustains a close hearing? If the revisionary archaeology that Black Audio Film Collective are so famous for is listened to as intensively as it is watched? If the ear, for once, pilots the eye through the counter-memorial practice? This is not a matter of downgrading the visual in favor of the sonic; rather it concerns one carefully situating the optical within the trialogical relay of narration, montage, and sound design so as to gauge the full implications of the BAFC project… Attention to the nervous routes between the dimensions of the aural and the filmic has been resoundingly silent. (Kodwo Eshun)