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).