The Politics of the Soundtrack

By Nina Power

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was published on Mute on 31 March 2010.

Was there a golden age of the film soundtrack? One might reach for Ennio Morricone (at least until the late 1980s) or the ’70s and ’80s records Popul Vuh made for Werner Herzog’s most memorable films, Aguirre, Nosferatu and Cobra Verde. Even if much of the concept has gone out of ‘conceptual’ film-making and the soundtracks that accompany them, there are nevertheless highlights here and there. We could point to David Lynch, John Carpenter or Howard Shore’s brittle and claustrophobic music for Cronenberg’s Crash (1997), or Ed Tomney’s tense and millennial compositions for Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) as proof that film and sound can be more than whatever bland indie love-songs the studio’s marketing manager has been listening to on his iPod. The soundtrack to Andrea Arnold’s recent Fish Tank does something interesting with the diegetic, with its muffled sounds and tinny music players – indeed, much of the film is about recorded music and its playback, from the tiny speakers that Mia dances to in an empty room to the CD player leading her to her doom in the strip-club.

If we expand our cinematic categories a little, we can point to complex figures like Walter Murch, a ‘sound designer’ among other things, rather than a simple composer or hit song provider for the charts (film soundtracks are often simply understood as ‘secondary usage’, providing producers with additional sources of income). In early silent cinema, pianists were hired to drown out the mechanical whirring of the projectors and ramp up emotion; Murch revisits the noise of the machine in the famous scene in Apocalypse Now where helicopter blades become indiscernible from ceiling fans.(1)

But, for the most part, an ‘original soundtrack’ is the misnomer it always was, being neither the composite track of the film (the dialogue, the sound effects, the music) nor original, being comprised of whichever three-minute songs the studio/record label partnership wishes to promote. The apex, or really nadir, of this trend, which stretches all the way back to the beginning of the marketing of film soundtracks in the late ’40s and ’50s, was reached in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) in which a boring couple have boring (but real!) sex to boring (but real!) songs by Elbow and Franz Ferdinand. The pop song as unifying revelation of a shared humanity features in Magnolia (1999), as the main characters coincidentally start singing Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’, an inverse tribute of sorts to R.E.M’s video for ‘Everybody Hurts’, in which the song is a backdrop to the inner thoughts of bored car passengers, who ultimately get out of their vehicles and unite in a kind of mawkish tribute to collective misery. Music unifies, levels: it is essentially human. If there was ever a different time when the machine instead was integrated and posed as a question for cinematic sound, it could well have been the ’80s, in films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Running Man and Terminator, dystopian visions in which the future sounded as synthetic as the threats that might yet come to menace it.

As we move into a period we could characterise by ‘a revenge of the visual’, with 3D films increasingly regarded as the only thing that will entice people from their mini-cinemas at home, cinema music is increasingly modelled on one of two forms: the pop song iPod playlist or sub-John Williams gloopy orchestral oozing (Williams recently composed a short orchestral piece ‘Air and Simple Gifts’, referencing Aaron Copland, for Barack Obama’s inauguration). If every big-budget soundtrack starts to sound like Jurassic Park or Wagner without the quiet bits, that’s probably because it is. Adorno once perceptively claimed that most films ‘are advertisements for themselves’. Trailers are thus the truth of the film for which the film is the advert. Length becomes a secondary question. It comes as no surprise then to learn that trailers often use music from previous hit films as their soundtrack to create a pre-existing sense of familiarly.(2) When Adorno in ‘Commodity Music Analysed’ (1934-40), speaks of ‘archetypal cinema music’ (‘The birth of the Wurlitzer from the spirit of Faust’ as he puts it), he argues that it is this need for familiarity that characterises much music for cinema.(3) The musical means for covering over the sounds of the whirring projector were prepared by a pre-existing proclivity for a certain mix of sentiment and innovation:

It is doubtless true that towards the close of the nineteenth century the music that swept people off their feet did so because it combined drastic ideas with conventionality. In so doing it satisfied the demands of the cinema before cinema was invented.(4)

Commercial cinema’s desire to block out the machine, to smother the jolts and gaps between movement means that music is often seen as a kind of empathetic patch, a device to pretend that the frames and hyper-technicality are always put in the service of larger, smoother, humanitarian wholes. ‘Mickey-Mousing’, the practice of exactly matching music to image, may be something we associate with animation from half a century ago, but this often comic self-consciousness of the relation between the sound and image is far more radical than the surreptitious manipulation of familiar emotions that much of today’s cinematic music pursues.5 But mainstream cinema remains one of the few places where sounds and music could potentially afford to be brave: the tracks that Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odysessy originally as a temporary placeholder for the real score, placed Ligeti in more homes than a thousand Radio 3 retrospectives would ever have done. Similarly, as Alex Ross notes:

On the weekend of February 19th, and for some weeks thereafter, millions of Americans will enjoy a program of Giacinto Scelsi, John Cage, Lou Harrison, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, Nam June Paik, Ingram Marshall, and John Adams. This fairly bold lineup of composers, which would cause the average orchestra subscriber to flee in terror, appears on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s film Shutter Island.(6)

Academic terminology has taken something of a strange optical turn in recent years with ‘visual culture’ and ‘visual theory’ becoming catch-all disciplines that cover elements of cultural studies, art theory and critical theory. This is not to say that there aren’t people working within this areas on sound, music or sonics, however. Take for example Susan Schuppli’s work on media machines that investigates, among other things ‘the missing or “silent” erasure of 18-½ minutes in Watergate Tape No. 342’ or Steve Goodman’s work on sonic warfare.(7) But we have to wonder why this stealthy academic privileging of the visual over other senses has come about.

It is a little as if the ‘attempt to interpose a human coating between the reeled-off pictures and the spectators’ that Adorno and Eisler recognised was the purpose of most film music, has infected the entire study of cinematic culture.8 The tacked-on role of the composer for cinema that Adorno and Eisler deplored, a kind of last-minute annoyance from the standpoint of the budget, has become the occlusion of the sonic in the contemporary understanding of culture in general – the reactionary stereoscopic tendency, a kind of re-visting of the 1950s in the 2010s, proving those covers of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle correct. The photo, J. R. Eyerman’s ‘3D glasses’ taken in 1952 for Life, was captured at the screening of ‘Bwana Devil’, the first full length colour 3-D motion picture, a film about British railway workers in Kenya being eaten by lions. Its tagline was ‘A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!’ As Cameron’s Avatar demonstrates, the closer you get to a pure celebration of vision, the less the music and the script matter; a comparison of the first 3D film and the biggest most recent version may well be worthwhile less for their technical similarities but for the similarity of their colonial content. James Horner’s soundtrack for Avatar – a mix of dramatic timpani rolls, ambient environmental lift-music and belligerent folderol (from ‘Pure Spirits Of the Forest’ to ‘Gathering All The Na’vi Clans For Battle’), plus Leona Lewis – is aural soup for muddy and dubious narration to drown in. Where once the music may have covered over the whirring of new and frightening mechanisms, now the soundtrack disguises little more than the banality of the script – plots which nevertheless seek to assure us of our fundamental intentional human goodness, even if everything we do is actually wrong and vicious.

As Esther Leslie puts the relation between music and image in Adorno’s conception of cinematic music:

Adorno wrote of how in film, music lends the cinematic vision a veneer of humanity, a semblance of liveliness, by masking the whir of the projector in the background, the proof that we exist under the sway of mechanization. Without it, we are blankly exposed to our counterparts, the two-dimensional shadows that cavort on screen. (9)

Increasingly film music seeks to lend humanity itself a veneer of the cinematic, an eco-friendly soundtrack to dampen the fears of the antagonisms and asymmetries of everyday existence. Coupled with the painful loudness of Dolby surround sound and the brutal atonality of sounds of cinematic violence – explosions, car crashes, gun shots – the modern cinematic ear is trained for nothing less than the sickening, yet omnipresent, combination of cruelty and fake humanism that characterises contemporary life.


(1) ‘As soon as movies lasted more than a couple of minutes, owners of nickelodeons hired pianists to drown the noise of the hand-cranked projectors and give an extra emotional dimension to the celluloid product.’ Philip French, ‘From the Sound of Silents to Hollywood’s Golden Composers’.

(2) See here for a list of frequently used tracks across films. Thanks to Daniel Trilling for this point, and for his comments on the piece more generally.

(3) Theodor Adorno, ‘Commodity Music Analysed’, Quasi una Fantasia, trans. by Rodney Livingstone London: Verso, 1992, p. 37

(4) Ibid., p. 42.

(5) See the rather smart parody of both Avatar and Mickey Mouse in a recent episode of the Simpsons (2115), when Bart and Homer see a 3D version of an Itchy and Scratchy film called: ‘Koyaanis-Scraachy: Death out of Balance’.

(6) Alex Ross, ‘Lo and Behold!’, New Yorker.

(7) For more on Susan Schuppli, see here. For more on sonic warfare, see Steven Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear, London: MIT, 2009.

(8) Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films, London: Contium, 2005, p.59.

(9) Esther Leslie, ‘From Stillness to Movement and Back: Cartoon Theory Today’, Radical Philosophy, May/June 2006.

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.

Film criticism: before and after

by Serge Daney

Published in Cinémarabe nr. 7/8, 1978. The articles assembled in this special edition around the theme of “film criticism” were supposed to be discussed in the presence of their writers in Hammamet (Tunesia) and Marrakech (Marocco). Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons this colloquium never took place.

Precaution. There is little to gain from the gargarizing of words. Those used in the introductory text of this edition – words like aesthetics, criticism, culture, struggle, national, forms, popular, dynamics, etc. – have a different meaning depending on me placing myself here (France, or rather Paris) or there (for example the Arab world, the Maghreb, or the little that I know about it). I’m even not quite sure if we know very well what they encompass here, in Paris. For example the expression “film criticism”. Also, before asking oneself how an Arab criticism should demarcate itself from French criticism (Parisian in fact), I would like to describe how I see this criticism function (badly).

Before (television). Film criticism in France is undoubtedly constituted on the model – established in the XIXth century – of pictorial or theatrical criticism. The critic is not a professional spectator. In the best case (s)he lives off writing by contributing to newspapers (freelance or in charge of a column). (S)he has to have culture and a minimum of taste for writing.

(S)he sees the same films as the average spectator. Simply because (s)he sees almost all of the films, (s)he is the instance who distinguishes (or should distinguish) the good from the bad, the well-done from the failed, the fake from the authentic, the new from the old. (S)he takes on the role of conductor and regulator. (S)he gives to readers advice for “enlightened consumption”. It’s a time (before the “crisis” hit) when the whole world sees a lot of films, but when films are created according to a limited number of narrative and representational codes, tied to serial production in the Studios of Hollywood, Misr or Mohan. Characteristic of this time was that there was an ideological consensus, guaranteed by the natural adhesion to codes. Divergences can only bear on their application (more or less talented, rigorous, artisanal). The role of the critic is not make cinema loved (which is spontaneously adopted and loved by the people), but to make it accepted by those who regulate the Bourgeois Culture. This situation lasts until the 1950s. At this time the appearance of television, a medium that has an even more pronounced mass (and massifying) vocation, will gradually topple cinema into culture (via the movement of ciné-clubs). The generation of critics-filmmakers of Cahiers du Cinéma, for example, is contemporary to this mutation.

In the old-fashioned cinephilia, there was, in the connivance and the anonymity of obscure cinema spaces, a provisory coincidence between the mass audience and petit-bourgeois cinema lovers who preferred the anonymous, established, a bit prostitutional space of cinema (the prostituted image: the star) to the stilted space of theatre, place of social representation and bourgeois prestige.

After (television). This situation will change bit by bit. This will result in the “crisis” of cinema (magic word that doesn’t explain anything), which is traditionally attributed to television. We observe two things.
1. Cinema ceases to be the dominant audiovisual medium
2. Film criticism ceases to be the only discourse about cinema. Let’s expand on this.

What is in crisis in cinema, since 20 years, is not talent or the avant-garde, it’s the grand (serial and industrial) cinema, which leads to cinematic “yogurts” like Taxi Mauve (Yves Boisset, 1977). Why? Because cinema is no longer a privileged means of ideological impregnation and control of the masses. It’s no longer with films that the French bourgeoisie stages its consensus (except, by way of the US, with Walt Disney or catastrophe films, as means to reaffirm the consensus in extremis). Inversely, it’s in cinema that the crisis of consensus reverberates the most.

Cinema becomes a sensitive plate for all the debates of opinion which are already delineated by the press. Thus, decrease of popular consumption of films and increase of (intellectual and non-intellectual) petit-bourgeois consumption, in search of general (and vague) ideas. The codes that bore on the ideological consensus run out of steam, which allows for a certain room for maneuver and which makes for formal innovations (Bresson, Tati, Rosselini, Antonioni, Godard) finding their way into industrial cinema and producing small ones. This desegregation of codes, the disqualification of work in the framework of a distraught industry, are still essential phenomena today, that need analyzing.

A grave rupture is produced between the remnants of mass – or “popular” – cinema and an “art & essai” kinda cinema (“cinéma d’auteurs”). The new cinema audience accepts (which is new) being in default of a film (disappointed, shocked, bored – up until a certain point). It also accepts that a film no longer suffices to itself and requires a debate (hence a very sharp loss of acuity and spontaneity in the reaction of “enlightened” spectators). Cinema encultures itself by increasingly playing a role comparable to that of theater yesteryear. In the face of this, the remnants of “popular” audiences are heteroclites and never meet one another: remainders of family (Disney, French comedians, catastrophes, animals), gangs (karate), atomized, migrated individuals (porno).

What happens to criticism and the profession of critics?
1. There is no effect whatsoever on this popular audience which doesn’t read and which is already staged by publicity
2. There is a – limited – influence on the average cinephilized layers (young and urban audience mostly)

What influence? Paradoxically: at a time when criticism has less and less effective action (as it is replaced, both up- and downstream, by distributors, managers, publicists, etc.), the circle of cinema – films to see, to think about, to make known, to criticize – is considerably widened. Especially in Paris (privileged city). The films arrive on new media (broadcast, video, super8) and moreover, they arrive from the whole world (every political regime understands, even if out of suspicion, that one has to take the audiovisual into account – see cases à la Moustapha Akkad or Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina). A critic can no longer be the common measure of everything (s)he sees. The critical activity enters into crisis as well.

Before judging one has to inform, before informing one has to inform oneself. There are no longer communal codes linking the producer to the critic and to the consumer. A film is seen. Who has made it? Where does it come from? What with, against what does it exist? Very rare are the critics who try to see from up close by themselves.

More prevalent are the critics who find everything prepared for them in pressbooks, which hey copy while adding their own signature or writing effect. The critic comes dangerously close to the “masquerade of culture”, as described by Straub. Finally, critics are transmuted into dealers of their discoveries and become press agents.

Which is fair. But there is a risk that the critic confounds the work of pre-chewed information-publicity with the work of criticism. (S)he runs the risk of becoming a sociologist specialized in cinema (in committed or African cinema perhaps) who unceasingly refers the product back to context and the context back to the product. And who, not at all knowing what the artistic work consists off, ends up despising it.

There is no evidence that activity of criticism is viable, interesting, evident today, here in France. No evidence that it is the lever which, in the Arab world, would allow for the advancement of those who love cinema and who do something with it. One has to start from something else: criticism has largely become a simulacrum, it is only a discourse on cinema amongst others. There are others. For those who continue to be mobilized by it, there is one sole weapon: the independence of thought.

(Translated by Stoffel Debuysere)

Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself


by Thom Andersen

Originally published in Cinema Scope no. 20 (2004). Thom Andersen is one of the Artists in Focus on the forthcoming Courtisane Festival (1-5 April 2015), on the occasion of which the restored version of ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ will be shown.

Since my video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself was launched in Cinema Scope a year ago, it has had a curious career. Somehow it’s been better received than I anticipated. I thought I had gone out of my way to make agreement difficult. But not far enough, it seems. There have been so many good reviews I find myself resenting the bad ones—and taking them too seriously. When Gary Indiana, writing in Artforum, took exception to my claim that Hollywood movies denigrate the modernist residential architecture of Los Angeles by citing the “many less ‘negative’ representations” of buildings by R. M. Schindler, I actually wrote a letter to the editor asking what movies he had in mind. I knew one, but had he even seen Impulse (1990)? Did I miss something else? I never got an answer.

Continue reading Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself

Notes for a Film (on the Forgotten Space)


By Noël Burch and Allan Sekula

Notes taken from the proposal for ‘the Forgotten Space’, based on Allan Sekula’s exhibition and book project ‘Fish Story’. Published in OCTOBER 100, Spring 2002. ‘The Forgotten Space’ will be shown on 19 February at KASKcinema, in the presence of Noël Burch.

Our film is about globalization and the sea, the “forgotten space” of our modernity.

First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life. It is the latest incarnation of an imperative that has long been accepted as vital necessity, even before economics could claim the status of a science. The first law of proto- capitalism: markets must multiply through foreign trade or they will stagnate and die. As the most sophisticated of the seventeenth-century defenders of mercantilism, William Petty, put it (in Political Arithmetick, 1690): “There is much more to be gained by Manufacture than Husbandry, and by Merchandise than Manufacture…. A Seaman is in effect three Husbandmen.”

The contemporary vision of an integrated, globalized, self-regulating capitalist world economy can be traced back to some of these axioms of the capitalist “spirit of adventure.” And yet what is largely missing from the current picture is any sense of material resistance to the expansion of the market imperative. Investment flows intangibly through the ether as if by magic. Money begets money. Wealth is weightless. Sea trade, when it is remembered at all, is a relic of an older and obsolete economy, a world of decrepitude, rust, and creaking cables, of the slow movement of heavy things. If Petty’s old fable held that a seafarer was worth three peasants, neither count for much in the even more fabulous new equation. And yet we would all die without the toil of farmers and seafarers.

Our premise is that the sea remains the crucial space of globalization. Nowhere else is the disorientation, violence, and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest, but this truth is not self-evident, and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery, a problem to be solved.

The factory system is no longer concentrated in the developed world but has become mobile and dispersed. As ships become more like buildings, the giant floating warehouses of the ‘just-in-time” system of distribution, factories begin to resemble ships, stealing away stealthily in the night, restlessly searching for ever- cheaper labor. A garment factory in Los Angeles or Hong Kong closes, the work benches and sewing machines reappear in the suburbs of Guangzhou or Dacca. In the automobile industry, for example, the function of the ship is akin to that of conveyor systems within the old integrated car factory: parts span the world on their journey to the final assembly line.

The function of sea trade is no longer a separate, mercantilist enterprise, but has become an integral component of the world-industrial system. We are distracted from the full implications of this insight by two powerful myths, which stifle curiosity. The first myth is that the sea is nothing more than a residual mercantilist space, a reservoir of cultural and economic anachronisms, fit to be viewed only with nostalgia. The second myth is that we live in a postindustrial society, that cybernetic systems and the service economy have radically marginalized the “old economy” of heavy material fabrication and processing. Thus the fiction of obsolescence mobilizes vast reserves of sentimental longing for things that are not really dead.

Our response to these myths is that the sea is the key to understanding globalized industrialism. Without a thoroughly modern and sophisticated “revolution” in ocean-going cargo-handling technology, the global factory would not exist, and globalization would not be a burning issue.

What began in the mid-1950s as a modest American improvement in cargo logistics, an effort to achieve new efficiencies within a particular industry, has now taken on world historic importance. The cargo container, a standardized metal box, capable of being quickly transferred from ship to highway lorry to railroad train, has radically transformed the space and time of port cities and ocean passages.

There have been enormous increases in economies of scale. Older transport links, such as the Panama Canal, slide toward obsolescence as ships become more and more gargantuan. Super-ports, pushed far out from the metropolitan center, require vast level tracts for the storage and sorting of containers. The old sheltering deepwater port, with its steep hillsides and its panoramic vistas, is less suited to these new spatial demands than low delta planes that nonetheless must be continually dredged to allow safe passage for the deeper and deeper draft of the new super-ships.

Ships are loaded and unloaded in as little as twelve hours, compared to the laborious cargo stowage practices of fifty years ago. The old waterfront culture of sailor bars, flophouses, brothels, and ship chandlers give way either to a depopulated terrain vague or-blessed with the energies of real-estate speculators-to a new artificial maritime space of theme restaurants, aestheticized nautical relics, and expensive ocean-view condominiums. As the class character of the port cities changes, the memory of mutiny and rebellion, of intense class struggle by dockers, seafarers, fishermen, and shipyard workers-struggles that were fundamental to the formation of the institutions of social democracy and free trade-unionism- fades from public awareness. What tourist in today’s Amsterdam is drawn to the old monument commemorating dockworkers’ heroic but futile strike to prevent the Nazi deportation of the Dutch Jews?

If the cargo container represents one instrument of maritime transformation, the companion instrument is not logistical but legal. This is the flag of convenience system of ship registry. Here again, the Americans were in the lead, seeking to break powerful maritime unions in the wake of World War II. If globalization is understood by many in the world today as Americanization, the maritime world gives us, then, these two examples of the revolutionary and often brutal ingenuity of American business practices. The flag of convenience system allows for ships owned in rich countries to be registered in poor countries. These countries sell their flag for a price. This explains the often mysterious and obscure banners that fly from the sterns of vessels: Malta, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Panama, and so on. The system was created to obscure legal responsibility for safety and fair labor practices. Today’s seafaring crews are drawn from the old and new Third Worlds: Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians, Ukrainians, Russians. The conditions they endure are not unlike those experienced by the lascars of the eighteenth century.

A consequence of the global production-distribution system is that links between port and hinterland become all the more important. It is not just the port that is transformed, but the highway and rail system, the very transport infrastructure of a country or a continent, as evidenced by the Betuwe line in Holland, or by the frequently catastrophic pressure of truck traffic on Alpine tunnels.

The boxes are everywhere, mobile and anonymous, their contents hidden from view. One could say that these containers are “coffins of remote labor-power” carrying goods manufactured somewhere else, by invisible workers on the other side of the globe. We are told by the apologists of globalization that this accelerated flow is indispensable for our continued prosperity and for the deferred future prosperity of those who labor so far away. But perhaps this is a case for Pandora, or, better yet, for her more clairvoyant sister, Cassandra.

Our film moves between four port cities: Bilbao, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. It visits the industrial hinterland in south China, and the transport hinterland in the heart of Holland. Of the four port cities, three can be classed as “super-ports,” the largest in the world. Here we encounter functional hypertrophy. Bilbao, a fading port with a brave maritime history, has become the site of radical symbolic transformation of derelict maritime space. In Bilbao, functional atrophy coexists with symbolic hypertrophy, a delirium of neo-baroque maritime nostalgia wedded to the equally delirious promise of the “new economy.”

The challenge of responding adequately both to this symbolic overload and to the sheer mute giantism of the functional maritime world has led us to imagine a film that is, first and foremost, a “documentary,” precisely attentive to the materiality of social processes and testimony, and, at the same time, welcoming to the hyperbole and carnival of the puppet show, animation, and the staged micro-drama….