Ear Below Eye

By Trinh T. Minh-ha

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was originally published in Ear 9:5/10:1 (Fall 1985); repr. as “Holes in the Sound Wall”, in Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, 1991, pp 201-206.

Your soundtrack is a disaster!
Why? I asked HIM who knows the rules of precedence. Who can evaluate with certainty what ranks above what ranks below in the art of ordering film sound. There are many not-to-do’s in the field and a small quarrel may bring about many a ruin.
(Silence. Surprised? Indignant?) … because . . . because of the silences … the …. the repetitions!
Don’t I know? Haven’t I learned through COMMON SENSE that nothing is more dreadful to the trained ear than sounding HOLES. Haven’t I noticed through the many films I saw that one of the golden rules of sound cinema is not to leave any empty section on the soundtrack; not even in moments where silence serves as dramatic sound? Above all, no hole. Please no hole. And should there be any, let’s block it up. With music. This, Henri Colpi rightly observed, is one of the cineastes’ cries of terror. Music makes such a successful marriage with the moving image that not using it so as to cover up silence, to combat audience disturbance; and to breathe into the shadows on the screen some of the life that photography has taken away from them seems like an irremediable error, an utter loss, a … di-sas-ter.
Good film music was formerly differentiated from bad film music by its “inaudibility.” It played in such a way as not to impinge on the viewing, and ear always came after eye in the creative process. Belonging to an area of secundary perception, it was more likely to escape critical evaluation, therefore to manipulate affection. In a sound film, there is always something to listen to: either continuous music from the beginning to the end, or sporadic music with sound effects (things crumpling, rustling, rubbing against each other, footsteps, machines running) and especially chatters, a surfeit of dialogues. With this constant train of sounds/OMNIPRESENCE, silence is avoided like a dis-ease/ABSENCE/DEATH.
Music should not disturb the representative continuity. Should not call attention to itself/detract from the images/ remind men and women of their mortality. BE DISCREET. Have a regular and cohesive structure that cements and gives shape to an otherwise incoherent amorphous film. Remove the sound (from it) and we would be confronting a profoundly disjunctive set of images. We might find ourselves yawning at moments of intense actions and laughing at death scenes. In other words, emotional UNDER-scoring is lacking. Filmmaker loses his-her power to transmit the message, filmviewers fail to interpret it. MUSIC IS THE OPIUM OF CINEMA. Music determines characters, expression, mood, atmosphere, transition, orientation, meaning. Music drowns out all life noises that accidentally break in on the created world/Reserved realm that has the force of neither life nor death, is neither one nor the other but ONLY an imaginary site where both remained unassumed, both are re-presented, SEEN or HEARD with enough distance to banish temporarily all fears, to divert temporarily the pangs of death from life/Music more often than not dictates how the viewer should respond to the images. Without the thousand and one anchorings achieved through sound, the film would disperse in numerously diverse directions, giving rise to ERRORS OF INTERPRETATION. Says Hanns Eisler, the magic function of music … consisted in appeasing the evil spirits unconsciously dreaded ….. The need was felt to spare the spectator the unpleasantness involved’ in seeing effigies of living, acting, and even speaking persons, who were at the same time silent. The fact that they are living and non-living at the same time is what constitutes their ghostly characters, and music was introduced … to exorcise fear or help the spectator absorb the shock. The soundless image is mortal (death has already occurred or will soon ensue): it drifts on to infinity, without ever taking root, hence its dreamlike reality – a dream within a dream. A dream that soon becomes a nightmare with deafness, muteness, and death scenes in it. A DREAM then, whose nightmarish potentials must be blocked by the insertion of a descriptive music that would make it resemble REALITY – on the one hand less of a dream because it is temporarily rid of its ghostlike features, on the other hand more of a dream because it grows unconscious of its unreality in its perfective efforts to imitate-duplicate reality. We surely don’t mind (if not enjoy) seeing violence and death on film (representation of death), but we hardly tolerate seeing them built in the very sound-image relationship that makes up the film (representation as death process). Acknowledge them as part of filmmaking.

SILENCES are holes in the sound wall/SOUNDS are bubbles on the surface of silence. Sound like silence is both opening and filling/concave and convex/life and death. Sound like silence may freeze or free the image. In many civilizations, definitions of music and silence are interchangeable. Music is life. But entering into LIFE is also entering into the DEATH process. Every day lived is a step closer to death and every sound sent OUT is a breaking IN on silence. Music goes on permanently and hearing it is like looking at a river which does not stop running when one turns away. The eye hears and the ear sees. Music is neither sound nor silence. It is contained in each and encompasses both, invisible and intangible by nature, it is especially effective in bringing forth the tangible and the visible. As the Hindus put it: “the great singer has erected worlds and the Universe is her-his song.” In the realization of a film soundtrack, clear distinctions have been made between speech (dialogue, voice-over, or oral testimony), noises (sound effects), and music. More often than not, these three elements are used as subservient INSTRUMENTS to promote an end instead of being dealt with as autonomous TOOLS for creativity. They are constructed as signifying units to help the spectator to assimilate the narrative. Thus, language is consumed exclusively as meaning, noises are reproduced mainly for their informative power, and music is tailored to fit the film’s action. There is, on the whole, no room for silence (environmental sounds from the movie-house). The need to fill in every blank space that would reveal the “unrealistic” nature of the image is usually greater than the impulse to break open/in and out the sound-image wall to unveil the void of representation. A certain repulsion for silence is widely shared among filmmakers. Many of us prefer to turn a deaf ear to the death bell – DEATH STROLLS BETWEEN IMAGES – and to make of Art a human aspiration for immortality, a product SEPARATED FROM LIFE, invented so as to postpone death to infinity. The stance is, naturally, highly paradoxical: to turn away from death, one must also turn away from life. Thus, even in experimental films where the conventional narrative structure is questioned, the audience often faces a soundtrack whose continuous, drug-like flow of music does not fail to compromise the subversiveness of the visuals by indulging the viewers in an “artificial paradise” from which they cannot depart without wanting immediately to return. Drift on uninterruptedly. From one paradise one inebriation one oblivion to another. Above all, no hole. Please no hole. And should there be any, let’s block it up. With music. While the images reach a high stage of deconstruction (or do they?), the sound is satisfied with tying some pop, rock tunes, reintroducing thereby in a forceful manner the mainstream devices ( of description, expression, association, identification) the images’ attempt at undermining. INTERNALIZED AESTHETIC CLAP-TRAP. The effect of music combined with film differs from that of film or music alone. One can easily annul the other when their relation is taken for granted, that is to say when their interaction is not thoroughly questioned. The myth of storytelling in music is still very alive in the film world. To challenge the monotonous universe of illustrative logic in which film music usually moves, it is therefore necessary to play an exacting game with all securely anchored audio-visual habits.

Silence: people having faith in each other. If the main motive of cinema is not expression nor communication, not telling a story nor illustrating an idea, then … the coast is clear(ed). Everything remains to be done in the field of film music. Everything seems possible and the constraints are above all a question of relationship. (Relationships that are determined by a specific situation – here, a sound film – but that also exceed it: they interweave beyond the limits set; relate one work to the other, film to life/death; expand layers of reading/listening; connect film, filmed subject, filmmaker, filmviewer, and context in which film can exist. One way of defining filmmaking is to say that it consists of entering into relations with things and people and making as many of these relations come into view/hearing as possible.) Whether noises are music or not, for example, depends en the hearer’s way of living: how one listens to them, absorbs, and recreates them. This no longer sounds new to our ear. Yet looking at the widespread practices of sound cinema, I cannot help asking: why use noises so consistently for their informative power? Why not explore at the same time their musical potentials? Move from that which is easily identifiable to that which is at the limit of being identifiable. Listen to them non-knowingly but alertly. Enjoy their materiality. SUSPEND the MEANING of sound, by multiplying their naturalist-realist role to the point where no single anchoring is possible, no message can be congealed, no analysis can be complete. Let it go; let it exceed all control, for an excess of intentions (conscious control) is always mortal. A sound that one does not recognize (because it is decomposed, recomposed, changed-cut, repeated, emphasized differently) provokes, among other reactions, a renewal of attention for the image whose (form and) content becomes the only point of reference left, and vice-versa. One may also want to use codes so as to displace more effectively their informative content. Intermittently give the illusion of real (synchronized) sound so as to reveal more keenly their illusive nqture. A soundtrack can lure the spectators into a definite mood and take an abrupt turn as soon as they enter into it, thereby keeping constantly open the space of their desire for the finished product. The same holds true for the use of voices and dialogues. Language exceeds meaning. I define it first and foremost as the music of a body and a people. The eternal chatter that escorts images is an oppressive device of fixed association. To bring out the plural, sliding relationship between ear and eye and to leave more room for the spectators to decide what they want to make out of a statement or a sequence of images, it is necessary to invent a whole range of strategies that would unsettle such fixedness. Here, silence and repetitions can play an important role. Cutting a sentence at different places, for example, assembling it with holes, repeating it in slightly different forms and in ever-changing verbal and visual contexts help to produce a constant shift and dislocation in meanings. Silences and repetitions are rejected as a failure of language when they are experienced as oblivious holes or as the utterance of the same thing twice or more. WE SHOULD NOT STAMMER, so goes the reasoning, or we only make our way successfully in life when we speak in a continuous articulate flow. True. After many years of confusions, of suppressed voice and INARTICULATE SOUNDS, holes, blanks, black-outs, jump-cuts, out-of-focus visions, I FINALLY SAY NO: yes, sounds are sounds and should above all be released as sounds. Everything is in the releasing There is no score to follow, no hidden dimension from the visuals to disclose, and endless thread to weave anew.

Shadows of the Unseen / Movement Radio 19

Nineteenth episode of “Shadows of the Unseen” for movement_radio Athens. Aired June 2022

1. Excerpts from You Are Not I (Sara Driver, 1981) :
2. Jim O’Rourke, Hotel Blue (From Kaien Hoteru burû [Kaien Hotel Blue], Kôji Wakamatsu, 2012)
3. Edvard Graham Lewis, All Under (From All Under, Gunilla Leander, 2003)
4. Bruce Gilbert, Work for Do You Me? I Did 3 (From Swamp, Charles Atlas, 1986)
5. Luc Ferrari, Chronopolis (From Chronopolis, Piotr Kamler, 1983)
6. Bernard Parmegiani, Versailles… peut-être (From Versailles… peut-être, Michel Sibra, 1977)
7. Fennesz, Limit Cycle (From Limit Cycle, Hideki Futamura, 2007)
8. Claudio Gizzi, Old Age of Dracula (From Blood for Dracula or Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Paul Morrissey, 1974)
9. Jonathan Snipes, One Base Reality (From A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher, 2021)
10. Excerpts from Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)
11. Fred Karlin, Yesterday’s Dream (From Up the Down Staircase , Robert Mulligan, 1967)
12. Terry Riley, In the Summer (From Lifespan, Alexander Whitelaw, 1976)

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.

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 jonathanrosenbaum.net.

#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)