Early Versus Modern Sound Theory

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By the end of 1929, the conversion of the motion picture industry to sound was all but complete in the United States. Nearly every theater had installed sound equipment. So much did the public love the novelty of the sound film that the best-made silent film could not compete at the box office with the worst, most clumsily crafted "talkie." But many film directors, film theorists, and aestheticians believed that the image defined the essence of cinema and was the feature that distinguished it from literature and theater. They felt that the addition of synchronized sound (especially in the form of spoken speech) to film was a disaster that would destroy the cinema as a unique art form. Subsequently, I refer to this group as the early sound theorists. Music, in the form of live accompaniment by a piano, organ, or even a full-scale symphony orchestra, had always been a part of the cinematic experience, so the early sound theorists did not object to the synchronized addition of music, or even to the addition of sound effects. Their enemy was the spoken word.

Bela Balazs, a passionate proponent of the primacy of the image in film, argued that spoken words are less expressive than the gestures and facial expressions that accompany them and that constitute the real language of the cinema. "The silent film is free of the isolating walls of lan guage difference," he writes. "If we look at and understand each other's faces and gestures, we not only understand, we also learn to feel each other's emotions."1 The inclusion of the spoken word in film, Balazs feared, would desensitize audiences to the deeper communicative force of the purely visual image. In a similar vein, the art historian and film theoretician Rudolph Arnheim argued that because the image already speaks, there is no need for literal voices. "In the universal silence of the image, the fragments of a broken vase could 'talk' exactly the way a character talked to his neighbor."2 Arnheim went so far as to call for the return of the silent film to restore the golden age of the image.

Other early film theorists who were also filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein, V. I. Pudovkin, René Clair, and Alberto Cavalcanti, struck a compromise. They deplored films that employed sound in a slavish, unimaginative way, by matching every sound to its on-screen source. Nevertheless, they admitted that the addition of music, sound effects, and even the spoken word could potentially enhance the power of the film image if (and this is a big "if") most of the sounds were nonsynchro-nous, that is, detached from their on-screen source. An even better way to add sound was to use it in counterpoint to the image, creating a clash, a felt disparity, between what was seen and what was heard.

In his book on film art and aesthetics, the French director René Clair points to an example of the effective use of nonsynchronous sound in an early American film musical The Broadway Melody (1929). As the camera holds on the anguished face of Bessie Love, whose lover has just departed, the offscreen sound of his car door shutting and the car driving away is heard on the sound track. The combination of the actress's face and the sounds made by the departing car create a far more poignant expression of sorrow, Clair argues, than if the director had cut to the images of the lover shutting the car door and driving away that would have been necessary if the film were silent. "Even in the dialogues of the talking picture," Clair writes, "it seems that at the moment a sentence is spoken it is often more interesting to see the face of the listener than that of the speaker." He concludes that "It is the alternate use of the image of a subject and the sound produced by this subject—and not their simultaneous use—that creates the best effects in the sound and talking picture."3

The great Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, V. I. Pudovkin and Grig-ori Alexandrov suggested another compromise. They signed a manifesto in 1929 championing the contrapuntal use of sound as a way to extend the culture of montage which they had painstakingly pioneered.4 This manifesto argued that just as the creative juxtaposition of images the So viets favored in their experiments with editing can instill a new idea in the viewer's mind, so could the creative clash or contrapuntal use of sound and image.

In his pioneering work on film aesthetics, Film Technique and Film Acting, the Soviet film theorist V. I. Pudovkin gives an example from his own film Deserter (1933) of how the use of contrapuntal sound can powerfully convey an idea through a montage of sound and image. The sequence he describes involves a workers' demonstration in Hamburg. The workers set out with great purposefulness, but are brutally beaten back by the police. The conventional way to create a score for the sequence, Pudovkin explains, would be to match the mood of the image to the mood of the music: cheerful march music to accompany the optimism at the beginning stages of the demonstration, ominous music when the police appear, and music of despair when the demonstration is defeated. But this is not how the sound is in fact structured in the film. Instead, Pu-dovkin tells us, the score was written, played, and recorded so that the music gradually grew in power, with a note of stern and confident victory constantly running through it, and uninterruptedly rising in strength from beginning to end. "As the workers lose ground to the police, the insistent victory of the music grows; yet again, when the workers are defeated and disbanded, the music becomes yet more powerful still in its spirit of victorious exaltation."5 As a result, at the moment that the workers are most beaten back, the music is most triumphant. By this contrapuntal clash of sound and image (triumphant music is juxtaposed with defeated workers), Pudovkin was able to convey in a subtle, but strongly emotional manner an ideological point: History is on the side of the workers, so that even in defeat lies a hidden victory. Physical losses only strengthen moral resolve.

One theorist who did not deplore the coming of sound was André Bazin, who had no difficulty integrating sound, and especially the spoken word, into his realist theory of film. Bazin, as was discussed in chapter 3, celebrated film for its ability to mechanically record images of the world. Hence for Bazin, sound was the natural extension of film's inherent realism. While many early sound theorists saw the silent films of the late 1920s, just before the coming of sound, as the golden age of film, Bazin saw the silent film even at its most artistic as incomplete, missing one of reality's most important elements: sound.6

In The Technique of Film Editing, Karel Reisz points out that not only does the addition of synchronized sound make the cinema more realistic in Bazin's terms (that is, closer to our everyday experience of the world), it also permitted much greater economy in storytelling as well as more complex stories. A well-written line of dialogue can convey information which the silent filmmaker could only express in an intertitle or through an often torturously ingenious series of explanatory images, both of which techniques awkwardly slow down the story.7 Sometimes a word can be worth a thousand pictures.

Reisz, who occupies a position somewhere between early and modern sound theory, concedes that even films that rely heavily on dialogue can still be good films. "Any theory which rules out films like The Little Foxes, Citizen Kane or the early Marx Brothers comedies, must be suspect from the beginning," he writes. But he insists, nevertheless, that good films must "make their essential impression by the images."8 In Introduction to Film Art, David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, modern sound theorists, challenge even that position, insisting that the elements of sound and image in the cinema are equal and complementary. Synchronized speech in a film not only conveys concepts and ideas that would be cumbersome to express in silent film, but the quality of the speech— its pitch, volume, degree of nasality, whether or not the voice has an accent—can strongly affect the way we perceive the speaker, adding layers and nuances of meaning and expressiveness impossible to convey through gestures or facial expressions alone.9 The image of a beautiful woman, for example, can be shattered by the quality of her voice. This happens famously in Singin' in the Rain (1952) when the glamorous silent film star Lina La Mont (Jean Hagen) utters her first screechy words with a pronounced Brooklyn accent. The sound of her voice makes her suddenly no longer appear beautiful. Michel Chion, the ultimate modern sound theorist, goes so far as to argue in Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen that sound is in fact more important than the image in determining the effect of a film. He argues that sound influences our perception of images. According to Chion, we notice different things in the same image when it is accompanied by different sounds, and sounds can make us notice otherwise insignificant elements of an image.10

The arguments of the modern sound theorists, who insist that synchronized sound was good for film, help explain why a film like Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940), a film that talks its head off, is still quin-tessentially filmic. Although the film was an adaptation of a Broadway play, and a great deal of our pleasure in the film derives from the clever, fast-paced dialogue, it is anything but filmed theater. A close analysis of just a few sequences from His Girl Friday proves the argument of modern sound film theorists that the addition of sound to film, even in films dominated by talk, expands the aesthetic possibilities and emotional power of the film medium.

The plot of His Girl Friday involves a battle of the sexes between Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), his ex-wife and ex-employee (she was his ace reporter), who divorced Walter because he always put the newspaper before her. At the beginning of the film Hildy comes to Walter's office with a new fiancé in tow to inform him that she is getting married and will be leaving the newspaper business forever in exchange for a more conventional life as a wife and mother. An analysis of a very talky short sequence from the beginning of His Girl Friday demonstrates how Hawks's dialogue works brilliantly in tandem with his images, to the benefit of both.

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