… the song that sang to us from the very dawn of our consciousness in the womb — a song that seemed to come from everywhere and to be part of us before we had any conception of what “us” meant — that this song is the voice of another and that she is now separate from us and we from her.
We begin to hear before we are born, four and a half months after conception. From then on, we develop in a continuous and luxurious bath of sounds: the song of our mother’s voice, the swash of her breathing, the trumpeting of her intestines, the timpani of her heart. Throughout the second four-and-a-half months, Sound rules as solitary Queen of our senses: the close and liquid world of uterine darkness makes Sight and Smell impossible, Taste monochromatic, and Touch a dim and generalized hint of what is to come.
Birth brings with it the sudden and simultaneous ignition of the other four senses, and an intense competition for the throne that Sound had claimed as hers. The most notable pretender is the darting and insistent Sight, who dubs himself King as if the throne had been standing vacant, waiting for him.
Ever discreet, Sound pulls a veil of oblivion across her reign and withdraws into the shadows, keeping a watchful eye on the braggart Sight. If she gives up her throne, it is doubtful that she gives up her crown.
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… For as far back in human history as you would care to go, sounds had seemed to be the inevitable and “accidental” (and therefore mostly ignored) accompaniment of the visual — stuck like a shadow to the object that caused them. And, like a shadow, they appeared to be completely explained by reference to the objects that gave them birth: a metallic clang was always “cast” by the hammer, just as the smell of baking always came from a loaf of fresh bread.
Recording magically lifted the shadow away from the object and stood it on its own, giving it a miraculous and sometimes frightening substantiality.
…The essential first step that Chion takes is to assume that there is no “natural and preexisting harmony between image and sound” — that the shadow is in fact dancing free.
… The challenge that an idea like this presents to the filmmaker is how to create the right situations and make the right choices so that bonds of seeming inevitability are forged between the film’s images and sounds, while admitting that there was nothing inevitable about them to begin with.
… We take for granted that this dancing shadow of sound, once free of the object that created it, can then reattach itself to a wide range of other objects and images. The sound of an axe chopping wood, for instance, played exactly in sync with a bat hitting a baseball, will “read” as a particularly forceful hit rather than a mistake by the filmmaker.
… in my own experience, the most successful sounds seem not only to alter what the audience sees but to go further and trigger a kind of conceptual resonance between image and sound: the sound makes us see the image differently, and then this new image makes us hear the sound differently, which in turn makes us see something else in the image, which makes us hear different things in the sound, and so on. This happens rarely enough (I am thinking of certain electronic sounds at the beginning of The Conversation) to be specially prized when it does occur — often by lucky accident, dependent as it is on choosing exactly the right sound at exactly the right metaphoric distance from the image. It has something to do with the time it takes for the audience to “get” the metaphors: not instantaneously, but not much delayed either — like a good joke.
The question remains, in all of this, why we generally perceive the product of the fusion of image and sound — the audio-vision — in terms of the image. In other words, why does King Sight still sit on his throne?
One of Chion’s most original observations — the phantom Acousmêtre — depends for its effect on delaying the fusion of sound and image to the extreme, but supplying only the sound — almost always a voice — and withholding the image of the sound’s true source until nearly the very end of the film. Only then, when the audience has used its imagination to the fullest, as in a radio play, is the real identity of the source revealed, almost always with an accompanying loss of imagined power: the wizard in The Wizard of Ox is one of a number of examples cited, along with Hal in 2001 and the mother in Psycho. The Acousmêtre is, for various reasons having to do with our perceptions (the disembodied voice seems to come from everywhere and therefore to have no clearly defined limits to its power), a uniquely cinematic device. And yet …
And yet there is an echo here of our earliest experience of the world: the revelation at birth (or soon after) that the song that sang to us from the very dawn of our consciousness in the womb — a song that seemed to come from everywhere and to be part of us before we had any conception of what “us” meant — that this song is the voice of another and that she is now separate from us and we from her.