The house lights go down and the movie begins. Brutal and enigmatic images appear on the screen: a film projector running, a closeup of the film going through it, terrifying glimpses of animal sacrifices, a nail being driven through a hand. then, a more “normal” time, a mortuary. Here we see a young boy we take at first to be a corpse like the others, but who turns out to be alive — he moves, he reads a book, he reaches toward the screen surface, and under his hand there seems to form the face of a beautiful woman.
What we have seen so far is the prologue sequence of Bergman’s Persona, a film that has been analyzed in books and university courses by the likes of Raymond Bellour, David Bordwell, Marilyn Johns Blackwell. And the film might go on this way.
Stop! Let us rewind Bergman’s film to the beginning and simply cut out the sound, try to forget what we’ve seen before, and watch the film afresh. Now we see something quite different.
First, the shot of the nail impaling the hand: played silent, it turns out to have consisted of three separate shots where we had seen one, because they had been linked by sound. What’s more, the nailed hand in silence is abstract, whereas with sound, it is terrifying, real. As for the shots in the mortuary, without the sound of dripping water that connected them together we discover in them a series of stills, parts of isolated human bodies, out of space and time. And the boy’s right hand, without the vibrating tone that accompanies and structures its exploring gestures, no longer “forms” the face, but just wanders aimlessly. The entire sequence has lost its rhythm and unity.
[image from Wikipedia]
… Added value is what gives the (eminently incorrect) impression that sound is unnecessary, that sound merely duplicates a meaning which in reality it brings about, either all on its own or by discrepancies between it and the image.
… each kind of perception bears a fundamentally different relationship to motion and stasis, since sound, contrary to sight, presupposes movement from the outset. In a film image that contains movement many other things in the frame may remain fixed. But sound by its very nature necessarily implies a displacement or agitation, however minimal. Sound does have means to suggest stasis, but only in limited cases.
… In the course of audio-viewing a sound film, the spectator does not note these different speeds of cognition as such, because added value intervenes. Why, for example, don’t the myriad rapid visual movements in king fu or special effects movies create a confusing impression? The answer is that they are “spotted” by rapid auditory punctuation, in the form of whistles, shouts, bangs, and tinkling that mark certain moments and leave a strong audiovisual memory.
Silent films already had a certain predilection for rapid montages of events. But in its montage sequences the silent cinema was careful to simplify the image to the maximum; that is, it limited explanatory perception in space so as to facilitate perception in time.
… If the sound cinema often has complex and fleeting movements issuing from the heart of a frame teeming with characters and other visual details, this is because the sound superimposed onto the image is capable of directing our attention to a particular visual trajectory.
… One of the most important effects of added value relates to the perception of time in the image, upon which sound can exert considerable influence. An extreme example, as we have seen, is found in the prologue sequence of Persona, where atemporal static shots are inscribed into a time continuum via the sounds of dripping water and footsteps. Sound temporalizes images in three ways.
The first is temporal animation of the image. To varying degrees, sound renders the perception of time in the image as exact, detailed, immediate, concrete — or vague, fluctuating, broad.
Second, sound endows shots with temporal linearization. In the silent cinema, shots do not always indicate temporal succession, wherein what happens in shot B would necessarily follow what is shown in shot A. But synchronous sound does impose a sense of succession.
Third, sound vectorizes or dramatizes shots, orienting them toward a future, a goal, and creation of a feeling of imminence and expectation. The shot is going somewhere and it is oriented in time.
… When a sequence of images does not necessarily show temporal succession in the actions it depicts — that is, when we can read them equally as simultaneous or successive — the addition of realistic, diegetic sound imposes on the sequence a sense of real time, like normal everyday experience, and above all, a sense of time that is linear and sequential.
… Imagine a peaceful shot in a film set in the tropics, where a woman is ensconced in a rocking chair on a veranda, dozing, her chest rising and falling regularly. The breeze stirs the curtains and the bamboo windchimes that hang by the doorway. The leaves of the banana trees flutter in the wind. We could take this poetic shot and easily project it from the last frame to the first, and this would change essentially nothing, it would all look just as natural. We can say that the time this shot depicts is real, since it is full of micro-events that reconstitute the texture of the present, but that it is not vectorized. Between the sense of moving from past to future and future to past we cannot confirm a single noticeable difference.
Now let us take some sounds to go with the shot — direct sound recorded during filming, or a soundtrack mixed after the fact: the woman’s breathing, the wind, the chinking of the bamboo chimes. If we now play the film in reverse, it no longer works at all, especially the windchimes. Why? Because each one of these clinking sounds, consisting of an attack and then a slight fading resonance, is a finite story, oriented in time in a precise and irreversible manner. Played in reverse, it can immediately be recognized as “backwards.” Sounds are vectorized.
The same is true for the dripping water in the prologue of Persona. The sound of the smallest droplet imposes a real and irreversible time on what we see, in that it presents a trajectory in time (small impact, then delicate resonance) in accordance with logics of gravity and return to inertia.
… Added value works reciprocally. Sound shows us the image differently than what the image shows alone, and the image likewise makes us hear sound differently than if the sound were ringing out in the dark. However for all this reciprocity the screen remains the principal support of filmic perception. Transformed by the image it influences, sound ultimately reprojects onto the image the product of their mutual influences. We find eloquent testimony to this reciprocity in the case of horrible or upsetting sounds. The image projects onto them a meaning they do not have at all by themselves.
Everyone knows that the classical sound film, which avoided showing certain things, called on sound to come to the rescue. Sound suggested the forbidden sight in a much more frightening way than if viewers were to see the spectacle with their own eyes.
… [In Liliana Cavani’s The Skin] An American tank accidentally runs over a little Italian boy, with — if memory does not fail me — a ghastly noise that sounds like a watermelon being crushed. Although spectators are not likely to have heard the real sound of a human body in this circumstance, they may imagine that it has some of this humid, viscous quality. The sound here has obviously been Foleyed in, perhaps precisely by crushing a melon.
… In Franju’s Eyes Without a Face we find one of the rare disturbing sounds that the public and critics have actually remarked upon after viewing: the noise made by the body of a young woman — the hideous remains of an aborted skin-transplant experiment — when surgeon Pierre Brasseur and his accomplice Alida Valli drop it into a family vault. What this flat thud (which never fails to send a shudder through the theater) has in common with the noise of Cavani’s film is that it transforms the human being into a thing, into vile, inert, disposable matter, with its entrails and osseous cavities.