Unreal Nature

May 8, 2014

The Intimate Noises of Immediate Space

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… Every place has its own unique silence …

This is from Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen by Michel Chion (1994):

… there is no image track and no soundtrack in the cinema, but a place of images, plus sounds.

… A film dialogue can be crawling with inaudible splices, impossible for the listener to detect. While, as we know, it is very difficult to invisibly join two shots filmed in different times — the cut jumps to our eyes.

[ … ]

… The function of punctuation in its widest grammatical sense (placement of commas, semicolons, periods, exclamation points, quotation marks, and ellipses, which can not only modulate the meaning and rhythm of a text but actually determine it as well), has long been a central concern of theater directing.

… The silent cinema had multiple modes of punctuation: gestural, visual, and rhythmical. Intertitles functioned as a new and specific kind of punctuation as well. Beyond the printed text, the graphics of intertitles, the possibility of repeating them, and their interaction with the shots constituted so many means of inflecting the film.

So synchronous sound brought the cinema not the principle of punctuation but increasingly the subtle means of punctuating scenes without putting a strain on the acting of the editing. The barking of a dog offscreen, a grandfather clock ringing on the set, or a nearby piano are unobtrusive ways to emphasize a word, scan a dialogue, close a scene.

… In a well-known aphorism Bresson reminded us that sound film made silence possible. This statement illuminates a paradox: it was necessary to have sounds and voices so that the interruption of them could probe more deeply into this thing called silence. (In the silent cinema, everything just suggested sounds.)

However, this zero-degree (or is it?) element of the soundtrack that is silence is certainly not so simple to achieve, even on the technical level. You can’t just interrupt the auditory flow and stick in a few inches of blank leader. The spectator would have the impression of a technical break (which of course Godard used to full effect, notably in Band of Outsiders). Every place has its own unique silence, and it is for this reason that for sound recording on exterior locations, in a studio, or in an auditorium, care is taken to record several seconds of the “silence” specific to that place. This ambient silence can be used later if needed behind dialogue, and will create the desired feeling that the space of the action is temporarily silent.

However, the impression of silence in a film scene does not simply come from an absence of noise. It can only be produced as a result of context and preparation. The simplest of cases consists in preceding it with a noise-filled sequence. So silence is never a neutral emptiness. It is the negative sound we’ve heard beforehand or imagined; it is the product of a contrast.

… Film uses other sounds as synonyms of silence: faraway animal calls, clocks in an adjoining room, rustlings, and all the intimate noises of immediate space.

My most recent previous post from Chion’s book is here.

-Julie

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