Unreal Nature

June 5, 2014

Pure Indices

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:07 am

… With the new place that noises occupy, speech is no longer central to films. Speech tends to be reinscribed in a global sensory continuum that envelops it, and that occupies both kinds of space, auditory and visual.

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

… The sound film, as I have said, is just this: sounds in reference to a locus of image projection, this locus being either occupied or empty. Sounds can abound and move through space, the image may remain impoverished — no matter, for quantity and proportion don’t count here. The quantitative increase of sound we’ve seen in films in the last few years demonstrates this. Multiplex theaters equipped with Dolby sometimes reduce the screen to the size of a postage stamp, such that the sound played at powerful volume seems able to crush the screen with little effort. But the screen remains the focus of attention. The sound-camel continues to pass through the eye of the visual needle. Under the effect of this copious sound it is always the screen that radiates power and spectacle, and it is always the image, the gathering place and magnet for auditory impressions, that sound decorates with its unbridled splendor.

… noises, those humble footsoldiers, have remained the outcasts of theory, having been assigned a purely utilitarian and figurative value and consequently neglected.

For much traditional cinema this neglect is proportional to the scanty presence of noises in the films themselves. We all carry a few film sounds in our memory — the train whistle, gunshots, galloping horses in westerns and the tapping of typewriters in police station scenes — but we forget that they are heard only occasionally, and are always extremely stereotyped. In fact, in a classical film, between the music and the omnipresent dialogue, there’s hardly room for anything else. Take an American film noir or a Carné-Prévert from the forties: what do the noises come down to? A few series of discrete footsteps, several clinking glasses, a dozen gunshots. And with sound quality so acoustically impoverished, so abstract, that they all seem to be cut out of the same gray, impersonal cloth. The exceptions cited in classical cinema are always the same ones, so rare, that they only prove the rule: Tati, Bresson, and two or three others. That’s it.

… It could be said that sound’s greatest influence on film is manifested at the heart of the image itself. The clearer the treble you hear, the faster your perception of sound and the keener your sensation of presentness. The better-defined film sound became in the high frequency range, the more it induced a rapid perception of what was onscreen (for vision relies heavily on hearing). The evolution consequently favored a cinematic rhythm composed of multiple fleeting sensations, of collisions and spasmodic events, instead of a continuous and homogeneous flow of events. Therefore we owe the hypertense rhythm and speed of much current cinema to the influence of sound that, we daresay, has seeped its way into the heart of modern-day film construction.

… I call superfield the space created, in multitrack films, by ambient natural sounds, city noises, music, and all sorts of rustlings that surround the visual space and that can issue from loudspeakers outside the physical boundaries of the screen.

… Through a spontaneous process of differentiation and complementarity favored by this superfield, we have seen the [wide-view] establishing shot give way to the multiplication of closeup shots of parts and fragments of dramatic space such that the image now plays a sort of solo part, seemingly in dialogue with the sonic orchestra in the audiovisual concerto. The vaster the sound, the more intimate the shots can be (as in Roland Joffe’s Mission, Milos Forman’s Hair, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner).

… With the new place that noises occupy, speech is no longer central to films. Speech tends to be reinscribed in a global sensory continuum that envelops it, and that occupies both kinds of space, auditory and visual. This represents a turnaround from sixty years ago: the acoustical poverty of the soundtrack during the earliest stage of sound film led to the privileging of precoded sound elements, that is, language and music — at the expense of the sounds that were pure indices of reality and materiality, that is, noises.

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




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