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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thinking About Sound

After I posted a few weeks ago about the films of Humphrey Jennings, I started thinking again about sound and what it means to movies. In particular, I often try to put my finger on how sight and sound function in different ways for us, about how they might each have a different function in a sound film. Sometimes I'll hear a critic or filmmaker talk about how sound has barely been explored by filmmakers relative to the image (Godard was talking like that in the early 80s, around the time of Passion; I recently a piece by Andi Engel on early Straub-Huillet that took the same tack), and I always feel that they've got hold of the wrong end of it: surely there are reasons that sound and image have been used in different ways. Bazin had a different, more holistic view of sound: to him, film was not fundamentally a visual art, but rather an art based on the realism of the photograph; and the addition of sound to cinema was simply the filling of a gap, a development in perfect harmony with cinema's primal mission. I'm down with Bazin's sentiment (which was largely prescriptive, a description of the kind of cinema that Bazin valued most), but even in real life sight and sound do not function symmetrically with regard to each other, and I'd like to understand more about it. Does anyone know of literature that takes a stab at distinguishing between the psychological effects of vision and hearing?

This time around, I started by thinking about a commonplace idea that rings true for most of us: that a deaf person feels cut off from other people in a way that a blind person does not, and that, though we think of vision as the most useful sense, we might be happier to lose it than to lose our hearing. At least part of the force of this idea is connected to our emotions about spoken language. The content of language can be conveyed visually; and so can the enormous complexity of human personality; but perhaps only spoken language delivers both these payloads simultaneously, so that the two seem inextricable from each other. When we imagine what we would lose by being deaf, we think first of voices.

But one can leave voices aside in this consideration. Imagine being Robinson Crusoe on an island and having to sacrifice one sense or the other (a bad deal, admittedly). I, for one, would still feel more connected to my environment listening to its noises than looking around it. More helpless, without a doubt; but more present, less distant.

Is this because sound is panoramic (coming from all directions, not just one) and continuous (never turned off by anything analogous to an eyelid)? If we could see in every direction, and if images came to us even as we were sleeping, would that be enough to make vision as intimate and oceanic a sense as hearing? I can't decide. Maybe it would.

Anyway, the word "helpless" that I used above is suggestive to me. It's often been observed that vision is associated with power: we select what we see, manipulate our sensory apparatus to our advantage. And the visual aspect of cinema is easy to imbue with the urge to dominance: editing or camera movement that is executed with energy often connotes an assault, a campaign of control. Sound can, of course, become just as obtrusive as the image. But a noisy sound track suggests to me chaos more than strategy. And a fairly straightforward sound track often has something of the passivity of that blind Crusoe crouching in the bush: it absorbs and registers everything around it, makes no sudden moves.

Even if one credits this impressionistic attempt to associate visuals with the active principle and the soundtrack with the passive, it's certainly possible to use images to suggest passivity (e.g., the "master shot" style of so much of today's art cinema) or sound to suggest activity (e.g., Hollywood trailers). In both cases, though, I'm aware of the work required. Whereas if I consider basic, Griffith-inspired, Gunsmoke-editing-project film language, I get a sense of the image imposing itself on reality, and reality imposing itself on the sound track.

A possible corollary: I wrote recently about a connection between auteurist tastes in cinema and the passive principle. And it also seems to be true that contemporary French art cinema, which still shows the influence of Nouvelle Vague technique, is the school of filmmaking most dedicated to the importance of natural sound.

Anyway, this is off-the-cuff speculation, probably subject to revision in the coming minutes.



Blogger Rene said...

"though we think of vision as the most useful sense, we might be happier to lose it than to lose our hearing."

How untrue! I rather kill myself if I lose my sight.

"When we imagine what we would lose by being deaf, we think first of voices."

If you become deaf or have increasing hearing loss, you still can use your voice to communicate.

December 6, 2007 1:43 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Rene - hopefully my (rather imprecise) argument doesn't depend on which sense one would rather lose. I'm postulating that the person who loses sight is less powerful, more dependent on society. And the person who loses hearing might feel less connected to the environment.

December 6, 2007 10:38 AM  
Blogger dave said...

By looking in a direction, you can't see what's behind you. It's impossible to listen only one way.

Isn't this a principle of horror film suspense? Directed sightlines accompanied by silence allows a villain to sneak up behind you; in the dark, even a small sound can be scary., but you can't place it's source.

December 31, 2007 1:23 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Dave - this is true, and I believe it fits with my loose association of vision with the active principle and hearing with the passive principle. When you hear someone coming after you, you're still relatively helpless; hence the exploitation of frightening sound cues in horror and suspense movies.

December 31, 2007 2:54 PM  

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