Monday, September 21, 2009

Amadeus and Nondiegetic-Onscreen Sound

Of the four possible combinations of the terms "diegetic," "nondiegetic," "onscreen," and "offscreen," the most difficult one to grasp (and certainly the rarest) is "nondiegetic-onscreen." We discuss the other categories at length in HtM, Ch. 3, but give only a brief mention to "nondiegetic-onscreen." The strictest case (for which I know no example) would be a superimposed image positioned in, say, one quarter of the frame, from which speech or music is heard that is not part of the physical world of the film (a choir of angels, perhaps). Alternatively, a person onscreen might be recalling a speech or musical performance, and the sound track carries that speech or music rather than the usual diegetic-onscreen sound. In such a case, the "nondiegetic-onscreen" is really a variety of point-of-view sound (also discussed in HtM, Ch. 3).

If so, then sound in connection with flashbacks induced by a character's recalling a past event would also be considered "nondiegetic-onscreen." Obviously, this is easier to grasp--and more useful--in shorter segments (not, for example, in Million Dollar Baby, where the entire film is a flashback).

In the earlier sequences of Amadeus (1984), short flashbacks are used several times. In almost all cases, the effect of memory, the nondiegetic as the past, is enhanced by sound advances and sound lags. At 00:13:00, for example, the elderly Salieri is talking to the priest (offscreen). At 00:13:14, we hear the sound of a small fortepiano-spinet, then shortly after we see the Austrian Emperor playing with a more youthful Salieri at his side, coaching him. At the end of this short flashback, cut back to the elderly Salieri talking but the music persists for another 2-3 seconds, a sound lag.

The same device is used for another flashback shortly after (beginning at 00:14:00), and also elsewhere in the film.