Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Human Voice As a Factor in the Moving Picture Show

Below is another article by W. Stephen Bush arguing for the value of the lecture. Here he takes specific aim at varieties of the "talking picture," by which he means both those that use mechanical synchronization with a phonograph as well as those that place live actors behind the screen to supply the dialogue. It is significant that Bush sees both methods of providing a "synchronized" voice as less than optimal, which also means that he must argue against the idea that film should ideally be simply a recording of reality. Yet he also ends up arguing against a cinema of illusion.

Notable is Bush's citation of a French critic's response to the the inaugural Film d'Art, L'assassinat du duc de Guise (1908), which famously had a special score composed for it by Camille Saint-Saëns. If we assume the critic attended a performance of the film that used Saint-Saëns' score, the critic's lukewarm response and insistence that the medium of film needed supplementation by the human voice tells us that music alone was, at least for some prominent cultural authorities, not yet deemed sufficient for full artistic expression of the film medium. For a thorough discussion of Saint-Saëns' score, see Martin Marks, Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (1997), 50-61.

Most of our knowledge and a good deal of our pleasure and entertainment is imported to us by eye and ear. All public amusements appeal to eye and ear alone. It is indeed impossible to move mankind through the drama, to instruct it with knowledge, without the aid of both these senses, and as a rule no entertainment or amusement is complete or truly pleasing without these channels to the soul combined. These are, of course, exceptions. It is possible to enjoy music without seeing the musicians (sometimes this is the only way of enjoying it), and a man may listen to the solemn and inspiring strains of an organ without looking to see whence the sound is coming. Likewise a good pantomime may be enjoyed without a sound of any kind. As a rule, however, the burden of absorption soon becomes too heavy and tiresome for the one sense alone: the eye demands to be satisfied as well as the ear, and the ear becomes eager to share its burden with the eye.

In some vague and wandering way this fact was felt from the very beginning of the moving picture, and numerous have been the attempts to supply sound, and especially the sound of the human voice. Our poor and patient English tongue has been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in an effort to find names for both the inarticulate and the articulate sound in the moving picture show. At one time a craze for effects infected the electric theaters and instruments were devised to imitate common sounds. There was a little success and much failure, and there is to this day, and there always will be. Then came “cameraphones,” synchronizers” and “talking pictures,” produced by men and women hiding behind the screen and endeavoring to “make the pictures talk.” Not one of these devices has solved the problem: What is the proper function of the human voice in the moving picture show? The trouble in all cases was the inability to produce a perfect illusion. Illusion is pleasing only when it is without a flaw. The ventriloquist with his dummies upon his knee pleases and amuses the audience with his illusion, though of course everybody knows that the sounds and voices are produced by himself and that the dummies are nothing but painted pieces of wood and rags. As soon as the illusion is broken the thing becomes tiresome in the extreme. Even, however, where the illusion is perfect, a little of it goes a good ways. It is very much the same with all the vaunted devices, summed up in the fitting name of “talking pictures.” In the first place, the illusion is hardly ever perfect, and even where it is nearly perfect it cannot hold the attention long, for the whole business is unnatural, and nothing that is unnatural will ever last long, though persistent and reckless puffing may give some of these contrivances a fleeting vogue.

It may be that the voice best suited to the moving picture is the voice that runs with the picture, not with the individual figures in a silly attempt to imitate their very words, but the voice that runs with the story, that explains the figures and the plot and that brings out by its sound and its language the beauties that appear but darkly or not at all until the ear helps the eye. Take any dramatic or historic picture; in fact, almost any picture, barring magic and comic subjects. Stand among the audience and what do you observe? As the story progresses, and even at its very beginning, those gifted with a little imagination and the power of speech will begin to comment, to talk more or less excitedly and try to explain and tell their friends and neighbors. This current of mental electricity will run up an down, wild, irregular, uncontrollable. The gifted lecturer will gather up and harness this current of expressed thought. He has seen the picture before, and convincing his audience from the very start that he has the subject well in hand all these errant sparks will fly toward him, the buzz and idle comment will cease, and he finds himself without an effort the spokesman for the particular crowd of human beings that make up his audience. What all feel and but a few attempt to express even imperfectly, the lecturer, if he is worthy of the name, will tell with ease and grace in words that come to him as naturally as iron obeys the law which draws it to the magnet. All at once the human voice has found its proper mission; the darkened house and the dumb show cease to be a strain to the overworked eye, and as the ear shares the burden the amusement becomes doubly attractive and the period of exhaustion or disgust is deferred. No longer any need on the part of the audience to make loud guesses and supply the voice themselves; the entertainment is complete and the patron feels that he ha seen a different kind of moving picture.

This is felt and appreciated by the well-known Parisian art critic. Cellatier, who in a recent issue of the “Temps” speaks of the picture, “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise,” and who after praising the acting and staging of the piece goes on to say: “. . . But after I had sat there a while and looked at the pictures I felt a great longing to hear the human voice. If this sort of entertainment is ever to stop being a toy and is to become a permanent institution in the amusement world it needs the assistance in some shape or other of the human voice.”

Source: W. Stephen Bush, “The Human Voice as a Factor in the Moving Picture Show,” Moving Picture World 23 January 1909, 86.