Monday, February 22, 2010

Week 4 and Week 5 Lectures

I'm a little late getting the week 4 and week 5 lectures up due to a big conference on music, sound and film I attended last week.

I opened the week with a discussion of the acousmêtre (acoustical being). I developed the concept using the work of Chion, Bonitzer and Doane. Here are some quotes:
Acousmatic. Dictionary definition: “a sound that is heard without its cause or source being seen.” (quoted Chion, The Voice in the Cinema, p. 18)

Acousmatic—“Pertaining to sound one hears without seeing its source. Radio and telephone are acousmatic media. In a film, an offscreen sound is acousmatic” (Chion, Audio-Vision, p. 221)

Definition—“A kind of voice-character specific to cinema that in most instance of cinematic narratives derives mysterious powers from being heard and not seen.” (Chion, Audio-Vision, p. 221).

Between one (visualized) situation and the other (acousmatic) one, it’s not the sound that changes its nature, presence, distance, color. What changes is the relationship between what we see and what we hear. (Chion, The Voice in the Cinema, p. 19)

The use of the voice-off always entails a risk—that of exposing the material heterogeneity of the cinema. Synchronous sound masks the problem and this at least partially explains its dominance. But the more interesting question, perhaps, is: how can the classical film allow the representation of a voice whose source is not simultaneously represented? As soon as sound is detached from its source, no longer anchored by a represented body, its potential as a signifier is revealed. There is always something uncanny about a voice which emanates from outside the frame. (Doane, “The Voice in the Cinema,” p. 40)

[The consistent use of voice-off for the villain in Kiss Me Deadly] gives to his sententious voice, swollen by mythological comparisons, a greater power of disturbing, the scope of an oracle—dark prophet at the end of the world. And, in spite of that, his voice is submitted to the destiny of the body . . . a shot, he falls—and with him in ridicule, his discourse with its prophetic accents. (Bonitzer, quoted Doane, “The Voice in the Cinema,” p. 41)

The acousmêtre . . . must haunt the borderlands that are neither the interior of the filmic stage nor the proscenium—a place that has no name, but which the cinema brings into play. (Chion, The Voice in the Cinema, p. 24)

De-acousmatization of a character generally goes hand in hand with his descent into a human, ordinary, and vulnerable fate” (Bonitzer, quoted Chion, Audiovision, p. 131).

For examples I used Wizard of Oz and Psycho. In the past, I've also had good luck with 2001: A Space Odyssey, though I've found that film takes a bit longer to get the concept across. The process of de-acousmatization is particularly clear (and amusing) in Wizard of Oz. Psycho, on the contrary, resists showing the final de-acousmatization, which helps produce the uncanny effect of its ending, a gesture that the slasher film has taken over and made its own.

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We then moved on to chapter 4 proper and examined the various transitions covered there:

  • Sound Advance. I showed a long sound advance in When Harry Met Sally. We hear Harry and Sally talking on the phone about Casablanca as we see a montage of Harry's and Sally's days both together and apart. Only after about 90 seconds of this do we get synchronization, with each in their own house, in their separate bed, but watching the ending of Casablanca together as they discuss it on the phone. This example is discussed on p. 94 of the text.

  • Sound Lag. For the lag, which is much less common than the advance, I use Goodfellas, which we discuss on p. 95 of the text. Here, the transition from the night club act to the airport caper are linked through the continuation of Henny Youngman's act well into the beginning of the airport sequence.

  • Sound Link. For the link, I showed two examples. I began with a brief sequence from Emma, where Emma must tell Harriet that Mr. Elton is getting married (HtM, p. 96). We then watched the more elaborate "Would You" sequence from Singin' in the Rain. This sequence is discussed on pp. 96-97 and 100 of the text.

  • Sound Match. A Match is generally less elaborate than a Link, and the Match from De-Lovely discussed in example 4-2 (p. 97) could easily be analyzed as a link by analogy with the example from Emma discussed above since in both cases the connecting sound is continuous across the cut and more or less identical in both scenes. A Match may also be based on resemblance rather than identity, however, in which case the resemblance may suggest a metaphorical connection between the two shots. A good example of such a link occurs in The Big Broadcast (1932), where pounding on the table turns into pounding on a car horn. This example is discussed on p. 97 of the text.

  • Hard Cut. For the hard cut, we watched a short sequence from Blue mentioned in the text (p.98). Note the abrupt shift in sound mirrors the abrupt shift in image, and together they help mark a sharp temporal break despite the lack of formal transition.

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The distinction between synchronization and counterpoint (playing with or against the film), covered on pp. 98-110, was the next topic. I used a couple of sequences from Singin' in the Rain to talk about general issues of synchronization. We started with the failed premiere, which is useful for emphasizing that it takes a lot of work to get synch sound right.

I then showed the bit where Cosmo illustrates how they might substitute Kathy's voice for Lina's, followed by the short scene of Kathy looping in Lina's dialogue (which was actually done by Jean Hagen, the actress who played Lina). If I had time, I would have screened the "Would You" sequence again, as it brings together many of the concerns of synchronization.

We next turned to the general issue of playing with the image. We watched the sequence where Rick and Ilsa meet from Casablanca, discussed on pp. 102-06. This is a particularly good sequence for illustrating dialogue underscoring, which in this case follows the scene very empathetically. The real effectiveness of Steiner's practice here can be illustrated by comparing it to the French language dub, which on my DVD uses very little of Steiner's score, substituting different music, also based on "As Time Goes By."

For counter- point or playing against the image I showed the sequence from Catch Me If You Can discussed in the text, p. 107. Nat King Cole's rendition of "The Christmas Song" plays, apparently diegetically, while Frank approaches the house and sees his mother happily a part of a new family. Chion notes that anempathetic music, especially when nondiegetic, often signifies the world's indifference to the characters. There is certainly a degree of indifference here, but the music serves as much to emphasize Frank's exclusion from the scene, as though we are hearing music that insists on a point of view that is not Frank's. Choosing to withdraw from the scene rather than force himself back into his mother's life, Frank seems experience empathetic recognition, which is underscored by having the music lag into the next scene as we hear his sentence handed down. The empathetic recognition also helps convince us that Frank is in fact redeemable, which aligns us with Carl.

Music that seems at odds with the image often produces an effect of an intruding—or at least shift in—point of view. Near the end of the opening battle of Gladiator, a solemn hymn suddenly drifts in over the images, which also shift into slow motion with distorted sound. This kind of gesture is occasionally used to underscore battles from the perspective of a "lost cause," but here the film remains very much on the side of the victorious Roman army. The shift in music does seem to signify a new point of view, however, as the cut to the Emperor watching from afar indicates.

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The above material took a little less than two class periods to present (NB: my class meets twice a week). In addition, I also prepared the class to write a screening report. For that, we looked at the opening ten minutes or so of Catch Me If You Can. As we did not hold class for the first meeting of week 5, the students worked on their screening reports instead. For the second class meeting of the week, we spent about an hour on the commutation test (pp. 110-13). First I showed the "Non Nobis Domine" sequence from Branaugh's Henry V, which basically consists of a single virtuosic tracking shot across the body strewn battle field accompanied by Patrick Doyle's version of the hymn (in fact that's the composer shown singing at the beginning of the clip below). I have prepared an alternative sound track to this segment using "Vergangenes," the second of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16, and some foley effects. The contrast could hardly be more marked; I've found that with the change in music students will actually see a different preponderance of colors: where with Doyle's score students will generally say they see blues, whites and greens, with Schoenberg's music they will generally say they see, reds, oranges and browns. Schoenberg's music also lays the emphasis on the dead bodies that are strewn across the image, whereas Doyle's score encourages us to see the growing numbers of people marching across the scene. Of course, I play the Schoenberg first, and I don't let the students know that I have changed the sound track. I then play the Doyle under the pretense of listening to the sound track again. If you like, you can easily turn the discussion to the rhetorical force of music, since in this case the sound track alone seems to turn the scene from expressing anti-war sentiment (Schoenberg) to war as something quite a lot more positive, if not exactly warmongering (Doyle).

We also did an actual commutation test, using a scene from Taxi Driver and a playlist put on shuffle. The scene consists of Travis cruising through a red light district to the sound of a soft, jazzy nondiegetic saxophone.

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Bibliography on Acousmêtre
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision (1994).
_________. The Voice in the Cinema (1998).
Doane, Mary Ann. "The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space." Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 33-50.