Les États généraux du film documentaire 2006 Territories of the audible

Territories of the audible


It is clear that Chaplin resisted the arrival of sound in order to save Charlie, the tramp. On the other hand, it is a mistake to think that the filmmaker was convinced that films could continue to be silent. In 1935, the American film industry had moved entirely to sound. Theatre owners unable to invest in equipment necessary to update their cinemas sold them to the majors. Film production costs increased. It is certain that Chaplin hesitated. Charlie was a mime. He had to understand first hand which way the market was moving to know how the mute tramp could continue to survive – not the illiterate tramp, for if this adjective corresponds to a possible trait of the character, it says nothing about the extreme sensitivity of his way of living in the world. He’s looking for his words, as everyone does when they are overwhelmed by events. He cannot name them and, anyway, he feels events and the world much more than he thinks them. This said, we underestimate Chaplin’s good-bye to Charlie the tramp if we ascribe it solely to this technical revolution as if it were a final cause. I think that Chaplin clearly understood that the arrival of sound implied a political shift in narrative form.

In other words I fail to see why the filmmakers of the silent era should be considered deaf. On the contrary, everything indicates that in exploring the power of film direction, they heard sound resonate. Clues include the actors who ostentatiously mouth their text (we know that the deaf-mutes who could read lips burst out laughing, but this discrepancy immediately joins the effects of perception of the staging with which filmmakers would play) to the shooting of the sound produced by many objects – whether it be the explicit close-ups on the sources of sound like the knocker at the door, the head which, on hearing, jerks up, or the thousands of implicit knocks which are scattered throughout the shots.

The question raised for Chaplin is first that of the voice, even more than the way the world makes sound. Four years separate Modern Times, 1936, from The Dictator, 1940. In this first sound film – ordinary language registers how the problem is less the audible than how the world speaks –, this fable of its time makes do with the rarity of words and the esperanto used by the tramp when he sings. Moreover, the director understands, like Fritz Lang, that the exercice of power is inseparable from the abolition of distance and separation by tele-vision. In other words, Chaplin is the contemporary of a double movement: the rise of Nazism with its brilliant staging of the new techniques of power, and the setting of narrative within the constraints of dialogue and their synchronisation. The Dictator is not exactly Hitler but rather Der Fürher, that is to say a function stimulated by modern techniques, rather than a man.

This said, the new procedures of administrating power can be linked to the fact that the recording of sound uses an optical process: its objective presence takes the form of a long sinusoidal wave of varying intensity printed on a black surface all along the edge of the film. If synchronisation is the key to technical transparency, its engraving is the key to a then unheard of possibility of reversal: the capacity to manufacture synthetic sound, a fortiori an artificial voice. Experiments were carried out in Germany at the end of the twenties by Rudolf Pfenninger, an engineer working for Emelka (and the first film demonstrations circulated in Europe from 1932). Only Lang through the figure of Mabuse could visualise the idea that through a machine and from within the techniques of synchronisation, technology would be able to escape from any original source created by a physical presence, origin or event.

As for the question of knowing exactly what resonates in a shot, what sound effect we are adding, it is tackled by Chaplin (like other cineasts) in terms of sound illustration, emphasising a single sound, often the choice of a metonymical sound – whose rarity sounds often poetic to today’s saturated ear.

It can be said that at first cinema repulsed sounds more than they controlled them. The reason is connected to that effect inherent in sound which is to give weight, matter, density to objects and to bodies, so that often film prefers to dream sounds rather than to render them with precision. What cinema – as invented by Hollywood – sought to avoid was its invasion, penetration, inspiration by the Real.

The best symptom are two phenomena simultaneous with the sound revolution. On one hand, when Fox, a few months before The Jazz Singer (1927), developed a system of optical recording, it was in order to market a new form of filmed newsreel, Fox Movietones, which were distinguished by the additional realism lent by synchronous sound. On the other hand, the success of sound films in fiction was not due to any additional realism, it was started on the contrary by the explosion of a new genre where artifice is king: the musical. Furthermore it is probably meaningful that the story of the sound revolution was told via the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, in a melancholic tone not especially remarked at the time but completely in tune with the simultaneous arrival of television. In other words, we could suggest the hypothesis that the gap between documentary and fiction became deeper, and was perhaps defined, with the arrival of sound.

In the meantime, with the Second World War, appeared a new system of recording which freed sound from the weighty technical constraints anchoring it to the studio: magnetic tape. However, with this technique a reversal in sound takes place which is still part of our horizon and which is at the heart of the issues raised by documentary: the capacity to record events at the moment of their occurrence. With its corollary, the impossibility to sort out particular sounds: they are all crushed together indiscriminately in the waveform on the tape.

So that we have moved from a power giving machine within the confines of the studio where the noises of the world had difficulty penetrating, to another machine, just as redoubtable as an instrument of power, where the events of the world saturate as they generate noise, preventing creation of the silence which allows us to hear sounds.

We should write a history of the 20th century from the perspective of the mastery of sound recording to understand why we are deaf, why we are not born sensitive to sound.

Two obstacles continue today to obstruct the analysis of sound in films. The first is the idea that sound administers the proof of the reality of things by lending them material qualities. Behind this question of “synchronisation”, we touch one of the great beliefs of documentary, i.e. that it is a “cinema of the Real”. The second is to consider sound entirely as musical material. This was one of the problems raised by futurists such as Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage and cannot be formulated today in exactly the same way. In both cases, what is not thought out is the way sound is the affirmation of a point of view, or a point of hearing, that is to say the way in which the handling of sound is part of a dramatic reconstruction and, a fortiori, a poetic vision.

We find ourselves facing two tasks. On one hand, we must learn to listen to sounds to understand how they can circulate in a film. This refers to the mastery of our practices. On the other, we must try to understand the reasons that have made sound one of the vectors by which the world is obscured, a powerful technology of scrambling that, we sense in a confused way, prevents us from thinking, dreaming and projecting ourselves beyond the immediate. From this point of view, the generalisation of sound recorded by the camera mike due to the massification of home camcorders amounts to a criticism of technical rationality. This ideology masks the aesthetic and political issues at stake in technological mediation as much as its hyper-realistic ideal.

Jean Breschand

Things Heard

What if we considered cinema as a gigantic machine to make things heard? A machine which uses the image to designate and specify the act of listening, a machine to speak of the world, conceived to allow us to hear each other?

In this case, how can we work, how can we pick up the precarious sound of direct cinema within the duration of a shot? How can we capture what will reinforce the frame, how can we reveal the sound which is there and which already overwhelms us? The experience, so difficult to register in the time of the image, presents so many variables that many cineasts prefer to put it off. “We’ll think about the sound later” has little by little become a kind of law. We demand today as a choice what we suffered as imposed on us not so long ago.

So to try to get an understanding of what is happening, we have to analyse the methods of recording; we have to deconstruct the audible from the Real to learn to reconstruct it. Let us listen! For if there’s something we can be certain of, it’s our own hearing. It is via comparison that we will hear what the microphone reveals to us of the Real.

Faced with the complexity and diversity of materials, we must first organise points of view. From what point are we listening? How can we choose the sounds which appear in the distance, choose the ambiance, decide on the thickness or the transparency of the distance or prefer the clarity of sounds recorded alone?

Confidence in the sounds of the world expresses itself in the thinking behind their recordering. The choice of the rules of recording, like those of the tools used, are connected, fashioning an aesthetic choice. And if voices are necessary to reveal what does not reach us, or where to situate things? The voices of Jean Rouch’s films are not those of Chris Marker’s, those of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are very distant from those of Jean-Daniel Pollet. Neither the principles of elocution nor the mode of narration can ever be fixed once and for all. The conditions under which words are uttered never express the same necessity.

Designating also a layer of the what is communicable in a film, music registers like a text. By the superlative or in its simple evanescence, music occupies its share of the point of view. It can share its place in the sounds of the world (Le Territoire des autres) or be crisscrossed by them: allowing itself to be partially visible like any landscape we cross (Conversation).
Finally comes the necessity to elaborate a method of organising layers, cuts and ellipses. How to combine and associate these motors, those that so discretely organise filmic energy? How do these necessities take in charge what in the film appears the least but which certainly constitutes the most effective tool for organising a vision.

Daniel Deshays

To facilitate the discussion, excerpts will be projected during the session.

Coordination : Daniel Deshays, Jean Breschand