- Film, A Sound Art
In his new book, French critic and composer Michel Chion offers a comprehensive theory of film sound from the 'deaf ' or silent period to the more recent Dolby Stereo era. The collection offers a reprise of some of his previous work on the voice to which he adds additional insights into the aesthetics and poetics of film sound as related to temporality, spatial design, meaning production and the art of listening (for what is heard by both the ear and the eye). The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with the history of sound in transition, and the second an aesthetic overview of significant image and sound relations that formulate the essence of his theories about film sound over the past three decades. Chion's process of evaluating sound in cinema is evocative and thought-provoking as always, but at times it is equally frustrating. After several re-readings, I had a number of questions, corrections, and counterexamples, particularly in light of the breadth of new research in the field of sound studies. Throughout the book, Chion is very good at both raising important questions about sound in relation to the image (and entirely separate from the image) and identifying important moments of sound use in films; however, he is often remiss when it comes to expanding on the implications of his findings or drawing rigorous connections to film history or production practices. What he achieves in the end is a critical poetic that provokes the reader; what he does not provide is a systematic counter-history to sound in film or an accounting of sound production practices.
Despite these limitations, Chion's work continues to point sound and music scholars in new directions with astute questions, encouraging a reconsideration of truisms that many consider theoretically fixed. For instance, Chion asks whether music use is entirely functional within scene development, say for instance in The Birds, a film which does not have a traditional score? Alternatively, he questions whether the term 'sound track' fully explains the implied sound within an image or shot that is not covered by an actual sound effect? In the first section of the book, Chion considers the notion of implied sound that developed in 'deaf cinema', [End Page 253] which arose through visual strategies such as smoke rising from the guns in The Great Train Robbery (1903), and the ongoing integration of speech through the intertitling of dialogue and expressive inflection achieved through capitalisation and font usage. According to Chion, these examples point to a cinema that was already considering sound an important aspect of its formal construction. Chion further argues that these considerations did not dissipate with the introduction of sound technology, but rather ruptured the silence as image and sound began an expanding poetic development. In one of many case studies that he uses in support of his argument, Chion presents an extended analysis of Chaplin's contributions in the transition from silent to sound cinema. While Chion notes in his Preface that he has tried to avoid the 'heroic' approach to film sound development, the book tends to concentrate on a particular set of directors, including Chaplin, Tati, Lynch, Wells, and others (xi). As a result, the uses of sound he explores should not always be considered typical of the style in the various national cinemas considered.
In the section on the 'Birth of the Talkies', Chion addresses film sound's capacity to foster both a sense of illusion and naturalism. He aptly juxtaposes passages on cartoon sound against passages on the voice as it relates to speech. In relation to cartoons, Chion explores one stylistic approach that arises in early cartoons, specifically music's ability to activate fantastical images. He argues that this particular cartoon stylistic is akin to 'acousmatic imagery', which he applies 'to signify sound that one hears without seeing its cause' (39). Animation sound presents an 'indeterminate' source, so the filmgoer must interpret the sound and establish the illusion through reconciliation within the imagination. Scholars should be aware that...