The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 17-28
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Making Sense of/in the Cinema
Sensation can be anonymous because it is incomplete. The person who sees and the one who touches is not exactly myself, because the visible and tangible worlds are not the world in its entirety.
Phenomenology of Perception
Even today, sight is the predominant partner in the combination of sight and sound. While visuals without sound are still perfectly valid, we cannot imagine sound without visuals being able to make a film.
—Guy Phelps and Ralph Stephenson,
The Cinema as Art
In most academic studies of the cinematic, the search for meaning has been primarily, if not entirely, through the visual code. Sound is problematic, unlocatable, difficult to parse, "filling" an ambiguous three-dimensional space unlike the sensual focal point of the screen, which provides a strong physical presence and clearly demarcated physical constraints. 1 Sound is important precisely because it gives the cinema volume in every sense, providing the sensations of depth and perspective that a flat screen cannot convey. An audience can grasp the meaning(s) of visuals more quickly than the meaning(s) of sounds, because visuals cannot be as complex. They lack the multidimensionality of the acoustic realm.
I shall investigate the sublime power of sound within the cinema, considering the revolutionary potential it holds for rewriting the meanings of film in my discussion of Michael Snow's Wavelength. In further discussing how film sound works against what Walter Murch calls the "multimillion-year habit of thinking of sound as a submissive shadow [of sight]," 2 I will examine sound's ability to alter audience perception in Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie. After analyzing these examples from avant-garde cinema, I shall turn to Hollywood and Charles Vidor's Gilda to consider the potential for a sonic equivalent of Laura Mulvey's conception of the (male) gaze, questioning whether this counterpart might also be gendered, this time, however, favoring a female listener rather than a male viewer. In order to do so it is necessary to explore the frequently unacknowledged dominance of the visual within the language of film terminology and how this highlights the potential for discrepancies between the audio and visual experiences.
Mary Ann Doane claims that "to see" means "to understand" in the cinema, reinforcing the belief that audience members are principally viewers (not listeners) and showing how even the semantics of film inscribe a visual bias. 3 The paradigmatic set of words for "people who go to the cinema" or "otherwise partake of" film further insinuate the visual; a Western audience is used to "watching," "viewing," or "seeing" a film or being "spectators." Amongst these terms, "spectator" is probably the most neutral, but it is still not sufficient for our purposes. Using a substitute such as "cinemagoer" is hardly appropriate as this is not the only venue where one might "experience" a film, so it is necessary to define a new phrase to explain the audience member's less sense prioritized role. Thus, I have coined the term "experiencer," an awkward yet suitably multisensory and [End Page 17] yet sense-neutral expression to describe someone who "partakes of films." My conception of the experiencer differs slightly from that of the established "perceiver" because, while that term also asserts multisensory involvement, semantically experience comes first, perception second. 4 While I would measure the experiencer as a more involved participant than the visually focused viewer, I would suggest that he or she is not always necessarily so actively participating in the film experience to qualify him or her as a perceiver. I hope by using this term to overcome the prevalent and persistent logic that has already hegemonically inscribed the idea that film experiencing is primarily a visual endeavor. Perhaps the one place this has been made clear is while experiencing a film in the cinema, where you are a member of an audience—an environment marked by its aurality—not a scopience. 5
Michel Foucault's discussion of the...