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  • Composing in Fragments:Music in the Essay Films of Resnais and Godard
  • Nora M. Alter (bio)

This essay is dedicated to my father, Jean V. Alter (1925-2012).

"Sound, on the other hand, is left out in the cold in both technology and thinking about film."

— Jean-Luc Godard, 2000

"It's the reign of the always identical.... Everything is beginning to look alike. Cloning is already with us."

— Jean-Luc Godard, 2001

Research on the audio-visual genres of social cinema and essay films tends to focus on narrative structures and visual tracks as opposed to sound tracks. Especially when looking at French productions, the shadow of Michel de Montaigne's sixteenth-century Essais in tandem with Alexandre Astruc's twentieth-century concept of the caméra-stylo push investigations of this audio-visual genre towards theories that stress visual and literary/philosophical approaches over those that privilege soundtracks.1 Relying heavily on either literary or philosophical models or on image theory to understand the logic of a medium in which the audio plays such a dynamic role is symptomatic of the dominance of the logocentric and visually (optiphilic/scopophilic) based interpretive methods that circulate today.2 These models of analysis and interpretation are clearly derived from literary criticism and art history. My aim is not to argue against the seminal role that either linguistic texts or the study of visual compositions play in the understanding of the audio-visual essay; rather I want to explore other ways of thinking non-fiction cinema. For it seems to me that the attentiveness to the textual or pictorial components of audio-visual work all too often comes at the expense of examining systems of representation and signification that are not based on purely linguistic or visual constructions.

In this essay—with all of its formal limitations as a written, silent, non-visual document—I will explore the possibility of thinking the essay with an ear to the ephemeral domain of the acoustic, namely music.3 In studies of non-fiction cinema, attention is rarely paid to the careful structure of the soundtrack, especially the way in which music is employed to [End Page 24] create an additional line of meaning. However, the manner in which music is mobilized to produce an acoustic space for the imaginary in non-fiction films is extremely important. But these acoustic sites are often unheard; critical attention is rarely focused on the soundtrack of non-fiction essay films. And yet, music is one of the most important and determining forces in this type of film, for it structures the montage, shapes meaning, establishes tone, and encourages flights of fantasy. Non-fiction essay films, by their very nature, are assumed to be grounded in the "real." Non-diegetic music, however, contradicts the logic of this filmic genre, for it does not belong to the ostensibly factual representation of the diegesis. Hence the non-diegetic music layer in non-fiction essay films produces a tension not only between the on-screen and the off-screen, but also between the real and the imaginary. These sound cues provide access to the tenor of different times and spaces; they allow us to "hear elsewhere," as Jean-Luc Godard would put it, which in turn enables us to see and understand elsewhere as well. More often than not this "elsewhere" is a politically charged terrain outside of dominant discourse.

Music is divided into two primary types: lyric based, and instrumental or a-signifying. I will take examples from both to make my argument. I will begin with an examination Hanns Eisler's composition in one of the most significant productions of social cinema in the postwar period: Alain Resnais' Nuit et Brouillard (1955) and conclude with a take on the Rolling Stones's "Sympathy for the Devil" in Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One (1968). In both films, I tune in to a sound of politics as it as it filters through both classical and popular compositions, shattering temporal and spatial frames. What follows tracks the echoes and reverberations of chords, strains and fragments interwoven into audio-visual compositions.

Writing in 1929, V.I. Pudovkin vehemently proclaimed, " sound...


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