- Sound and Domestic Screens
My starting point is several old phonograph recordings, discarded by someone and then acquired by me at a now-forgotten secondhand store, before eBay dragged everyone's attic contents out into the light of a collective, virtual yard sale. The records are a series, four LPs released by the magazine Popular Photography from 1965 to 1969, called Sound for a Picture Evening. What can these artifacts teach us about cinema?
My claim, necessarily suggestive rather than fully developed, is that these recordings, designed to accompany projections on domestic film screens, point to ways in which cinema always has been an intermedial phenomenon. Far from being a specific and discrete "apparatus," cinema intersects other media forms both materially and experientially. Some of my earlier research argued that cinema's conversion to sound was simply one component of a broader, interwar instance of technological change across multiple media forms.1 Technologically, economically, and experientially, cinema's successful adoption of recorded sound must be understood in light of developments in multiple acoustic media. This short essay essentially expands that argument, stretching it both forward in time and outward to include more marginal practices, using domestic cinema screens and sound practices as a case study.
Admittedly marginal to academic Film Studies (albeit decreasingly so), home movies represent a century-long cluster of texts, technologies, and practices through which the very possibilities of cinema have been exploited and explored. Variously denigrated as "substandard" or "amateur," like other so-called ephemeral films, home movies nonetheless quietly insist on a broadened definition of cinema as a representational technology. This broader notion of cinema threatens to undermine historical and theoretical perspectives that are solely based on the economically and ideologically valorized commercial deployment of the medium. Historically, home movies have intersected with documentary film practice, the avant-garde, and the tinkering hobbyist, as well as with commercial cinema. And like commercial cinema, home movies have often themselves resided at the intersection of what we might normally think of as discrete media forms.
In the late 1960s, Popular Photography released at least four phonograph records designed to accompany home movies and slide shows. The Sound for a Picture Evening series provided an expansive variety of background music and sound effects, essentially a library of recorded sounds for home [End Page 153] moviemakers. The cuts on the records are categorized as different types of sounds: Themes, Sound Effects, National Portraits, Special Purpose Music, and Openings and Closings. Within those categories the recordings exhibit tremendous acoustic variety. Sound effects include thunder and rain, a cocktail party, oars in water, a dog barking, a baby crying, crickets chirping, fireplace sounds, and traffic noises. Most of the sound effects logically evoke images common to home movies. The practice of providing nations with acoustic signatures echoes a convention of silent-film cue sheets (in which a few bars of music claimed to signify a region: Russia, Africa, Greece, Japan, etc.), adapting that convention for midcentury family travelogues. Openings available for home movies could be "grandiose," "sweet and gentle," or "dramatic." Closings could be "epic," "Hollywood style," or (again) "gentle."
The most interesting sounds don't seem at first to evoke a specific image or, in their naming, call to mind an anticipated sound. For example, Volume II includes the two-minute cut "Experimental." "No melodies here," the record jacket explains, "just moody, strange instrumental sounds." Further, the domestic listener (or acoustic performer) is instructed to try "Experimental" at different speeds, especially 16 or 78 rpm, indicating the creation of structural space within which projectionist-performers might engage in a kind of idiosyncratic sound design. Volume IV includes "Music to Zoom By," which answers the question "What does a zoom sound like?" When played today, uninterrupted from start to finish, the LPs provide a maddening cacophony. When taken on their own and with sensitivity to period terms, they provide an astoundingly diverse resource for amateur sound design.
Sound for a Picture Evening might best be understood in terms of at least two trajectories: a history of acoustic accompaniment for the domestic screen, and a tradition within home-movie culture that sought to shape home-movie practices around...