Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Ontology of the Recorded Sound

Andre Bazin's essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," maybe his most important, is now 63 years old, almost a quarter-century older than Bazin ever was. A gentle knife driven into the mind anyone who's ever read it and plenty of people you haven't. The blueprint for the third floor of the constantly growing tower of film theory, always almost reaching Heaven, but never quite getting there (once a floor is finished, we discover that there's one more to go).

Barely eight pages long in the University of California Press English edition of What is Cinema?, the one with the mauve color, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" is followed a few pages later in that edition by a composite essay called "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema," edited from three pieces published in different magazines during the 1950s. "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" is important to Bazin's ideas like a seed is important to the tree it grows into. A fruit-bearing tree. "Ontology" and "Evolution" are masterworks of thinking. In these few pages, Bazin establishes a world of possibilities circling around a single idea: ontology. Realism. Reliability. What is the "reliable aesthetic," the one that doesn't try to manipulate its audience? Here is the idea of cinema as something other than a manipulation of reality; cinema can be a window to something real. Where is the truth? "Depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys in reality." The truth can be discerned in the long take. But while he talks about a deep focus image, he never talks about a deep focus sound. Welles, Bazin's great ontological poet, chose his sounds very selectively, making a radio play on the soundtrack and a shadow play on the screen. The great post-syncer who would sometimes dub in the lines of his actors himself, imitating their voices. Yes, sound made the deep focus long take possible, but it's seen as only that: a means to an end. Why?

The primacy of the image in Bazin's writing--and in most writing on film--is understandable: the moving image was our first way to express the notion of cinema. The relationship between sounds and images in films is like the relationship between two siblings born a few years apart. When cinema was young (or middle-aged) a difference of 30 years meant a lot; sound was an upstart kid. But now that cinema is over a century old, the age difference isn't that much of a factor. So why do we still treat sound like the image's kid sister? Why do we write so much about images and the ways they are edited together and so little about sounds and their editing?

Yes, for a long time moving images were exclusive to movies. But now they've become a part of so many other media that there is no longer a direction correlation between the two. The Godardian notion of the Death of Cinema is the death of the orthodox cinema (a movie as a moving image) and the beginning of a more ambiguous notion of cinema, the birth of Cinema as a pure idea, like Art (which, let's not forget, was once inseparable from specific forms and subjects). When cinema dies (if it hasn't already), it will continue to haunt the world as a ghost, imbuing every action with its spirit. We are coming to a point where a moving image is no longer necessary to make a "film." Sounds and images have become equals, and so we should begin thinking of them that way. And, in order to do this, we've got to start at square one: to begin rethinking old, established theories and how they work in this context. The placement of the microphones should be just as important as the placement of the camera. Bazin's ontology is the foundation of many of the last half-century's ideas about cinema. If we believe in a "realist" (ontological) image, then we must believe in a "realist" sound. So what defines an ontological sound recording?

In 1930, Erich von Stroheim was given the opportunity to remake Blind Husbands as a sound film. The film was written and cast, but production was shut down a week before shooting was supposed to start; the problem was with Stroheim and his ideas about making a sound film. Stroheim wanted to record all of the sound directly. He believed that sound effects recorded in a studio were not the same as the actual sounds. He wanted to hear the actor's footsteps, and not the footsteps of a sound engineer putting on a pair of prop shoes and stomping on plywood. He wanted to record coach bells jangling by a lake because he felt it would not be the same sound as the one a foley artist's bells would make. He wanted a waltz band to perform live during a shot instead of having the musicians mime so that a pristine recording of the music could be dubbed in later. Stroheim's unrealized idea represents the two most important facets of what could be called an ontological sound: its importance in terms of the filmmaker's relationship to the viewer (that they are not "manipulating" but trying to present the microphone's view of "reality) and its importance as a gesture--that even if a post-synced sound and a directly recorded sound are identical, there is a moral distinction, an action, being made by using the original.

Of all the New Wave filmmakers, Jacques Rivette was the most Bazinian, and his films, full of creaking floors and camera noise, represent ontology not only in their long takes but in their use of direct sound. I think of The Nun and its noisy footsteps, and The Duchess of Langeias and its loud furniture. Hou Hsiao-Hsien made the first Taiwanese film to use exclusively direct sound, City of Sadness, shooting (and recording) in long takes not only as a way to bring out the truth of a past world but to capture the noise of a passed time, the little irregularities of dialects and accents that would probably be replaced with an easier-to-understand, general Taiwanese Mandarin if he went to post-sync it at a studio. Here is the ontological sound inseparable from the ontological image. A dual "realism." A completed circle.

The ontological image is not superior to the manipulated one; both are equally "cinema." But the idea of its importance led to so many ideas and counter-ideas, just like the auteur theory did. It's a statement made to provoke responses. So if we attach importance to the ontological sound, what is the place of sound-montage, or of the mixture of ontological and artificial sounds that makes up the bulk of most movie soundtracks? There is more, of course. There's no such thing as a complete answer to a question--only more questions.


Adrian said...

Terrific thought-provoking post, Ignatiy. Isn't it interesting - in a dialectical way! - that some contemporary directors who can be yoked to the 'Bazinian image', including Pedro Costa, Apichatpong, and probably Bela Tarr, precisely do NOT use 'ontological' sound in the sense of direct sound recording, but go for maximum 'post production' artifice of sound 'reconstruction': Costa is totally up-front about this, 'the image is real, but the sound - never!' It's never, for the sound 'atmospheres', direct sound, and the same goes for Apichatpong, who loves digital sound creation. (Dialogue scenes, or tracks, of course, are another matter altogether.) Technically/aesthetically/ethically, it comes down, really, to how 'clean' a real sound atmosphere/ambience must be, perhaps especially when dialogue is involved: Rivette post about 1980 and Oliveira have direct sound recording of speech but unbelievably 'clean', controlled, silent sound backdrops, that marked the cemtral aesthetic change from the wild, chaotic direct sound of Rivette's earlier films. It's all about 'how much of the world you let into the live microphone', basically! One unusual example that's still ringing in my ears: Larryy Cohen's BLIND ALLEY (1984), the whole of NY city can be heard live there!! It would be interesting to know how Lodge Kerrigan puts his similar 'noise tracks' of the city together ...

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


I think it could be said that the difference between the noisy microphone and the clean microphone is the difference between the hand-held and the stationary (or dolly-placed) camera. And there's often a sort of balance between the sound and the image (another similar inversion: the post-syncing of both BREATHLESS and SHADOWS), much as there's often a balance between the placement of the camera and the placement of the microphones. Wide shots, if they have the sound recorded directly, often rely on lavalier mics, which are as close to the source of speech as your can get. It's interesting that there aren't as many movies that go the other way: that film the close-up but record the sound from a distance. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is a vampire movie from the 1970s called GANJA & HESS that's full of moments where we see a person's face but hear the noisy sound of the whole room. They'll start talking and their voice will have an echo, because the boom will be on the other end of the set. Though this was probably done to avoid picking up as much camera noise, the effect is astounding. You see something close-up but hear it from a distance. It's like having vertigo, perspective shifting constantly.

I haven't seen (or heard) BLIND ALLEY, but I'll check it out.

nitesh said...

This article comes as a blessing in disguise as I’m re-reading Bazin as I’m sure this would help in looking at the essay and its context today with a new light.

Interestingly, Indian film critic Chidananda Das Gupta in his book (Seeing is Believing) talks about the tonality and the relation of sound with the image. That to me was the first instance in the realization of how sound plays a second cousin to images or how the emphasis has never been laid on the ontology of the recorded sound. As that itself had different layers and depth, like how Straub talked about the fact, while sitting inside the room he could hear the church bell but we never pay an emphasis to representing sound as it exist, in it’s layers and depth and capturing in the same manner as the image.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

It's interesting because it was actually a film by Dasgupta's old comrade, Satyajit Ray, that partially prompted this. The film relied heavily on post-synced sound but would occasionally (mostly for indoor scenes) have these bursts of location-derived sound, which was a very wonderful sort of punctuation.

I've never seen any of Dasgupta's films or read his criticism, though I assume that some must exist in English translation, since he also wrote quite a bit in English. Any particular books I should seek out?