Studies and researches
The Taming of Sound — the Beginnings of Sound Film
With the introduction of sound
technology the field of film perception widened and the
communicative channel became richer which consequently
produced a slightly different film poetics in comparison
with that of the films of the silent period.
In the period immediately after the appearance of sound technology
filmmakers focused their attention on the most expressive
possibilities of the usage of sound, namely, its loudness,
the possibility of making it more or less loud, or to remove
it completely. Shifts in loudness, especially lowering of
sound, produced a particular rhetorical accent and tension
in the anticipation of the ending, like in the film Hallelujah (King
Vidor, 1929), where in the last sequence of the hunt through
the swamp the music and all the previous ’noises’ die out
leaving nothing but ’silence’. The effect of producing almost
complete silence thus obtained its rhetorical and dramatic
function that it has not lost to the day.
Very early the authors also used the ability
of some sounds to overshadow other, momentary sounds. Several
films give good examples of deviations in relation to the
sounds of reality, such as Sous les Toits de Paris (Under
the Rooftops of Paris, 1930) and Le Million (Million,
1931) directed by René Clair where the songs of street
performers ’overshadow’ all other sounds. In this manner
Clair unifies a dissected scene and draws the attention
towards movement, gestures and faces — incidentally evoking
silent films. The practice of hegemony of only one sound
also obtained a certain stylistic value since an event
underlined by only one particular sound would turn into
something unreal and fantastic, as in Dreyer’s film Vampyr (1932)
where over 95% of the film is ’covered’ with music consequently
creating the atmosphere of a fantasy world.
to the ’obsession’ with music started by the first sound
film The Jazz Singer (1927),
there were also some films with almost no music at all.
In a classic gangster film Scarface (1932) by Howard
Hawks, for example, predominate dialogues supplemented
with noises, while the loudest elements are shots from
machine guns and the sound of racing cars — the most important
elements of the iconography of gangster film in the making.
In dialogue screwball comedies
the noises were just realistic signs of ambiance, and there
were only several kinds: footsteps, murmur, opening and
closing of doors, shots, various sirens and bells (churches
and clocks). Particular sound could also obtain a value
of a ’sign’ with a huge rhetorical impact. Besides the
above-mentioned sounds, as far as human voice was concerned,
apart from words and singing, filmmakers preferred screaming
(crime movies, horror movies), and, as a sort of curiosity,
whistling. For example, in the movie Scarface the
killer, shown only as a shadow, ominously whistles, the
same thing does the psychopath in the movie M, whereas
the TV series Whistler,
produced at the end of 30’s, took on whistling as its emblem.
Sound connected with editing that assumed
temporal and spatial discontinuity in the representation
of the world opened a way to the realization that sound
could be transferred from frame to frame, that it could
’spill’ over the whole scene, and that the source of sound
need not necessarily be present on the screen (off sound).
An even greater level of detachment from real appearances
and the real-life perception of sound were achieved with
the usage of voice-over technique and interior monologue.
Partly thanks to the radio, the voice of a newsreader could
be heard already in the documentaries produced in the 30’s,
which would soon be accepted by authors like Luis Buñuel
who used it in his film Tierra Sin Pan (1932).
Finally, the introduction of interior monologue was of
equal importance both for film poetics and rhetorics —
a character’s voice was heard although he/she could not
be seen; moreover, he/she could be seen and heard, although
he/she was not opening his/hers mouth.
During the short, initial stage of sound
film the perception of sound in film has undergone many
changes — after the discovery of laws of perception of
sound in reality, the attention soon turned towards the
selection and exploration of particular possibilities of
exploitation of sound on the screen. All these possibilities
— along with some innovative elements that we have not
mentioned — were used in Orson Welles’ film Citizen
Kane (1941), which opened a new phase in the development
of sound film, the phase in which film freely turned towards
its new modernism.