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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.

As opposed 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.

Ante Peterlić

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