Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 4, March 2002



Gerwin van der Pol

Michel Chion's Blessing in Disguise




Michel Chion

_The Voice in Cinema_

trans. Claudia Gorbman

New York: Columbia University Press, 1999

ISBN 0-231-10822-2 (alk.paper) ISBN 0-231-10823-0 (pbk)

183 pp.


The English translation of Michel Chion's _The Voice in Cinema_ gives one reason to reflect on the presence of Chion in film-sound studies. It is a happy thought that film-sound studies have matured to such an age, that it has reached a moment in its life when there is no longer only a future, but already a past to look back upon. Chion is one of its heroes. And he deserves his unquestioned importance by his eloquent and personal writing on sound in film, his gift of finding and analysing remarkable soundscenes, and also by being, as a result of his success, one of the few promoters of film-sound studies. But to me, Chion should be understood as a blessing in disguise.


It is exactly in this capacity as godfather that I do want to question him. Despite the flawless nature of his books, they contain the seeds of doubt. A strange thing happens in rereading Chion, which is a task far less enjoyable than reading Chion. The first reading is one of amazement and recognition; he describes scenes with an enthusiasm that makes you want to see and hear the film immediately. He is a master in describing a film using only the soundcues, for example _Citizen Kane_ (Orson Welles, 1941), revolving around the word 'Rosebud' he analyses very convincingly the changes of Kane from the written (the newspapers) to the oral (his 'singing' Susan). The multitude of descriptions and their ascribed theoretical terms (mostly neologisms by Chion himself) suggest a theoretical importance and conclusiveness that his work actually lacks. Suspicion arises during rereading, when all those examples no longer have the necessity to end up in Chion's definition: any other list of examples probably would end up in different definitions. Although Chion's definitions clearly fit the examples, the definitions themselves are defined by the examples. There is no surplus value, or other use. *Acousmatic being*, the term introduced in _The Voice in Cinema_, and often quoted, is a case in point. It is the sound of someone who is heard but not seen, exemplified by The Wizard in _The Wizard of Oz_ (Victor Fleming, 1939) before he is unmasked. To Chion, and his many disciples, every disembodied voice is as 'the wizard before he is unmasked'. This definition is relatively unproblematic in Chion examples, but with the films Chion does not mention, the label 'acousmatic being' hardly helps to explain the function of the disembodied voice, and usually only leads a film theorist to be blind to many more interesting functions of the disembodied voice in a particular film. Another problem arises from the anthropomorphic nature of this term -- for example: 'more acousmatic being than ever' (111); or, even more intriguing is: 'The day the acousmatic beings had doubts, when they no longer behaved like voices that knew and saw everything' (55). It is logically impossible for a being to be more itself, or not itself at all. If 'acousmatic being' is defined as 'without doubts' then a doubtful acousmatic being is complete nonsense.


My line of critique is of course indebted to David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, who have their strong doubts about being so generalizing about a few film examples. Their other complaint is the ambivalent nature of the psychoanalytical approach, of which Chion is an adept practitioner. Probably the two arguments stem from the same root: using one psychological case-study as standing for the nature of humankind involves the same way of theorizing as using a selection of film examples to 'prove' this theory. So instead of understanding the 'sign' as indeed standing for something else (in semiotics), to Chion this absence becomes a Lacanian lack, and this absence should only be understood as such. This explains Chion's foregrounding of the 'acousmatic being'.


Chion seems very open-minded in his choice of films, from Marguerite Duras to John Carpenter. In the epilogue he justly defends his use of film examples outside the canon, something for which he is heavily criticised. But perhaps the real problem with his choice of films is not the *inconsistency* with the film canon, but his *consistency* in choosing films that themselves ponder on the importance of film sound. That is, films that are aware that it is not necessarily self-evident that sounds attach themselves to images, and, more literally, all those films that make microphones, gramophones, the voice, the silence, etc., their (visible) subjects. Any analytical play with these films will result in a readable insight into the film; it is probably harder *not* to find a meaningful play with soundsigns. There is of course always room for play and entertainment in the field of film-sound studies, but actual work is necessary to proceed. This focus on the aberrant could finally touch upon issues of the status quo (probably ninety-five percent of all films), but that is still a path to be taken in the field. Only a few works have spotted the road on the map, for example: Theo van Leeuwen's _Speech, Music, Sound_ (Houndsmill: MacMillan, 1999), and Sarah Kozloff's _Overhearing Film Dialogue_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).


Openly criticizing Chion is not meant to erase his name from film-sound studies, but to inscribe him with a different use-value. What is the lesson to be learnt from _The Voice in Cinema_? What happens when we read Chion with the above objections in mind? Are we bothered by these objections? When the inclination to make them explain the 'cinematic apparatus' has disappeared, his examples become more open to debate, and they can be used to explain the more general workings of sound. As no other in film-sound studies Chion labelled these workings 'soundphenomena'. Instead of worshipping all those terms, and ending up with a Chionian canon, it would be wise to analyze the ordinary film and see how many terms actually are useful as working tools.


One of the aspects Chion should be praised for, something unfortunately not copied by his disciples, is his knowledge of early cinema, making connections between now and then that are still inspiring. This stands apart from the contemporary practice of using early film history as a magical box out of which you can summon-up every 'proof' you need for understanding the present. And, despite his Lacanian inclination, for the most part Chion surveys the subject of sound with a fresh ear. And the fact that he hardly makes use of the theoretical canon (from Eisner to Eisenstein and further) is admirable. It makes his theorizing less harmful, and more easily adaptable to other strands of theorizing (such as cognitivism), than the complex and wrong rereadings and quotations one finds in the majority of more theoretical film-sound literature; with notable exceptions like Rick Altman, James Lastra, and Jeff Smith.


Despite my reservations about the generalisations Chion is tempted to make, I do enjoy his enthusiasm. There is something courageous in his over-simplified descriptions, such as the fact that in the big Hollywood productions 'it's amazing to consider the extravagant luxury of the means devoted to the screenplay and production mobilised in order for everything to be lost and spent in a woman's scream' (77). Whatever the doubts about its general truth-value, it is a thought that somehow seems inevitable. _The Voice in Cinema_ contains many of these statements, on muteness, dubbing, and playback, that have still not lost their glamour, and which explain Chion's reputation within film-sound studies.


University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Gerwin van der Pol, 'Michel Chion's Blessing in Disguise', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 4, March 2002 <>.



Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage