Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 5, March 2002

 

 

Kristi McKim

Impassioned Aesthetics

Seeing Sound and Hearing Images in Michel Chion's _Audio-Vision_

 

 

 

Michel Chion

_Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen_

Translated by Claudia Gorbman

Foreword by Walter Murch

New York: Columbia University Press, 1994

ISBN 0-231-0799-4 pbk

Xxiv + 239 pp.

 

'The sound must seem an echo to the sense.' Alexander Pope, _Essay on Criticism_. [1]

 

We would be hard-pressed to find a more succinct conception of mimesis than Pope's. His flawless iambic pentameter and soft sibilance gracefully reinforce the line's content. Pope simultaneously offers a definition *and* a performance of mimesis. As attentive readers, we can both understand the content of his words and witness that content's performance through the diction and syntax of the line itself. Allotting equal attention to the words and their aural resonance, we gain more from this line than had we only noticed content or sound independently.

 

Granted, Pope's eloquent line contextually refers to the musicality of verse; but he proffers a mimetic concept that has informed critical thought for over three centuries. In _The Voice in Cinema_ Michel Chion notes that: 'As surprising as it may seem, it wasn't until the twentieth century that Pierre Schaeffer first attempted to develop a language for describing sounds in themselves' (17). [2] Moreover, once a language within which we can speak of sound exists, how then might we integrate our *sense* of sound with our language? And how might we conceptualize this language relative to aesthetics? While Pope addressed literature, the art of his time, how might we conceive of sound and sense within a more contemporary art, that of cinema? How might the aural evocation (or representation) of sensory perception be illustrated cinematically, and how does vision find a particular position within this dynamic of sense and representation? Moreover, how might this cinematic juxtaposition of sound and sense, aurality and visuality, be itself represented? Through what language can we describe the complex aural and visual world that we apprehend in cinema?

 

We are not without many answers to these questions. With the coming of sound to cinema in roughly 1927, theorists and directors, including Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Cavalcanti, Epstein, Balazs, and Arnheim, sought to conceptualize the possibilities and complications that this new aesthetic dimension introduced. [3] Scholars have offered attention to the soundtrack, albeit minimal compared to the visual qualities of cinema (after all, audience members are 'spectators'). As Mary Ann Doane notes: 'It has become a cliche to note that the sound track has received much less theoretical attention and analysis than the image'; while at the same time she acknowledges that: 'In a culture within which the phrase 'to see' means to understand, the epistemological powers of the subject are clearly given as a function of the centrality of the eye'. [4] This absence of critical discussions of sound, in addition to the continued emphasis on visual apprehension, makes for a theoretical impasse that cannot be overcome merely by offering heightened attention to sound itself.

 

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson offer the most widely-cited delineation of sound terminology in their _Film Art_, though their project's focus is as their subtitle suggests: the aesthetics of cinema as a whole. In the 2001 edition of _Film Art_, the chapter on film sound encompasses 35 pages of their 458 page cinema textbook, and it impressively manages to condense sound's properties, dimensions, and spatio-temporal manipulations into a small space. Though Bordwell and Thompson offer formal definitions of their own sonic lexicon, their focus remains more on framing the object of sound and less on conceptualizing the way that we apprehend sound and image together. For example, they explain how 'diegetic sound can be either *onscreen* or *offscreen* depending on whether its source is within the frame or outside the frame'. [5]

 

In 'Aural Objects' (1980), Christian Metz has critiqued such a terminology as follows:

 

'We tend to forget that a sound in itself is never 'off': either it is audible or it doesn't exist. When it exists, it could not possibly be situated within the interior of the rectangle or outside of it, since the nature of sounds is to diffuse themselves more or less into the entire surrounding space: sound is simultaneously 'in' the screen, in front, behind, around, and throughout the entire movie theater'. [6]

 

Metz argues that terminology such as 'off/on-screen' fails to grasp the vastly distinct properties that distinguish sound and image from one another. As he argues: 'The situation is clear: the language used by technicians and studios, without realizing it, conceptualizes sound in a way that makes sense only for the image. We claim that we are talking about sound, but we are actually thinking of the visual image of the sound's source'. [7]

 

Of course, Bordwell and Thompson *do* indicate that 'off-screen sound' actually refers to the off-screen nature of the sound's *source*, but nonetheless, the term remains 'off/on-screen sound'. And though this term is introduced with the disclaimer that it is the *source* and not the sound itself that is being referenced, the idea of sound's manifestation in imagistic terms surfaces through the dominant language that is used to describe it. While we must laud Bordwell and Thompson for offering us language through which to speak about and teach film sound, we can literally see the moments when the nuances of film sound are overlooked in the effort to postulate a coherent language, accessible to introductory film students and scholars alike. It is, of course, necessary to find the words to talk about what it is that we hear.

 

Nonetheless, their vocabulary and organization of film sound functions both as the dominant way of classifying sound and, more important for our purposes here, the very symptom of the malady afflicting film theory. To their credit, Bordwell and Thompson offer a detailed bibliography following their chapter, where extrapolation on their terms and readings can be found. Within this bibliography, they cite Michel Chion as 'the most prolific researcher into aesthetics of film sound', [8] and behold his _Audio-Vision_ as the summary text of his ideas. It is thus, having addressed the shortcomings of the primary text for film sound terminology, that we can articulate the pressing question that remains: how might we simultaneously account for our visual and aural perceptions of cinema? Furthermore, would we have even known or thought to ask this question, were it not for Michel Chion's compelling insistence that we do so?

 

Published in France in 1990, Chion's _Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen_ refocuses film theory's attention toward concerns of aesthetics, most prominently that of sound. In a world of cultural studies, which characterizes the 1990s, so often discussions of beauty or meaning or what affects us are relegated to a realm less significant than the politicization of representation, the radical relentless pressure to critique, think, and perform in the name of political correctness. By no means am I suggesting that these conceptions of beauty or poignancy are somehow unpoliticized or exist apart from ideology; I realize that there are political implications within aesthetic judgments. Julia Kristeva writes that 'there are political implications inherent in the act of interpretation itself', [9] and while such claims have established grounds for discussing the political stakes of aesthetics, there has yet to be a significant reciprocal exchange: aesthetics has not equally informed conceptions of politics. I would contend that an explication of the political is insufficient, if we are unwilling or resistant to acknowledge how aesthetics inevitably affect our desires or interests as a scholar and human being. We must not neglect why we look in the first place; what aesthetically moves us to pay attention, to consider, to ponder or care?

 

It is to this question, and others, that Chion addresses his comprehensive work, detailing the intricacy of film sound while always keeping cinema's images in sight. In order for spectators, critics, and scholars to begin to talk about films, we must first pay attention both visually and aurally to the images and sounds that are offered to our senses. From the outset Chion establishes his sincere hope that we, as readers, are convinced by this elaborate system for apprehending images and sounds simultaneously. Chion's genuine enthusiasm for his subject matter, combined with his utterly persuasive passion that the reader *share* in his fervor, makes for an energetic read and compelling case. Chion's fanaticism for his newfound means of hearing-seeing a film seem couched in a sincere plea for film audiences to appreciate *more* fully and fruitfully the art of cinema. When apprehending the soundtrack concurrently to the image track, 'we have read and heard in a different way' (4). This 'different way', this greater sensibility to the interworking of sound and sight, yields the underscoring of his notion of 'added value'.

 

Added value, he claims, is the 'expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression . . . that this information or expression 'naturally' comes from what is seen, and is already contained in the image itself' (5). It is added value that has so often given rise to our ignorance of sound, in the assumption that sound merely 'adds' redundant information to an image. Allow me to mark this moment of Chion's text, his definition of 'added value', on merely page five of his dense book, as the first of many creative terms that he invents in the act of establishing a language for cinema that mutually incorporates its aural and visual components.

 

It is also on this page that Chion elides the multi-syllabic 'sound/image synchronism' in the act of forming the word 'synchresis', which he defines as 'the forging of an immediate and necessary relationship between something one sees and something one hears' (5). Again, this deft manoeuvring of language to corroborate his theoretical needs mimics his broader aspiration to construct a language within which sound and image can be read together. As he carefully chooses terms, Chion literally creates a linguistic means to compensate for the critical gap he describes; by offering words to address sound and image simultaneously, Chion dramatizes the theoretical gesture of giving voice to what previously went unnoticed or ignored. This postulation, he supports extensively, as he abundantly makes reference to films from _Look Who's Talking_ (Amy Heckerling, 1989) to _India Song_ (Marguerite Duras, 1975), _The Magnificent Ambersons_ (Orson Welles, 1942) to _Nights of Cabiria_ (Federico Fellini, 1957), among numerous others, and impressively notes how such examples both uphold and complicate his model of audio-vision as he proposes it.

 

No longer 'conceptualiz[ing] sound in a way that makes sense only for the image', [10] in Metz's terms, Chion's _Audio-Vision_ offers a language that conceptualizes sound in a way that makes sense for sound and image simultaneously. Introducing a comprehensive bank of terminology (all helpfully glossed at the book's end), Chion demonstrates his faith, that he articulates as follows: 'audiovisual analysis must rely on words, and so we must take words seriously -- whether they are words that already exist, or ones being invented or reinvented to designate objects that begin to take shape as we observe and understand . . . Using more exact words allows us to confront and compare perceptions and to make progress in pinpointing and defining them' (186).

 

In Chion's final chapter, 'Introduction to Audiovisual Analysis', Chion performs the very attention that he has spent 184 pages detailing. He champions an audiovisual analysis that 'aims to understand the ways in which a sequence or whole film works in its use of sound combined with its use of images', and claims that 'we undertake such an analysis out of curiosity, for the sake of pure knowledge, but with another goal too, that of aesthetic refinement' (185). He then proceeds to prescribe a veritable elementary phenomenology, as he asserts that, 'first and foremost, we need to rediscover a certain freshness in how we actually apprehend films; and we'll need to discard time-worn concepts, which served mainly to prevent us from hearing and seeing anyway' (186). As subject for his sample audiovisual analysis, he selects the prologue from Ingmar Bergman's _Persona_ (1965), 'a pedagogical limit-case of sound-image experimentation' (209).

 

This chapter proves a fitting finale for the book as a whole. Since his attentions are concentrated on this single film, his oft-wandering (verging on rambling) style is contained under the guise of brainstorming. His concrete and practical means of going about this audio-visual attention offer us a tangible way of enacting this knowledge. As if we are not already convinced, the final chapter reinforces this book's appropriateness for film theory classes, production classes, etc., as it offers students possible scenarios in which their analysis can be more aurally attuned. His tone in the _Persona_ analysis, his speculative guesses at the opacity of sound and image, are welcome as they perform the arbitrariness of these labels in the first place. Additionally, this text proves quite relevant to our philosophical film discussions, as Chion extensively meditates on the temporal and spatial dimensions of sound relative to image.

 

Specific to the Columbia edition of _Audio-Vision_, fellow film music theorist Claudia Gorbman offers a lyrical translation of this pensive text; she finely allows Chion's own eloquent and poetic style to seep through to the English. Furthermore, her own endnotes that are inserted among Chion's help tremendously to situate his ideas within a theoretical context; she often offers appropriate citations for further reading. Undoubtedly, she works to steepen Chion's text in a context not made explicit by _Audio-Vision_ itself. Were I interested in holding _Audio-Vision_ to the academic standard of citation and subject mastery, I could claim that the relevance of this text to philosophical debates would be heightened were it to include direct intertextual engagement with the theorists echoed in his prose (whether or not he was aware of such resonance). For example, as noted previously, Christian Metz carefully and importantly delineates the issues with 'off-screen' and 'on-screen' sound, yet Chion seems to reinvent the wheel when he addresses this phenomena at length (with no reference to Metz, mind you). I might ask, would not his time have been better spent pushing forward Metz's argument, instead of vaguely repeating what was written over twenty years ago?

 

Again, Metz writes that 'spatial anchoring of aural events is much more vague and uncertain than that of visual events', [11] while Chion acknowledges that 'aural phenomena are much more characteristically vectorized in time, with an irreversible beginning, middle, and end, than are visual phenomena' (19). And as purely a knee-jerk impulse, I might wonder if Chion would have been right to acknowledge his argument relative to Metz, when their notions so carefully and poignantly intersect. I could even claim that Chion's discussion of sound and time reads quite lyrical and smart, but it is as if he writes in a vacuum, aware only of the films to which he refers, the film crew who works on those films, and his own work as a critic and musician; the veritable lack of any means of philosophical or critical context for his insights necessarily thwarts our efforts at understanding how this text sees itself within the trajectory of works on film sound theory.

 

Interestingly, but with great trepidation and consideration, I realize that it is this critical absence of virtually any film theory (and the abundance of film trivia) that figures as both the strength and weakness of this text. Chion's attuned and insightful ear for cinema prominently manifests itself in the fact that he can write a book virtually ignorant of film theory, yet can concurrently manage to evoke comparisons to Metz, Doane, or Deleuze. Were I more cynical at this moment, I might have hesitantly criticized this book for its clear yet uncited, or even unmentioned, correlations; I would have proceeded to claim that Chion stops short of offering a rigorous and dialogic text of film theory, just as he profoundly exceeds the limitations of yet another formalist analysis. I understand, however, that Chion's book succeeds magnificently on its own terms. A musician, a critic for _Cahiers du cinema_, a writer of book-length studies of David Lynch, Jacques Tati, and _2001_, Michel Chion seeks to elaborate the intersections of sight and listening, of image and sound, as he has worked with and observed them. The passion and vigor with which he elaborates his method are unimpeded by excessive quotations; his text reads like an energetic and inspiring exaltation of cinema's potential. To criticize his work on the basis of its absent theoretical predecessors seems a trite complaint.

 

What does puzzle me about this 1994 Columbia edition of _Audio-Vision_ is the Foreword by Walter Murch. Of course, I risk heresy to write anything less than adulatory about this master of sound, but I can at least claim that Murch's gifts lie in film sound production and not foreword-writing. Throughout his 18 page Foreword, Murch strangely carries out an extended metaphor of Queen Sound and King Image, personifying each according to gendered stereotypes. [12] Did you know that the King enjoyed a 35 year bachelorhood (1892-1927) until his 'arranged marriage' with Queen Sound in 1927? (A Queen who has 'glided around the hall mostly ignored' (viii)) And that Murch's own coming to sound was induced by his desire to 'see through Sound's handmaidenly self-effacement and catch more than a glimpse of her crown' (xv)?

 

Indeed, such metaphorical castings of sound saturate the entire Foreword and, although creative, introduce and perpetuate some oddly archaic gendered stereotypes -- of royalty nonetheless -- of which he seems unaware. As his paraphrase of Chion's work, Murch wonders 'why we generally perceive the product of the fusion of image and sound -- the audiovision -- in terms of the image', and then pushes this one step further, into his metaphorical universe, by asking 'why does King Sight still sit on the throne?' (xxii). The excess with which he turns to these metaphors grows far too droll.

 

Furthermore, Murch seems all too keen to emphasize how his own work on _Apocalypse Now_ (1979) and _The Conversation_ (1974) so brilliantly exemplifies Chion's dream of conceptual resonance, in which 'sound makes us see the image differently, and then this new image makes us hear the sound differently' (xxii), and so forth. Murch claims 'this happens rarely enough (I am thinking of certain electronic sounds at the beginning of _The Conversation_) to be specially prized when it does occur' (xxii). It is thus that Murch seems less concerned with the field of sound as a whole, and how Chion's book speaks within that context, and more interested in his own sense of self-satisfaction gleaned from reading this text. It is only because the book as a whole offers such careful, thoughtful, and elucidating insights that this particular segment of tired metaphor and egoism grows exhausting.

 

In contrast to Murch's Foreword, I offer a moment of Chion's brilliance to close this review-article: first introduced in _The Voice in Cinema_ as a continuation of Pierre Schaeffer's thought, Chion's 'acousmetre' stands out as one of the book's central and most salient concepts. Within the most profound chapter of _Audio-Vision_, 'The Real and the Rendered', the acousmetre, a disembodied voice, is a 'form of 'phantom' character specific to the art of film' (128) that retains a significant mystery, omniscience, and omnipotence from its absence in image. I would argue that his exploration of the acousmetre, both here and in _The Voice in Cinema_, marks his greatest contribution to contemporary thinking about cinema.

 

In interrogating this disembodied voice that inextricably affects the visual, but nonetheless remains primarily an aural force, Chion locates a space where sound is central to a theoretical pursuit. Of course, previous scholars have addressed sound, but their choice to discuss sound is precisely that, a choice. They focus on sound because it has been ignored, but underlying this parameter of study lurks the presumption that image still dominates. What Chion offers is a moment of reading films that postulates the sound as central to inquires of the entire sound-image as a whole. The acousmetre does not have as its unspoken premise a decision to ignore the image; rather, the hyper-presence of voice correlating with an absence of image necessitates a simultaneous seeing-hearing that originates with sound. It is to this end, of understanding cinema with cooperative aural and visual attentiveness, that film theory has been working; and this end, having been articulated in Chion's work, inherently generates its own new questions and possibilities for better attuning our senses to a more fulfilling and rewarding art.

 

Emory University

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Alexander Pope, 'Poet's Corner -- Bookshelf', _Essays on Criticism_ <http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/pope02.html>; accessed 2 October 2001.

 

2. See Pierre Schaeffer, _Traite des objets musicaux_ (Paris: Le Seuil, 1966).

 

3. John Belton and Elisabeth Weis's anthology _Film Sound: Theory and Practice_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) offers an excellent collection of classical sound theory, in addition to other significant film sound developments before 1985. See Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov's 'A Statement', Pudovkin's 'Asynchronism as a Principle of Sound Film', Clair's 'The Art of Sound', Cavalcanti's 'Sound in Films', Arnheim's 'A New Laocoon: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film', Balazs's ' Theory of Film: Sound', and Kracauer's 'Dialogue and Sound', to name a few.

 

4. Mary Ann Doane, 'Ideology and the Practice of Sound Editing and Mixing', in Belton and Weis, eds, _Film Sound_, pp. 54-55.

 

5. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, 'Sound in the Cinema', _Film Art: An Introduction_, 6th ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), p. 306.

 

6. Christian Metz, 'Aural Objects', in Belton and Weis, eds, _Film Sound_, pp. 157-8.

 

7. Ibid., p. 158.

 

8. Bordwell and Thompson, _Film Art_, p. 324.

 

9. Julia Kristeva, 'Psychoanalysis and the Polis', in Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires, eds, _Feminisms_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 229.

 

10. Metz, 'Aural Objects', p. 158.

 

11. Ibid., p. 158.

 

12. See also Jean Renoir's Foreword to the first volume of Andre Bazin's _What is Cinema?_, Volume 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). Similar to Murch (though only lasting two pages), Renoir relies on metaphors of royalty to describe cinema. Renoir writes: 'In the days when kings were kings, when they washed the feet of the poor and, by the simple act of passing by, healed those afflicted with scrofula, there were poets to confirm their belief in their greatness. Not infrequently the singer was greater than the object of his singing. This is where Bazin stands vis-a-vis the cinema . . . For that king of our time, the cinema, has likewise its poet' (v). Renoir's metaphor extends throughout the paragraphs that follow.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Kristi McKim, 'Impassioned Aesthetics: Seeing Sound and Hearing Images in Michel Chion's _Audio-Vision_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 5, March 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n5mckim>.

 

 

 

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