by Stan Brakhage

Méliès accomplishes a musicality of moving forms by way of rhythms of bodily movement (the dance of his magicianship) and the rhythms of appearances and disappearances (his harmony of the unexpected being always expected, as a greater composer always surprises with each development of a theme yet elicits the sense that each harmonic evolution could have occurred in no other way). Méliès creates perhaps the first silently audible rhythm in the aesthetic history of film. He is a drummer in a jungle of stage props at the dawn of the medium.

Griffith, with the controlled use of the action close-up, often evokes as great an aural as a visual sense – through intercutting, a kind of orchestration of recall sounds, as a flash of lightning recalls thunder, as frantically moving leaves and a swaying tree evoke wind, as facial expression speaks for the tone of the voice which is most often of greater dramatical importance in a work of moving visual art than the spoken statement. In the courtroom sequence of Intolerance the judge’s gavel pronounces doom upon the hero far more effectively than the sub-titles “Dead, Dead! DEAD!” Griffith’s battle scenes are alive with the sense of sound, whether the warring of swords in Intolerance, cut to close-up visual clashing, or the puffs of smoke in The Birth of a Nation, cut from close-up to a revelation of the entire battlefield with its sense of reverberation. Unlike Méliès, Griffith plotted his rhythms to create a parallel sense of time for correlating visuals – the round shield of Belshazzar in Intolerance cutting to the circular brunt of the battering ram against the gates of the city, pictorially striking at the exact spot where the king’s shield had been. The visual sense is always subservient to the statement of dramatical correspondances, for Griffith was essentially a story teller accompanying himself with a musicality of vision in true skaldic fashion.

Eisenstein, having apprenticed himself to the study of Griffith, developed the sound sense of silent film from the use of it emotionally in Potemkin (the burst of smoke from Potemkin’s guns answering the Odessa Steps massacre, intercut with first the sleeping stone lion, then the lion half-raised and last the lion with its stone mouth open – a sculptured roar) to his use of sound sense to express a purely intellectual idea in Ten Days That Shook the World (the superimposition of the strumming of harps over a pacifying speaker intercut with the impatiently stamping feet of the revolutionaries). Rhythm, controlled by and endowed with associational sound sense, forms the integral structure of the famous Odessa Steps Sequence. The down beat of the vertically thrust boots of the soldiers builds the tempo up to the release of the smoke of their rifles, a developing staccato theme of stamp and bang, playing like a snare drum on the associational sounds of the mind, an indomitable rhythm at last answered by the all-enveloping white smoke and sculptured symbol of roar. Eisenstein, in his act of orchestrating, creates more than an accompaniment. Whether emotional or ideological, the stimulation is the result of visual and silent-audio recall. He plays upon the mind’s ability to instantly relate the elements in montage and upon associative recall, attuning visuals to their symbolic contexts.

Many of the later silent film makers employed the sound sense to transmit the effect of mute speech. In Stroheim’s Greed, McTeague and his friend are visually accompanied during their difficult conversation in the restaurant by the vibrating strings and indented keys of a player piano. The gaudiness of the instrument indicates to the receptive mind the type of music which is being played, which is quite as effective as knowing whatever particular piece is intended, while the vibrant movement of the stringed insides of the piano and the outward mechanical motion of the keys, with their tempo and with their attendant context, visually paraphrase the dramatics of the scene. The images are especially effective because they are freed from their function as sources of actual sound. Similarly in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc the silence of the inquisitor questioning Joan allows us to seem him pour “Était-il nu?” into her ear, his lips a vial, her eye to the side of her ear the receptacle. In a sound film his voice would have to follow his speaking, as an echo, for this same powerful effect to be achieved.

The creation of a musical or sound sense in a silent film demanded an inventiveness which has never been equaled in the history of the development of the sound film. Creativity with sound has been lost in the superficial complacency of the mechanical adjustment of actual sound to visual occurrence, as if a picture of a streak of lightning were real and therefore must be followed by the sound of thunder, as if the moving images of leaves were fluttering from the screen and must be attended by their perhaps aesthetically useless noise, as if the two-dimensional cut-out actors on the screen were human beings in actual situations and the audience expected to attend their every statement whether or not they have anything to say, rather than to comprehend them as simply in the act of talking, hearing only those dialogues whose spoken meaning is essential in what must predominantly be a visual work of art, if any art at all. Similarly, as rhythm is the basic emotive element in all so-called movie “mood” music, other elements being ill-used if at all, the rhythm of the visual movement as well as the rhythm of the shot length would seem a far more direct – if a more difficult – method of evoking the desired state of feeling than the juxtaposition of actual orchestral accompaniment, which is employed illogically and artificially in most modern film dramas.

The evolution of the sound sense in its aesthetic relationship to the visuals which created it has had no parallel in the development of actual sound and pictures. The sound sense which visual images always evoke and which can become integral with the aesthetic experience of the film under creative control, often makes actual sound superfluous. On this premise alone, one could disqualify almost every sound film from consideration as a work of art. There is no definition of a work of art which will admit superficiality.

(Film Culture no 21, Summer 1960, pp. 65-67)





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