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I got…rhythm

May 5, 2015

conversation7It often surprises people that the coming of sound should have been greeted with anything other than delight. After all, for us in the C21st for whom the default setting is sound, a silent movie surely lacks something? But talk to any cinephile and it won’t be long before they begin to, well, sound like critics at the end of the 1920s, who saw the addition of sound as the corruption of a pure art form. Film was like opera, an example of the gesamtkunstwerk, a synaesthetic triumph of drama, music, the pictorial image and, crucially, montage. And film was universal. All one had to do was change a few intertitles to the local language, or even do away with them entirely. The coming of sound brought with it the threat of Babel, where language became a barrier to comprehension, not an aid.

Lea Jacobs situates her survey of film rhythm at precisely this historical moment, citing several contemporary commentators who lamented not just the arrival of sound but, more specifically, the effect sound had on the tempo of movies. The complaint made most often was that speech slowed down the pace of the movie, a direct consequence of primitive sound recording devices that forced actors to enunciate their lines, focusing on clarity at the expense of naturalism. Skip forward fifty years and lightweight devices such as Nagra tape recorders allowed directors like Altman and Scorsese to experiment with overlapping dialogue and usher in mumblecore dialogue delivery that makes the centre speaker in a 5:1 set-up essential. The limitations of sound recording were also felt in terms of sound effects and music, a lot of which in the early days had to be recorded on set. Jacobs focus remains film rhythm which here, and throughout the book, encompasses dialogue, music, editing and movement. Refreshingly, there is an emphasis on acting and performance, an awareness of theatricality that is obvious an her earlier book (co-written with Ben Brewster)  (Oxford, 1997):

To demonstrate this moment of transition, Jacobs compares two scenes of Frank Borzage’s 1930 Song o’ My Heart, one made with sync-sound (i.e. the entire soundtrack recorded on set), the other with post-synchronised effects and music, though without dialogue, this being carried in the traditional form of intertitles, making it suitable for foreign release. A picture tells a thousand words, of course, but being able to compare the two clips side by side, as Jacobs does by directing the reader to the University of Wisconsin website, is invaluable. ( In concise terms she traces the various ways in which the pacing of the two scenes differ, showing how an otherwise abstract sense of rhythm and pace is achieved through a combination of the various elements. She is not above conjecture or invoking intentionality. When she surmises that ‘the filmmakers had to forgo the cut around the door in the sync version, despite its obvious dramatic punch, because it would have entailed too long an interval of silence’ (p.19), she places herself in the editing room rather than in the seminar room, and gives us a glimpse of the practical problems that confronted the early pioneers of sound.

Equally on the side of pragmatism, in the next chapter she considers Eisenstein’s writing on film sound in the context of his collaboration with Prokofiev on, amongst others, Ivan the Terrible. I have to confess that I’ve always found Eisenstein’s theorising rather earnest and at the same time annoyingly vague. This is most obvious in his writing on music where he resorts to the kind of metaphors and abstract descriptions of sensation that give a lot of writing about classical music a bad name. (It’s sacrilege to say that, even in the context of film studies which, for all its anti-auteurist theory in the 70s and 80s, was quite happy to champion and venerate Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, et al.) nevsky-diagram-400-bTake, for example, his famous analysis of twelve shots from Alexander Nevsky. He invites the reader to ‘describe in the air with your hand that line of movement suggested by the movement of the music.’ He then proceeds to lead the reader to water, as it were, insisting that the reader’s response will be. The resultant shape mirrors the rising bass line and then the falling violins, which may well be the dominant melodic movements in the four bars in question, but can hardly be so glibly assumed to be the response of every listener. He does the same thing with the movement of the eye in the image and, hey presto, that shape matches the music! It’s all rather airy-fairy and self-fulfilling, and it doesn’t endear me to Eisenstein at all. Jacobs is considerably more precise in her language and methodology, and less tendentious. She criticises Eisenstein for his romanticisation of Prokofiev’s initial response to Eisenstein’s film (Eisenstein insists that Prokofiev is intuiting the hidden rhythm of the movie and then reveals it in his score), and for his ‘vague and atomistic’ notion of the ‘visual accent’.

To use her phrase, she ‘reverse engineers’ the segment in Final Cut Pro and is keen to emphasise how much she learns from that process, pointing out the various ways in which movement, gesture and dialogue sync – or coincide – with Prokofiev’s music. The force of her understanding is evident (and infectious), and shows the reader the depth and texture of the film text, and also the importance of rhythm and tempo as organising principles.

The conclusions she offers at the end of the chapter are methodological guidelines for further chapters in the book. Think small, she insists, which is to say that units as small as a quarter second have meaning. To a musician, for whom that represents perhaps an entire (fleeting) chord, that isn’t small at all, and Jacobs is right to insist on its weight and importance. In support, she cites arguments over the synching of film with music that came down to the sprocket hole, an extraordinarily small fraction of time. I’m less convinced by this as a guiding principle in all narrative film, and I suspect it’s about very exact synchronisation between music and image where the music directly represents the action (Mickey-mousing), to which Jacobs turns her attention in the following chapter. More on that in a later blog. Secondly, she suggests that one must look at all aspects of rhythm as found in the mix: ‘music, dialogue, other sounds, figure movement, camera movement, shot duration.’ Rhythm is everywhere in the film text. Thirdly, there is no single tempo, however much musicians might want to insist that pulse is felt subliminally by the spectator. Rather, it shifts across the various elements of the scene. Fourthly and finally, narrative pace is different from film tempo, and the perception of duration cannot be reduced to the rhythmic elements or the mix. At least that is what I think Jacobs is saying. Perhaps because she references a book by Gérard Genette that I haven’t read, and also an earlier article on Hawks where she addresses the issue in more detail, I find this final section a little hazy. I take it that a sequence may advance the plot only a little but the various filmic elements can be frenetic. Take for example the shower scene in Psycho: Marion is killed by an unidentified assailant, which, though a dynamic plot twist, is but one in a series of other narrative events. However, montage, music, movement and action are extremely rapid and in Jacobs’ terms the mix is extremely fast-paced. She provides as an example the banquet scene from Ivan the Terrible, Part II which has little narrative consequence yet features a great deal of rapid editing and on-screen action. The opposite is also true: temporal ellipses advance the narrative quickly but can be achieved without rapid cutting or other complexities.   275px-VitaphoneDemo

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