The Gift of Sound and Vision

“Derrida said ‘The image always has the last word,’ but did he go far enough? Did the delight of his wit spoil the continuation of his logic? The word is after all an image.”
— Peter Greenaway


Of all the art forms, it is arguably film that has been the least affected by the avant-garde currents that decisively marked the 20th century. This is for two major reasons: one is that film itself is a new form, a startlingly effective synthesis of all previous artistic expressions (the visual arts, theater, literature and music). Even now, in the last years of the century, its novelty remains apparent. It’s still new. Therefore the mid-century Modernist commandment — “make it new” — didn’t apply to film. It was already so. Like the Russians, bypassed by the Enlightenment due to Orthodoxy and geography, film was therefore a victim of its own separate status.

The second reason for film’s seeming imperviousness to the avant garde experimentation which periodically injected new life into older art forms during the century was, and is, the sheer commercial imperatives inherent in a medium requiring so much money to make. As a result, for every Godard there is a bleating flock of Spielberg acolytes; for every Greenaway there’s a host of stupidly violent, 70’s retro Tarantino replicants. (The American Independents scene, currently the nexus of supposedly “non-commercial” filmmaking, is largely characterized by its attempts to gain the attention of Hollywood. Therefore it takes few risks with the medium, even if its choice of actual subject matter can be daring or unconventional.)

I believe that a new arrangement of the picture plane, and a new relationship of sound to vision, is necessary as the 100th birthday of film recedes and the next millennium inexorably arrives. The trail was already blazed by two of the above directors — unfortunately, among dismally few others.

The most evident single example in Godard’s work of an in-your-face attitude towards music and its relationship to film time is no doubt Sympathy for the Devil, which shows the Stones actually recording that track through innumerable overdubs. Although some found it excruciating to watch, it was also fascinating; the film functions to a recording session as Warhol’s Empire State did to that building. It showed it in real-time. It made no concessions to film time.

This itself was interesting. But its subject was still the music, and the Stones themselves. Godard went beyond that in other experiments with music and narrative. His feature Weekend starts out with a woman dressed only in her underwear sitting and talking, in a depressed monotone, about her unhappiness and her husband. Despite being in a dramatic film, the effect is very documentary in nature. (Godard has pointed out that if you’re making a documentary, you are driven towards fictional techniques, and if you are making a drama, you will inevitably be pushed in the direction of documentary.) Just when the audience is wondering what to make of the monologue, a gloomy, string-based orchestral piece of music rises on the soundtrack, drowning out her voice and inserting a kind of poignant distance from the image. The classical relationship between picture and sound reverses; a new perspective is cast on the scene. It achieves, in fact, a kind of universality.

In Greenaway’s new The Pillow Book, the multi-layered image-making that he first showed off in Prospero’s Books (visually stunning as a film, but far too cluttered to succeed as a narrative) here succeeds brilliantly to reinforce narrative. Text and layered images all function in concert with narrative, creating an exceedingly well-balanced synthesis which manages to be “new” in its presentation and yet also presents the viewer with enough narrative satisfaction (and eroticism) to stay involved. In fact, this synthesis is “musical” even without the music. It’s as orchestral in its lush imagery as Godard’s symphony.

As a not entirely incidental byproduct, the filmic equivalent of theater’s “Chinese box” (i.e., the picture plane itself, which almost always serves as a conventional frame or window) is here violated by Greenaway, and forced to take all manner of different forms. This shattering, and reassembly in various new shapes, of the image is finally very liberating. It may be radical in film terms, but it has ample precedent (to say the least) in the visual arts. Therefore it’s not as radical as it might sound.

Despite the efforts described above, which are all too rare, film remains trapped in a kind of conservative conundrum. Its production costs largely mandate its commercial return; meanwhile the career ambitions of new directors frequently negate the chance that they will take any steps towards renovating the medium itself. That’s why the commercial success of Godard’s new film in France over the last months is somewhat heartening. Still, this is success in relative terms, and how it will do outside the country is another question. And Greenaway’s film has yet to be released theatrically in the US, or almost anywhere else for that matter.

Nevertheless, I reiterate: film requires a rearrangement of sound and picture. It needs to be shaken up. That’s why my next project, currently titled Transnational: An Untitled Road Movie, will attempt to present a kind of turntable rotation of elements. On its surface a documentary road movie, shot on digital video, about a group of Slovenian and Russian artists on the road in the United States in the summer of ‘96, Transnational will also feature musicians engaged in the process of creating what could be termed “road movie music.” The location of their ongoing recording session will be the main chamber of the Postojna Cave. In other words, the bowels of Central Europe will provide an echo chamber redefining the wide open space of the American road — literally lending it a “European resonance.”

And there’s more. The traditional relationship of music to picture, in which music is placed in an inferior position — as an almost subliminal provider of emotional tone — will be disrupted in Transnational: An Untitled Road Movie. The recording session will periodically take center stage, with the parallel action of the road movie diverted onto a backing track, so to speak. Meanwhile, on the picture plane, the musicians will be foregrounded, and the documentary “characters” will play out in the background. On the soundtrack, the music will be foregrounded, and the sounds of the road will provide atmosphere to the music (not the other way around). As they rotate in their emphasis, each lending strength to the other, a complex interpenetration can be effected. A mutual reinforcement which gives the subject of the film a dialectical unity.

Is this a Weekend spent reading the Pillow Book? Or could it be — say it ain’t so! — a “reliance on a pre-established referential field”? Well, to fuse two venerable David Bowie lyrics, waiting for the “gift of sound and vision” has to happen at the “speed of life.” A mixture of mediums created the filmic form; a mixture of filmic forms in turn creates the medium renewed. In short, a double helix structure builds life — not the sour grapes of critics shouting “theater” in a crowded fire.

Michael Benson
Ljubljana 2/3/97

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