Faced with a stream of images, we can always close our eyes. Sound is different: it penetrates the body whether we like it or not. It can soothe or irritate, bombard the listener or bore her, but no matter what, its vibrations are unavoidable and enveloping. The experience of listening in the enclosed space of the cinema thus possesses an immense power, yet it is one that has not always been given its due. Although undoubtable and important exceptions exist, film sound has often been perceived as something secondary to the image, as a redundant twin or distracting addition. As scholar Rick Altman has put it: ‘The history of cinema has been so fully constituted as a visual affair that it is not clear how, at this late date, a different story might be defended.’ At the end of the 1920s, many critics expressed dismay that the coming of synchronized sound heralded the death of cinematic artistry. Such attitudes have largely faded over the years, but an ocularcentrism stubbornly persists – perhaps nowhere more strongly than in artists’ engagements with the moving image, tethered as they are to the sphere of visual art. At the limit, as in the films of Stan Brakhage, silence is a virtue and sound an abomination.
Yet sound is centrally important to artists’ engagements with the moving image, particularly in the contemporary moment. Every year, the International Film Festival Rotterdam includes a programme of live audiovisual performances at WORM called ‘sound//vision’, but this year the prevalence of films giving primacy to music and voice was such that it is tempting to take this moniker as a frame through which to approach the festival’s immense – and immensely diverse – programme of short films by artists.
Hit songs by Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson anchored films by Nazli Dinçel, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Akosua Adoma Owusu, respectively, suggesting that the children of the 1990s have now come of age, recruiting the pleasures of the popular music of their youth in order to redeploy them well outside the usual circumstances of consumption. In Walled Unwalled (2018), Lawrence Abu Hamdan employs a lecture-performance format to explore the juridical implications of how sound travels through space. Stefano Capana equally, though differently, foregrounds sonic materiality in This Sound Drifts (2019), a 35mm film that prints the optical soundtrack of a performance by sound artist Jérôme Noetinger multiple times to constitute the image.
Mary Helena Clark’s exquisite The Glass Note (2018) is a poetic primer for the strange relations between eye and ear the cinema can create. Brakhage once said, ‘When you synch something, then you’re sunk’. It was an attitude he shared with Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vladimir Pudovkin before him, who believed that synchronization could only ever result in talking pictures devoid of the plastic tensions of montage; they argued instead for strong juxtaposition. Clark complicates this dismissal. Instead of refusing synchronization outright, she plays with the creative, anti-realist possibilities of the artificial conjunction of vision and audition. We encounter the same noise paired with multiple images, with its meaning shifting dramatically with the cut, to the point that the noise seems to resonate differently, even though only the image has changed. These disjunctions denaturalize the technique of synchronization – usually thought to be ‘obvious’ and ‘natural’, even though it is nothing of the sort – and reveal how much our apprehension of the picture conditions our reception of sound and vice-versa. Cinema turns out to be a synaesthetic art, even far beyond bounds of the visual music tradition.
Many other artists took a stance towards synchronized sound more akin to the Soviets, implicitly endorsing their call for contrapuntal strategies. Perhaps the most striking formal tendency at Rotterdam this year was the preponderance of films that loosely paired a voice-over with an array of images, whether found or newly shot, sometimes with little to no discernible relationship between them. This is by no means a new gesture: it is employed to devastating effect in William E. Jones’s underappreciated 16mm feature Finished (1997) and goes back even farther, to the films of Marguerite Duras. Film scholar Christa Blümlinger identifies the technique as central to the essay film, understanding it as a means by which ‘a new space emerges for the undecidable, the non-evocable, the irreconcilable, the impossible’. The gesture is not novel, but its ubiquity is – and with ubiquity comes the risk that it hardens into a cliché, becoming all too decidable, all too possible.
The vogue for the essay film shows no signs of slowing down; its strategies have now seeped outwards to thoroughly permeate the short form, appearing in works one might not straightforwardly associate with the genre. The best films of this kind depend on a relationship between sound and image that is at once dynamic and precise, with each component contributing something distinct, working separately and together in a productive tension. With Mum’s Cards (2018), for instance, Luke Fowler reaffirms his status as one of cinema’s great portraitists while also deploying a tremendous economy of means to create a film of great tenderness and complexity. On the image-track are glimpses of a system of index cards that Fowler’s mother, a retired sociology professor, has used to keep track of her reading since the 1960s. On the soundtrack, she comments on her profession, her system of cards, her life. At a time when considerations of motherhood abound in art and literature, mostly produced by woman who are themselves mothers seeking to understand the work of care, Fowler’s gesture of depicting his mother through her scholarly project is quietly radical. He emphasizes the material conditions of the life of the mind, gesturing at once to how technology has transformed intellectual labour and to how the categories of ‘mother’ and ‘thinker’ are not to be construed as separate.
Less successful were those films, sadly too numerous, that treated the image as a seeming afterthought, lazily, as if it constituted ambient ‘visuals’ present to light up the screen and amuse the eye while the real work was happening elsewhere, in voiceover. Why not write an essay? Or do a podcast? Perhaps these filmmakers just hadn’t gone far enough: in This Action Lies (2018), James N. Kienitz Wilkins pushes this principle to such an extreme, and with such sureness and reflexivity, that it passes through the middle-ground of tired convention to become compelling again. For thirty-two minutes, Kienitz Wilkins films a Styrofoam coffee cup from various angles in black-and-white, while a breathless first-person monologue weaves a theory of the sustained stare together with discussions of Dunkin’ Donuts, fatherhood, money, movies, and so much more.
Not all artists at Rotterdam saw the need to separate voice from body. In Beatrice Gibson’s moving I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (2018), poets CAConrad and Eileen Myles perform readings that Gibson situates in relation to fragments from her life and broader considerations of political emergency. Vincent Meessen’s Ultramarine (2019), a winner of the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition, is an expansive meditation on colour, colonialism, and the lives of objects, grounded in a spoken word performance by the African-American poet Kain. Accompanied by improvised percussion by Lander Gyselinck, Kain responds to a host of artefacts chosen by Meessen, creating a fragmentary narrative of exile, loss, violence, and freedom. Gibson and Meessen insist on the embodied speech of the poet, not because they are invested in the reality-effects of synchronization but because they are keen to emphasize the locatedness of every utterance. In their refusal of any simple organising principle, and their rejection of received ideas and established categories, they are the true exemplars of what essay filmmaking can become when cross-fertilized with the energies of artists’ moving image. They ask the viewer to listen carefully and look just as hard.
Main image: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, 2018, film still. Courtesy: International Film Festival Rotterdam
Erika Balsom is a critic and scholar based in London, UK. Her most recent book is An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea (2018), published by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand.