One day, speech came to the movies. Until then, words had been images, positioned on “title-cards” and filmed so as to take their place in the succession of images, whose movement they suspended, of course, but whose visual progression they continued. Until then, words were formed by the mouths of the figures on the screen, borne by their bodies, filmed in the act of being proffered. These words were not heard beyond the filming location. It was not a system of recording and reproducing sound that was lacking (Thomas Edison developed the phonograph in 1877), but the practical possibility of reliably synchronising the recorded sounds with the images from which they were supposed to be born.
Five decades later, with the cinematograph in existence for more than 30 years, the era of synchronism was finally ushered in. From that point on all cinematic and, later, all audiovisual production was kept in its realm, with very few exceptions. Now that the visual perception of lips forming phonemes and the auditory perception of the sounds that they produce essentially coincide, now that synchronism has become a rule, an order, a norm, it may be appropriate to interrogate the movement which has led to this unfailing conjunction between the filmed face and recorded speech – as if letting us hear the latter required that we be shown the former.
The television series (whether American or not) has deployed, ad nauseam, a recourse to the “in” as guaranteeing the reality of discourse. Here, capturing speech is doubtless considered as “activity”, listening to it as “passivity”. If, one day, a history of cinematic forms is made (which will, of course, be a history of the economic and ideological conditions of the appearance and disappearance of these forms) it will perforce interest itself in the rise to power, in the last 20 years, of this imperative of the “in”; as well as the concomitant disaffection with regard to the “off” – whose meaning can only be, I fear, the acceptance of the vanishing of off-screen space [hors-champ]. The “field of the other” [champ de l’autre], according to Lacan’s formulation, can from now on only be on the side of the visible – that is to say, on the side of control.
All the effort, imagination, work and concern of television shows relates to the scripts, to which, as with “mainstream” cinema, there must be the strictest conformity. If everything is thought of in terms of the visible – including monsters, threats, horrors – it is because we are witnessing a loss of desire for the hors-champ: why indeed, should we remove from the screen what, as is commonly believed, only acquires value when being seen? And what reason is there to append an outside to the screen, given that the script is accountable for (or guilty of) all narrative hypotheses, and given that nothing can arise which is not agreed upon in advance?
The end of the hors-champ is, first of all, the end of the unexpected, of the non-programmed, of the out-of-synch, of non-pertinence, of the (mysterious) supplement, of the thing from another world, of the thing without a name. The wager of Ginette Lavigne’s La belle journée (2010) is to have turned the image-track into the hors-champ of the reading aloud of a Christian Prigent text by the author himself. The words he pronounces could – as with all other words, whether written or spoken – induce a translation from the side of the visible, a “vision”, an “image”. Here, however, this addition is rarely enacted. Most often, Lavigne chooses not to follow the indications that the text could give, not to follow the script, and instead to take the words as bearers (messengers) of a desire for unprepared and unexpected images. Language thereby loses something of the pertinence of its capacity to name, to forestall in order to name, to appropriate for itself, through a name, the object still in limbo; by contrast, it thereby gains an extension of its poetic power, inasmuch as the images which come to encounter the words are not exactly those which the words promised or could have promised. Disappointment/creation.
I can not prevent myself from considering the common concern that the body is always captured in the image as being more of a symptom of the pressure of the “omni-visible” which we like to denounce: perhaps it is also a matter of forbidding the spectator from the slightest doubt as to the identity of the character speaking. To repetitively see the person who speaks is to relentlessly verify and authenticate the link between the figure and speech, in a face to face right out of the genre of police procedurals (or courtroom dramas). It is no longer speech which speaks the subject, but, in the best idealist tradition, the opposite: the wholly active subject also seems to be active in their control of language. There is no surfeit, no shortfall, farewell William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, we are now circulating in the sphere of communication, known for its hostility to any gap whatsoever.
The abuse of the “in” thus leads to a subordination of filmed speech, a psychologising reduction and a prohibition of the poetic as that which exceeds the subject. Thus, in the television shows which are our daily fare, the shot/reverse-shot – wherein each of the two interlocutors take turns in passing to the image, even if only to let out a “yes” or a “no” – reaffirms that what is at stake is to teach the spectator to prefer the current (imposed) image to the imaginary, in line with an impoverished logic of propriety (a good “hey” is worth more than…) by means of which the uncertainty of suggestiveness or dreaminess finds itself barred. One of the pitiful results of this condemnation of speech to the field of the visible is to make us intolerant towards the regular, automatic, obsessive return of the speaking face of such and such a person. The “off” has its merits.
There is a scene, in La belle journée, where the shot/reverse-shot is diverted or re-directed. Christian Prigent and the actress Vanda Benes are side by side, and even back to back, both in the same frame. The voice of Prigent has just recounted the violent sex-crime of a certain Trochon, a character from the narrator’s childhood. Vanda asks her companion three questions. The questions are “in”. The responses can be heard, “off”, spoken by the voice of Prigent, although he keeps his lips shut. It is thus the book which is speaking. The book which responds directly. Vanda has therefore slipped into the place of the infant Prigent, staged by the book, who, yesterday, interrogated his grandmother in vain. A true users’ guide.
The mechanics of the shot/reverse-shot exclusively fall within the domain of fictional cinema. In “real life”, we never see two interlocutors successively in three-quarter profile. Apart from filming with two cameras, (1) or in re-shooting the take, as is the practice in fictional cinema, “documentary” cinema has no recourse to this mode of figuration, which is precisely a cinematic artefact, an absent form of sensory experience, a visual reality which is only produced by the cinema – and, for a documentary, this would amount to confessing a hoax. In the same manner, only the cinematic experience allows us to separate the speech which speaks to us from the vision of the face which emits it. It is rare, even exceptional, that we turn our backs on those who address themselves to us, and thereby cease to see the visible fact of phonation on their face. In the cinema, this gap is opened up to us. Speech floats over all kinds of images, according to a relationship of varying degrees of distance between the former and the latter. The separation of the soundtrack from the image-track, historically constitutive of the very possibility and difficulty of synchronisation, finds itself replayed and metaphorised in the separation between words and images. In sensory experience, outside of the cinema, there is “in” and “off”, of course; but there is never “on”, as the link between a speech-act and images which do not necessarily bear any meaning towards it. Such a separation, such a decentring, is an artistic effect. (2)
Contemporary synchronisation, therefore, makes an appeal to the visible. It pushes the joining of the image of the body and the sound of the speech-act to be seen, invites them to be validated. Bit by bit, the demand for synchronisation has become a natural condition of the cinematic gesture. A new nature: now, filming is always filming synchronously. The digital has lost this nuance. The manual clapperboard, with its hesitation and its stuttering, has been replaced by the electronic clapperboard, which lets nothing slip through. How can we not think of this moment of freedom when the two tracks, the soundtrack and the image-track, were separate, on different reels, even at the risk of losing this sacrosanct synchronism? We owe it to ourselves to try to recover something of this arbitrary relation between speech and image.
There is writing, and there is oral speech. Words and images. Colours and sounds. Bursts of light and passages of silence. The soundtrack on the one hand, the image-track on the other hand. We could give the name cinema to this relentless gap, this clever, mischievous genie of conjunctive disjunction which is activated in every film, often in vain, sometimes with strange effects, as is the case in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz – The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); All About Eve (1950) – or in the films of Martin Scorsese – Goodfellas (1990) – and not to forget, among hundreds of others, Disneyland, mon vieux pays natal (2000) by Arnaud des Pallières. As if by chance, all these films centre on stories of the dead, on ghost-stories. The cinema is therefore in its element when it comes to Ginette Lavigne’s film, La belle journée. Death is there, words lead it there, in the form of songs, stories and heroic poems; and the images come there, to the fatal meeting point, between the bloodied drapes rinsed in a grandmother’s washboard, and the final spasms of rabbits yet to be skinned. In two words: if there is play, there is cinema.
For example, a musical scene, on the sands, among the channels, these networks of ebbing tides, where an improbable duet conjoins Prigent and Vanda Benes. In a superb close-up, incorporating the water and the wind, the songstress finishes her song – a ritornello by Prigent. Another example: at the turning point of Journée, a Prigent poem about the twelve Communist militants who blockaded a goods train full of weapons at Saint-Brieuc railway station during the Indo-Chinese War, is put to music. We are there, on the station platform. Erik Marchand, holding the lyrics in his hand, sings, and Valentin Clastrier, with an old electro-acoustic guitar on his knees, provides the accompaniment. Here, politics and poetics are intertwined. But at the same time, nothing is set in place: “The time is out of joint.” (3) The full imaginary of a legendary past and a present restrained by the true statement: the musical performance has no other becoming than that of the trace. A letter about writing. Immediately afterwards, in the vast, nearly deserted hall of the Chaffoteaux factory in Saint-Brieuc – which is closing down – around twenty workers listen to the same Erik Marchand, singing in Breton about revolts against the bosses. It all comes together, and nothing comes together. The halting strains of the Internationale accompany the accumulation of debris in the factory, as the premises are being vacated. All these slippages of positions and functions confer a structure on this film which is battered and vibrant, which is left open, still unsatisfied.
Christian Prigent reads a succession of his own texts; sometimes he is filmed in a kitchen, seated, his head bowed, facing the camera, and we see him declaim his reading with the same, repeated gesture, as if he wound up his phrases in his hand and then let them unwind. We are in the “in” of the reading, which is inserted into the film along with footage of Ginette Lavigne and her cameraman João Ribeiro. Waves and rocks, grains of sand, the ripples on the surface of a wave, blurriness and clarity, rips and tides, fence-pickets and chains covered in algae and rust, a trenchcoat thrown on a bathmat, brightness and shadow, ponds and the reflections in the water flowing past… these images, their durations, are not specifically mentioned in the text we hear. Yes: sometimes, the words throw up images which correspond to them: the urinal is in the text before it appears in the street. No: for the most part, the images and the words of the text encounter each other as strangers. All of a sudden, the images infuse the soundtrack bearing the text being read aloud with a different air, something both humid and mineral, which doubtless proceeds from an effect of the text which is distant, yet filtered, subjected to a mysterious distillation, or desiccation, such that these images seem to be born from themselves, and not directly from the words of the text. This parthenogenesis is strange – but not totally strange.
If there is a correspondence between words and images, it is rather the case that they are complicit with each other. A similar anti-naturalism affects the text just as much as the image. We can characterise the extreme uniqueness of Prigent’s writing as a re-questioning of how natural words are, while at the same time being a re-working of the familiarity of language. It resembles familiar speech, less through resemblance, however, than through a series of dissemblances which can be located and identified in Prigent’s writing to the same extent that they can be in everyday speech: words are refashioned, reformed, deformed, phonemes are chipped away at, repeated, compressed, ground up. Resemblance is linked to the process more than the product, with the following consequence: if there is speech and family in this montage of texts, both find themselves effectively shifted into an intermediate zone, where everything resembles everything and nothing resembles anything – a zone of both hesitant recognition and a suspension of resemblance. The mother and the non-mother, the family and the non-family, the grandmother, father and son, and the non-grandmother, non-father, non-son. Objects are both present and not present: this is the incantatory power of language, which is posed without being posed, which speaks of the absence within presence. This is exactly what the cinema does. All the images juxtaposed with these words, all the things shown in these images, are both put forward and withdrawn. Prigent’s lalangue functions through an undertow movement, much like the images of the film: blurred/clear, masked/unmasked, released/held back… The task of the director and her camera operator was, essentially, the construction of images which illustrated nothing but the movement of Prigent’s writing. Repetition, variation, advance, withdrawal.
The necessary and overt quality of this relationship, in order to be imposed on the spectator, must be based neither on a designation of images by words, which would barely provide us with anything better than an illustration, nor on an operation of coding/decoding (denotation, connotation, obvious meaning, hidden meaning), but on a reproductive principle where images and words mutually inseminate each other, without us being able to divine, while watching the film, whether it was the images or the words which came first. If the film’s point of departure is a montage of Prigent’s texts, then during the screening, in the flickering flames of the projection, the opposite is the case: the words seem to come from within the heart of the images, from their form and their temporality.
Here, the game resides in the gap which joins and disjoins not only words and images, but also objects and the images of these objects. This gap has been hollowed out to the extent that the correspondence between living beings and life, between the dead and death itself, is compromised and undone. This gap is the passage from the former to the latter, or rather, it is the between that we must hear and see between the two, this between life and death, where images and words are held together or kept apart.
Take birth, for example: it is, from the very start, out of joint, unhinged. There is the birth of a day on the one hand, and the birth of the infant Prigent on the other hand, while both the day and the baby are still lacking a name. The concern here is to name the visible world, and, in order to name it, to start out by seeing it. To be born, therefore, to start out, is to assert that a gap is created between sensations and the words which name them, between impressions and the words given to them. For the beginning of the life of the little tyke named Prigent corresponds, with a change of footing, to the beginning of the film, and the title of one of the books that the film has the author read aloud – a book which bears the title Beginning. On all sides, things are beginning. With childhood, for instance, the babble of lalangue responds to images which are deformed, malformed, incomplete, at a distance from mature vision, at a distance from any ocular mastery – an optical stammering which spouts the emergent words from out of the mouth of darkness. Childhood is also the time of maternal plumpness, to which responds, in a nullifying rhyme, the roundness of a rosary formed by pebbles on a beach.
At times, therefore, the word (mother) brings forth the image (rotundity), following a principle of correspondence which we could amuse ourselves by calling the rebound. At other times everything holds together, words, images, objects: the swamp at Cartravers, for example, in spite of its name. And at other times still, no visual pertinence or resemblance can be fished out of the trawling net of words. An elastic gap creates a distance between word and image, which are nonetheless associated by the film, such that, even while being associated, they do not seem to be. We have now entered into the disjunctive conjunction! Distant and close, together and separate. The assumed spectator is asked to play along, to the extent that he finds himself caught in the lack of a juncture between the field of images and the field of words. The cinema activates a certain unique sensorial capacity: that of the between-two – between sounds and images, between two meanings, between clarity and opacity, life and death, the things that matter. The challenge of writing is thus heightened.
Translated by Daniel Fairfax.
This article first appeared in the French film journal Trafic. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.
- This dual camera shot/reverse-shot was used by me in La Question des alliances (1996), a film in the series Marseille contre Marseille, when we wanted to shoot a long conversation between Michel Samson and Bruno Mégret, then the second-in-command of the National Front in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. We were interested in Samson’s synchronous reactions to Mégret’s more or less delirious statements. Editing them necessarily meant moving Mégret’s speech over to the “off” and filming the effect of his prattle on Samson’s face. The two image-tracks only had one soundtrack, and the two images could only be edited together successively, unless we played with a split screen (which seems to me to be a facile approach which would prevent the drawing in of a spectatorial regard). Simultaneity was, consequently, a projection (or a construction) of the spectator, as in shot/reverse-shot, where the spectator fuses, into a single moment, a single continuity, two shots constituting two distinct enunciations, necessarily filmed and recorded in two distinct moments.
- Serge Daney maintained the distinction between the “off” – with the speaker, as the physical source of the sound, off-screen – and the “on”, where the speech-act, separated from the body which proffers it, takes the liberty of wandering over all kinds of images. The “on” is the regular regime of spoken narration, where the voice of the narrator floats, for example, over a night-time forest – see Bienvenue à Bataville (2007) by François Caillat.
- This phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is discussed in detail by Jacques Derrida in one of the finest passages of Spectres de Marx, Galilée, 1993: “Injonctions de Marx”, pp. 41-60.