The cinema screen, by its very construction, is a treacherous environment for sound. It is a plain, a horizon locked by hard borders, historically tethered to its mute, infantile years where the light that occupied it did so without contest. Light, perceived at human scale, is generally understood to be linear, whilst diffraction occurs more often than not, we cannot readily perceive it. It’s this phenomenon that makes light such a perfect medium for the screen. Light can be bounded and contained, calculated and controlled.
Sound, by contrast, was cinema’s unruly ‘change-of-life’ baby. With its arrival, the bounded image was led astray and began to dream of being unbounded. Aided by its acoustic sibling, the impressions of light on screen began reaching outward beyond the frame. Cinematic sound, through its non-diegetic elements radically reconfigured the perceptual depth of light inside the screen. Now, the outside (and by default the invisible) could be made available and the borders of the visual frame gave way. In the darker caverns of the mind’s eye and ear, the imagination was stimulated by a multicity of inputs; the gaps that called for such resolute suspension of disbelief could relax that little bit more.
What was critical about sound’s introduction to cinema was its capacity to colonise the spaces beyond the screen’s finite surface. In doing so, the potential of the screen exploded. With sound came an expanding capacity for images on screen to become richer and more sensorially affective, fleshed out in the mind’s eye. It’s in this realm of multi-sensory affect that Peter Strickland has cultivated his filmic practice and furthermore compelled us to listen, closely.
Beyond Sound\ /Between Ears
For Strickland, Sound is an invitation to be attentive.
As a dynamic agent, sound is the object of our audition and can both consciously and subconsciously draw us into states of awareness that are sensorially separated from those provided by our vision. Beyond its semantic functions, sound affords a certain distance for didacticism and thus allows us to occupy its uncertainties with our own experiences, desires and curiosities. Sound therefore simultaneously acts as a tool for diegesis, reinforcing the vision of the screen, as well as operating as a device for creating a tension of uncertainty.
Acousmatic sound, sound that is cloaked and presented without its source being visibly available, generates deeply affective sensorial possibilities and, through doing so, calls forward the agentive capacities of the (viewer-) listener.1 The dark sounds ask us to apply ourselves to the lightless spaces within cinema. It is through this application of agency that the cinematic experience blossoms; it deepens, burrowing into our deepest psyche, embedding itself in ways that are at time inexplicable. It’s in the interrogation of the inexplicable that Peter Strickland’s films operate, especially in relation to sound.
Across a number of his projects, The Duke Of Burgundy (2014) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012) being the most compelling examples, Strickland has developed an intense fascination with sound’s place in the cinematic experience. Drawing sound out from the dark recesses, he celebrates its technical manifestations, its capacity to be appreciated and moreover how it is apprehended through listening, both within the confines of the filmic space and beyond.
Berberian Sound Studio is an overt meditation on the processes of sound’s manifestations in film. For those working within cinema, the conventions of sound creation: foley (the creation of sound effects in relation to onscreen material), Automated Dialogue Replacement and other post-production processes are familiar. To most viewers however, these processes remain alien at best and more often simply appreciated without consideration. Sound’s presence in cinema, outside of its semantic uses, is spectral; it haunts us without every truly revealing itself. It lurks just beyond our abilities to know it. Without sound though, the film itself can appear rigid, flat and dimensionless. It’s this desire to reveal sound’s true value in film that creates the point of fascination in Berberian Sound Studio.
Through Gilderoy (Toby Jones), the film’s tortured sound designer, the intensity of the act of listening is played out. The violent creation of the sounds, and the acoustic reference they create in the mind’s ear is brought into focus as he sits listening to his reel to reel, trying to navigate the complexities of sound within the cinematic world he must acoustically propagate.
Experiencing these moments, we begin to comprehend our own capacity as listeners within the cinematic field. The suggestive capacity of the sound effects being created and their ability to take us somewhere beyond what is actually seen, is powerful. Sound unlocks the imagined spaces exceeding the visual materials presented on screen and in doing so strongly affects our willingness to be present in the cinematic space.
It’s The Duke Of Burgundy, though, that typifies Strickland’s engagement with sound and sense. In this film, it is the process of listening that is more thoroughly scrutinised. The investigation is subtle though, a gentle tease that mirrors the onscreen eroticism and sensory play. In a number of moments within the film, Strickland allows audition to play a critical role, and he does so in ways that are not often encountered in contemporary cinema.
Listening With The Listeners
Of all the moments in which sound’s place is highlighted during The Duke Of Burgundy, there is one instance where the act of listening becomes radically repositioned and simultaneously unlocks the affective potential of the film itself.
During a lecture of her work studying Orthoptera, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), one of the films’ protagonists, plays back a field recording. She explains the recording is presented as the means of Orthoptera identification and that any visual markers of the species are ultimately ineffectual when seeking to recognise the insects. It’s a gentle provocation towards the criticality of sound and the relevance of listening as a way of sense making.
Directly following her comments a curious sonic proposal is established. Set up through a visual montage where those on screen, and us as acoustic viewers, share a moment of correlated listening. The listening is correlated because, rather than listening through the characters on screen, as occurs in films such as The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) or Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981), where we are led by the auditory investigations of the protagonists, here we are asked to listen with those on-screen. The visual montage sets the terms of engagement explicitly.
Firstly, a speaker is shown, then a diagram of the insect, followed by a minute long panning shot of women listening to this sound. It’s a beautiful, and in some respects unsettled, minute that is shared. We are subjected to a sustained interrogation of sound (the insect voices) that is resounding long (and loud) in terms of acoustic conventions in cinema. The seductively elaborate visual world Strickland creates is pushed backward by the force of sound. In this moment we all must resolve ourselves to stare at one another, recognising the chasm that lies hidden between the inside and outside of the cinematic experience, a psychoterritory that is bridged momentarily by sound and navigated primarily by our correlated listening.
In pressing this experience, in which the detail of the sound becomes almost overpowering, Strickland heightens our capacity to explore the film more broadly. This moment is one that affectively deepens our capacities within the ongoing film. As short as one minute might seem, the intensity of the insect calls, the foreignness of the voice and its cyclic nature becomes excessive. It asks us how much we can take in? How much attention can we really give to the acoustic, even when it is made so abundant and available? That provocation hints at the tragic condition of our sensory athleticism when it comes to the acoustic.
This moment ultimately pushes us to give more of ourselves, it readies us to commit to the films’ staggering sensorial detail. Strickland’s provocation through sound asks us to apply ourselves and invest wholly with all senses, even those that might otherwise sit at the fringes of conscious awareness. In doing this he widens the dimension of the screen, celebrating the continuing eruption of cinema beyond the hard framed lines of history.
- Michel Chion, Film, A Sound Art, Columbia University Press, New York, 2009, p. 340-341. ↩