The audiovisual chord as a tool to compose different experienced spaces and situations in one single moment
When the adult Nick wakes up, the scene starts with the screams of Nick as a child, far away. This moment suggests that the death of the baby and the consequent bursting of the brothers’ bubble lies beneath this scene. In fact, nothing is happening here: we hear Nick breathing and smoking. Exterior sounds of traffic in the street resonate far away from the room where Nick is sitting. We sense a tension. The lived space is not just a here and now, but a presently lived space teeming with the past.
Later on Nick tries to call his brother from a telephone booth. Different auditory spaces can be distinguished: the surrounding street sounds (mainly cars), the sounds produced by Nick’s gestures, the dialing of the phone number, his breathing, and the rustle of his clothes. But it is clear that none of these sounds attracts Nick’s attention. Speechlessly he listens to his brother’s voice uttering several times the word “Hello.” Some children’s voices are sounding on the other side of the line. He cannot reply. The street sounds diminish for a moment. Music enters the scene. Nick hangs up and in a fit of rage hits the phone booth, smashing the booth and mangling his hand.
Everything can be heard perfectly here; the scene can be analyzed as a superimposition of different auditory spaces in combination with the images on screen. The setting of the street, Nick’s loneliness, the “face-to-face” auditory aura between the brothers, the music - which refers to the moment the safe bubble they shared burst - and as a new element, the children’s voices. The experience of the combined elements is clear through Nick’s reaction. No explanation is required: the scene provides all the ingredients it needs in order for the observer to feel with Nick.
The audience not only hears the different layers, but is confronted with different layers in their film experience: they listen together with Nick making his telephone call, but they are also exposed to other sounds and music; perhaps without really noticing, they experience other scenes shadowing this scene.
I would like to compare this to a chord in tonal music. A chord consists of different tones sounding simultaneously; each tone has a function not only in the chord itself, but also in the totality of the composition. Some of the tones in the chord are more important than others. Within tonal music a dissonant chord provokes tension regardless of whether the listener is consciously focusing on the music or not.
A chord has a ground tone, and tonality creates both a musical space and a direction in this space that gravitates toward this fundamental. I will refer later to the way the audience may move with the music and may be moved by the tensions created within music, often without reflecting about what is happening. At this moment I would like to focus on the constellation of what I call "the audio-visual chord," constituted from various viewing and listening perspectives and enabling the description of two different temporal dimensions: that of linear, successive time and that of the polychronic moment. This means that time is no longer regarded as linear, but becoming a field in which different “times” occur at the same moment.
Instead of defining the relation between the points of audition and the points of view in reference to what is happening on screen (Lissa 1966; Chion 1994), the body of the spectator/listener is at the center. This follows the phenomenological film approach of Vivian Sobchack. She describes film experience as a system of communication based on bodily perception which acts as a vehicle of conscious expression (Sobchack 1992: 9).
In fact, when listening from the point-of-audition (Altman 1992) of a character in a film, we are applying two different listening perspectives at the same time: a third person perspective and a first person perspective. The point-of-audition, a listening with the characters, following their attention, is for the spectator/listener a third person perspective.
Instead of giving us the freedom to move about the film’s space at will, this technique locates us in a very specific place – the body of the character who hears for us. Point-of-audition sound thus constitutes the perfect interpellation, for it inserts us into the narrative at the very intersection of two spaces which the image alone is incapable of linking, thus giving us the sensation of controlling the relationship between those spaces. (Altman 1992: 60)
But at the same time, the spectator/listener continues to listen from a proper first person perspective, which means that she is also anchored in the film in a very fundamental way and can even hear what the character in the film cannot hear.
In the previously mentioned fragment with Nick as main character, Nick’s listening is focused on the voice of his brother and the children’s voices in the background. But the audience is also hearing the environmental sounds and the sounds of his gestures. By switching the balance between the different sound layers, it is possible to create a moment of “silence” and focus on Nick’s inhibition to speak.
The same phone call is presented from the opposing perspective of Martin’s father, with a different impact on the audience. The scene opens with Martin introducing his father to the kindergarten teacher. They have just told her that Martin’s mother passed away some years ago in an accident. Later, while kids are running down the stairs, full of joy and liveliness, Martin’s father answers “a call.” He cannot see who the caller is and answers, but when there is no response, he disconnects the call. Even when the audience realizes that it is the same call it witnessed at the beginning of the film, this time from another perspective, the impact of the scene is totally different. Neither Nick’s loneliness nor the drama at the beginning of the film is conveyed in this scene. The phone call is first presented from the first person perspective of Nick and, later on, from the first person perspective of Martin’s father. As already mentioned, although it concerns the same “moment” in the film, with auditorily nearly the same elements, it may be experienced differently due to the different first person perspectives of the characters. In this series of shots, the images reveal the different situations of the brothers. The images are not connected, as their worlds seem no longer connected. However, both scenes are strongly connected through the spoken words and the music, referring to the diegetic house party music sounding before the brothers’ bubble has burst. In terms of Sloterdijk’s spherology, the situation of Nick can be interpreted as a longing for the original intimate sphere he experienced with his brother and his frustration of being unable to rebuild a similar sphere in his life.
The question, then, is how the audience manages to “understand” this complexity of different filmic elements and different perspectives when the relationship between the brothers is not directly causally presented and time is no longer linear.