Cinesonica: Sounding Film and Video – Andy Birtwistle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010
By Yasco Horsman
Composer and critic Michel Chion states, in the opening pages of his groundbreaking study Audio-Vision (1994), that sound is still largely considered a supplement to the “real” film. Sounds, so the received opinion goes, are “added” to the images; they “accompany” the actions that unfold on the screen. We believe we go the cinema to “watch” a movie. This attitude, Chion argues, is problematic, not just because sound is as important to the cinematic experience as images, but also, more crucially, because in the cinema watching and listening can not easily be separated. Hearing a sound modifies one’s visual perception, just as seeing something inflects one’s understanding of a sound. “[F]ilms, television, and other audiovisual media do not just address the eye,” Chion writes. “They place their spectators – their audiospectators – in a specific perceptual mode of reception.” Chion christens this mode “audio-vision” – a trans-sensory experience – and continues to spell out different types of “audio-visual” experiences in cinema and their employment in different types of film.
In his interesting and well-written book, Andy Birtwistle – experimental filmmaker and lecturer in Film and Video at Canterbury Christ Church University – follows in Chion’s footsteps and studies what he calls (with a neologism coined by Philip Brophy) the “cinesonic” dimension of film and video - the way in which “the senses of sight and sound combine, mix and sometimes blur in cinematic experience” (19). But whereas Chion’s pioneering study tended to focus on the “audiovisuality” of feature-length films of canonized auteurs (Hitchcock, Lynch, Malik, Lang, Duras), Birtwistle’s study tunes in to a series of unusual and often nonsensical cinesonic sounds (ranging from the noise produced by a projector and the hiss of VHS-videotape to the usage of drones produced by non-traditional instruments) that can be heard in minor modes of filmmaking, such as 1940’s animation, 1950’s sci-fi movies, experimental films from the 1960’s and 70’s, and British “scratch”-video’s from the 1980’s. The focus on these weird sounds produced by strange films demonstrates the limitations of the traditional approaches to film sound in two ways, Birtwistle explains in his introduction.
Firstly, it invites one to go beyond the narratological and semiotic approaches that understand sonic elements as signifiers that need to be decoded, or whose narrative function needs to be analyzed. In a lucid part of his introduction, Birtwistle points out that the semiotic approach to sound necessarily involves disregarding sound’s material dimension, since the Saussurian understanding of a sign as an element in a system of differences posits that “making sense” of a sound involves ignoring its sonic specificity (i.e. its singular materiality) and understanding it “negatively,” as differing from other elements. In contrast, Birtwistle seeks to highlight precisely the positive material dimensions of cinesonic sounds – their pitch, volume, timbre – not in order to speculate on their meaning, but rather to analyse the affective impact they have on the audio-spectator, an impact which, in his understanding, lies beyond cognition; or, as he puts it elegantly: he is interested in the sounds that we (subliminally) sense without being able to make sense of them.
Secondly, by concentrating on “minor” cinematic practices, such as animation, experimental cinema and scratch video, Birtwistle introduces his readers to a series of complex sound-image relations that are often overlooked by film criticism. Film studies, Birtwistle explains, tend to study either the synchronized sounds of narrative Hollywood movies or the contrapuntal use of sound in oppositional modes of filmmaking by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Godard, or Kluge who belong to the tradition of what Birtwistle calls (following David Rodowick) “political modernism.” As Birtwistle points out, the use of non-synchronized sound by the aforementioned modernist auteurs, serves the purpose of confronting the audiospectator with the constructed nature of the film, to “defamiliarize” him/her with cinematic conventions (in particular those of cinematic realism) in order to transform him/her from a passive consumer into an active audiospectator, not seduced by the lures of film. Although Birtwistle is respectful of the formidable modernist tradition, he argues, rightfully I think, that the awe it has inspired in a generation of film critics has led them to be dismissive of modes of filmmaking that have experimented with other (i.e. neither realistic nor contrapuntal) sound-image relations. This is a pity, he adds, since precisely those overlooked modes of filming also invite us to understand the political dimension of cinema in different terms, namely as something that we need to understand on the level of affect as well as on the level of meaning.
After an introduction that spells out the goals of the book, Cinesonica opens with a chapter on a selection of experimental British films that, at first sight, seem to belong to the tradition of political modernism, since they are largely engaged in a critical investigation of cinematic conventions. As Birtwistle points out, the critical reception of these films – he discusses shorts by John Smith, Scott Rankin, Anthea Kennedy, and Nick Burton – tends to understand them as taking a place in opposition to classical narrative modes of filming. Birtwistle does not have an issue with this reading as such - in fact, his own analyses are largely devoted to dissecting the different ways in which films such as Smith’s The Black Tower (1987) and Rankin’s This and That (1990) undermine conventional sound-image relations. He argues, however, that a one-sided consideration of their critical dimension has diverted critical attention away from these films’ positive interest in the material dimension of cinematic sound. The soundtracks of Rankin’s films, for example, consist of complex soundscapes, which are largely overlooked by his critics. This is no coincidence, Birtwistle holds, since film criticism does not possess a vocabulary in which to describe and analyse these soundscapes positively.
This point is, I think, well taken and demonstrated convincingly. The problem with the chapter is, however, that it does not entirely practice what it preaches, since the promised consideration of the materiality of sound remains limited to a short concluding paragraph in which the “oceanic” dimension of Rankin’s soundscapes is discussed very briefly. This is, however, made up for in the following two chapters that concentrate, indeed, on uncanny cinesonic noises, such as (in chapter three) the ground or system noise of the projector, and (in chapter four) the uncanny, subliminal sound of electronic drones in both experimental film and in mainstream sci-fi. Birtwistle tries to explain the effect of these uncanny sounds by analysing their positive sonic dimension in terms derived from musicology. In the chapter on noise, for example, he employs Curtis Roads concept of the “microsound,” and composer La Monte Young’s theory of the drone in order to argue that the continuous sound of crackle “may disrupt our normal conception of temporal flow as regular, measured, and normally comprehensible in terms of a succession of events” (111). This particular effect, he demonstrates, is used for specific narrative purposes in the films of Antonioni, the videos of Bill Viola, and in a b-movie such as the thriller Crack-up (Reis 1946). In the following chapter, Birtwistle argues that sounds produced by electronic instruments (such as the theremin) or by uncommon procedures (such as the Whitney Brothers’ practice of scratching directly on the sound strip of a film), have an otherworldly effect because they cannot be mapped onto cinematic space; they seem to come out of nowhere. Whereas the drones analysed in chapter two seem to dismantle time, these noises lead to a sense of spatial destabilization, which Birtwistle calls, following Deleuze, an effect of deterritorialization.
Strange and unusual sounds
The next two chapters concentrate not so much on strange sounds, but on a series of unusual – and often dismissed – sound-image relations. Chapter five discusses the phenomenon of what is called “mickey-mousing” in animated cartoons. Animated images are said to “mickey-mouse” the musical soundtrack when they slavishly follow the movements of the music, as when, for example Road Runner blinks his eyes to the sound of a xylophone or Wile E. Coyote sinks into the mud to the sound of a slide trombone. In film criticism the term is often used pejoratively to point to what is considered a “primitive” use of over-synchronization. A careful reading of Carl Stalling-scored Warner Brothers shorts suggests however, as Birtwistle points out, that the sound-image relations during “mickey mousing” moments are somewhat more complex. The animated images do not so much follow the music, he suggests, but music and images respond to something that seems external to both of them, a force that he calls (employing a Deleuzian-Guattarian term) the film’s “refrain.” This refrain – which exists between sound and image - gives the films a rhythmic consistency, which, in the anarchic world of Road Runner and Daffy Duck, is constantly undermined by the forces of chaos. The interplay between these two forces – which he likens to the Deleuzian-Guattarian notion of territorialization and deterritorialization – give the films their dynamic structure. In a Deleuzian reformulation of Michel Chion’s project, Birtwistle concludes that the “audiovisuality” of film should not be understood as a stable relation between two separate “tracks,” but rather as a dynamic, rhythmic, flow that exists on a plane that lies between sonic and visual “milieus” (227).
The chapter is, very much like the preceding ones, exemplary in its close readings, and in the originality of its choice of case studies. I do have, however, some minor reservations about the conclusions it draws. The Deleuzian-Guattarian conceptual pair of territorialization – deterritorialization is very evocative when employed to describe the dynamics of the Warner Brothers shorts, but I do not quite follow Birtwistle’s suggestion that this gives the films a political dimension. Surely, Deleuze and Guattari understand deterritorialization in political terms when they employ it to describe the unbinding of economical and libidinal forces. But whereas it is plain to see how the aforementioned can have a political impact, I find it more difficult to grasp how watching a Road Runner cartoon can have a politicizing effect, and I am afraid Birtwistle remains rather vague as to how precisely he envisions this.
The relation between politics and sound also plays a key role in the book’s final, and I think best, chapter, which is on scratch video, a short-lived genre that emerged out of UK club culture of the 1980’s. It is here that Birtwistle finally delivers upon the promise of the book’s introduction to discuss the relation between affect, sound and politics. “Scratch” videos, produced by collectives such as the Duvet Brothers, Gorilla Tapes or individuals as George Barber, typically consist of clips taken from Hollywood movies, news programs, sitcoms and commercials that are sped up, slowed down, and rhythmically manipulated in ways that resemble a deejay’s use of vinyl. However, in contrast to scratching in pop music, scratch videos were often of a political nature. Sequences taken from films and sitcoms were combined with news flashes of strikes or other geopolitical events, which were, in turn, juxtaposed to explicit political slogans. Words and images were rhythmically synchronized to a sound track that consisted predominantly of pop songs. Since they were shown in clubs rather than in galleries or movie theatres, scratch videos were often meant to be danced to. In a careful reading, Birtwistle demonstrates that the remarkably hostile reception of scratch in the film world can be attributed to scratch’s mode of combining explicit political images with a soundtrack that seems to operate on an altogether different level. Whereas the images communicate clearly legible political messages, the repetitive beats of the music produce a strong affective, bodily sensation. Film critics deemed precisely this combination of politics and music problematic. After viewing images of the miner’s strike set to electronic music, one critic even exclaimed, exasperated, that he was not sure whether we are invited to dance or debate political ideas – suggesting that these two are mutually exclusive. The point of scratch was, Birtwistle holds, that this is not the case; it works on the premise that political ideas have an affective dimension. Hence, scratch video broke with the paradigm of political modernism that took it for granted that a political film calls for a detached audiospectator, who is ready to reflect critically on the ideas a film presents. Instead, scratch also works on an affective level: it seeks to make its audiospectator move and think. In a convincing section of his chapter, Birtwistle explains that an interest in affect also plays a key role on the visual level. Unlike, for example, situationist films of the 1960’s, scratch videos do not so much criticize the audiovisual materials they cite, as they seek to preserve their affective content in order to repurpose them and reassemble them in new audiovisual configurations – very much like hip hop samples the most effective bits of earlier records, not in order to undermine their effects, but precisely to use them for different purposes. For scratch this purpose is often political.
Cinesonica is in many ways an exciting and inspiring read. The book presents and analyzes the audio-visual relations of an impressive number of films that have been largely ignored by film scholars. It is very informative in (for example) its reconstruction of debates about noise-reduction, recording techniques and synchronization. Birtwistle is furthermore very careful in highlighting the differences between the films under discussion. Carl Stalling’s compositions are, for example, carefully differentiated from Scott Bradley’s music for Tom and Jerry Cartoons. In short, one learns a lot about sound. I had, however, some difficulties with the claims the book makes about the relation between cinema and politics. While I do agree with Birtwistle that the discourse of political modernism is rather one-dimensional, it is not always clear with what he would like to replace it. The book needs to be clearer about how it understands the political. This is all the more important since the notion of the political has in recent years been redefined by quite a number of theorists (Rancière, Agamben, Lefort, Negri) working within different paradigms. It is not always clear how Birtwistle situates himself with regard to these debates. The same goes for the notion of affect, another key word in the book, which has become a buzz-word in recent debates in the humanities. While the book’s introduction does cite a series of studies of affect (Massumi, Marks, Sobchack), its approach is sometimes a bit eclectic. While Birtwistle seems mostly inspired by Deleuze, he also cites, approvingly, film scholars such as Noel Carroll, who works within a cognitive theory framework – a paradigm very much at odds with the Deleuzian framework. Birtwistle frankly acknowledges his eclecticism, and in his introduction he states explicitly that the book is meant as an exercise in descriptive criticism, not as a work of pure theory. Yet, I do think it would have benefited from a more careful theoretical explication of the implications of some of his analyses. Despite these minor shortcomings, Cinesonica is an important study. It opens new venues into cinema and sound studies, and offers an exemplary demonstration of the importance of an analysis of cinema as a form of audiovisuality.