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Life With Sound

October 06, 1985|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson's novel, "Suspects," was recently published by Knopf (May, 1985). He's also written several books about film.

We take the sound so much for granted now that we grunt and grumble the instant it goes off. It's like losing life support. A picture can have us hooked on the fantasy, the story and the small talk, or even on the familiar but impossible fusion of the wind and the background music that persuades us this is all happening on a night in Tunisia, or Toledo, Ohio. Somehow it's the sound that proves this mishmash of recorded reality and make-believe is real and keeps us attached to the fiction. Television is similar (for that is generally radio with pictures); we wander in and out of the room and attentiveness, "following" the line of dreadful noise (TV sound is so bad), "reading" the sequence of talking heads, commercials and jingles, knowing with our ears when we need to look.

But then the sound goes in the movie theater. Only the sound--for it is not truly a part of the picture; its synchronicity with the images is not natural, but composed. The picture stays put, serenely and stupidly unaware that it is being betrayed. The young woman's mouth, her face, her very soul, opens and closes in just the same rush of confession that had us rooting for her. There's anxiety in her eyes, but it's still dependent on whether the guy will believe and love her. The poor fool doesn't know the sound bulb in the projector has blown--the small light that reads the optical sound track that runs in a long, narrow, unbroken line alongside the column of separate pictures. The sound is like water, and the pictures are barges floating on it.

So we groan and whistle, and in a few seconds we're filling the silence with our own smart-ass lines to fit the woman's woefully fluttering mouth. Killing the sound is like turning off the lights on the subway train--it ruins everything, and opens us up to all the terror and absurdity that had been waiting on the edges of the sweet dream.

Fifty-eight years ago on Oct. 6, when "The Jazz Singer" opened and sound on film was officially launched in a way that ensured the demise of "silent" pictures, all the fuss concerned the intrusion and the spoilage. There were big stars who didn't talk too well and who foresaw an end to their careers. There were picture artists, like D. W. Griffith, who dreaded the loss of "beauty" that would come with sound--the picturesque, the delicate art of mime, the symbolism and the flowerlike mystery in the faces of Pola Negri or Lillian Gish, all trampled by the vulgarity of Al Jolson getting sentimental with his mother. It was feared that fluid movie-making, with complex camera movement revealing the atmosphere of real locations, was doomed because everything on the soundproofed studio set would have to be frozen and silent just so the stilted dialogue could be heard.

There was a great loss, just as there is now when more and more people watch movies on cassette instead of at the foot of a screen that looms above them like the Titanic over a rowboat. A kind of power and beauty are given up. But film has never been just an art. It is a business and a technology always ready to go with novelty and change, cheerfully heartless in its assumption that the medium itself must fall in line and go with the future.

Moreover, much that was lost in 1927 was already antiquated. Silent movies drew upon veins of sentimentality that had never cut their ties with crude Victorian theater. When sound came along, movies had to get up-to-date. It is sound that gave us a generation of stars who are still cherished--urgent voices in which we hear intelligence and a love of life: Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart (not always fast) and Carole Lombard. Sound let us hear the dialogue of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond and Robert Towne; it also permitted stories to move four or five times faster than they had done before.

Sound was smartness, snap, wit, crosstalk, sophistication, Astaire's heels and gangster guns. But it also meant that acting could be "quiet." A character couldn't really be quiet in silent pictures; he or she had to emote all the time to keep the audience's attention. But with sound, pictures had an extraordinary new resource: A character could talk and then fall silent, out of a dismay, a doubt or an inner nature that the audience had to imagine. And in this new, deliberate, artful silence, a new beauty was born--greater than talk or music--the inner life of the people in pictures. And we grumble now if the sound ever goes because we lose that chance of secret, thoughtful silence.

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