Listening

Sight and Hearing

In 1975, renowned French Filmmaker Robert Bresson first published Notes on the Cinematographer, a logbook of Bresson’s notes, dreams, desires and discoveries. From J.M.G Le Clezio’s introduction:

These notes are more than words from an experienced filmmaker’s diary. These words are scars, marks of suffering, they are gems. In our darkness (the night of creation which has to come down before the screen becomes enlighteed) they shine like stars, showing us the simple, troublesome way to perfection.

— J.M.G Le Clezio introducing Robert Bresson (as translated by Jonathan Griffin), Notes on the Cinematographer, 1986.

Le Clezio makes a point of Bresson’s disdain toward intellectualism (1986, pp. 5). At the risk of committing an act of blasphemy, this post will closely examine two of Bresson’s notes on Sight and Hearing. In respect of Bresson’s values, particular attention will be paid to the poetic. The first passage of interest is:

If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.

With which I would pair its successor:

When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.

— Robert Bresson (as translated by Jonathan Griffin), Notes on the Cinematographer, 1986 pp. 51.

Bresson’s first point is that human attention should not be too divided. Maximum effect will be achieved by the positioning of focus on something powerful, rather than the division of focus saturated by too many powerful things. To put it simply, if the visuals are effective, draw the audience’s attention to them and do not distract with equally, or more impactful audio.

However, Bresson’s follow-up praises sound design as a deeper penetration of the soul; a more direct path to the heart. What I take from this is that sound design affects an audience. It can be felt; visceral. Visuals are, in Bresson’s opinion (at least, in this particular musing) more superficial. I don’t think Bresson means to negate the potential power of visuals, rather, to highlight the great potential of sound.  Writing for the The New Soundtrack, seasoned sound professional Neil Hillman supports this view, describing sound design as the practice of creating “the context, mood or atmosphere to evoke, consciously or subconsciously, emotions in the listening-viewer that define, focus or intensify their feelings towards the visual presentation they are engaging with.” I discuss Stanley Alten’s take on Sound Design in this post, but I will include a sample here for relevance:

Sound is a force: emotional, perceptual, physical. It can excite feeling, convey meaning, and, if it is loud enough, resonate the body.

— Stanley R. Alten, Audio in Media, 1994.

The second of Bresson’s passages that I’d like to discuss is:

The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient. Use these impaticences. Power of the cinematographer who appeals to the two senses in a governable way.
Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.

— Robert Bresson (as translated by Jonathan Griffin), Notes on the Cinematographer, 1986 pp. 52.

This is a passage on artistic craft. Challenge your audience. Play with duration, darkness, silence. The absence of image and/or sound. Take control of your work. Own it. Be creative. That is what I take from this. Allow the audience to become impatient, because in these states of impatience, art is created. The absence of vision draws suspense (‘when is the vision coming?’ ‘what will they show me?’) and allows the mind to conjure its own images. The same in the reverse. Bresson is alluding to editing technique as poetic structure; cinematography as poetry. For further discussion on poetry in film, see this post.


Works Cited

Alten, S. R. (1994). Audio in Media. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Bresson, R. (1986). Notes on the Cinematographer. London: Quartet.

Hillman, N. (2014). Organic and Free Range Sound Design. The New Soundtrack, 4(2), 123 – 138.


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