In this article Charles Rees offers his personal insights about how image and sound can be re-‘read’ in such a way as to transcend current narrative constraints. He offers examples of films which have influenced and impressed him, and extrapolates on ways in which cinema might develop in the future.
My four views stretch over a long period. Each individual sees differently. The Camera Image sees differently from humans.
Fourth View: The Director's Voice
The last view is in my mind’s eye. One day, I imagine, the image in time will be just that. I mean the image itself will be in motion. It shall no longer be achieved by an illusion of movement, the projection of a series of static images in rapid succession. We shall have captured time. However, until then we still have to deal with the flickering frame’s adverse effect on our visual apprehension. The flickering puts us into a mild hypnotic trance.
Compare the way you look at anything in your room with the way you look at the flickering image. Flickering screens make us see differently. Mesmerized, our sensibility shifts. We become more susceptible emotionally and less sensitive rationally and spiritually. Our viewing is made systematically unbalanced.
This was not the case in the seventeenth century when Dutch painters, such as Johannes Vermeer, gazed at the image in time at their camera obscuras. The painters saw nature’s image in its essential state on large ground-glass screens. They were not encumbered by the effect of mechanical and chemical means of capturing it: the whirring cameras and photographic or digital reproduction. The painters fixed the image by paint. The image in their camera obscura was extraordinarily calm – calmer than looking at the subject with their own eyes. It encouraged contemplation. We, on the other hand, have had to make do with an image that makes us enervated and more emotional.
Some time in the future, we will look at an image in time that does not systematically unbalance our way of seeing. We will see the moving image in the same way that we look at paintings or anything else. Every art has its own particular way of capturing our attention. Great art aims for balance.The distinction of the camera’s art will be that it enables a more balanced way of seeing.
This improved technology of the ‘actually moving’ image will encourage greater artistry, since filmmakers will know that they can no longer rely on an already emotionally softened-up audience. The formal discrepancy between dramatic acting and real backgrounds, which we discussed in the Second View, will become more obvious – perhaps even distracting. We already notice something this kind in the High-Definition documentaries shown in Imax cinemas. While IMAX images still flicker their resolution is so fine that we seem to be looking at reality. These films demand a more naturalistic style of performance by presenters and actors.
Deprived of their power over a hypnotized audience filmmakers may develop a more expressive, aural and visual style. Writers and directors may find themselves exploring the essence of the art of the camera and the sound recorder; relying less on the dramatic arts and music. The non-hypnotic recorded image will encourage a new honesty in certain types of filmmaking. Viewers of the new image will develop different ways of hearing and seeing films. We will become instantaneous in our perception and more alert and less dreamily strung out along the concerns of story. We shall become accustomed to feeling the moment before needing to understand or work out the story. The camera as an instrument of art will finally have come of age.
Here is a conjectural expression of the ways of hearing and seeing motion pictures of the future.
A man in a room hears an unusual sound outside in the street that intrigues him. Curiosity would normally drive him to the window to get the explanation for the sound. His curiosity might be satisfied but there would also be a loss. Discovering the cause of the sound will tend to wrap up the whole question of the sound. His conjuring with it will stop and his mind will move on to other things.
The aural and visual surface of the New Film, however, would be instantaneous so that the person would not feel the need, as it were, to get up from their chair and to catch up on what they don’t understand. They are already in the instantaneous present – as they might be in life. The sound, instead, causes them to reflect. They savour it the way they might listen to music. An abstract sound can evoke a feeling or an emotion. They trust that at later point they will be able to discover what they may need to understand about it. Understanding has thus become secondary. What is primary is the full experience of the moment, allowing understanding of the ‘story’ to be postponed. For example, in L'argent, Robert Bresson selected the overwhelming sound of a large lorry passing close-by to express ’the act of murder’.
The audience felt the emotion before understanding what it meant in the story. The human voice reveals the interior of a person. We are extraordinarily sensitive to it. Isolated from its surroundings, say by a telephone, the voice can be heard as an abstract sound.
The sound that an object makes is governed by three things:
1. The inside of the object. What is its essence?
2. The shape of the object (is it thick or thin etc?);
3. What is happening to the object? (Is it being hit, scraped, or buffeted by the wind?)
When we are dealing with the human voice the essence is what is inside a person – the uniqueness of a person. A certain sonority in a voice may indicate a more developed uniqueness, or spirit. (I recall Robert Bresson’s voice on the telephone – it was deeply sonorous. You could tell that he listened intently. I felt self-conscious, exposed.)
You can also hear the ‘shape’ of a person – the mood they are in at the time of listening. It is comparable to the quality of light that shines on a colour. It is extraordinary how we distinguish instinctively between the essence of a person and their fleeting mood. Finally, the content: what is happening or the story.
If, when we are listening to a voice, say on the telephone, we concentrate not only on the content of the speech but also the abstract sound of the voice, we will get a clearer idea of what is going on.
Where sound shows the inside of things picture shows the outside. We see from only one angle and what we see is only partially true and can often be deceptive. We interpret from one point of view only. Vision is necessarily speculative and incomplete.
Looking at something does not mean that we are able to see it. That person whom you think you recognize on the other side of the street seems strange. Is it your friend or not? It looks exactly like them but you cannot decide. It is when that person sees you that the question is resolved. Their whole aspect changes as the person tunes to you. They become the familiar person that you know.
Since such two-way communication cannot happen in a film, what would be the method by which we can ‘know’ the strangers on the screen?
‘Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany or precede it.’ This is one of Robert Bresson’s notes from his book Notes on the Cinematographer. The note also has a note: The other day I was walking through the gardens by Notre-Dame and saw approaching a man whose eyes caught something behind me which I could not see: at once they lit up. If at the same time as I saw the man, I had perceived the young woman and child towards whom he now began running, that happy face of his would not have struck me so; indeed I might not have noticed it. (Bresson 1977: 51)
Something like this must have happened to all of us. A man is walking towards you and his eyes light up. He appears to be looking directly at you, but since he is a stranger, you assume that he must be seeing somebody behind you. You just happen to be in his line of sight. His emotion transmits itself quite forcefully by this alignment. It is comparable to the experience of a solar eclipse. By the sole virtue of your placement, you feel his raw emotion. The man is oblivious of you: you do not exist for him. You, on the other hand, do not know the reason for his emotion, or the story behind it. Being in alignment allows you to bypass story to directly feel his emotion. You are inside him empathizing. His eyes, lighting up in your direction, take you out of your own life and into an imaginary one. You do not know the man’s experience, so any imagining you do is bound to be fictional (the camera’s strangeness frees up everything for fiction). What, besides the man, are you seeing from this angle, and what are you hearing?
Behind him, a poster on a passing bus depicting a Mediterranean landscape might influence your interpretation. It might trigger a particular memory or sensation, the smell of plants in the rocky southern landscape. Sounds of children playing in the garden might lead on to other associated memories. This kind of imaginative excursion is yours for as long as you like. You created it. You can draw on its memory later – a possession. All this comes from a glimpsed alignment with a man.
Alignment is the principle of the camera’s art. It is the means of its expression. The lens creates a picture by an alignment of light. However, the picture is strange and cold to humans. There needs to be a second alignment, a human one, to warm this image up so that it can become communicative. Robert Bresson’s films are an example of this alignment principle at work. Bresson had a great desire to infuse his images with humanity. He positioned the objects in a frame in order for them to be expressive visually. As for his performers (who were not performers but models) he found that by talking to them during a shot, he was able to enter them in a fictional-visual way. It was as if the desire in the sound of his voice entered the model and affected the model, revealing a new unity that was fictional. Bresson rejected altogether the interaction that happens between actors in a frame and which always ends up reducing us viewers to mere onlookers of a story. He found a practical way of having the models communicate directly with his camera, himself and the viewer. Any interaction by the models amongst themselves was wasted energy as far as the camera was concerned, as if creating a blur. Bresson’s technique was direction by alignment.
First, the model needed to be separated from everyone in the room, including the director. Bresson ensured this physical disconnection by creating a mental one. He insisted that the model think of nothing. Mentally separated from people, the model would appear alone in the room. Naturally, in this situation the model lost any self-consciousness. The model, being no longer ‘socialized’ and uncommunicative in a human way, is now ready to participate in cinematographic communication. The director’s voice enters the interior of the model through the ear and affects their behaviour in the subtlest way. This the camera, which contemplates more alertly than us, can see. The model is, simultaneously, themselves – natural – and part of the director’s fictional frame. The camera unites director and model on the visual plane. Extraordinarily, the sound of the director’s voice, which is his essence, affects the frame visually. The director’s voice establishes a line of human communication which the viewer is later able to climb down in his imagination.
The human connection by sound precedes and enables the fast connection by light. It is as if that alignment of the director’s voice, allows you to empathize with the characters. You feel what he feels about what he sees. This is the real playing of the camera as an instrument of art. Sound is at the heart of the visual medium.
Bresson did not film stories. He did not film actors with their story-parts. He filmed moments of sound and picture. It was for the individual viewer to construct a story out of these moments. For Bresson the stories in his films were for the viewer to interpret, the result of the viewer’s participation. Story ought not to exist on the screen where the viewer would have to follow it and anticipate it. The cinematic screen is too alive with the instantaneous present to carry a story (story is the view of the past in the present).
Based on the principal of aloneness, Cinema is the negative of dramatic storytelling, of actors playing and interacting. The separateness of the individual from others is the platform for the camera’s drama, which is a visual thing. A model seeming alone amongst others also seeming alone charges the frame, makes it pregnant…
To sum up: There are two extremes of seeing and hearing: the passive attitude of following and anticipating an already existing story as it unrolls before us; or venturing, by distant contemplation and empathy, to construct a story and so participate fully in the work of art.
The way of watching films that I am proposing may not be the way we normally see them. Art with its beauty teaches us to see and to listen. Humans mostly apprehend in a narrative way: they need to understand before they feel. The camera sees abstractly. Like the abstract art of music, it can offer us moments that may become feelings – and then we can interpret them into stories. The camera cannot recognize anything, so it gives us a new start in seeing. We experience the delight of a baby’s first apprehension of things, preceded by the sounds of the womb.
Audiences listening to concert music acquire a skill. Should watching films be any different?