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.
First View: The Eclipse
The first view was only a glimpse. Following an early enthusiasm for spectacular films - Ben-Hur (Wyler 1959), El Cid (Mann 1961) – on vast screens that envelop you to put you in another world, I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse/The Eclipse (1962) when I was sixteen. This film put me in another world in a different way. Rather than being swallowed by a film, I swallowed. I think I discovered my own way of seeing films. I was bewitched – at least I seemed to have some kind of affinity with this film. It stunned me into a way of seeing films that I had not imagined before. I never forgot this revelation of a way of seeing films, although I subsequently used other ways. It was always there, a way of having a handle on a film and of keeping one’s autonomy in relation to it.
Taking a distanced view was the key. You looked at the whole frame because Antonioni made the whole frame expressive. The rhythm of the film was visual rather than dramatic, as in a painting. The actors, before they represented anything else, were visual elements of his frame. As in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the frame and the sounds were the prime means of expression. The film was beautiful: Gianni Di Venanzo’s poetic black and white photography rivalled that of Josef von Sternberg.
When you are visual in this way it means that the sound has to step up and find its proper place. There are great moments in L’eclisse: my favourite sounds being the Verona airfield atmospheres and the breezes in the leaves that we hear again, a few years later, in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).
There was also the Italian approach to dubbing. Italian films of that time treated sound differently from us. The sound of British films was recorded sync in a spirit of pride in engineering. The Italians instinctively separated sound from picture, shooting mute. Their aim was to capture an expressive moment rather than faithfully record a dramatic event. They subsequently added the soundtrack, including post-synchronized dialogue and effects, in a way that often appeared careless to British technicians.
Actually, we were the ones who lacked care. It is a question of how you see films. If you see films in the same way as you go to the theatre and you want primarily to follow and understand what is going on, you want clear dialogue and the event distinctly recorded. For that you need perfect sync. If you want, however, to look and listen imaginatively to an expressive frame, you would be using your eyes and ears differently. Instead of the share of attention between seeing and hearing staying around 50%, you would be giving it fully first to one and then the other, switching rapidly between the two. A great film will express itself one moment, say, 80% visually and the next 80% aurally. When you are watching a Fellini or Antonioni film – really listening and really looking – the question of synchronization does not arise. The post-synched voices of Italian actors float freely and are not in slavish sync to the picture. The sounds appear to fit ‘pauses’ in the images, enabling the audience’s concentration to alternate between seeing and hearing.
This encourages a consciousness of the formal surface of a film. A film by Fellini, for example, allows us to switch between perceiving, in painterly fashion, a cartoon-like face and listening, in a musical way, to the abstract timbre of a voice. We see and hear intensely by alternating our attention. The ‘gaps’ between the sounds and the images invite us in to a more intimate relation with the film. It is a looser, natural rhythm, nearer the way we see in life. Our alternating attention between picture and sound can be sensuously rhythmic. We find that we give more of ourselves. As if we were dreaming – flying imaginatively in the film, rather than observing it from the ground.
I probably did not understand this at the time but I knew that I had encountered in L’eclisse a different, exciting way of making and of seeing films. I had grown up seeing films at the Odeon where the emphasis was on acting. There you had to concentrate on the actors to connect with the film. Not contemplating the frame from a distance, as in Antonioni’s film, but locked into the actors’ professional storytelling. Submerged in the film, you watched in a state of constant expectation – in a kind of elongated bubble of following and anticipating events. The film ensured that your curiosity was never satisfied. You were not in the instantaneous present since the film did not invite you to look at it visually. The only instantaneous thing was the generally over-lit filmed record of the acting.
The audience saw films in a public rather than an individual spirit. There was little encouragement towards free interpretation. You could not immerse yourself in them personally. You might inadvertently notice something that took your own particular interest, but nothing could rock the primary way of connecting with the film. There really was nothing to connect with – except the acting, which demonstrated the story.
We were event-orientated, story-orientated. We might as well have been watching a stage-play. An audience in a theatre responds spontaneously to events on the stage and this in turn influences the actors’ performances. The theatre audience participates in the art. Here, in the cinema, we were helplessly and stupidly isolated from the actors. Such helplessness may have contributed to the general belief that the ‘flicks’ were inferior to stage-plays. We were learning how not to see films.
I knew that, while too young and inexperienced to understand L’eclisse, I had participated in a work of art. I emerged from this vision-changing experience into drab Westbourne Grove, which greatly contrasted with the elegant EUR suburb of Rome in the film. The glare of the lamp standards revealed a street in which nothing, from the cars to the building fronts, was beautiful or potentially eloquent. It seemed that the materials to create Cinema did not exist here. Strangely, a few years later, Antonioni was to choose locations within yards of here, for Blow-up (1966) and then The Passenger (1975). Westbourne Grove, where I live, has become smarter over the years but its atmosphere has not really changed. I later understood that the problem goes deeper than any national culture and that it is really about the way we see films and expect to see them.