Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard — Book Review by Martha Nochimson

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godard and soundWould you like to take your brain for a walk out of its accustomed rut? If you like the sound of that, you might consider picking up Albertine Fox‘s Godard and Sound. It’s a treat. Beautifully written, meticulously researched, thoughtfully composed, it asks us to think in a new way about the role of anything that vibrates the air to produce noise in cinema, and also about the role of the audience. Fox’s book is a springboard into the films of Jean-Luc Godard, his aesthetics of sound, and a new type of aural realism. Although she says little about his most famous films, À Bout de Souffle, AKA Breathless (1960), for example, and much about films with far less name recognition, for example Prénom Carmen (1983), AKA First Name, Carmen, you don’t have to be a Godard scholar to appreciate its excellence. In fact, it might either whet your appetite to look into the Godard films you haven’t seen or to apply some of Fox’s thoughts to films with interesting sound designs that you already know very well. Continue reading…

Fox is addressing film critics, scholars, and buffs who are well beyond the range of the basic recapper, that is to say those who seek to both understand and enjoy films almost completely through their plots. Her target audience has already made the leap into active perception of visual images and visual montage as a primary source of meaning in filmic storytelling, viewers who know something crucial is happening during a shot, reverse shot sequence, when the editing pattern of a scene involving a romantic couple locks the woman of the pair into the controlling gaze of the hero. Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which woke the world up to the meaning of the shot, reverse shot, among many other things, can be credited with making us look at film with more intelligence, subtlety, and appreciation. She became the voice of our unspoken feelings that visual image in cinema is not necessarily subordinate to words or plot, merely illustrating them; it might be understood as a meaning bearing entity in itself. Fox invites us all toward a similarly energized response to sound. She invites us to turn our attention to sound—meaning music, the tonality and rhythms of speech, and all aural presence—the same way, to become acoustic spectators.

An acoustic spectator is, in Fox’s words, “one who listens actively and reflectively as s/he looks, forever creating new, unanticipated relationships between things and imagining in order to see.” I’m not there yet, but I’m intrigued enough to accept Fox’s invitation to dive into the multitude of issues about sound in the movies. For example, I’m fascinated by Fox’s use of the work of Evelyn Glennie, who describes hearing as ‘a specialized form of touch.’ I’ve always been curious about the way some films make me feel like dancing, for example the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, as if somehow they were impacting my body in a way that could be considered a ‘specialized form of touch.’ No one has ever been able to explain what this is about to me, not even the great David Lynch, who seemed pleased to note that I am affected by films in this way but didn’t discuss how an image on a screen could make that happen. Fox makes me wonder. Is it about sound not image?

Similarly she opens up discussions about the connection between images associated with sound and how the brain reacts. Fox further quotes Glennie as saying, ‘If I see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind, then subconsciously my brain creates a corresponding sound.’ This is the portal to a conversation of infinite possibility, since, as Fox says, “one person’s response to a specific soundscape might differ drastically from another’s.” Of course, Fox is preparing us for her discussion of Godard, who experimented with sound and silence with more precision than almost any other major film director I know of, and so it points us toward becoming a better audience for his aesthetic uses of cinema, but it opens up so many other doors at the same time.

One door she opens is to a revitalized experience of music in film; another leads toward giving some thought to acousmatic sound. Our susceptibility to the shaping effects of music in movies is a universal experience, little thought about. Acousmatic sound is not nearly as daunting as it sounds. It simply refers to sound in a film of which the source is mysteriously invisible. Fox provokes new ideas about cinematic music when she differentiates her interest from the interest of a critic who wants to explore how music impacts our experience of storytelling. Important scholars who study movie music, like Claudia Gorbman, have done wonderful work looking into the emotional implications of music and sound in narrative films. But what, Fox asks, if storytelling is not the central purpose of the film? In Godard’s least known, most experimental films, this is the case. The same is true of more inventive and unique forms of documentary film and to non-linear narrative film. In the case of experimental art film and documentary, how then might music be used? Fox’s discussion of acousmatic sound is if anything more interesting to me. She discusses the phenomenon in cinema in which our inability to pinpoint the cause or source of sound or music gives a sense of liminality to our experience of either narrative film, experimental film, or documentary film—the experience of blurred limits and boundaries, experiences that innately lack clarity. That is, acousmatic sound pulls us toward what she calls that “alluring space” somewhere between vision and hearing.

Some may join Fox in her belief that sound in movies is the next new frontier. I do. I found her book about Godard fascinating for the way it introduces me to films he made during the 1970s, which I have never seen, under the flag of a company he created with Anne Marie Mievielle called Sonimage, that was devoted to working with film image and sound, or introduces me in a new way to films I have seen, like Adieu au Langage, 2014 AKA Farewell to Language. I also find it tonic for jumpstarting many old questions I have had about cinema sound and giving me a direction I have not previously had in pursuing them. I recommend Godard and Sound enthusiastically for anyone looking for new adventures in Godard criticism, specifically, and film criticism generally.

You may also be interested in:

Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard, Excerpt from Chapter Five (Exclusive) — Albertine Fox

Looking at the Carpet from the Wrong Side: Albertine Fox on writing Godard and Sound (Exclusive)

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