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derrida and how to think about film sound differently

JOKE: In what way are film sound theorists like feminists? In that they talk about the image as if it was the man, and about sound as if it was the woman.

I used to do this myself. I used to go on about how filmmakers insist on relegating sound to the shadow of the image. But one day I had this realisation: it’s all very well to say that filmmakers are subordinating sound to the image and giving it a passive role, but what’s the alternative? How do you go about not doing that? If that’s the wrong way, how do you do it the right way?

Of course, it would be impossible to answer that in one simple sentence, but perhaps a good first step would be to shake the impasse a little by dismantling the assumption that took us here in the first place – that film is a visual medium, point-blank period. Therefore, the image must take centre stage. And that takes me to Jaques Derrida.

Derrida was an Algerian-born French philosopher who became famous – and infamous – for deconstruction. Infamous because his method was an attempt to ridicule Western philosophers and their metaphysical approach to life, that is, their quest for the truth of all truths and for the foundation that provides the ultimate origin of all things.

The problem Derrida saw with this approach was that “truth” was being constructed by means of binary oppositions such as good vs evil, reason vs passion, masculinity vs femininity, and so on. Binary oppositions work by giving the first term in the opposition a positive value and privileging it over the second term, and by giving the second term a negative value and subordinating it to the first. This privileged/subordinate dynamic is essential for this type of thinking to work. If the second term was not negative and lacking, the positive term could not hold its position as the ultimate truth. Good is an empty concept without evil.

The aim of Derrida was to undermine this type of thinking, which he saw as deeply flawed. By privileging one part over the other, we fail to see the value in the neglected part, and the aspects of the truth that it also holds. Both need each other. He thought that if we learnt to live in paradox, our experience of life would be much richer. Why does it have to be either one or the other?

Another way of putting it is that when we fixate on the norm, on the privileged position, and don’t question it, we tend to get stuck in the same old rut and we fail to see other things.

Look at this image for a moment. What do you see?

Random irregular and meaningless blocks? If that’s the case, look again. But this time don’t do the obvious thing of looking at the foreground. Instead, focus your attention on the background. Do you now see the word “WEST”?

So, if Derrida is right and we apply this to film, it means that we’re missing on a goldmine of new possibilities by simply thinking in visual terms and then adding sound as an afterthought, as if it was the lesser of the two.

What if we reversed the process for a moment? What if we thought the image in terms of sound – if we took sound as the starting point and figured the visuals, and even aspects of the narrative, from that perspective?

Sounds strange? Then think about this.

Citizen Kane (1941), after nearly 80 years, is still considered to be one of the greatest films of all times because of all the many innovative techniques it introduced in terms of lighting, montage, depth of focus, camera angles and more. But one thing that is less talked about (!!) is that the film also broke radically new ground in the area of sound – probably more so than any other film since sound was introduced in 1927. And who made this film? Someone who had never made a movie before but who had mastered the art of telling stories through sound, a radio guy. Surely not a coincidence.

Could it be that Welles thought about the film first in terms of sound and then figured out many aspects of the image and the narrative from that point? It’s quite plausible.

Another film that springs to mind is David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976). It’s the kind of film that makes me wonder about the thinking processes that led to its conception. What did Lynch have in mind? How did he think about this idea? David Lynch is a musician too, so I can’t help imagining him in front of a newly acquired sampler loaded with amazing sounds that blew his mind and then asking to himself, “What film can I make that justifies having these sounds play non-stop throughout the film? What would the film have to be about? What would it have to look like? I’m of course not saying that that’s how the film came about, but I can’t help imagining that that’s one possibility of how it might have.

Like Derrida says, the beauty of reversing the way we think about something is that it encourages us to consider things that we might not have considered at all otherwise.

Offscreen sound in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry: The Devil Is In The Detail
The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe’s Subtextual Acoustic Extravaganza