Silent film sound

Rick Altman,
Silent film sound,
New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
ISBN: 0 231 11662 4
US$50 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Columbia University Press)

There’s a seeming simplicity to the title of Rick Altman’s majestic book – Silent fiilm sound with no academicizing subtitle to qualify it – but the apparent straightforwardness is quickly belied by a dazzling performance in scholarship and critical analysis. Ostensible matter-of-factness quickly gives in to a spiraling play and display of excitingly exorbitant erudition as layers upon layers of insight revise any easy expectations with which the reader works a path through the tome.

At a first level, Altman fully delivers upon the promise contained in the very literalness of the title: this indeed is a book that gives us a clear, full understanding of just what the kinds of sound that accompanied early film were all about. But already there is something wonderfully extravagant here. By setting out to present virtually everything that is knowable from the records about early cinema sound (admittedly, though, in the U.S. context alone), Altman offers a volume redolent with immeasurable riches: close to 400 pages of text and endless images with hundreds of footnotes that speak of countless hours spent foraging in archives, pouring over musical scores, studying dry and dusty manuals, examining blueprints (marvelous pages on the placement of musical sources in the space of early exhibition venues), reading (and craftily interpreting) trade journal commentary, and on and on. It’s all here. Within the ever expansive field of early cinema studies, Altman is one of those figure who treats film inter-medially as only one visual – and aural – practice among many, so that to even get to the emergence of cinema, he has to present comprehensive accounts of so many other cultural phenomena in cinema’s pre-history. Thus, there are rich histories here of, among other things, vaudeville performance, 19th century traveling lecturer traditions, the place of musical activity within the leisure culture of industrializing America, and so on.

As Altman explains in his theoretically inclined introduction, he is interested in understanding the identity of an historically emergent cultural form such as cinema as the unstable object of struggles over ownership – ownership not only over the production and dissemination of the cultural object itself but over its very meanings for the society at large. He terms his approach “crisis historiography” and explains that his interest is in the ways new media are battled over. Cinema in particular was a new force that many social agents on the media landscape – from artists to owners to critics and beyond – didn’t know quite how to define and it was tempting in such fraught circumstances to refer back to precedent cultural forms and technology. Thus, for some figures, cinema was seen as most like vaudeville, and this led to an understanding of musical accompaniment as something that was at best fragmentary and at worst should be absent altogether. Vaudeville revolved around a succession of acts, each with their own visual and auditory formats, and this inspired some of those involved with the cinema to imagine that its works likewise merited no single, unified approach.

Here, then, a second level of complexity begins to emerge in Altman’s analysis for the very simplicity of his book’s title now starts to seem doubly ironic. On the one hand, Altman, incorporating research of his that was already ground-breaking when it appeared in article form (in Musical Quarterly in 1996), argues that in fact there was much more silence in silent films than the easy myth of continuous musical accompaniment to early films would have us believe. As Altman shows, there was any number of reasons for the earliest films to be shown silent. For example, in vaudeville where recorded image projection took its place among live acts, the showing of films was a chance for orchestra members to take a break from all the frantic playing during the ever changing stand-up acts. On the other hand, as Altman confirms, there could at the same time be a lot of noise around film. Ironically, though, it was noise that floated up and away from the screen and had little role in advancing engagement in any supposed realism of fiction film’s narrative universe. At the very least, the musicians who played alongside films might engage in deliberately deflating diversions in which their sounds (including a whole panoply of wildly distanciating mechanically produced sound effects) refused to follow the stories on-screen and instead became comical commentaries on and against screen action. At the very most, there could even be sounds beyond the space of the theater itself. Thus, in some of his most intriguing passages, Altman outlines how film’s capture by the vaudevillians meant that the same ballyhoo promotional schemes used for live performance – such as street hawkers and mechanical music machines loudly trumpeting the entertainment virtues to be had inside the theater – were also applied to the recorded form. This meant that there might simultaneously be absence of direct music within the auditorium where films were being projectedand presence of the insistent and strident sounds of salesmanship wafting nonetheless through the theatrical inner sanctum.

Altman’s extreme attention to concrete detail in his outlining of all the ways in which sound and silence mixed wildly and multifariously in the projection space and beyond can give the center of his book the appearance of a synchronic catalogue in which one after the other the myriad roles of the auditory in early film are categorized rigorously and inexorably. But fundamentally, Altman is always offering a history, and the synchronic – the dizzying world of early cinema where realist fictions onscreen vied for attention with a vast panoply of de-realizing effects – ultimately gives place in his account to diachrony. The seeming hybridity of earliest cinema gave way at the beginning of the 1910s as such factors as the rise of the feature film and a rationalized industrial mode of production together led to greater emphasis on emotional absorption in the imaginary world of the fiction film. This is a story whose general outlines were first brilliantly recounted by Charles Musser in his magisterial volume The emergence of cinema (1990) where early cinema history was written as the battle of producers to gain control of their product once it went into distribution by making of it a product so complete in itself that it made no sense to alter by capriciousness at the point of exhibition. The story was then confirmed and extended by the work of Tom Gunning who showed in D. W. Griffith and the origins of American narrative film (1991) how in particular Griffith’s Biograph films began to use shot/reverse shot, eyeline matches, motivated cutaways, and other techniques of continuity to constitute each film as a self-contained work that had to be shown whole and at the right speed and for which any commentary or other external manipulation would seem inappropriate.

Altman builds on this previous scholarship while contributing major research advances that are his alone. Thus, for instance, with explicit reference to Gunning, Altman notes that musical accompaniment increasingly also had its role to play in fostering the impression of filmic continuity. In his words,

The act of listening took on special importance in the American film industry toward the end of the aughts. . . . Though scholars have recognized linkage of spaces and shots as cinema’s single most important challenge during this period, they have usually attended to visual connections (point-of-view shorts, eyeline matches, iris shots as implied telescope masks) while ignoring sound. As important as the gaze becomes during the late aughts, understanding of this period requires equal attention to listening and the use of sound to establish narrative and spatial connections. (214)

Hybrid music forms were themselves refashioned as sources of continuity so that, for example, as Altman recounts in fascinating pages, organists used sound modulation to segue smoothly in and out of music and sounds from other sources. In what almost seems to be the conclusion to his story, Altman argues that cinema of the teens came increasingly to center on a schooling of spectators who were told how to treat cinema’s onscreen fictions as self-sufficient narratives that they should regard with reverence – and deferential silence. This, again, is similar to the account that other scholars of early cinema have offered of its transformation into an increasingly moralistic, increasingly realist, increasingly psychologically involving form for relatively passive audiences to fix their attention to.

But, here, Altman has yet another ironic twist of the tale ready to hand. All along, he has clarified that to fully explain the functions of sound in early cinema, one needs fully to grasp all the dimensions of that cinema itself, and, more than a specialized study of the sonorous, his book is readable as the most complete account of early American cinema per se. In this respect, the particularly pertinent breakthrough of the end of his narrative revolves around his careful presentation of the range of things that happened in teens cinema even as it seemed to most focus on the feature film. As Altman reminds us – but as film historians have too often forgotten – the feature film was only one part of the program in the movie theaters: there would be comedy shorts and travelogues, organ recitals, specialty shorts, and so on. Even as composers began to write uplifting scores for the feature films and hoped that these would glue spectators to the fictional worlds on-screen, the other films on the program continued to revel in hybridity, dis-unity, deliberate semiotic noisiness, comic undercutting, distanciation, and so on. Diachrony and synchrony ultimately blur in the historical narrative as the feature film emerges and claims dominance only to then end up alongside all the unrealistic and anti-realistic forms it had seemed to displace. As Altman puts it toward the very end of his account,

Instead of banishing sound effects, popular songs, and audience participation, reformers’ pronouncements had the effect of shunting these practices to specific genres and to designated portions of the new program that was developing as a compromise strategy – assuring respect of important principles without forgoing essential attractions. (388)

This raises a question, though: just what did audiences make of the fact that heterogeneity of the signals they were getting in the movie theater continued even as one longer film on the program was featured as offering realistic immersion in a fictional world rich in salient life lessons? Did audiences then maintain a certain reserve toward imaginary identification? Did they move in and out of the comfort of imaginary identifications as they moved in and out of the rush of genres being offered to them in any one evening’s entertainment? And to what extent does how we answer such questions change how we imagine the ideological implications of film as consequential social force? Could, for instance, cinema have been subversive and conservative all at once?

For the most part, Altman brackets out questions of spectatorship as it actually may have operated within the complicated space of the movie houses. Some of this deferral of issues of the audience may come from his overall model. Altman’s “crisis historiography” is, as I think he’d be the first to admit, geared to understanding the battles that those social agents who have greatest definitional power over a medium’s identity are fighting. His primary attention is directed to the top-down directives that came from industry players to those below them, from the musicians to those they performed for. Importantly, when Altman deals with the audience, it is mostly as target of the schooling efforts of the reformers and industry leaders.

To say this is not to offer criticism of Altman but to suggest a stage for further research and reflection. In fact, in yet another twist, Altman himself ends his massive, seemingly exhaustive book with modest recognition that he could not cover everything. One page before the end, indeed, he is inviting others to extend his research: “Perhaps this book’s attempts to identify the problems of silent film sound will make important resources leap off the shelves and jump off the page at other researchers” (391).

This perhaps is the final greatness of Altman’s great book: it takes its readers as far as it wants them to go and then suggests paths for further reflection. Indeed, it seems to require that reflection insofar as its striking picture of cinematic heterogeneity demands that we ask just what that meant – and continues to mean – for cinema as a complex and contradictory force in our everyday modernity.

Dana Polan
New York University, USA.

About the Author

Dana Polan

About the Author

Dana Polan

Dana Polan is a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of eight books in film and media, including The Sopranos (Duke University Press, 2009), and The French Chef (Duke University Press, 2011).View all posts by Dana Polan →