Singing In The Movies Essay
What we have always called “mute” cinema, has never really been mute but what Michel Chion calls as “deaf” cinema since: “ the reason for using the term ‘deaf cinema’ for films that gave the moviegoer a deaf person’s viewpoint on the action depicted.” (Chion 8). He even mentions that the characters in these films did speak, they even had to gesticulate a lot in order to be better understood by an audience who was not able to hear them. Chion also discusses that a phenomenon used to happen that allowed the audience to confer a voice to the actor although they were not able to hear them, it is the same kind of phenomenon that happens when we attribute a face to a voice we have only just heard, as often happens with radio announcers.
Chion defines this phenomenon with the term acousmêtre: “When the acoustomatic presence is a voice, and especially when this voice has not yet been visualized—that is, when we cannot yet connect it to a face—we get a special being, a kind of talking and acting shadow to which we attach the name acousmêtre” (Chion 21). So we could say that it is a kind of voice-character specific to cinema that derives mysterious powers from being heard and not seen, there is a certain magic to not being shown something as the brain seems to have a need to complete some things on its own. The disembodied voice seems to come from everywhere and therefore to have no clearly defined limits to its power, until we are able to put a face in it. That phenomenon is called de-acousmatization: “Of course, the acousmêtre has only to show itself— for the person speaking to inscribe his or her body inside the frame, in the visual fiels— for it to lose its power, omniscience, and (obviously) ubiquity. I call this phenomenon de-acousmatization.” (Chion 27). For the brain it would be impossible to think of a voice that comes from nowhere, so we create a face that goes along with it. This way it appears as something logical and normal instead of something out of this world and tainted with a hint of fantasy. It can be compared to the way we attempt to make CGI effects look more and more ‘real’. However, most of the time there is no real connection with what we imagine and the reality and so, when being shown the reality we become disappointed as it is “never as good as it was in our heads”. The powers conferred by the acousmêtre are those such as The Power of Seeing All, The Power of Omniscience, The Omnipotence to Act on the Situation and, the Gift of Ubiquity. Acousmêtre gives a certain amount of god-like powers to the existence of a character, by adding a body we strip the voice of its power because it becomes something conceivable, something earthly and mundane.
Although Singing in the Rain has been recognized as a classic for achieving goals in many different areas such as the score or the amazing musical performances in one-take with no cuts, it is also one of the first movies that acknowledged the voice phenomenon discussed by Michel Chion. Not only is the film a musical, which at that time seemed to be the only kind of film that could be made to work with sound, it also portrays how movies found uses for sound in them by turning ‘silent films’ into musicals: “Which doesn’t mean the cinema didn’t quickly discover uses of the voice other than filming plays and musicals (uses that were by no means dishonorable.” (Chion 9). The film even goes as far as to mention The Jazz Singer (1927), which is also mentioned by Chion, as the first ‘talkie’.
While hard to believe, Singing in the Rain actually addresses many of the sound issues and advantages that developed through the years. For example, they address how hard it was to conceal de microphones from the audience while also leaving them in a place where they would be able to receive the actors’ voices. During the screening test we are able to perceive the sound of the clothes every time they moved or even the diminished sound of the actors’ voices every time they turned their heads to speak.
All of this becomes highly relevant given that while creating a movie inside a movie, they are also exploring in a single film everything that sound entailed for the film industry. We even have a chance to appreciate the moment when The Jazz Singer is being created and becomes highly popular: “That is never going to work!” Says Don (Gene Kelly) after hearing about the project the Warner Brothers are attempting to do. Everyone thought the same thing, not only in the film but in real life. Who would have thought that ‘talkies’ would become so popular with the audience given how hard it was to produce a good film with sound?
And then we are presented with the acceptance of every other film production houses of the talkies and the importance of this step is shown by Don’s attempt to adapt his characters to this new film format. However one of the most important scenes is probably the screening test failure, since it is at that point where they realize that the sound is able to not be synchronized with the image presented. And so, the actress appears to have the voice of a man instead of her own. When they decide to turn the film into a musical they have the chance to re-think the part of the main actress in the film. They stumble upon the discovery of acousmêtre and de-acousmatization at the very same time. They realize the actress only had to do a credible lip-sync, since the audience had never heard her real voice before. They realize they could take Kathy’s (Debbie Reynolds) voice and put it with the face of Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). While this represents a fraud in the film given that it strips Kathy of the ability to start her own career until she is able to claim her voice as her own, it also presents the beginning of what dubbing would be like. It gives us the possibility of applying any voice in any language we want.
In the case of the movie it all turns out for the best when they are able to show that Lina Lamont is not really able to sing and Kathy manages to claim her own voice at the same time. The irony of this movie happens when we realize that in real life Jean Hagen, who interpreted the character of Lina Lamont, dubbed the singing voice of Debbie Reynolds, who played Kathy, the whole time. But it definitely comes to show for the advances in technology and the lengths dubbing and the phenomenon of both acousmêtre and de-acousmatization. These phenomena have allowed movies to evolve in a sense of the many things that sound allowed to bring into movies. For example, we now have the chance of creating characters without a body and make them look or feel really omnipotence due to their lack of a body. The acousmêtre allows us to perceive the character as something hard to imagine, as something somewhat magical. And the de-acousmatization has allowed dubbing to go as far as characters being translated into many different languages throughout the years. Nowadays the lack of sound in a certain film has become a symbol of other things instead of the only mean to express something. As such we are provided we more elements for filming in the sense that now we have the advantages that including or excluding a certain element, immediately leads to some important thing on the side of expression. Every element becomes made on purpose instead of accidental, and so we found a completely new language in films and movies.
Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947. Print.
Singing in the Rain. Dir. Donen, Stanley. Kelly, Gene. Perf. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds. Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. 1952.
Goldberg, Micheal. Classical Hollywood Cinema. Washington Faculty. 2007. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. https://faculty.washington.edu/mlg/courses/definitions/classicalHollywoodcinema.html
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