The 2023 science fiction thriller, No One Will Save You, seems to harken back to the days of silent film. There is barely any dialogue in the entire film, which instead, keeps audiences in a state of constant alertness by heightening the mundane sound effects of floors creaking and dial tones, mixed with uncanny noises that indicate a threatening alien presence, against an eerie soundtrack by Joseph Trapanese. Watching the film recently, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps silent film had gotten something right when it comes to sound. Perhaps dialogue muddies the power of sound in a film and, by not bringing the explicit messaging and plot development of speech to a film, the deep impact of everyday and unearthly sound and music could have a greater hold on audiences.
In her survey of the various experiments to put sound to film in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Emily Thompson, in The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, explains that the film industry was ready to resign themselves to the impossibility of such an evolution in film. The public, they reasoned, was more than happy with silent film; why fix what’s not broken? The main obstacles to sound film, according to Thompson, were the challenge of synchronizing sound and image, as well as getting the sound loud enough to be heard throughout the theatre. It was not until the 1927 Vitaphone feature The Jazz Singer, that producers began to recognize the viability of synchronizing moving images with speech and music. This burgeoning sound-film industry sparked competing sound systems that made film viewers begin to really attend to sound fidelity and quality, teaching us to be discerning listeners.
Yet silent films were never all that silent. Audiences tended to chat, there was the hiss of the film projector, and of course, musical accompaniment. Several fans of silent film valued the live music that accompanied film, causing them to wage war against the talkie. Dorothy Richardson, a modernist writer who was the first to have her writing deemed stream of consciousness writing (a term she did not prefer), also wrote a regular column in Close Up — an international film magazine that ran from 1927-1933. In her September 1929 column, Richardson recalls her experience of seeing (and hearing) her first talkie, Hearts in Dixie. Having already expressed in a previous column her belief that speech would ruin the silent film’s “perfection of direct communication,” Richardson enters the theater full of “fear” and “curiosity” (“Almost Persuaded” 190; “Dialogue” 193). At first, Richardson finds herself “holding back [her] laughter,” but then admonishes herself, remembering that with “the crude, the newly-born” medium, the audience must be taught “how to hear Talkies” (193). Yet, Richardson concludes that even if the technology improved, “the addition to silent film of any kind of realistic sound, will always be disastrous” (195). Richardson was not alone in her dislike of the talkie. Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), who financed Close Up, as well as fellow contributor, the modernist poet H.D, were similarly wary of how the talkie would derail the art form of silent film. Anne Friedberg explains that the founders of Close Up tended to perceive silent film as a form of Esperanto, a universal language in images.
Yet, lucky for us, these prophesies that the talkie was disastrously doomed proved to be shortsighted, and the talkie quickly became the norm. It is often said that sound is best in film when it goes unnoticed by the audience. And while this is true to some extent, I would venture to argue that this belief does a disservice to the power of sound in film. Sounds can tap into deeply wired associations in an audience, creating an emotional impact that simply would not be possible with only visuals. For example, the 13th century Gregorian chant, “Dies irae,” which literally translates to “Day of Wrath,” has been repeatedly appropriated from the Catholic funeral mass to create an uncannily eerie feeling in film. While the song refers to the day of judgement when the living and the dead will be sent to heaven or hell, notes from the melody, or variations on them, have effectively created a sense of dread or danger in films from The Shining to The Lion King. These notes, while perhaps not consciously understood by an audience, have subtly influenced the way in which we experience a film.
Sounds can also lend an enigmatic feeling to films. In Voice in Cinema, Michel Chion discusses the powerful impact of an offscreen voice that has no visualized source — an acousmêtre. Such a voice can be everywhere; it is omniscient and omnipotent. Chion derives acousmêtre from Pierre Schaeffer’s discussion of acousmatic listening, which Schaeffer suggests might encourage a listener to hear sounds as aesthetic objects detached from their sources. While Chion is writing of voices that are enigmatic due to their lack of visualization, and Schaeffer is interested in how a sound detached from its source can enable a new kind of aesthetic appreciation, both writers grant acousmatic sounds a certain power. For instance, we hear the resounding boom of the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park long before we actually see them, causing the characters and audience anxiously to ask — what is making that massive tremor? In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sinister threat and omniscient power of the spaceship’s supercomputer, HAL-9000, comes from the fact that there is often no visual source for the computer’s voice, aside from the occasional red lights that indicate his presence visually.
Indeed, whether sounds are composed musically for a film or are enigmatically heard off screen, sound — from the silent film to the present — has always been essential to the film experience. Sound effects, soundtracks, and voice, play more than just a supporting role to the visual element of film. Sounds create meaning and evoke feelings in the most subtle of ways, tapping into the conscious and unconscious associations that a lifetime of listening have bestowed on us.
About the Author
Dr. Angela Frattarola is the Director of the Language and Communication Centre at Nanyang Technological University, where she researches and teaches classes in sound studies, modernism, and academic writing. Her book, Modernist Soundscapes: Auditory Technology and the Novel, explores how technologies such as the phonograph, talkie, and headphones impacted early twentieth century writing.
- Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. Translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
- Friedberg, Anne. “Reading Close Up, 1927-1933.” Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism. Ed. Donald, James, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 190-92. Print.
- Richardson, Dorothy. “Almost Persuaded.” Continuous Performance. Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism. Ed. Donald, James, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 190-92.
- —. “Dialogue in Dixie.” Continuous Performance. Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism. Ed. Donald, James, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus, 193-96. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 193-96.
- Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.