The Sound of Silence: Film Music and Lament


by Reni Celeste


Originally published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 22:113-123 (2005).

This essay argues that contemporary cinema is restoring the primacy of music to the dramatic and challenging the camera-centered nature of modern film theory. Isolating Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) as a dividing point between traditional scoring and contemporary film, this essay makes a case for the use of popular music in film. Using the theories of Lyotard, Chion, and Nietzsche, alongside several cinematic works, the author binds music to primordial loss and suggests that music makes audible the sound of silence. The question of music in film is generally raised near the end of film textbooks, if at all. Likewise in film production, music is adhered to the filmstrip last, in postproduction, and synched to the image.

And yet comtemporary theory is born of tragic thought, a thinking that privileges becoming, instability and ecstasis over structure, stasis and being. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche held up the model of the tragic stage with its privilege of music over image to articulate the same reversal he sought for modern thought. In this thought, the forces of the Dionysian (art) became dominant once again over reason (science). Tragedy is "born of the spirit of music."1 If tragedy is born of music, music can be understood as a mother who delivers or permits passage for a creation autonomous from her body. I argue that music is a vehicle that delivers something even greater than itself. This birth could be given many names, but it is essentially unnamable. I call it silence.

One of the myths quickly dispelled by any serious study of sound cinema is that of a silent cinema. The story is that even in the beginning there was no silent cinema. What is called silent film simply refers to an early technological limit: sound recording technology was not yet synchronized to image technology. Early cinema remained parasitic in many respects on the theater, and the picture palace staged an alliance not merely of sound/image but of presence/absence, or life and recording. In these early hybrid performances the film screen often took a subservient role to the live event, serving as accompaniment for a spectacle sometimes complete with dancers, costumes, and full piece bands. Due to the ephemeral nature of live performance, half the event has been lost, and a once passionate unity appears to us now as a lonely half form, a gray universe of silence bearing little relation to its original, set now simply to the monotonous buzzing of a film projector.

Another compelling argument of early film theory is the musical analogy.2 Even if it makes no sound, film is rhythm-based, lyrical, and resembles the musical score in its composition. Avant-Garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, for example, speaks of the ability of the early masters of silent film to make noise visually. D. W. Griffith, he argues, with his use of action close-ups, creates the aural as much as the visual sense. "Griffith's battle scenes are alive with the sense of sound, whether the warring of swords as in Intolerance (1916), cut to close-up visual clashings, or the puffs of smoke in Birth of a Nation (1915), cut from close-up to a revelation of entire battlefield with its sense of reverberation."3 These arguments reveal how what appears to be silent is actually musical. My motives are the obverse. I am claiming that music is what makes possible the sound of silence. Its role in the cinema is to make manifest something beyond both sound and vision: primordial loss, or what Lyotard has called the "breath of lament."4 Robert Bresson has similarly argued that sound film is what made silence possible. It was necessary to have sync sound and voices so that their interruption could allow us to probe more deeply into this mysterious thing called silence.5 My goal is to probe this mystery.

A significant shift has occurred in the past 40 years of modern sound cinema in which the musical and sonic dimension of cinema has become increasingly aggressive and even dominant. This shift corresponds to the rise of high-action sequences, music video, musical interludes, and the emergence of youth culture and rock music. There are many reasons for this turn, but one worthy of development is the possibility that as cultural media becomes increasingly defined by the "popular" and "fashion," its link to loss and Dionysian forces increases. Dionysus can be seen as experiencing a rebirth in the sphere of the popular.

If there is a Greek God of the postmodern, it is the figure of Dionysus. Nietzsche claims that art consists of a conflict between two forces, the Appollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian represents selfhood, image, concept, structure, dream, and form, and the Dionysian represents the drive towards the dissolution of self, intoxication, music, dance, and ecstasy.6 This can be simplified to the relation between music and image.7 As Wayne Klein says, "The disctinction between music and image can rightly be said to be the linchpin of Nietzsche's theory of tragedy, which is grounded in a belief in the ontological and semiological superiority of music over images, and what is decisive for this theory, in the possibility of a translation of music into images."8 Your neighbor may appear on the stage wearing the mask of Dionysus, but only through the chorus is this transfiguration made believable and meaningful.9

Gradually throughout Nietzsche's corpus tragedy, the worldview he is reviving becomes increasingly aligned with the Dionysian alone. The forces of becoming and art rage victorious over the traditional logic of being and truth that has guided modern science and philosophy. But what is essential to the entire Nietzschean corpus is developed at the very start in Birth of Tragedy in the discussion of the basic hierarchy between image and music. To claim that "tragedy is born of the spirit of music" is to instigate a reversal of music over image. In this reversal, Nietzsche commenced nothing short of the displacement of the entire rational world order of the West.

Modern film theory has a deep bias towards the image and would appear not to have heeded Nietzsche's call. It is a camera-centered discipline that has defined cinema's specificity through the mobile camera lens and the cut. This bias is apparent in the very terminology that designates the place of music. Sound is described as either on-screen or off-screen, and either diegetic or nondiegetic. In other words, it exists according to its spatial relation to screen and story. Roland Barthes seeks to remedy this bias by retrieving a noun that will embody the quality of music. He comes up with the compelling concept of the "grain," a noun that is more than just substantial, one with a texture that you can almost touch and feel. Specifically he makes a powerful case for "the grain of the voice."10

But perhaps the power of music lies exactly in its status as predicate. Music converts into a quality, something deeply mysterious. As Claudia Gorbman explains, "Music is less direct than visual perception; to see something is to instantaneously indentify the light rays with the object that reflects them; while in hearing we do not as automatically identify a sound with its source."11 Perhaps one reason for this seeming autonomy from its source is that sound is more interior and invasive. It almost seems to originate from within. Vision presents the world at a distance, as outside your body, whereas sound penetrates into the body. Cinematic sound stages a double conversion: it converts this spatial territory back into the interior. It runs the inside/out and the outside/in. In this gesture, it creates that elusive thing called atmosphere that stands somewhere between mood and setting. The bias towards image does not begin and end in the realm of the theoretical. Traditional filmmaking follows the same bias. Film scoring is a highly developed art form that has developed since the era of the silent cinema in a role of subservience and accompaniment. It conforms perfectly to the language of film theory, it is either source music or background music. Its main attributes are its invisibility.

The Graduate flouts many of these traditions in one five-minute musical interlude. In this sequence, two pre-recorded pop songs by Simon and Garfunkel ("The Sounds of Silence," and "April Come She Will") play back to back while the visual track seeks to mimic and accompnay their power. Originally director Mike Nichols asked Simon and Garfunkel to write a score for the film, but while assembling the film, he used pre-existing tracks as filler. The only song that was ever written for the movie was "Mrs. Robinson." "The Sounds of Silence" will open the film, close the film, and embody the film's theme.

The Graduate is a story of the coming of age of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a young recent graduate who has returned home. He is seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), one of his parents' friends, and inaugurated into adulthood across her body. While Mrs. Robinson will serve as a bridge between childhood and adulthood, she will also serve as the symbol of a dviding point around which a new generation will rally and define itself in opposition. This is the decade of major cultural upheaval and the arrival of new cultural divisions born of a youth market dominated by music and fashion. The first division that defines this new youth culture is generation, the division between young and old. Cultural divisions have become infinitely more complex as markets develop and interbreed, but this film takes place at the dawn of a new era and bears a certain cultural simplicity.

The Graduate is filled with musical interludes and the pop songs of Simon and Garfunkel, but it is the central interlude that interests me the most. This interlude serves important narrative functions. The entire malaise of the transition from youth to adulthood is summarized in this sequence and stands as a microcosm of the entire film. On a literal level it encapsulates the time between Ben's first sexual encounter with Mrs. Robinson and the end of a long summer of solitude and growth spent between two spaces, childhood and adulthood, signified by the family home and the hotel room. The segment commences at the precise point in which Ben decides to take the leap. Mrs. Robinson and Ben have made it to the hotel room, but Ben is overcome by fear and doubt.

Mrs. Robinson teases Ben for his virginal inadequacy and prepares to leave. Ben responds by saying "inadequate" in outrage, stepping back to the door and issuing the order, "dont move." Her inquisitive look of suspense is followed by a reverse shot of his hesitant silhouette framed by the hallway light. The sequence is suddenly suspended in a brief pause, the moment of decision. He swings the door closed, quick reverse to close-up of her devious smile-blackness fills the frame to the sound of the slamming door.

The guitar begins to play over this blackness and mystery of the closed door followed by song, "Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk to you again..." Gradually out of this blackness the image of glistening blue water fades in, spotted by patterns of light that appear to dance to the music. Then a dissolve of Ben overlaps the waters. Ben is floating in his parent's swimming pool on a black flotation device wearing black shades. This interlude will instigate a radical shift between image and sound, where image will seek to duplicate or accompany music rather than vice versa. The visual track will imitate through contrast, repetition, and the evocation of time and place.

First, there is the question of contrast. The pop song is a phenomenon of high contrast. Somber lyrics of loss and love are laid over poppy, upbeat riffs and rhythms. The visual contrast between black and brightness that continues throughout this sequence forms an analogy with the music. Simon's lyrics sing of a sound that makes silence audible, while the visual track contrasts light and black. The visuals will also use repetition in the same manner as the pop song. The general structure of a pop song is a repeating pattern, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus, interrupted only by a bridge in some cases. The visual structure of the interlude also follows a repeating pattern, tracking Ben's movement from home-hotel-home-hotel.

Lastly, the pop song embodies a precise moment in time and space. The ennui and emergence of this one particular summer, its texture, its sensations, its memory, adheres to the song for an individual, community, or an entire generation. This entire film strives to achieve this poetry. The visual track is trying to imitate the style of rock music in order to absorb its power directly into the film.

If traditional music is scored to accommodate the visuals, The Graduate sets out to make a film out of the spirit of music circulating in its time. Even if songs were chosen in late production, the songs were the radio hits of the day and served as the inspiration of the film. If they were found to fit so well, it is only becase the film was seeking to duplicate them from the start, even if unconsciously. In the end, the visuals of this interlude were cut to conform to the songs that had been selected. If the goal of the song is to portray in music, the very sound of solitude and silence, the goal of the camera and the cut is the same. The framing of the shot works to convey silence through its vacancy and extreme minimalism,12 and the cut will convey silence through patterns in time and space.

By this, I mean that it creates an atmosphere of vertigo by removing cues that separate different times and spaces and by using close-ups against black backgrounds to create a continuity of discontinuity between one environment and the other. The barrier between Ben's two worlds, childhood home and hotel room, has collapsed. The entire sequence unfolds like a strange dream in which one is doing something inappropriate in the wrong space. For example, Ben, wearing his white shirt unbuttoned and drinking a beer, closes the door to shut out his parents, who sit at the table in the next room. He sits down down in front of his family room television against a black background. Cut to close-up of his face framed by black. A body passes in front of this close-up, and the camera zooms out to reveal it to be Mrs. Robinson's body passing by, as Ben sits in the hotel bed in front of the television. Another example is at the end of the prelude. Ben dives into the pool and jumps onto the black float. Cut to Ben lowering himself onto Mrs. Robinson's body in bed. An ominous sound bridge come over this shot of his father asking sternly, "Ben, what are you doing?" Ben turns to look over his shoulder in bed only to see his father standing over him in the bright sun. Only now, he is back in the pool again.

The music that plays in this interlude qualifies as extradiegetic background music, because it is for the benefit of the audience, and actors within the frame do not hear it. But its mere existence in the foreground puts this designation into question forever. This foregrounding is achieved not only through the visual track's effort to mimic the music, but also through the minimalism of the sound track, the elimination of all other sound, including dialogue. If traditional background music strives to lie beneath the dialogue, this sequence has cut the dialogue out altogether in fear that it might distract from the song. One sound other than the music remains, the sound of a door closing as Mrs. Robinson leaves the hotel room. This one sound will serve through its utter isolation to convey the weight of Ben's solitude and the lament of the whole human race.

When the theme song plays to its summation something very surprising occurs-another song begins. Not only is the music whole rather than partial, but also two whole songs play back to back. Immediately time extends and the spectator understands this particular summer spent in Mrs. Robinson's body, a time that appears to never completely pass, that continues on and on, and yet is fatally condemned to the past even before it has been achieved. The interlude commences with the end of the song and the reintroduction of sound effects as Ben dives into the swimming pool and remerges after the splash. Like waking from a dream, or emerging after the orgasm, the film continues. In this musical interlude, Dionysus is reborn and the cinema of the present begins.

Traditional film's deep privilege of dialogue and plot can be traced back as far as Aristotle's first reflection on tragedy, in which he isolates six components of the dramatic and ranks them with plot first and song and spectacle (stage craft) last.13 Film scores have tended to be instrumental out of concern that the musical lyrics might distract from the film's primary role of telling a story through dialogue. Today the prospect of following several strands of cultural discourse simultaneously is no longer a threatening feat, and with the rise of special effects and rock music (spectacle and song) Aristotle's hierarchy has lost its ring of truth.

Popular music has become the sound of modern life. It is almost impossible to escape the repeating circulation of the top 40. It surrounds us and runs through everything. With the emergence of rock music in the 1950s, the sound recording industry began to emerge as a force on par with the film industry. Two forces aligned from the start, music and image, now began to compete on equal footing. The first films to utilize and document this new phenomenon were the rock movies and the musicals. The Elvis movies sought to depict rock musicals with Elvis grabbing his guitar and breaking into song at the slightest provocation in films such as Robert D. Webb's Love Me Tender (1956) and Richard Thorpe's Jailhouse Rock (1957). Rock music in this case was quickly marketed around its new icons and incorporated into already existing structures. Rock movies of the same period sought to thematize this new art, to show it up close and behind the scenes. Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) informed spectators of the emergence of a new phenomenon: the rock star and his hysterical audience.

The Graduate introduced something altogether different. It was the first major Hollywood film to use a rock score14 and one of the first films to reinvent the relation between music and cinema.15 It was not attempting to document a new music culture but to absorb its power for the cinema. The development of the pop music interlude introduced an entirely new dimension into film that would separate the cinema forever from any realism that remained after the cut and turn it into a highly constructed dream world of patterns, sensations, moods, and ineffable losses, a forerunner of the music video. The power balance between image and sound took a turn towards the film environment of today, where music television has completly reversed the dichotomy. Pre-recorded pop music is a norm in films, images are often constructed around pre-existing recordings, film soundtracks are sometimes as important as film in the marketing process, and sometimes the film is even secondary to the music deal.16

Not everyone looks favorably upon this scenario. Some argue that pop music is too easy a resource, undermines the art of film scoring, is too independent and autonomous, and too steeped in complicity with market forces and the fashions of the moment. In fact, it is almost impossible to find a textbook that does not speak negatively about the use of pre-recorded pop music in contemporary film. I believe that the use of pre-recorded pop music is one of the most expressive and powerful forces in cinema, and that this power comes precisely from all those objections listed above; specifically the relationship between popular music and fashion. It is this relationship to the ephemeral nature of time and desire that gives popular music its power and that makes it the form par excellence of loss. Objects, fads, and clothing all have this power.

But popular music, with its repetitive internal structure and its mass distribution at a certain point in time, possess this power to an even greater extent. Pop songs are eternity encapsulated into 3-minute nuggets of cultural time. Pop music lives by the charts-hit mentality, the market, and the power of the moment drive it. The only thing that compares to it in the power to embody cultural memory and to suggest a moment in time is the stickiness of the advertising jungle. In fact, it has been repeatedly noted that the pop song and the music video exist as both the product and the promotion, blurring the line between long established broadcast boundaries.17

Tragedy is tied to loss, and loss requires ascent. The higher the rise, the greater the fall, and the greater the pleasure of the tragic sphere. Popular music functions on this same axis. More than any other form it lives by numbers and calculations. As it rises on the top 40 according to sales, its distribution increases, along with its ascent. The pop song not only thematizes loss in its lyrics of love, pain, and pleasure, but it lives loss in its very structure as an emblem of the popular imagination and dreamscape. Modern memory is driven by the popular. There is hardly a song written upon which one cannot overlay her own particular passions and love stories.

Pop songs are so concrete as to become the ultimate universals, a precise moment that belongs to everyone in a million unique ways. Pop songs are highly absorbent markers of time, or the now. They rise, flow, and then fade away, where they await reinvention. It is precisely their ephemeral nature that ties them to loss and permits them to serve as vehicles of reinvention. They can stand in for entire decades, love affairs, places, and lost people. They can revive the dead. For the cinema, there is no greater resource than the pop song. Behind each melancholic lament, raging riff, drumbeat, and guitar solo is the laughter of Dionysus, the tragic jester of ultimate loss.

Francois Lyotard draws a parallel between music and primordial loss and fear. Music is the site of deep paradoxes. It struggles to leave a trace of something audible that goes beyond the audible. Lyotard speaks of a passage from Pascal Quignard entitled "Language" that describes the sound of a collective fear that renders all language secondary. "All the languages of the world seem secondary with regard to this lament of hunger, distress, loneliness, death, and danger."18 Lyotard finds in music the deepest expression of the bestial lament over immortality. "The breath is a wind of terror: one is going to be no more. We cannot 'hear' it, but it is not mute. It puts 'exactly nothing between your teeth.'" This is not merely certain kinds of music, but music in general. "No matter how clear the phrases of the clearest music might be, they bellow forth fright in secret."19 In this sense, the work of art can never be reduced to its cultural or empirical context. He explains that

If the work of art is, it is because it bears witness to something in excess of what the body can sense, of what is sensible and circumscribed by the (biological, cultural) institutions of the body. [...] This excess is already at the very origins of sensation. Sensation is not only the reception of useful contextual information, it is also in its immediacy the reminder of a threat. The body does not belong to you, it is sensible only insofar as it is exposed to the other thing, deprived of its self-distinction, in danger of annihilation. It is sensible only as lamentable.20
This makes the aesthetic realm a distinction that is only possible through the figure of extinction and its lament. As he describes it, "The body is passible because it has doors and they are open. What enters through the body, sensations, aesthesis, is not just the form of an object, it's the anguish of being full of holes."21 Differences between the various arts, he explains, are only different ways the body has of being threatened with loss. "Aesthetics is phobic, it arises from anesthesia, belonging to it, recovering from it."22

This description of the "breath of lament" puts music at the very core of being. These holes in the body that Lyotard describes as the senses threaten the border between inside and outside. Like a character from an Edgar Allan Poe tale suffereing from a "heightening of the senses,"23 one can imagine being killed by an odor or sound. Music does not fill the lack opened by the visual. It is the lack itself. That we can distinguish ourselves from music is merely a cultural knowledge or function of language.

For example, Fabre d'Olivet, a romantic composer and theorist, describes a boy, deaf and mute since birth, that he miraculously cured of his affliction. Upon first hearing sound, the boy reacted with shame and responsibility because he thought himself to be the source of the music.24 This lack of self-differentiation is not plenitude but a failure to distinguish the self from loss. Though Lacan designates the visual field as the infant's first thrust into object/subject relations and language, sound is our first sense. It is the mother's heartbeat that is first heard in the womb, the sound of the interior of being. This is not plenitude but the first drum roll of loss.25 The sound of a silence escaped and yet to come. In this sense, the first loss it the loss of loss itself. Music is this sound.

For Lyotard, breath is affect. He notes Aristotle's description of the human animal in terms of affection. Animality is inhabited by pathemata, it is pathic, and it feels. Lyotard says, "Affective rhythms and nuances, pleasure, suffering, depression, modalize the sound of silence after the fact." And "to modalize affects is already to put this noise to music, to make affection speak in shapes."26 Music is a source of pleasure because it forges a connection between the world and our affective emotional experience of being. Tears, moans, suffering, the heaving of the chest in loss and fear evoke a strange harmony or pleaseure made audible in music. Loss is the feeling of meaning or value. To suffer is to be. The sound of this feeling is music. Lyotard describes this link between being and music as a "breath." The sound of the human body itself signifies musicality, through breath, moans, screams, and dialogue.

It could be argued that the human body can do nothing more expressive than to breathe. When video game technology first advanced to the point of replacing paddles with actual figures and enabling them to negotiate three-dimensional space, the comparison between games and cinema became imaginable. But it was not until these figures began to breathe, to drown underwater from lack of air, to scurry up hills, grow fatigued, and heave in rhythm, that games truly achieved the cinematic. Ben's loneliness and isolation appears early in The Graduate in the guise of a sonic point-of-view shot. The film has already developed the motif that compares the perfectly manicured world of the affluent middle-class to the confines of a fish tank. This was established through blocking shots of the tank and Mrs. Robinson's gesture of throwing her keys into the tank for Benjamin to fetch. In the scuba scene, this motif is extended to include the swimming pool as a larger tank, a metaphor for an environment that is suffocating its human inhabitants.

Benjamin's parents have given him a wet suit for his birthday, the means to survive in the fish tank. The scene begins with the father coaxing the reluctant son to emerge from the house in this scuba gear and descend into the pool to test the suit for the benefit of his parent's friends. Ben's resistance is met with his father's insistence, and he emerges from the house to the cheers of the adults. This pained walk from the house to the bottom of the pool transpires from what can only be called a sonic point of view, or a point of experience. The camera reveals Benjamin's point-of-view blocked by his facemask. He sees the hysterical adults waving in support but, because of the gear, all that can be heard is the sound of his internal breath. The distance between his and the adults is an immense canyon seen from the claustrophobic interior of Benjamin's body and subjectivity. When he descends into the swimming pool and takes up a position at the very bottom, the camera pans away to a long shot that resemles the first man on the moon inserting his stake in the ground, the victor of infinite space and nothingness. He can breathe, and the bubbles rise from his body in streams, but can he live in this environment?

This shot and the sound of breathing is held for an uncomfortable length of time, broken only by a sound bridge. Benjamin's voice is heard making his first phone call to Mrs. Robinson during the long shot. The film then cuts to Benjamin fumbling in a phone booth. This sound bridge ties Benjamin's decision to enter the pool (fish tank) to his decision to accept Mrs. Robinson's sexual offer-a decision that is well understood to be the product of loneliness, isolation, and fear.

The human voice is a desperate thing. The body implies a fundamental separation between self and world that the voice serves to bridge. And what the voice is saying, no matter how complex the language, is very basic. It is asking a hermeneutical question: can you hear me, do you understand, are you with me or not with me? The human voice is always a kind of a call or cry to the other. It is sometimes pathetic, sometimes funny, and sometimes tragic. The closing scene of The Graduate elicits all three responses. Ben decides to marry Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) even though she is engaged to another man. Mrs. Robinson responds by arranging a sudden wedding between Elaine and her fiancé. Ben rushes across town to intercept the wedding and arrives at the church just as the vows have been exchanged and the wedding march has begun to play. From the organ booth over the crowd, Ben lets out a desperate holler of lament that rings throughout the church. The reverse shot shows his pathetic figure clutching the glass like a caged animal wailing in grief. The camera cuts to Elaine's point-of-view as she sizes up the situation. Everyone is shouting in commotion, but they appear in a silent comical pantomime. The only sound that Elaine hears is the sound of Ben's lament. The two lovers make a frantic escape with the whole wedding party in pursuit.

In the film's last shot they board a bus, find a seat in the back, suffer the gaze of the curious passengers, and the theme song commences one last time, "Hello darkness my old friend. I've come to talk to you again, because a silence softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping...." They look out the back window at those they have left in the dust, at each other, and then stare straight ahead awkwardly as they drive into their uncertain future. They have been united briefly by their separate solitudes, but they remain bound to the same internal problems of human life and have only a life of struggle and the loss of youth ahead. Ben has brought the human voice to its limit and asked the primal question, and Elaine responded, yes, I am with you. But even this harmony is limited by temporality and merely serves to bridge an abyss.

It is irresistible to ask what lies beyond the limit of the human scream. The human scream is not merely a gesture that takes dialogue to its limit in its plea for response. As a limit point it also borders the ineffable and addresses no one and nothing. The cinema has capitalized on this limit, producing countless screaming women. Michel Chion notes however that it is not merely the scream that opens up this space without territory. More precisely, it is the screaming "point" that plays a structuring role in the shape of cinema. As he explains it,

Let us define the screaming point in a cinematic narrative as something that generally gushes forth from the mouth of a woman, which by the way does not have to be heard, but which above all must fall at an appointed spot, explode at a precise moment, at the crossroads of converging plot lines, at the end of an often convoluted trajectory, but calculated to give this point maximum impact.27
The scream in this sense serves a narrative function akin to the climax or resolution of the plot, but it is not merely reconciliation or end to conflict. It is an eruption, a volcano, a point of upheaval and maddening delight. It is a mystical point towards which pleasure is moving.
The screaming point is a point of the unthinkable inside of thought, of the indeterminate inside the spoken, of unrepresentibility inside of representation. It occupies a point in time, but has not duration within. It suspends the time of its possible duration; it's a rip in the fabric of time. This scream embodies a fantasy of the auditory absolute, it is seen to saturate the soundtrack and deafen the listener.28
Chion locates this scream in the voice of the female and compares it to the female orgasm. The male, he explains, does not scream, he shouts. The shout marks territory, exercising will and structure. Tarzan shouts. The female scream reaches the infinite, it is a sound or cry at the brink of death. The male shout structures, the female scream opens a black hole to the limitless. The male director seeks to master the scream but he cannot-just as the female cannot herself master the scream. It exceeds control of both genders. In the scream speech reaches utter silence.

There are exceptions however to this gender division, and the exceptions are always as important as the rule. Chion uses Marguerite Duras' India Song (1975) to mark this exception, but I will analyze the male scream in Joel and Ethan Coen's Barton Fink (1991), a film that takes manhood as its theme. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is an enfeebled intellectual who has had a theatrical success in New Tork and been recruited to Hollywood to write a formula boxing picture. His own interests are theoretical and he lives the "life of the mind" despite the deep connection he believes he has with the working man. He takes up residence in a dilapidated hotel next door to Charlie Mundt (John Goodman). Charlie doesn't lead the life of the mind but that of the head, a head that leaks, bleeds, and rages. The entire film is claustrophobic, a series of confined structures or boxes, from heads, to rooms, to frames. Within these walls, that are not really home, Barton fails repeatedly to write his film.

Building, room, and head all stand in for another to designate the fine line between structure and infinity, between the materiality of man and the ineffable. The head perfectly represents this duplicity. It is the ultimate contrainer and also the organ that lives the "life of the mind." On the wall is a frame that contains an image of a woman sitting facing the sea. The horizon stands in for this same infinity within structure, and its place on the wall stands as confined ideal. Repeatedly the camera zooms into the frame on the wall and Barton literally hears the sound of the waves come to life.

This border between frame and wall marks the distinction between feminine and masculine. The image in the frame signifies nature, freedom, and open space as opposed to the dark contfines of his urban hovel. But this little piece of freedom is ultimately framed and confined to a wall. At the film's end Barton will enter this frame carrying a box that may or may not contain the head of a woman he may or may not have murdered. These frames within frames represent cinema itself, the site of woman and man, frame and infinity.

The screaming point of the film comes when Charles Mundt has returned from his business trip/mass murder spree. The police are interrogating Barton in his room when they sense Charlie's approach. Heat signifies his nearness. The walls have nearly melted off from the raging heat and tension that have been made manifest as flames lapping through the corridor. Into this fiery pressure tank, Mundt enters from the elevator carrying a suitcase. When the cops tell him to drop it, he puts it down, opens it, and pulls out a machine gun. He stampedes through this inferno shouting, "I'll show you the life of the mind...." When he reaches the end of the corridor, he places his gun to the head of a cop, and the man emits a scream of absolute terror as he looks his death in the eyes. This horrible scream ends only with the explosion of the gun. Barton Fink is a film that thematizes the line between genders, but also marks the site of the complete dissolution of difference. A place where man and woman are themselves both enframed, contained in structure, albeit in different locations, and both vulnerable to the vortex of the scream that signals a place into which all structure and law dissolves.

In Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the screaming point also joins the two genders that the film has spent differentiating. Rather than a scream, the screaming point in Bonnie and Clyde is the moment in which the outlaws are finally contained by the law. It is the moment of their mututal violent death on the roadside. They drive down the road unknowingly to their ambush. A friend waves them down and Clyde (Warren Beatty) gets out to offer help. Birds fly from the bushes, the friend jumps under a car, and Clyde knows he has been set up. He turns and exchanges looks with Bonnie (Faye Dunnaway) before they are both slaughtered with gunfire. They are shot so many times that the screaming point seems to never end, as their bodies jerk about in agony. When the firing finally stops, nothing remains except for the utter silence and defeat/triumph. The ambushers hesitantly approach the car, looking in utter awe, as if to say, "Wow, is that really Bonnie and Clyde, have we really stopped the unstoppable forces of glamour and transgression?" It is a moment of star struck wonder. Beyond this moment, there is nothing. It is nothingness itself. The film titles roll.

It is the exchange of looks between these lovers immediately preceding the screaming point of death that interests me. They are an exchange of rapidly cut extreme close-ups. It is merely an exchange of glances, an acknowledgement, perhaps a farewell, but it is even more powerful than Elaine's response to Ben's cry. It is the moment of absolute understanding before a shared fate. This moment of love exceeds both dialogue and touch. It emerges in silence prior to the explosion. It is the shared horizon of the human predicament realized through silence. This is the same achievement realized between stage and spectator in tragedy. It is the deafening silence made audible by music and sound. If Bonnie and Clyde had outlived this moment, they would have merely suffered more conflict, more misunderstnading, because such an ephphany can only come as a moment, a lightning shock from the infinite. But because there was no beyond, it was perfect. In this gaze lay the deepest lament and loss, and yet the very limit of what the human animal can possess.




1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ronald Speirs (London: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 13, 81.

2 This analogy is articulated by Germaine Dulac in both her work and theory, and also by many other film theorists including Moussinac, Eisenstein, and Epstein to name only a few. See for example Sergei Eisenstein, "The Filmic Fourth Dimension," Film Form, trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Meridian Books, 1949): 64.

3 Stan Brakhage, "The Silent Sound Sense," Film Culture 21 (1960): 65.

4 Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Music Mutic," Postmodern Fables, trans. Georges Van Denabbelle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): 217-233.

5 Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. Jonathan Griffin (Copenhagen: Green INteger, 1997): 48.

6 Nietzsche, 13-18.

7 Nietzsche says in the middle of section 16, "Or more briefly: how is music related to image and concept?", 77.

8 Wayne Klien, Nietzsche and the Promise of Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997): 99-101.

9 Nietzsche, 36.

10 Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).

11 Claudia Gorbman, "Narrative Film Music," Yale French Studies 60 (1980), 183.

12 Susan Knobloch makes much use thematically of the relation of the film's blank space to the pop music, considering the silence to be a "formal inscription of the idea that the soundtrack stands outside or tells us something 'beyond' the image," in her essay "The Graduate as Rock 'n' Roll Film," Spectator 17 (1997): 61-73.

13 Aristotle, "Poetics," Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Dover, 1951) Section VI: 23-30.

14 Knobloch, 61.

15 Numerous avant-garde films, such as Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1963), had already explored a shift towards the Dionysian.

16 Dr. Dre's Murder was the Case (1994), for example, spawned a hit soundtrack featuring some of the top names in hip-hop, but the film was basically an extended music promo.

17 Pat Aufderheide, "Music Videos: the Look of the Sound," Journal of Communication 36:1 (1986), 57.

18 Lyotard, "Music Mutic," 223-224.

19 Lyotard, 225.

20 Lyotard, 232-233.

21 Lyotard, 231.

22 Lyotard, 232.

23 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart," Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings by Edgar Allen Poe (New York: Bantam Classics, 1983), 3.

24 Fabre d'Olivet, The Secret Lore of Music, trans. Joscelyn Goodwin (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1987), 16.

25 Gorbman, in her text Unheard Melodies (Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987), discusses how psychoanalysts argue that musical response is related to the desire to return to the pre-phallic stage prior to differentiation to the body of the mother. My argument is not that music is plentitude, but that it exposes or gives birth to a lost plentitude.

26 Lyotard, 227.

27 Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 75.

28 Chion, 77.