The relationship between recorded sound and the cinematic image has never been a simple matter. Some directors use sounds in the place of images (Bresson). Some use sounds to undermine or to clash with the images they accompany (Godard). Some use sounds begrudgingly yet majestically (Eisenstein). Some use sounds sparingly (early Fassbinder) or densely (late Fassbinder). Some use sounds to construct cacophonous sonic structures, thereby enhancing the aesthetic complexity of the film as a whole (Altman).
But even more difficult to work out is the question regarding the function that music should have in cinema, which is traditionally conceived as a primarily visual medium: Should music serve to “dress” the image (Lynch) or should music actively compete for the audience’s attention (as it does in a musical)?
I think these questions are particularly pertinent with tomorrow night’s screening of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis at the Cinematheque (7:30 PM @ Vilas Hall, Room 4070). Today’s quote comes from James Agee (taken, of course, from the excellent Agee on Film, Vol. 1); here Agee meditates on what music can do for a film, what music ought to do for a film, and how, in his mind, music can actually diminish the general effectiveness and poetry of a film. Keep in mind that Agee, as I mentioned last week, thought very highly of Meet Me in St. Louis.
Music can be well used in movies. It was wonderfully used in Dovzhenko’s Frontier, for instance; for another kind I like the naïve, excitable, perfectly appropriate score of the soundtracked version of The Birth of a Nation; and indeed I think the greatest possibilities have hardly yet been touched. But music is just as damaging to nearly all fiction films as to nearly all fact films, as it is generally used in both today. Its ability to bind together a succession of images, or to make transitions between blocks of them—not to mention “transitional” and “special-effect” and “montage” passages—inevitably makes for laziness or for slackened imagination in making the images and setting them in order, and in watching them. Still worse, it weakens the emotional imagination both of maker and onlooker, and makes it virtually impossible to communicate or receive ideas. It sells far too cheaply and far too sensually all the things it is the business of the screen itself to present. The rough equivalent might be a poet who could dare to read aloud from his own work only if the lights were dimmed and some Debussy was on, very low. (James Agee, The Nation, May 26, 1945)