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Winter 2009, Volume 25.2



Matthias Piccolruaz KonzettPhoto of Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett.

Imminent Future—Sci-Fi Film and the Construction of Soundscapes

"The first experiments in sound must aim at a sharp discord with the visual images. Only such a ‘hammer and tongs’ approach will produce the necessary sensation that will result consequently in the creation of a new orchestral counterpoint of visual and sound images."

—Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Alexandrov "Statement on Sound"


Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett teaches at the Department of English, University New Hampshire. In addition to his Ph.D. in English (Emory U), he also holds a Ph.D. in German studies (U of Chicago) and taught at Yale and Tufts University. His interests center on global cinema, contemporary cultural theory and literatures of migration. Publications include The Rhetoric of National Dissent (2000); Encyclopedia of German Literature (2002), editor; and Elfriede Jelinek: Writing Woman, Nation and Identity (2007), co-editor. Favorite films include M (Fritz Lang), High and Low (Akira Kurosawa), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott), and Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola), to name a few. Favorite global films include Babel (Alejandro González Ińárritu), Beau Travail (Claire Denis), Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair), Xala (Ousmane Sembene), Exiled (Johnnie To), Head-On (Fatih Akin), and Last Life in the Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang).


Recreated almost entirely in postproduction process, film sound can be compared to a complex orchestral score where every note is deliberately and methodically composed. Dialogues are redubbed and enhanced, ambient sound such as room tone is added as well as sound effects, Foley sounds, and music. Indeed, the intensive labor and extreme detail that goes into the production of a film soundtrack, mixing it, and marrying the soundtrack to the image track is staggering in its complexity and effort. This time consuming process literally requires thousands and thousands of hours, especially prior to the early 1990s when sound editing became digitalized. And yet, despite major advances in sound technology and sound production, film sound continues to be treated mainly as a supporting function in cinema, one that is said to enhance the visual image as well as manipulate the moods of its audience.

The dominance of the visual image in cinema is understandable. Film is after all called a moving picture, and as thinkers like Michel Foucault and John Berger have demonstrated, the act of perception amounts to nothing less than establishing our visual and symbolic order in the world. And yet, we cannot afford to relegate sound to a subordinate role in film since we not only see a film but hear it as well. Film is not simply a visual medium but an aural one as well, if not to say multi-sensory. It is to this end that Mary Ann Doane in 1980 called for a new "politics of the voice" in film, bringing attention to classical Hollywood’s rigorous regulation of sound so as to maintain the illusion of a unified subject and "[stave] off the fear of fragmentation."1 Managed and edited classical sound creates a "oneness" that "is the mark of a mastery and a control."2 Sound in classical Hollywood cinema, notes Doane, is used specifically to create and support a three-dimensional phantasmatic body that moves through the space of the diegesis (the world of the story), the space of the screen made visible through synchronized sound, and the quasi-realist auditory ambience in theater that "envelops the spectator" in sound.3 This illusion of the phantasmatic body, argues Doane, functions much like Lacan’s mirror stage supporting the illusion of an imaginary subject and agency.4 However, as Robert Bresson similarly notes on the constructed nature of sound, "Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay."5 Sound thereby becomes non-synchronic while still critically communicating with the image. As with Doane’s politics of voice, sound breaks free from "the service of a representational illusion."6

This essay explores the construction of soundscapes in sci-fi film, illustrating how sound literally creates a vision of the future that allows viewers to realize a conceptual and embodied world that does not yet exist as a concrete visual image. Sci-fi films are highly suitable vehicles for experimentation with sound, since the genre as such aims to project and imagine new and alternate worlds. The sci-fi soundscape, pointing to an imminent future, as I will argue, rejects the classical supportive function of sound and its subordination to the dominant code of the visual. Given that non-synchronic sound in sci-fi film breaks with the classical formula, I will further ask how it reconstitutes, if at all, the illusion of presence and of three-dimensional worlds inflected by futuristic speculation. In this essay, then, I will discuss four examples of futuristic sound, namely Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and examine the independence of sound from image and its heuristic nature in sci-fi films.

In the first three examples, as we will see, sound increasingly asserts its independence and priority over the visual image in order to create its utopia via sound. The philosopher Ernst Bloch refers to the utopian imagination as a "not-yet" already reaching into the present: "Concrete utopia stands on the horizon of every reality."7 This claim can certainly be made of the films under discussion here, as they project worlds of the future that are already with us but have not yet found full expression. These futuristic worlds depict the struggle of myth and enlightenment (2001), the seductive mythology of technology (Blade Runner), and the disembodied phantom appearance of subject and object in space as simulacrum (Solaris). As such, these projected utopian/dystopian worlds are already known to us in theories on culture articulated by such thinkers as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. However, rarely have these utopian visions been analyzed as soundscapes that in creative interplay with the visual image introduce us to these worlds in audio-tactile fashion, intensifying the presence and absence of cinema’s phantasmatic body. In a final example, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, I will ask the question if sound supports the possibility of social agency in spite of its discontinuous and relayed relation to the image. Sound, when divorced from the image, raises doubts about the viability of the subject as a fragmented sensorium. However, is it possible that sound restores a renewed materiality and plasticity to the image, albeit in a broken and provisional fashion, as a rhythm of reality? Could this then be the sound of the future, of social agencies caught in continuous revisionary loops, which provide the rhythm and drama for our changing social, cultural and communicative worlds?

My inquiry begins with Stanley Kubrick’s use of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In stark distinction to the dissonant overture of electronic music preceding the film’s opening scene, the main musical theme by Richard Strauss accompanies two crucial scenes, namely the dawn of the world with the sun rising behind the planet Earth and, later, the discovery of the instrumental use of animal bones by a primate as a tool or weapon capable of destruction. Initially, a three-note musical figure stated by trumpets rises over an ominous pedal point held by the organ and the double-basses, while the orchestra is gradually augmented. The pedal point, a monotonous drone, is presented simultaneously with the image of the dawn of the world, a future imagined backwards into an irretrievable and phantasmatic past.8 The fanfares of the brass section sounding out the triumph of the will, the domination of humans over nature, are ambivalent in its association with progress and savagery. The rising cadence produces the auditory hope for progress and better worlds achieved via the brassy and steely sound of technology. However, this expectation is disappointed as the triumphant theme ends on the savage rhythms of large kettledrums, animal skins vibrating with a heavy clumsy beat. The savage beating of the kettledrum is repeated in the film’s image of the skull-crushing use of animal bones, a use that is eventually appropriated to subdue the tribal enemy. Both music and image underscore the theme of enlightenment culture as irrevocably implicated in barbarism. Thus, before the intertribal murder among primates is shown, the non-diegetic soundtrack has already anticipated this type of violence for the viewer. However, it is mostly the visual image of the discovery of the hammer-like function of animal bones, hence serving as a tool of destruction, which directly foreshadows the later scene of tribal murder in which another living primate’s skull will be crushed. The sound image during this scene conversely harks back to the earlier triumphant scene of the dawn of the world. Via the relay of sound and image, both triumph and barbarism of civilization are invoked as inextricably intertwined, opening up a space of triumph and murder that governs the world of technology.

Eventually, in the film’s famous graphic and match-on action jump cut, the upwardly thrown animal bone merges with the instruments of modern technology, namely the free-floating spaceship and later the airborne pen used by the astronaut. Richard Strauss’s music is subtly replaced by the comforting Viennese waltz of Johann Strauss, suggesting a softer and more balanced use of technology in which the violent proclivity of civilization is seemingly sublimated. While one could make the claim that image and sound are perfectly synchronized, it is more interesting to note the apparent ironic tension that opens up between them. Sound no longer supports the image but comments on it ironically. The waltz music of Strauss does not provide a continuity match as given in the images. The substitution of Richard Strauss by Johann Strauss is merely a verbal pun on their shared surname. Otherwise, the two worlds of music have little in common. It is rather the image of the animal bone converted via graphic match into the technological achievement of the spaceship and the pen, a tool of writing, which makes us rethink the connection between the two differing soundtracks. Again, the ironic relation of sound and image comes to the fore. The Strauss waltz is thus perceived as underscoring the deceptive ease of soft technology, while also recalling its anti-thesis in the savage sounds of Richard Strauss.

Kubrick’s skillful use of sound and sound-image relay captures in concrete audio-tactile terms the clash of myth and enlightenment, which, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, characterizes Western civilization: "Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise power."9 As the repressed content of technology, myth eventually returns as delayed or sanitized barbarism. In Kubrick’s 2001 this reversal is shown tellingly in the growing independence of the spaceship’s computer system, the HAL 9000. HAL’s voice, once the achievement of interactive voice command technology mimicking human voice, assumes total independence from its master and dominates humans as a machine that was originally created for the obverse purpose of subduing nature. As Horkheimer and Adorno comment on the double bind of science and technology: "The instrument achieves independence…. On the way from mythology to logistics, thought has lost the element of self-reflection, and today machinery disables men even as it nurtures them."10 HAL’s disembodied voice underscores this loss of reflective agency and in its deceptive and nurturing mildness of sound once again mocks the achievement of technology as did the waltz by Johann Strauss. Eventually, HAL will be associated with the absence of sound, as he is able to read lips and hence spy on the crew, allowing HAL to avert their covert attempts to disable his computer system. In its use of sound, then, the film creates auditory worlds that rival the supremacy of the image and that can no longer be forced into harmonious synchronization. The anarchic nature of sound reveals a constant struggle in which the more primitive sensory perception, sound, can no longer be subdued by the image, standing in for the organized perception of instrumental reason. The ultimate achievement of technology, namely its self-emancipation from human domination, is depicted as soundless much like the objectifying human gaze. It comes therefore as no surprise that HAL eventually assumes this image of soundlessness, as he usurps humans by becoming the absolute reason, the pure gaze of a Western logo-centric perspective.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) revisits the scenario of 2001, humanity’s struggle with technology, adding, however, a postmodern twist to this conflict. Unlike the opening of 2001 where the musical score showed internal conflict and contradiction, Blade Runner’s opening scene seems to have smoothed over the discontinuities of the earlier film. The savagery of technology is mostly depicted through the images of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles and flames flaring up in the close-up shot of a human eye. The electronic music by Vangelis conversely accomplishes a more thorough integration of technological and synthesized orchestral sound, belying the conflict altogether. The opening theme still relies on slow and deliberate Wagnerian cadences as with Richard Strauss’s music and is additionally enhanced by sound-bites of technological machinery such as the diegetic engine sounds of a spacecraft, and non-diegetic artificial technological sounds such as bleeps, high bells, xylophone sounds, percussion effects, etc. In addition, we also hear diegetic sounds of thunder, lightning and bursts of flames from refineries, thus creating a thick soundscape of realistic and artificial sound. As the establishing shot slowly tracks in a pyramid-shaped building, electronic sound bleeps and high bells are synchronized with small light flashes apparently emanating from the architectural structure. Hence the scene creates the illusion that perhaps the architecture itself could be the source of the soundscape, as if technology were now able to create its own sound. This autonomous sound of technology, a blend of non-diegetic soundtrack and diegetic sound, is also heard when the camera pans over the advertising billboard in the sky, functions curiously as the new mythology in this utopian setting. Myth, according to Roland Barthes, naturalizes arbitrary signification: "myth operates the inversion of anti-physis into pseudo-physis."11 It appears as if technology, an artificial product of human origin, has now taken on quasi-natural status. This myth of the autonomy of technology and its "naturalness" underscores the film’s central theme in which engineered replicants appear more human than humans and rival the human race in humanity and ethics.

Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner hired to retire potentially threatening replicants, is initially depicted as a degraded noir hero, lacking total insight into the ethical dimension of his assassinations or "retirement of skin jobs." The question asked by Rachael (Sean Young), whether he has ever retired a human by mistake, points to Deckard’s inability to define himself as a human being as opposed to the non-sentient replicated human species of the Tyrell company. As with the music of Vangelis, artifice and the natural are blurred and raise doubts whether Deckard may not himself be a replicant. Slavoj Žižek, in fact, reads the entire film in reverse, arguing that the film depicts not so much "the subjectivization of the replicants" but rather asserts that "our ‘human’ memories [are] also implanted in the sense that we all borrow the elements of our individual myths from the treasury of the big Other."12 Discourse, in this sense, precedes the voice of the human subject. "Are we not," asks Žižek, "prior to our speaking, spoken by the discourse of the Other?"13 In short, the illusion of human subjectivity is only achieved as we begin to integrate our memories into our symbolic universe, hence lending it the mythical support of truth and reality. Human subjects, in this more radical reading, are fictions and resemble replicants rather than differ from them.

It appears that the synthesized soundtrack by Vangelis, electronically mimicking the Romantic music of Wagner and Bruckner, likewise points to the constructed nature of all sound, and hence all reality. The presumed anteriority of orchestral music as quasi-natural sound over electronic music as artificial sound is ultimately questioned, just as the difference between replicant and human being becomes increasingly indistinguishable in the film’s postmodern shakeup of epistemological certainties. The melancholy main theme no longer expresses the initial serene confidence of Richard Strauss’s dawn of the Earth theme in 2001, but instead mourns the absence of a loss that can no longer be identified. Human memories become only reliable in so far that they may temporarily fool the interrogator in his effort to unmask replicants but ultimately appear fictive. When Deckard eventually tells Rachael that her memories are implants, she leaves his apartment visibly upset. Deckard then turns his attention to his family pictures scattered throughout the apartment to reassure himself of his own human status. Looking at various family pictures with little emotion, he also leafs through polaroids of an android that are part of his investigative police work. These photos seen in the same pile of pictures become indistinguishable from the family pictures and stress that there is no difference between them. A jazz piano soundtrack of repeated quizzical chords further adds to the blurring perception of all these images. This scene precedes the scene when the replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah) meets the genetic designer Sebastian (William Sanderson) and his artificial puppets. Both interior scenes thus mirror one another in their emphasis on artifice.

A parallel cut eventually returns us from Sebastian’s home to Deckard’s apartment. We hear soft piano notes electronically enhanced with echoes. Deckard’s family pictures are displayed above an old piano to underscore that they are relics of a bygone era and thus have no merit or substance and are hollow like the enhanced echo sound. The director’s version (1992) stresses this point even more so when inserting a new intercut of a fable animal, a unicorn, while the camera is panning over Deckard’s family pictures and thick electronic sound sets in. Deckard picks up a single family picture and then turns to the image enhancement system processing the photos of a suspected android, thus highlighting the construction of all images. In a later scene, after Rachael saves Deckard’s life, we return one more time to Deckard’s apartment. The music played in this scene places Rachael on the old-fashioned piano, associating her with "naturalness" and her desire for it. The soundtrack likewise points to the implanted nature of all visual memory, motivating the musical dreams of the drunk and sleeping Deckard. In this scene, the soundtrack moves from a sexy noirish saxophone tune, as Rachael is nostalgically leafing through his family pictures, to a snippet of a classical piano chord played by Rachael, and quickly returns to the seductive jazz sounds followed by electric piano chords. It appears that the natural diegetic piano sound is framed by the non-diegetic noir jazz and electronic sound. The "natural" piano music is thus conveyed as a diminishing category giving way to a jazz-electronic fusion sound. Desire and artifice have become one in the soundtrack. This scene is followed by a quick intercut to the oversize advertising billboard in the sky and then cuts to a close-up of Pris doing her facial makeup, framing and mirroring the prior scene once again in its emphasis on artifice. Unlike the masculine world of 2001, Blade Runner’s softer electronic soundtrack and its prominent women characters (Zhora, Pris, Rachael) offers a challenge to the gender hierarchy upon which the inhumane male visions of technological utopias are built. Thus, while the film may question the distinction between the natural and artifice as its central theme, it also begins to undermine conventional gender binaries in its strong women characters that repeatedly challenge Deckard’s noir hero status.

Steven Soderbergh’s film Solaris (2002) takes artificiality to the next level in which an unexplored solar ocean appropriates human memory, decodes its DNA, and replicates human beings. In contrast to Blade Runner, it is no longer a human-made machine that eventually surpasses humans but an extraterrestrial force that now replicates and simulates humanity. This escalation of dehumanization pushes the vision of this utopian scenario into the realm of the simulacrum, whereby all tangible relationship with reality ceases to exist. In successive order of intensity, one could say, using the terminology of Jean Baudrillard, that the sound image "perverts basic reality" in 2001, "masks the absence of basic reality" in Blade Runner, and "bears no relation to any reality whatever" in Solaris.14 A key scene illustrating that the sound image has become "its own pure simulacrum" occurs when the film’s hero, Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), sent to investigate the strange events aboard the spaceship Solaris, meets Rheya (Natascha McElhone), his former wife, seemingly resurrected from the dead after her suicide many years ago.15 The scene can be read in many ways, such as the return of repressed guilt on the part of Kelvin, a psychologist who chose to overlook the warning signs of his wife’s unstable mental state. Additionally, it stresses the theme of gender that returns from its repressed status in a male dominated world of technology. Rheya, as Kelvin finds out, cannot simply be gotten rid of both in their prior life and aboard the spaceship where she miraculously returns and easily recovers from critically sustained injuries. Overall, the film stresses a profound sense of self-alienation via its musical score, which in many key scenes relies on ambient sound, and thereby questions human subjectivity and agency altogether.

In Solaris, composer Cliff Martinez, former drummer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, follows in the tradition of Brian Eno who is credited with the invention of ambient sound with its deliberate sub-audible sound worlds. In the film’s sound world, the sound of technology and minimalist musical chords ŕ la Philip Glass mix into a scenic sound that is removed from conveying the emotion of human characters. Just as the Solaris constellation rejects human invasion, sound refuses to become subordinate to the interest of character and instead manifests itself as a background hum or white noise in many scenes, suggesting steely isolation and even more so the illusionary phantom existence of the human subject. Contrary to the earlier films, the soundtrack no longer conveys a clearly identifiable emotion. For example, when Kelvin falls asleep and Rheya appears for the first time, we hear mostly vibraphone and synthesized music stylized in percussionist and rhythmically repetitive fashion. While such music may realistically evoke technology with its sanitized and functional worlds, it does not depict for the listener an emotion. Rather increasing and decreasing intensities of volume of sound and a sense of rhythmic monotony create an ambient soundscape beyond the repertoire of human emotional response. In the scene, sound further creates a fluid bridge between past events, Kelvin’s and Rheya’s first encounter, and their uncanny re-encounter on the spaceship. As Kelvin awakens and finds Rheya in his room, sub-audible sound, white noise, is heard in the background. The soundtrack falls completely silent and the exchanges are mostly quiet and erratically assume at one point the form of screaming on Rheya’s part. When Rheya is eventually tricked into being ejected from the spaceship, orchestral chords proceed in quiet descending manner, yet without any pathos. And once again this scene turns quickly to white-noise background sounds rather than allowing for any audible emotion to emerge. Sound is thereby associated with social death administered silently and via soft technology. The ejection of Rheya further links social death specifically to gender and its oppression in techno-utopias.

Sound functions mostly in Solaris to isolate and detach the viewer from emotional identification with the main character, turning the viewer instead into a critical observer. Hence, the relation of audience to screen drama becomes analytic and sterile, reduplicating the sterile scientific gaze that pervades the drama. The use of ambient sound creates ambiguity, since diegetic and non-diegetic sound become interchangeable and indistinguishable. For example, when the electronic bass sound overlaps with the diegetic humming noise on the spaceship, it is unclear whether sound ultimately emerges from the diegesis or beyond it. In the film’s play with auditory ambiguity against the backdrop of sterile homogeneity, the scientific gaze is unsettled in its certainty as shown in the dissociation of the scientists from their mission. Gibarian’s skeptical insights, taken almost verbatim from Stanislaw Lem’s novel of 1961, are shortened in the film version in order to render his sober reflections in a more simple and powerful manner: "We take off into the cosmos ready for anything: Solitude, hardship, exhaustion … death. We’re proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds. We want mirrors."16 Gibarian’s thoughts are related via video monitor with Kelvin turning his back to it, thus stressing a separation of voice and image. Moreover, the film image frames the human voice as a technological construct emanating from a monitor in the remote background of the scene. Yet on the level of sound, this voice can be heard via amplified voiceover clearly as a sound emanating at the front of the screen image. Sound thus asserts itself as a critical voice over the image, which, according to Gibarian, reflects unreliably the narcissistic need for mirrors rather than reality.

Solaris ultimately shows that humanity is forever entrapped by its own narcissism and memories that prevent any communication with phenomena outside the context of a human perspective. While Solaris depicts this contextual anthropomorphic limitation mostly as a failure of the human will to dominate, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) views this existential limit as a productive force, creating a utopia/dystopia of realism. Rather than projecting remote worlds, autonomous machines and robots, or inexplicable extra-terrestrial forces, this film returns humans to humans by focusing on their inexplicable inability to procreate. Cuarón’s dystopian world of infertility, set in the not too distant future of a realistic London in the year 2027, has many post-apocalyptic features such as civil anarchy, degraded technology, and biological dysfunction of the human species. Romantic and post-Romantic orchestral sound as well as ambient sound no longer appear appropriate for this suspicious and critical vision of technology. Instead, the film shows a disposition for ecological worlds in its yearning for the resurrection of the "natural." A sci-fi retelling of the birth of Jesus as savior, the film depicts a dystopian world where humankind is facing extinction. Gender once again comes to the fore as the corrective force to male technology. The miraculously pregnant mother, a young black woman from Africa, further invokes race as a redemptive force against the backdrop of xenophobia and anti-immigrationist measures that lend the film a highly realistic setting filmed in documentary and newsreel style.

In a key scene, former activist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) meets with Jasper (Michael Caine), an older political activist friend, who has a hideout in the remote woods. Jasper’s appearance is that of a disheveled pot smoking hippie who indulges in food, drink, and the telling of raunchy jokes. Contrary to the antiseptic appearances of space crews in the above films, he is a person of human and bodily functions. Children of Men can in fact be understood as a Bakhtinian carnevalization of the sci-fi genre via emphasis on physiological materiality, low bodily function, and grotesque realism which return the quasi-superhuman and high-serious domains of sci-fi and its technological worlds to the tangible Earth. In the film, sound supports this vision by remaining for the most part diegetic, emerging as everyday sounds of street noise, chaos, sirens, conversations, overheard music, and so forth. In the encounter between Theo and Jasper, we hear music associated with the past "natural world," such as an aria sung by a soprano, a rendering of Ruby Tuesday by the Bee Gees, and a few bites of heavy metal music played by Jasper for comical and disruptive effects. The music remains stubbornly diegetic, stressing the realism of the setting. Even in key scenes such as the delivery of the baby and the escape, the soundtrack, consisting of small citations from classical orchestral compositions of Penderecki and Mahler, quickly gives way to diegetic sound and fades into the background.

The non-diegetic soundtrack as the quasi-grand narrative of the film thus disintegrates into the diegetic sound of reality. By means of this reversal, sound is relieved from its conventional functions of emotionally manipulative musical accompaniment and the illusionary framing of a phantasmatic body and world. Instead, it transforms into an active sound generated foremost in the diegesis, refusing to remain anonymous and ambient in nature. Sound merges with human drama, stressing the film’s political and interventionist view. The film, however, cannot cover up the fact that its politicized and realistic sound image is likewise a construct, and the film is therefore forced to return to an almost classical mode of sound synchronization. Hence some doubts remain as to the revolutionary nature of sound in Children of Men, as it is once again subordinated to the primacy of the visual image. However, the use of de-saturated images throughout the film can be said to stem against a naive realist mode with the effect of assimilating sound into a type of ambient image. In his DVD commentary on the film, Slavoj Žižek further points to the film’s stylistic use of anamorphosis whereby the main characters serve as mere focal points for the many significant background scenes, depicting a rivaling drama of the collapse of social and civil society. In similar fashion, an ambient sound image constructed via color manipulation of the screen image and added diegetic sounds stresses a new type of cinematic image that has assimilated to the notion of ambient sound. Once again, it becomes difficult to determine where the film’s mood or melodramatic tone of experience actually originates and we see image and sound working in relayed forms of interface rather than classical synchronization.

As our examples have shown, the creative function of sound appears when it breaks with the power of the image and either comments critically on the image via Bresson’s notion of sound relay or challenges the image altogether. Thus, the political and critical function of sound cannot be attributed to any single specific film under discussion here. Rather, as the final example shows, sound may re-inject renewed materiality and plasticity to the image, albeit in a broken and provisional fashion, as a rhythm of reality demanded to be heard in savage drum beats, ambient technological sound, or realistic sound. In analogy to Bloch’s notion of imminent utopias, the future is thus already with us, sub-audible in the changing contexts and demands of social communication.



1 Mary Ann Doane, "The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space," Film Theory and Criticism, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004) 383.

2 Doane, 383.

3 Doane, 377.

4 Doane, 380-82.

5 Robert Bresson, "Notes on Sound," Film Sound: Theory and Practice, eds. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton (New York: Columbia UP, 1985) 149.

6 Doane, 385.

7 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vol. 1, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986) 223.

8 This pedal point re-appears again in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), now played by an electronic instrument, capturing the ambivalent hum or white noise of futuristic technology. As a sound, it is at once comforting and threatening and re-occurs in several key scenes of the film.

9 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1990) 9.

10 Horkheimer and Adorno, 37.

11 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Granada, 1983) 142.

12 Slavoj Žižek, "’The Thing that Thinks’: The Kantian Background of the Noir Subject," Shades of Noir, ed. Joan Copjec (London: Verso, 1993) 212.

13 Žižek, 212.

14 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (Cambridge, MA: Semiotexte, 1983) 11.

15 Baudrillard, 11.

16 See Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (New York: Harcourt, 1987) 72.


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