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It sounds odd to consider the sound involved in a silent film. Cinemas, though, did not simply begin making music after the production of The Jazz Singer (1927): they were noisy places and films were noisy things from the beginning. It is likely, for example, that a piano accompanied the first significant presentation of moving pictures before an audience (generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s screening in Paris in 1895). There is an inevitable gap between image and sound in this sort of production because the notes are added after and do not originate from the same source as the picture. In a sense, the music that accompanies these films can be considered diegetic (a term which comes from the Greek ‘to narrate’) because it is used to guide the viewer’s response. Indeed, we are aware of a similar effect caused by any film score but the use of what I term mimetic elements of the soundtrack, for example sound effects or dialogue, is not possible for these pictures. Such noises are mimetic (from the Greek ‘to copy’) because they only recreate the recorded reality in film. Is it fair to say, then, that we expect to feel the seam between the film and sound in so-called silent films, to feel a gap between what is occurring on-screen and the music that accompanies it?
An odd thing happened, when I was watching Dr. Mabuse (1922), which was counterpointed later, when I saw Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961): for a moment in Mabuse the diegetic notes of a piano become (inadvertently) mimetic, while in Marienbad expected aural mimesis is (purposefully) frustrated. There is a scene in Mabuse in which a pianist is playing. It is, if I remember correctly, in a gambling hall. The score lends a feeling of lightness and jollity to the action. When Lang cuts, however, to a medium close shot of the pianist, seated and playing, the notes mimic perfectly his hand movements: for a time, in a sense, we hear what the characters do. The implications of this slip are unnerving: for a few seconds the viewer is left to decide the tone of the piece for herself, as the music reveals it is not itself an interpretative keynote, suggesting how to view the scene, but instead only another level of the presentation of a gambling hall. I had to rewind the DVD to make sure I’d not made a mistake.
In Marienbad, in contrast, there is a score of organ music that is oppressive in its relentlessness. In one particular scene, again a medium close shot of a band playing, the instruments are oddly silent. The droning organ continues regardless and makes the image of the playing band members, apparently unaware of their own silence, all the more disturbing. I remember, for some reason, sensing my stomach drop, when I first encountered this shot, and a feeling of isolation began to grow. I suppose it is an odd experience when one’s own senses fail to line up, when what we see is not what we hear.