Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Noise in Chinese Neorealist Cinema: Sonic Rebellion and a Temporary Reverse-Hierarchy (TRH) Model

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Noise in Chinese Neorealist Cinema: Sonic Rebellion and a Temporary Reverse-Hierarchy (TRH) Model

Article excerpt

Our science has always desired to monitor, measure, abstract, and castrate meaning, forgetting that life is full of noise and that death alone is silent: work noise, noise of man, and noise of beast. Noise bought, sold, prohibited. Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.

--Jacques Attali (1985,3)

In film sound studies, noise is a blind spot.

Nevertheless, noise--seemingly a symbol of disturbance and insignificance--is a perfect vehicle of realism indeed. Think about the difference between being in a live concert and listening to the same music from a CD player: it is the noises of crowd, the music instruments, microphones and a little burst of spontaneous applause and whistle that makes a live sound situation, a sense of presence and reality.

While it is hard to define as what is noise, even practically, there are some attributes or qualities that people generally assume to noise: lacking agreeable musical quality, unpleasantness, undesirableness, disturbingness, interferingness , randomness, irrelevancy and meaninglessness. Altogether, it seems that noise is something polluting, distracting, and contaminating that we want to totally get rid of.

This is certainly true in the field of music. James Lastra notes that the suppression of noise or managing noise in the West can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century when social elites who saw noise as unacceptable sound sought to achieve "copious sonic privacy" (126). In the cinema sphere, with the coming of sound film the major priority of the development of sound technology such as Dolby noise-reduction system was given to erasing unwanted noise (Belton 67). Michel Chion reminds that even before the generalization of Dolby in the mid-1970s, reducing background noise had been a standard practice in film production (150).

In film studies, noise sometimes is labeled as ambient sound or noise. "Ambient" means unobtrusive, sticking on background, not attracting much attention and thus not causing much reaction from the viewer. In other words, the role of noise in cinema seems to be crystal-clearly signified by the adjective "ambient": to help create or "color" a certain atmosphere, environment, or mood. Accordingly, many film sound study projects were conducted under such "ambient" paradigm, examining ambientness or servility of sound. This is totally understandable considering that the whole body of cinema theory was created on the frame of so called the visual hierarchy: visual is primary and dominant, whereas sound is secondary and submissive. Correspondingly, film studies have paid less attention to sound than image and text, and noise, almost totally out of sight--perhaps "out of earshot" is a more accurate description. This is partly because, as Rick Altman points out, "Current approaches to film sound systematically borrow a musical model" (15).

But the stark realism of human life is not born in hyper-commodified music, even though such music can capture, embody, mimic and reconstruct each moment of human emotions to a great extent; indeed, that realism comes in form of raw noise. It is noise of baby crying, the whistles and rattles of the lonely train in the snow, giggles of children, footsteps and wheezes of a lover, coughing of parents and yelling and screaming of neighbors that constructs the space of our individual memories and reverberates repeatedly to remind us who we are. To put it shortly, as Tom Paulin recognizes, "sound has all sorts of ontological meanings for us" (36).

For this study, noise refers to both on-screen and off-screen diegetic sound that lacks agreeable musical quality, is undesired and may cause disturbance to the audience. In addition to noise in general such as traffic noise and crowd noise, noise specific to this project also constitutes three kinds of diegetic sound, namely, on-the-air sound, territory sound, and generic sound. The first kind, on-the-air-sound, refers to diegetic sound transmitted by an electronic device such as radio, television, etc. …

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