Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Spaces, Gaps, and Levels: From the Diegetic to the Aesthetic in Film Theory

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Spaces, Gaps, and Levels: From the Diegetic to the Aesthetic in Film Theory

Article excerpt

In Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1964) - one in a remarkable series of ground-breaking films in the French director's 1960s corpus - the three principal characters sit in a Parisian café and attempt to remain silent for one minute. They manage to go without speaking for a full thirty-five seconds of what, for the viewer, is both represented story time and actual clock time, that is, the film's running time. In a typically self-reflexive gesture on Godard's part, during this period (prefaced by Anna Karina's character's countdown to the event) all prior ambient sound in the café - the buzz of conversation, the rattle of bottles and glasses, etc. - is switched off, as it were, on the film's soundtrack. Where is the total, unnatural silence (or negative lack of sound) in question? In whose 'world', that is, ours or that of the characters, is it present?

These are the sorts of question at the centre of lively debates in recent years on the subject of the diegetic and nondiegetic distinction in film sound and music studies and, by extension, the concept of diegesis as applied to cinema, more generally.1 As a film theorist rather than a musicologist, and one who does not specialise in film sound or music per se, my chief interest in these debates is the wider film theoretical-philosophical import of the issues at stake.2 So important are these issues and their implications for thinking about filmmaking and film viewing that it is surprising that they are not the subject of much more discussion in contemporary film theory at large. Here I will address them from a logical/symbolic perspective, but also and especially, from an aesthetic one.

First, a brief summary of two of the more recent, provocative, and conceptually oriented critiques of the diegetic and nondiegetic distinction and its customary applications in the analysis of film music and sound, by Ben Winters and Alessandro Cecchi - followed by consideration of a third, related position articulated by Daniel Frampton - will help set the stage for a needed re-evaluation of some of the key terms, concepts, and distinctions in question. I will then suggest an alternative understanding of the experiential relation between narration, fictional representation, and cinematic presentation, one which is as relevant to Band of Outsiders and the above-noted sequence as it is to any contemporary Hollywood film.

Nondiegetic Doubts: Where Is the Music?

Winters notes that when looked at in detail, a great deal of music in films, particularly mainstream Hollywood productions, cannot be adequately placed in either of the binary categories of diegetic or nondiegetic as these are often conceived. The underscore of a film is typically referred to as nondiegetic because it is deemed not to be a part of the characters' experience of their world. Rather, it is part of the articulation of that experience as an act of narration construed as far less visible (if visible at all) than the reality thus presented. Winters argues that this view is bound to the erroneous assumption that the experience of characters and their imaginary world is much like our real-world experience, where we do not live and act to a soundtrack, and where the music or sound that we hear has a discernible source. If we bracket such 'realist' expectations, however, music present in the 'narrative space' of a film may be regarded as 'an indicator that the universe in which the events we are watching takes place is not real' (Winters 2010: 229). In this case there is no need for the music to be 'assigned a separate level of narration', for instance, in order to account for its presence (ibid: 229).

Additionally, for Winters, the distinction frequently fails to correspond to what may be regarded as the actual experience of a film, in which diegetic and nondiegetic elements overlap or fuse into a single experiential Gestalt. In his cited example, the famous zither score of The Third Man, typically classified as nondiegetic (as it has no discernible source within the film's represented space) is likely apprehended as something as internal to the fictional world the film creates/presents as any diegetic feature (ibid: 224). …

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