Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity

By James Lastra; John Belton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SYNC
Sound and Image Before the Talkies

It is the purpose of the remaining chapters to examine the factors conditioning the emergence of “sound” within the American cinema. I will demonstrate not only how these events recapitulated several of the key features I associate with the emergence of the technical media more generally, but also how entirely new and unimagined possibilities may emerge out of a limited and concrete set of historical and material conditions. More specifically, in this chapter I examine how the entities “the cinema” and “sound” came to be defined in relation to one another historically, and how the very devices and institutions we associate with the Hollywood cinema were similarly defined and redefined over time. While the “coming of sound” may seem a particularly clear-cut instance of adapting a well-defined technology to a similarly stable aesthetic form, such is decidedly not the case. Not only were both technology and representational form in flux, but each helped to define or constitute the other in the process of their mutual interaction.

Moreover, the period before the putative coming of sound offers us a glimpse into how two new technologies with sometimes overlapping and sometimes quite distinct histories—namely, cinematography and phonography—could combine to form an integrated sensory experience that was neither audio nor visual, but distinctly audiovisual. However, the proper ratio between the senses—between hearing and seeing—was open to vigorous debate and competing models. Was the cinema an essentially aural medium, born of the spirit of publicly performed music, to which spectacles of vari-

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