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ThemesArt and CinematographyMarker
On the Relationship between Voice and Image in the Films of Chris Marker
Michael Wetzel

In modern discourse, the tense relationship between new media and old literature is usually portrayed as a crisis of the narrative. The postmodern macro perspective has regarded the end of the grand narrative as a genuine opportunity for change in the narrative. However, in the realm of epic creativity, this development has been greeted with an elegiac sigh: «Narrative real narrative that was before my time.«[1] Representing an entire generation of poets, Rilke formulated these words at the beginning of the last century. However, he did not associate them with any apocalyptic predictions regarding the end of time. Instead, in his farewell, he welcomes another kind of narration: the writing of one's own observations. Literature becomes a written system of recording and hence a seismograph, measuring streams of data which are no longer hermeneutically pre-processed and are of a visual as well as acoustic nature, at the very least. As Rilke's Malte promenades through Paris, he retains an awareness of certain smells of poverty, for instance, and burned frying oil. Yet he is predominantly conscious of visual and acoustic stimulants, such as the experience of hearing a word disintegrate into soundscreated by a series of individually pronounced letters. Benjamin's obituary for the narrator also speaks of a change in the function of communication. Erfahrung, which shapes a narrative like the hand of the potter shapes a vase, gives way in new media to Erlebnis, which is conveyed in the vortex of information, with its lack of distance, its sensational character, its temporality of meaning.[2] Film thus communicates shocking stimuli to the consciousness, which is, according to Freud's oft-quoted concept of the Wunderblock, constantly shedding its skin, repulsing experiences, which then accumulate underneath the perceptive threshold of a reality, in the so-called unconsciousness. Anyone familiar with the films by French cineaste Chris Marker knows that this cultural/historical caesura is not absolute. His films resist in the best sense of the word the kind of narrative cinema derived from television-like illusion. Containing an omnipresent visuality, Marker's films do not exactly maintain the illusion of the grand narrative in the Hollywood sense. Instead, they turn the end of the grand narrative (see Lyotard) into the beginnings of the small, the minor in short, the vague, roaming, unrooted narrative. An overly extravagant desire to narrate is practically a trademark of Marker's abstract cinematographic artworks, which have been called essay films. Regardless of the subject matter, Marker's storehouse of images produces a new cosmos of over determined meanings. In this sense, the filmmaker's game with the documentary film genre becomes more of an ironic analysis of the documentary's latent tendencies to monumentalize. Once again, for emphasis: the intent is to fabricate a minor monumentality, which, in a narrative shape, provides food for thought. It is more like a kind of evolution than a lofty subliminity, like folding Japanese origami paper, or new digital photo processes, such as the zapping, windowing, linking, and morphing that actually dominate Marker's more recent works («Zapping Zone» 1990, F; «Level 5» 1997, F; «Immemory» 1997, F).[3] Nevertheless, in analyzing the potential of this new narrativity in film, the image is again and again considered to be the most important aspect. Even though in Le regard et la voix, Pascal Bonitzer referred to the off-camera voice as a symbol of the function of power, he still maintains that the attention of thescriptwriter is solely focused on the images. «It is therefore not simply about being able to tell a story, but being able to tell the story in view of the images, under the dictates of the images & the image tells the story.»[4] Chris Marker himself is often quoted with a remark from «Sans soleil», made by the character of Yamaneko, the computer expert: images simply want to be what they are, «that is, pictures.» One can almost hear a continuance of the prejudice deeply rooted in the old paragone between the written and visual arts, which recalls the early days of the transition from silent to sound film, when it was feared that sound would detract from the intensity of visual expression.[5] Yet in no other cineaste's work does the voice indeed, language itself play such an important role as it does in Chris Marker's films. However, the soundtrack follows its own laws of editing, which do not simply correspond to the visual mise-enscène. In Marker's work, there is almost no synchronized original soundtrack; everything is owed to post-production processing of both visuals and sound, where the narrator tells the story in a practically two-handed, asynchronous way. Because unity, the camera, and the narrative point of view are surpassed and a differentiation is made between the acoustic and visual levels, the tense relationship between image and sound (or, as Serge Daney more precisely said, between «the gaze» and «the voice,» the two incomplete objects of cinematographic desire[6]) becomes even more highly charged. The act of speech comes from a place that does not become visible.

The voice between commentary and correspondence

When referring to what is probably Marker's best-known film, «Sans soleil» (1983, F), discussions always focus on commentary. Marker himself published the scripts of his early films under the title Commentaires. Nevertheless, practically everyone who analyzes these commentaries feels obliged to point out that the voice only seldom actually comments upon what is being shown in the pictures. Yet the voice, which spans redundancy to opposition, appears to be searching for dissonance in periods, themes, and gestures.[7] Colleagues of the director report that he made fully editing decisions autonomous of the images, had the actors speak the dialog without knowing what theimages were (as in «Si j'avais quatre dromadaires» (1966, F), for instance), and was particularly fond of accidental discrepancies between image and sound (such as, for example, when the sound engineer for «Le Jolie Mai» (1963, F) accidentally allowed the twittering of swallows to mix with images of swarms of police, to Marker's great enjoyment).[8] The other key word is correspondence. Here, it is appropriate to recall the romantic notion of synesthesia, which had already attempted to eliminate, or better, integrate the contradictions between voice and gaze. However, the question that remains pertinent in every case is, of course, how much are commentary and correspondence intended? Perhaps the «conflict montage» (to use one of Eisenstein's terms) is more of an antecedent for Marker's work. Eisenstein's contrastattraction used Japanese Haiku as a model, with the aim of sharpening the «conflict between the acoustic and the optical in sound film.«[9] Musical terms such as counterpoint or leitmotif are more suitable to describe the relationship between voice and gaze, which resembles a dialog in which the mutual recognition of autonomy or at least a mutual respect is expressed. So one could say that there is a unique level of meaning for both the linguistic and the visual, as Marker himself formulated in his photographic novel Le dépays. «The text comments as little upon the pictures as the pictures illustrate the text. It is natural for these two serial sequences to intersect and refer to each other, although it would be unnecessarily tiring if one attempted to make them oppose each other. It might be easier to like them in their disorder. Accept simplicity and doubling, as one normally accepts all things in Japan.»[10]

The Model of Haiku (Roland Barthes' «Empire of Signs»)

Besides Eisenstein, another role model for Marker's parallel counterpoint editing of images and texts was Roland Barthes' book about his journey to Japan, Empire of Signs. Barthes' own drawings and his studies of painting and writing gave him a certain limited sensitivity for this dialectic. He described Japanese culture as a tightrope walk between visual and linguistic signs, as the writing of images and the painting of writing. He also used haiku as a model,since he thought that the way haiku glided unnoticeably between linguistic linearity and painterly simultaneity annulled two basic criteria of Western writing the description and the definition. Haiku gestures toward references, making simple, designative statements that are not subject to evaluation and interpretation like photographs, it is the ideal image-text without commentary or illustration: «The text does not 9comment : upon the images. The images are not 9illustrations : for the text. Both simply served as a place to start exploring a kind of visual stagger something perhaps akin to the loss of meaning, called satori in Zen. Intertwining text and images should make it possible for significants (body, face, writing) to circulate, exchange. The retreat of the sign can be read in this.»[11] Thus, Barthes' «intertwining» of the two elements text and image infers an noncausal synchronicity rather than a correspondence or a commentary. There is a specifically coincidental «encounter» between the two forms of expression, which neither communicate with nor allow themselves to be compared to each other, but are instead competitors. According to Barthes, this encounter leads to an unconventional effect the loss of meaning. In the moment when the abovementioned retreat of signs occurs, this loss of meaning can also be interpreted (as Barthes called it in another essay) as an «effet de réel.»[12] This coincidental, unpredictable, and incalculable encounter reveals a multiplicity of insights there is something new to see and understand.

Acoustic space of sound and voice in cinema

However, for this interpretation, it is now important to focus intently upon the double reference in both tracks (to use technical language) of so-called audio-visual media. Whereas the doubles game between text and image remains on a visual level shared by both, the acoustic level adds another dimension. Just as the series of images allow one to experience the passage of time, the acoustic space of the soundtrack, or the voice, is added. Accordingly, questions surrounding the intertwining of space and time arise in front of the backdrop of a long history of alternating excess and subversion. Ulrich Sonnemann called the fixation upon the optical (connected with the modern period)oculartyrannis.[13] Opposing this is a criticism of what has been called, since Derrida, logo-phonocentrism. It is a criticism of the Western metaphysical notion of the presence of the spirit in the voice, heard breathing its last. The notion is that this metaphysical truth can be most purely revealed in the openness of the vocal presence. In the cinema, this metaphysical truth undergoes a magical elevation, but also a media deconstruction as well, since the differences between what is seen and what is heard become apparent. The powerful effects connected with this are achieved in film primarily through the off-camera voice, which owes its unquestionable authority to the fact that it is outside of the visible field and thus unlocatable. In the visual field, a believable reason for the acoustic effects is threateningly absent, thanks to the presence of the off-camera voice. In French film theory, this complex of problems has been quickly connected with psychoanalytical termini, most of which come from the Lacanian school. After all, it was Lacan who added the terms gaze and voice to Freud's classic Theory of the Drives / Instincts, integrating audio und optical aspects into the libidinous scenario. With this theoretical background in mind, film analyst Michel Chion gave this phenomenon a name in his pioneering study, Voices in the Cinema. He states more precisely that the sound does not actually exist. Instead, the problem is basically that of localizing incarnations of acoustic phenomena, the audible quality of the voice in particular spatial contexts. In contrast to the visual, which is incomplete and directional, the audio is «omnidirectional,» meaning that it exceeds, or better, outdoes the visual in every direction and aspect. Here, Chion recalls the early stages of the unborn child; its experience of the mother is an audible one that was established long before the child has a visual image of her. A voice can therefore be disquieting when it sounds as if it is drifting through space, so that the listener is not able to pinpoint a specific act of speech or a particular speaker. The inner voice captures the audience, guides the fantasy outside of the imaginary film setting. This replacement of the inner voice with the outer can already be noticed during the transition from silent to sound film, or as Chion writes: «So it is not silence the absence of voices that the sound film destroys. Before the advent of sound, it was up tothe audience to imagine the voice and that is what the sound film eradicated.«[14] Opening with a criticism of the neglect of the voice (which sometimes threatens to be lost in the general term «sound,» but which is also often reduced to simply «speech«), Chion reconstructs a «vococentric» development of film, which begins with various phenomena of hearing without seeing. Chion calls the basic phenomenon of vocality (strictly separated from the visual or in a pure, vocal state) acousmatic («présence acousmatique»). He refers to the acousmatics as a Pythagorian sect. For them, the greatest revelation of truth was connected to the fact that the priest who spoke remained hidden behind a curtain (the model for a certain more contemporary divan setting in which the moment of truth also remains hidden from the eyes of the listener).[15] By the way, Chris Marker has always been regarded as a contemporary representative of the Pythagorian school. The question here in film analysis is not just about the relationship between sound and image. It also asks if the source of the voice will be visible or not meaning the voice as an almighty, all-knowing, omnipresent aspect that sees or knows everything. According to Chion, the history of the cinema contains a double strategy between the «voix acousmatique» (the «invisible voice«) and «écoute visualisée,» which is connected to a source, a speaking body. Chion differentiates among certain types of films: those that are chiefly visually oriented, where sound is a secondary aspect, and those (mostly mystery or suspense films) that begin with acousmatic vocal effects and then later use «désacousmatisation» to assign a source to the speaker or incarnation.[16] In the original sense, «acousmatique» refers simply to the voices that remain invisible. However, Chion writes that a true «acousmêtre» (an acousmatic being or creature «être acousmatique») is only present when the voice has no incarnation whatsoever, when it can no longer be measured or calculated (and thus cannot be confused with an acousmetrie), or when it resists visual identification. Hence, it always has a certain eeriness. An excellent example of this is in Fritz Lang's «M.» At first, only the shadow of the child murderer is visible on the post, upon which a wanted poster of the murderer can be seen; the off-camera voice speaks to the little girl. Paradigmatically, the visual impression amere shadow is only shaken through the contrasting presence of the voice standing in for the absence of the eye, or the optical presence. In this context, Chion speaks of the ombre parlant, knowing well that Victor Hugo, in his spiritualist séances on the Isle of Guernesey, also spoke of bouches d'ombre. So this faceless, incorporeal, unlocatable «vocal being» always possesses a numinous power, the aura of a godly voice, ultimately the » acousmaître.» On the other hand, Chion says that we are more familiar with the acousmatic being known as the commentator, an off-camera voice that is not seen on the screen because it has no business being there. Commentators can be narrators (including the first-person narrative voice) and authors (as in the auctorial narrator), as well as antagonistic toward the onscreen events. They are more or less distanced from the events being narrated. At the same time, film «acousmêtre» (as opposed to the radiophone, spiritous, or psychiatric) always refers to the specifically cinematographic synchronization of image and sound unlike the theater, where the location of scene and voiceover is fixed. Thus film represents another way of dealing with space and time. An invisible voice can be «present» when it has been previously visible and the person speaking has merely left the visual frame or becomes invisible afterward. Actually, the cinematographic triumph of «acousmêtre» effect is essentially the effect caused by the uncanny voice that is simultaneously in and outside of the picture, meaning that it is ultimately neither in nor outside. «For its part, cinematographic acousmêtre is thus off outside of the image from the audience's standpoint, but at the same time it is in the image, from behind which it emerges, either in reality (in the classic cinema) or the imagination (in television or drive-in movies, etc.) As if the voice drifts around on the surface, inside and outside, simultaneously, without having a place to settle down.»[17]

Games of doubling

Using the voice to expand space or turn it into a dialectic is one of the many different conspiracy 9games : played between image and voice. Or it is used to contrast the audible voice and visual evidence, between promising something and showing it, as in Marguerite Duras' and Alain Resnais' film «Hiroshima monamour,» which features a 9double bind : consisting of a skeptical vocal authority and the visual authentification of the cruel nuclear catastrophe in Hiroshima: «tu n'as rien vue à Hiroshima, tu as tout inventé.» With these words, the visual impressions of the traumatic past (the Frenchwoman's love for a German soldier at the end of World War II, and her lover's unimaginable horror of the atom bomb explosion) are continually shaken, and yet at the same time, they prompt a dialectic between seeing and inventing. The stranger who came to be in a film about peace insisted upon seeing everything the photographs of the destroyed city, the newsreels of the burned and mutilated bodies. She was in the museum, with its documents, its reconstructions and explanations, all of the memorializing material that is also seen in the film. And nevertheless, another voice, from off-camera, repeats that nothing has been seen, everything has been invented. Whereupon the female voice begins to tell everything she knows about terror, in order to prove that she has not invented anything. This dilemma also defines the films of Chris Marker, who began as an assistant to Resnais and, to a certain extent, adopted the technique of editing with voice-overs, acousmêtre. At any rate, his films rarely feature the désacousmatisation of speech. They narrate a great deal and stage very little (in the sense of being an incarnation of vocal authority). The soundtrack consciously functions with the double effect of acousmêtre, which is always in- and outside, or, more precisely, everywhere (whereas in French, doubler can also mean to use a voice-over to synchronize something that confirms the voice as a mere double, as a doppelgänger, or the undead returned). From a historical perspective, Marker is also quoted as the representative of an esthetic position that reaches from Mallarmé and Giraudoux to Blanchot and beyond. Its most important principle is that the work should speak, not the artist. Hence Marker's multilayered doubling games he is not just the author of the works, but the author in the work, the auctorial absence in the presence of other off-camera voices speaking in the names of yet others from the artificial voices appearing in the shape of Hayao Yamaneko's synthesizer in «Sans soleil» to the computerized voice in «Level Five.» For Marker, the problem of authorship in general crystallizes in the acousmatic phenomenonof film. Authorship per se already opens up a highly dialectic game between presence in absence and absence in presence. In the essay film, an acousmatic voice meaning, one that comments but cannot be visually identified only seems to speak in the name of the author. It can be feminine, as it is in «Sans Soleil», or, as in the synchronized German version, a masculine-sounding female voice; perhaps it is the cameraman's voice, represented in partial quotations from fictitious letters written in the first person. Whereby some statements might come from the treasury of quotations culled from Marker's favorite poets (especially Giraudoux and Michaud), such as Michaux's exordium, «Je vous j'écris d'un Pays Lointain,» featured in «Lettre de sibérie.»[18] Acousmatic effects Altogether, however, roughly three kinds of acousmatic effects can be distinguished in Marker's films: - dissymmetry between voice and image, wherein what is shown is not an incarnation (in the désacusmatic sense) or, as such, functions only in an ironic or cynical sense (like the radio reports from the bomber pilots at the beginning of «Le fond de l'air est rouge,» where the electronically distorted voices are edited together with images of the exploding bombs as seen from the perspective of the attackers), disconnection of the vocal from the visual, as if the film were concerned with connecting the utopian promise of happiness to the iconoclastic condition of its acousmatic withdrawal (as in the beginning of «Sans soleil», where a randomly edited series of images alternates with a black screen, accompanied by a voice speaking about witnessing happiness a technique that Wim Wenders also uses in the beginning of Tokyo-Ga, where he deals with the theme of memory), showing what is being spoken visually postpones the fulfillment of speech: as in the profane continuation of a kind of theology consisting of a process of Adamic naming, when the next image is introduced with the words «I show you &» and then a name is heard, identifying an object (for instance, a river). Irony might also be included here sometimes and is expressed, for example, in «Lettre de sibérie» in the eulogy to the raindeer (renne), which is combined with images of the rue de Rennes Parisian Métro station. It also appears when the directional voice of the computer in «Level Fives» takes the hermeneutic initiative and figures out the mysterious program forthe battle of Okinawa with «editing ace» Chris, whose voice can only be heard off-camera and which undergoes a strong désacousmatisation when presented as the face of the woman who stands astonished in front of the man and the machine. Who, then, is speaking? Is it always the work? But who makes the work speak? Who is the ubiquitous acousmatic ventriloquist? To form a hypothesis, the question is asked: does perhaps the entire presentation of the phantom known as Chris Marker[19] owe all to the effect of acousmêtre caused by the presence of the artist as an acousmatic (neither visualized nor embodied) voice?

Word and image

In the overall reception of Marker's work, two positions can be recognized that have to do with the relationship between voice and gaze. First, a logophonocentric position, which assumes that the voice is the source that gives meaning and acts as a synthesizer; and secondly, a neodeconstructive position, which in a certain way considers the voice as a supplement, added later to make sense of the images. André Bazin takes the first position in his enthusiastic commentary on Marker's film «Lettre de sibérie» the latter position is basically represented by Serge Daney, who, however, did not deal with Marker's films. As Barthes' and Marker's similar definitions emphasized, acknowledging the opposition of the independent image and sound editing, as well as the way the view and the voice are organized, serves to liberate the visual narrative, which should no longer be used to illustrate or imagine solely linguistic semantics. Conversely, the text must no longer expose the truth of the images, but instead, can devote itself with iconic detachment to the chronology of events in the universe of discourse, just as the visual track merely delivers images that simply want to be what they are, to wit: images. Marker allows the pictura to have a referential dialectic with other absent images in order to use the written image to develop a new way of reading things, an analytical reading of the visual, which at the same time includes its inverse or the abyss of illusion, memory, or knowledge. Since his early film works, Marker has been revealing this dialectic of images through the double representational function of sound and screen image. «Lettre de Sibérie» earnedemphatic praise from André Bazin, who spoke of a fundamental renewal of the relationship between word, image, and dialectic of a new kind of «horizontal» editing, based on recurring voices instead of a linear series of images.[20] Bazin was also the first to make the street scene in Irkutsk famous; in this scene, Marker had the brilliant idea of repeating a three-part series of scenes: a street in which a bus and a limousine meet, construction workers smoothing a road surface, an inhabitant of the city crossing the landscape. Each scene was repeated with different accompanying commentary: first procommunist propaganda, then cynical defeatism, and finally, sobering facts. [fig. 5 from C. Marker's «Lettre de Sibérie» taken from A propos du CD-ROM Immemory, Paris 1997, p. 20] At the same time, Bazin attempts to subordinate the image's power of expression to the voice. He conjures up an «intelligence» whose «direct expression» is also «the word,» so that the series of images is dependent upon this «verbal intelligence,» as if it were a Hegelist absoluter Geist containing the dialectic trinity of the images' statement. However, what Marker persuasively elucidates is something, which in German ideological criticism has become known as the «text-imagescissors » meaning that textual statements can be defamiliarized through their combination with contrasting images and visual evidence with opposing commentary.[21]

Deconstruction of the acousmatic effect of power

However, as text and image increasingly drift apart, Marker trusts the ability of his viewers to experience a heightening of critical consciousness. Precisely speaking, he shows (as none of the almost canonical sources have noted) the sequence four times: that is, it is shown once without any commentary at all, and he finishes with the remark that it is not possible to attain objectivity, but that instead the evocative effect of the voice is always one of deformed judgment, one of holding on to something, of establishing, and that it ought to, instead, attempt to invent, to suggest: «Yet objectivity itself is also not precise. It does not deform the reality of Siberia, but it stops it in a judgmental moment, and thus actually does deform it. What counts is the movement and the diversity. Walking through the streets of Jakutsk will not give you an understanding ofSiberia. In addition, one needs an imaginary newsreel, filmed in all four corners of the country. I will show you, for instance, the beautifully painted cinema in Jakutsk, and I will comment upon it with the help of some Siberian sayings, which are already pictures themselves.»[22] Marker then cites a series of what are already pictorial proverbs, in order to provide his Nietzschean position, so to speak, with a difference in the metaphorical cabinet of linguistic meaning, from which it can only be freed through the acceleration and «diversification» of similes. In this sense, the sequence can also be regarded as a deconstruction of the effect of acousmatic power, as an ideological, critical désacousmatisation of the authoritative voice, whose power of expression with regard to the images beyond truth and lies is made ridiculous, in a sense exceeding morals. His is a strategy that disempowers the voice through repetition, which is like movement, as Daney describes it. For Daney, the voix off (the soundtrack that is edited parallel to the images) is a parasitical structure placed over the images, which attempts to be the site where all semantic power is gathered. Opposing this, Daney writes of a strategy of «démultiplication (non plus une voix mais des voix),» a «politique des voix,» which allows the voices as voix in to invade the visual material and to emerge as a visual doppelgänger; as the voix out, it stages its physical exile or repulse (like vocal pornography), and as the voix through, it disconnects the image from bodies and mouths.[23] In Marker's work, there are countless examples of this kind of deconstructive désacusmatisation, in the sense that the acousmêtre is contrasted to deficient incarnations or better said, in the sense that voices are removed from the dominant dialectic of off/on, detached in general from the physical beings in which they are supposed be realized. Instead, voices circulate freely within the image, as objects among other objects. Films such as «Le fond de l'air est rouge» play with the figure of the «talking head,» ironically dissecting the rhetorical strategies of populist speakers such as Fidel Castro. In a chain of repetitions, Castro is always shown in the same situation, speaking to the people, surrounded by a forest of phallic microphones, fiddling with the movable part of the microphone during the applause. However, when we see the scene in Moscow, wherethe microphones are immobile, the speaker, irritated and in disbelief, begins to stammer, even threatens to fall silent, and his voice literally breaks on the structure of the speech. What then is left for Chris Marker's acousmatic strategy to accomplish? A preliminary answer to this implicitly asked question might perhaps be that Marker is constructing the acousmetric position, the absolute signifier of a particular acousmaître, a position of a certain absolute knowledge only to destroy, caricature, and in this sense, to disacousmatize it, to expose it in a game of concealments and revelations. He does the same with himself, appearing as various doppelgängers such as cats and owls pseudodéscusmatisations and in the partial revelation in Wim Wenders' film «Tokyo-Ga».

© Media Art Net 2004