Finding the right words: an interview with Michel Chion

In this exclusive interview for desiginingsoud.org, the great researcher Michel Chion talks about the intersections between sound and language in his theoretical work. The ramifications are countless ranging from the place of the spoken word in film sound and the particularities of French language heard at the cinema to the new discipline of Acoulogy created by him. Have a nice reading.

DS- In La Toile Trouée, you wrote about the passage from silent film to sound as a moment where the written word lost some of its value. Not only because it was the end of the use of intertitles, but also because the image itself had a very strong textual quality. Nevertheless, sound cinema remains verbocentric for the most of it, as you’ve written yourself. In what degree the text embodied by the voice of the actors is distant from the abstract character of the written dialog on silent films?

CHION- La Toile Trouée was published almost 30 years ago. A lot has changed since then. There are more recent books where I deal with these questions such as Film, a Sound Art and and a new French edition of Audio-Vision, published this year. I’m also working on a general chronology of verbal and sound cinema. Word on Screen, one of my most recent books, addresses the topic of the resurgence of written text on cinema over the last 30 years. The most well-known examples are those of text messages and emails sent by the characters, but there are a lot more (take, for instance, a film like Stranger than Fiction). Cinema remains a verbocentric art for the most part, even though its sensory aspect is still very important. The verbocentrism is a fact. I don’t judge it as a “good” or a “bad” thing, even if there are exceptions to the rule. Why do contemporary blockbusters still have a lot of dialog? Because they have to count on the fact that people will watch them under certain conditions that didn’t exist until recently: inside an airplane, on the computer, iPads, etc. In such situations, dialogs are easier to perceive than more subtle sound effects, specially if we read them using… subtitles. This happens to me very frequently. On long plane trips, I sometimes watch an action movie without putting the earplugs (the ones they offer sound really bad and you still have the noise of the airplane disturbing your perception). I can still follow the action thanks to the subtitles. The film is still enjoyable, even if we “lose” a lot of its expressive intentions. I think that today those who work in the film industry know that a film should be “audio-viewed” in very different contexts and therefore it should be compatible with all of them. One particular problem happens when you have a film that is spoken on several languages. We lost track of what language we’re hearing because the subtitles remain the same no matter what. In some rare cases, as in Mademoiselle (2016, Park Chan-wook), the subtitles change according to what language is being spoken: on this film we have yellow subtitles for Korean and white ones for Japanese.

DS- Do you think that when multi-track sound came in the 70’s, it changed significantly the way films were done, disturbing the stability of classical forms structured around the text? You’ve written about a return of the sensory aspects of cinema with the Dolby… 

CHION- Today I think I overestimated this return to the sensory aspects of cinema. I don’t think anything changed drastically regarding the place of the spoken word. Even the organization of shots hasn’t changed a lot with multi-track sound. This new world of sensations found a balance with the traditional forms of cinema that remained, for the most part, untouched.

DS- What’s your opinion about the new possibilities of Virtual Reality for that matter? Carne y Arena, a VR installation by Alejandro Iñárritu, was a part of the Cannes Film Festival this year…

CHION- I only saw one demonstration of Virtual Reality: a documentary shown at the Avignon Film Festival with a system made by Samsung and I look forward for the next time. Nevertheless, I think that the term Virtual Reality is an exaggeration. During such experiences, we’re still in the real world, our body still feels the same smells, the same pain that we felt before putting that helmet… The only form of Virtual Reality worthy of that name happens during our sleep, when we dream. Other than that, I don’t think I can anticipate the consequences of VR over sound. The compatibility would still be an issue for sure. As it happens already for films in 3D that should also be screened in 2D, in very different conditions, such as the ones I mentioned before (iPad, computers, etc.). Therefore, I don’t think a film could depend entirely on a single technical procedure.

DS- There is this wonderful text, almost poetic, that you wrote about the place of language on Tarkovsky’s films. What do you find so fascinating about his work?

CHION- Thank you for your words, I’m glad that you liked this chapter. I think that Tarkovsky gives us the opportunity to feel the magic of the cosmos and its mystery as we felt it in the first years of our lives. He also deals, in a very touching way, with a subject that concerns us all: the place of transmission and paternity today, and the presence of the unspoken on our daily lives. The text that you’ve mentioned was one about Tarkovsky’s last film, Sacrifice, a very strange film that, as I understand it, is told according to the point of view of a little boy, the son of the protagonist; even if that boy is not present for the majority of the scenes, it’s like we perceived the incomprehensible and obscure world of adults through his eyes. And they don’t verbalize what’s going on. I was fascinated by the fact that, at the end, the father only becomes a father (at least, considered as such) by renouncing to speak and leaving his family.

DS- In Le Complexe de Cyrano, you have written about the history of spoken language in French cinema. The films you have chosen to analyze are really diverse, going from La Jetée, directed by Chris Marker, to Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. How much these different manifestations of the spoken language correspond to conscious aesthetic choices? Or are they really beyond any idea of authorship, being something that surpasses largely any decisions made by the directors?

CHION- A bit of both: a person who writes and directs a film spoken in French must do it “with” that language. He is not completely free with his choices, even if he considers himself autonomous as an auteur. The language is never a neutral instrument, even though a few French directors think differently, as I’ve written about in my article, No Man’s France, included later in the book. I think that we are much freer when we know where we stand and what others have already done.

DS- The absence of a neutral style in French spoken language is one of its defining attributes as you put it in your book. Does this make the dialog in French films a greater problem than if we shot a film in English, for example, where this neutral style is relatively easy to find?

CHION- Yes, I think so. The spoken French in films is a very singular and complex matter. But every language has its own challenges. Another defining trait of French cinema is that the local accents were mostly neglected by it. The same doesn’t apply to British films that show a diversity of registers according to the regions depicted and according to the social class of the characters. I know that a similar work could be done about the Italian cinema as well (with its dialects, different registers of the spoken language, etc.) or with Japanese films… but clearly I’m not suited for this task! Even the French language is much more diverse than we might think. Someone could do a similar work, for instance, about Canada and the Québec region, where French has a history of its own.

DS- Is the neutral style in French Cinema a paradox? As you wrote in Le Complex de Cyrano, if we think about the films of the few directors, like René Clair and Robert Bresson, who adopted it, the sensation is of a certain strangeness…

CHION- For a French or francophone spectator, yes, this is true. But the films of these directors are viewed and heard by people from all over the world and this strangeness is not felt at all in this case. The translation can’t give the same impression. Likewise, if I watch a Brazilian film, there will be a lot of elements that I won’t be able to grasp. The subtitles simply can’t give all these informations.

DS- Could you talk a little bit about the discipline of Acoulogy created by you, where language is of crucial importance… How, for example, the act of naming and describing reveals a complexity that is absent from the traditional musical notation?

CHION- The musical notation deals only with a very small part of all existing sounds. Music sheets aren’t interested in describing the sounds of the instruments themselves as well. Their only goal is to give simple indications to the musicians for performing a certain piece. In a musical score to be played by a piano, for example, it’s not written that each note of the piano starts with a certain intensity that decreases ineluctably with time… There is no point on saying that, since we already know it’s the sound of a piano… There are also a lot of sounds that can’t be represented by a musical score simply because they don’t have a precise note. Words in different languages are not enough as well to describe all the aspects of sounds. Nevertheless, their use makes us go forward and trust what can be achieved by language itself, starting with words that already exist and that we generally use very little.It must be said as well that I don’t think that the waveforms we see in every digital workstation today should be used as instruments of description. They’re just good in depicting variations of intensity of a sound, but they don’t tell anything about its other aspects.

DS- In Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, you have proposed to gather words from different languages, not only French, your mother tongue, and build an international lexicon to describe sounds. From that we can assume that the act of naming  for Acoulogy is not a static, limited one, it rests open for new possibilities…

CHION- Yes, that’s accurate. The power and the importance of language is that (in the opposite way of the musical notation and “visual representations” given by different software) we are always aware of its insufficiency. At the same time, language structures our perception and can improve it. This vocabulary will perpetually grow, being open to new findings.

DS- You’ve once mentioned to me the project of a Book of Sounds. Are you still working on it? Could you tell us a little bit about it?

CHION- Yes, I’m still working on this book, which will be huge. I have thousands of quotes, the majority of them in French since it’s my mother tongue, but there are quotes from different countries as well and I want to use not only their translation to French, but also the originals. That’s one of the reasons it’s taking so long to finish it.

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