This will undoubtedly be the least read blog post in the history of the internet, and yet I will write it regardless.
The transition of film from a soundless, purely visual medium to a truly visceral experience with the inception of recorded sound is the largest transformation film has made in its 100+ year history. Not only did it change the viewing experience in a fairly obvious way, but it changed the way films were made. Silent films depended on visual artistry, complex editing, and creative performances and storytelling. Think about how silly Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd look to a modern film viewer (note: they’re geniuses, I’m simply stating the common dictum that a contemporary film fan adheres to). Or watch any silent film and notice the absurdity of the facial gestures and the camera tricks they had to use to convey a sense of comedy or suspense or drama. Pre-sound filmmakers had to open a bag of tricks and invent ways to tell stories on purely a visual level. Some theorists would argue that film was at its peak during the silent era as it displayed the qualities that made film unique from other artistic mediums.
However, like it or not, in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s the advent of sound films (‘talkies”) was a cinematic revolution that took off and changed film forever. I recently watched a film, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, by a lesser known yet famed Japanese director, Heinosuke Gosho, that is considered the first successful sound film to be produced in Japan. It’s a shorter-length film (64 minutes) produced in 1931 that seems narratively simple enough but possesses several metaphors about the technological advances that were occurring during this time in film history. The film follows a family that rents a home in a seemingly peaceful village so the husband/father, a semi-renowned playwright, can bang out a play and get paid in peace and quiet. We quickly find out that the playwright is a major procrastinator, a bit of a drinker/gambler, and a bit of an absent father. The humor of the story lies in the fact that, while he moved his family to this village for peace and quiet, he finds the exact opposite and his writing becomes second-fiddle to the various disturbances that permeate his life.
The most telling, and important, is an incident for which the movie is titled. As the man sits down one afternoon to write, he hears loud music coming from the neighbor’s house. We must keep in mind that since this is an early experiment in using sound technology, the film would unquestionably feature music of some kind to display the power of sound use in film. The first American film with sound was The Jazz Singer, so the connection to music was apparent right the start. At the behest of his wife and his own annoyance, the man confronts the neighbor, who is an attractive woman wearing contemporary clothes and is the singer in (what else?) a jazz band. Humorously, the man repeatedly attempts to ask the woman and her band to stop practicing, but he is interrupted at every moment and is ushered in to the practice party. He reluctantly stays, has a drink, which leads to another drink, and before you know it he is tipsy and enjoying every second of the jazz band’s practice, and especially the gaze of his attractive neighbor.
Let us stop there for just a moment. The introduction of sound and its personification cannot be ignored here. Initially the idea of sound and music is a deterrent to the playwright’s normal life as he is unable to work with such noises interrupting his thoughts. The argument could be made that the sound itself performs as an intoxicating agent since the man merely enters the room and is rendered almost completely senseless to the power of the music and the woman, who, as a singer, is a proprietor of sound and music. The film is filled with moments of wonderful silence up until this point. An earlier scene finds the man unable to work because he hears the cries of an alley cat slicing through the silence of his work station. It’s not the sound that’s most important here, it is the sound as it interacts with the silence that came before it.
As the man stumbles home after the jazz band’s practice his wife greets him and immediately grills him on his trip to the neighbor’s house. She questions his fidelity and his attraction to the “modern girl” who lives next door. The man brushes off the accusations and starts to work. His wife acknowledges the contemporary clothing of the neighbor girl, then quips, “I want you to buy me a dress like that”. She persists and begs when he scoffs at the notion. Here we see the metaphor play again. The woman next door who sings and plays music represents modernity and sexuality, much in the same way the invention of sound was viewed as a modern endeavor that was appealing to the masses. With this scene Heinosuke Gosho satirizes the film industry and its absurd, almost childlike infatuation with modernity.
On another level, the very notion that the man happens to be a playwright figures into the metaphor. He is attracted to the woman who represents sound. Before sound in film, the theater was in direct competition with cinema as a form of entertainment. Where film fell short (sound, spoken dialogue) the theater held the advantage, and where theater fell short (editing, proximity to actors, fixed entrances/exits) film held the advantage. The inception of sound in films spelled the death of theater as the most popular form of entertainment, so it should seem fitting that the man, who is desperately trying to pen his latest play, is interrupted by sound. This interaction could be viewed as a filmmaker’s protest against the use of sound, as the director, Gosho, would have undoubtedly been forced to make sound films under the rule of the Shochiku Co film studio, which happened to be the most progressive studio in Japan during these years. The man keeps with him the notice of employment that reads “Writer’s fee: 500 yen. Actions speak louder than words”. These words are seen and spoken several times throughout the film. It is not difficult to extract the idea that, to Gosho, what we see is more important than what we hear. Our hero is a writer and the temptress is a singer. The loss of visual storytelling by the inclusion of sound was something an early film artist was not willing to accept.
To cap it off I would like to recall the opening scene from the film and then the end of the film. The playwright approaches the seemingly quiet village in hopes of finding temporary residence. In doing so he comes across an artist painting a landscape from just outside the village. The two men engage in conversation, each stating their profession, playwright and painter. The conversation proceeds to go awry as each man believes himself to be a master of his craft while the other repudiates the other’s artistry. A fight ensues, which eventually is broken up by the female jazz singer we meet later in the film. Take a moment to pause there and realize that within a single shot in the first ten minutes of this film Gosho gives us the embodiment of all the major art forms (written words, images, and sound) engaged in argument. The seemingly archaic arts, words and images, are engaged in a barbaric fist-fight while the modern, thoughtful art-form, sound, tries to get them all to be friends. In the end the woman persuades the men that they are being ridiculous for fighting and laughs at them. The advent of sound was engulfing cinema at this very moment, and it laughed at the importance people used to place on narrative and imagery. Just as the final scene the playwright and his wife stroll through a field with their young daughter and infant child in a stroller. A plane flies overhead and the couple begin to fantasize about flying. Soon after they hear music coming from the neighborly jazz band. They stroll down a dirt road humming along happily with the melody until their daughter interrupts their romantic fantasy and they realize they have left their infant daughter back on the path behind them. With these simple scenes Gosho makes bold statements about his feelings towards sound in film. If we continue to get caught up in the spectacle of this new technology we will lose what gives us meaning in film. With a brief film that tells no important superficial story, we are treated to what used to be and, for better or worse, what was to become the future of cinema. Sadly, I wish our current cinema would take note: ditch the spectacle and remember what it takes to tell a great story.