When considering cinema as a visual art form, the role of sound must also be acknowledged – filmmakers employ sound and music as a fundamental component of storytelling within most films not found in the silent era. However, the way in which sound is used within cinema is a subject for debate – how does the sound relate to the images? Some theorists, like Sergei Eisenstein, intrinsically link visuals and sound in a process known as montage. Others, like Bunuel, believe that cinema as a whole should include a sense of poetry, which sound and music can contribute to as central elements of the narrative. While the supremacy of images seems to not be in dispute, sound is still considered to be a central facet of the complete and total immersion of an audience within the world of cinema. Comparing and contrasting the two perspectives of Bunuel and Eisenstein, the role of sound in film is championed as a way to bring about a heightened sense of theater and poetry to the proceedings, utilizing montage to augment the temporal, special and aural reality of the film’s universe.
Sergei Eisenstein believes in a dialectic approach to film between being and synthesis, in which all aspects of cinema are combined into a seamless whole. To that end, Eisenstein put forth the use of montage: “Placed next to each other, two photographed immobile images result in the appearance of movementbut mechanically, it is not [true]” (Eisenstein 49). The relationship between sound and its overall effect on film, as Eisenstein notes, makes use of counterpoints, with the musical score used to punctuate the editing found within sound. As in his use of montage, sound becomes the glue by which a montage effect is secured; just as two incongruous cuts are placed right next to each other to illustrate the passage of time or a change in focus, the use of sound effects and music provides a link that connects the two ideas or images in a more holistic way.
Sound, in montage, is often used along with the visuals of the film to connect events in time and space despite them being divided with a physical cut. Eisenstein believes that the transition to montage within a film can be illustrated through a shift in an audio or visual component in a deliberately conflicting or incongruous way: “conflict between optical and acoustical experience produce[s] sound-film, which is capable of being realized as audio-visual counterpoint” (Eisenstein 54-55). In essence, sound is used to facilitate this conflict, and thus create a greater sense of flow between the array of differing images Einstein and other filmmakers can bring about in their films.
The often dreamlike nature of montage and its ability to inspire the more subjective and presentational in film (particularly through its use of sound) is a perspective shared by Luis Bunuel as well. Bunuel, in his scholarship, notes the need to instill a sense of poetry and heightened liveliness to the story and visuals of a film, in the wake of the gritty dourness of neorealism: “The cinema seems to have been invented in order to express the subconscious life that so deeply penetrates poetry with its roots; despite that, it is almost never used for such ends” (Bunuel 115). Sound is a central component of this dreamlike nature; to that end, sound must be an integral part of this emphasis on poetry that Bunuel continually stresses. The primary way that can be done is through non-diegetic sound and the role of sound in montage; offering ironically-juxtaposed music in a serious scene can help to facilitate a sense of mystery and passion that Bunuel eagerly hopes for:
“I advocate a cinema that makes me see that kind of glass, because such a cinema will give me an integral vision of reality, augment my knowledge of things and of people, and open up to me the marvelous world of the unknown, all the things I cannot read about in the daily papers or encounter in the street” (Bunuel 116).
In Bunuel’s eyes, Eisenstein’s central focus on montage is likely the key to facilitating poetry in film, especially with regards to sound. Bunuel’s treatment of the fantastic, even within the mundane, would be served well through montage, as he notes in is analysis of Umberto D.; the normally dour nature of neorealism excites Bunuel because of the sounds and sights integrated into the daily routine of the servant in that film (115). With Eisenstein’s approach to montage as one way to offer the combination of sights and sounds that is not normally found in real life or in neorealist film, Bunuel’s use of sound as one tool for poetry is maintained.
Both Eisenstein and Bunuel have roughly similar approaches to sound in cinema, using it to relate to the visuals in an equal or subordinate way, acting as a fundamental component to enhancing the impact of the visuals and contributing to a more immersive cinematic experience. Eisenstein seeks emotional dynamization, which can be facilitated through the use of montage in ways that echo Bunuel’s call for poetry; sounds can correspond to the visuals to create harmony, or deliberately conflict to create disharmony. If done successfully, that dynamization can be created, and Bunuel’s poetic sense of heightened reality can be maintained. In these ways, sound is meant to become the glue by which the primary visual component of a film comes together, allowing montage to occur in a holistic and believable way.
Exploring the varying relationships that Eisenstein and Chion have to sound in cinema, the role of sound in the art of film is to both act in a subordinate manner to the images on screen and to interact with them in equal measure to provide a unified experience for the viewer when consuming said film. Eisenstein’s dialectical approach to film, including the use of montage, uses sound to bridge the cuts found in the visuals. Bunuel’s approach would make substantial use of montage, as Bunuel is an advocate of utilizing sound and visuals alike as ways to heighten the poetry and theatricality of film. Both theorists, while taking polar opposite approaches to the relationship between sound and visuals in cinema, both agree that the role of sound is absolutely vital to informing the visuals that are present within the film itself, and the completely cinematic ends with which that would be attained. To that end, sound’s relationship to film is to complement and interact with the visual component of a film, interacting with it and enhancing it to create a seamless whole – elevating it from a documentary-like depiction of life to a heightened piece of atmospheric, poetic cinema.
Bunuel, Luis. “The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry.” The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist
Writings on the Cinema. Ed. Paul Hammond. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000.
EISENSTEIN, SERGEI. Film Form. Harcoart Brace & Company, 1977.