Scan Magazine: 2005-07-25

Darren Tofts

1. Cinema is 100% image and 100% sound. This aphorism has served Philip Brophy well since he coined it in the 1980s. Its disciplined, contradictory economy registers his profound, ongoing commitment to cinema as a sonic as well as visual art form that must be listened to as carefully and passionately as it is watched. But isn’t that pretty obvious I hear you say. Isn’t this simply a truism? For Brophy the problem with such overtures to self-evident knowledge is the biases they conceal, their rigid closure of the possibility of new ways of thinking. Brophy’s articulate and inventive writing on film sound is always alive to such possibility, as will be familiar to readers of his contributions to The Wire (London), Film Comment (New York) and RealTime (Sydney), among other publications. Brophy’s writing on film sound dusts off the jaded habits of decades of “watching” movies and awakens us to an energized experience of listening to them. He invites us to think with our ears as well as our eyes, at the same time: 100% image, 100% sound. In returning us again and again to a “residual” art form that we thought we knew everything about, his writing is a timely riposte to the misguided and shallow boast that multimedia was the audiovisual form that completely integrated sound and vision. Brophy’s careful rigor, his determination to fully understand the complex audiovisual experience of cinema, evidences more than twenty-five years of critical inquiry, practical experimentation and visceral listening to the sounds films make.

2. In the spirit of Brophy’s vigilance I want to re-write a previous statement in order to fully grasp what he expects of us. “Cinema must be listened as carefully and passionately as it is watched.” The grammatical awkwardness of this phrase signifies the parsing of the act of listening as an intransitive verb. We are comfortable with the intransitivity of saying that a film is something watched or seen. We are less comfortable with idea of a film as something that is listened, rather than listened to (“heard,” in case you’re wondering, is far too passive and doesn’t connote an active acoustic space.) And it is precisely this focused, intransitive listening that informs Brophy’s approach in 100 Modern Soundtracks:

We say we “watch” movies, but the “cinesonic” experience is far more than a mere optical event. Try watching a film with no sound: gone is its power, emotion, drama, vitality. Shut your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, and through the blackness one can be excited by the orchestration of voices, atmospheres, effects and music. This is how the sonic engulfs us in the unfolding audiovisual carnival that is the cinema. (2)

Brophy clearly privileges an ear for an eye. While this might smack of a McLuhan-like bias of the sense-ratios, it is actually an astute strategy of defamiliarization (at least as it relates to 100 Modern Soundtracks; I have heard him say on more than one occasion that he would rather be blind than deaf any day.) In foregrounding our encounter with sound he is not interested in discriminating it from vision. Rather, he seeks to awaken us to the sensory complexity of cinema as a listened and watched event. Moreover, his neologism “cinesonic” is an inventive critical shorthand that encapsulates his conviction that our experience of sound in the cinema is more profound, enveloping and influential than we think.

3. This conviction underpins Brophy’s main critical objective in 100 Modern Soundtracks . It is, in fact, the only singular principle to be found in this book, concerned as it is with heightening a sensitivity in his readers to the polyvalent nature of the cinematic form: “The ultimate aim of this book is to induce a consciousness of how the soundtrack operates on what we presume to be our perceptual facilities for comprehending film” (3). To achieve this end, Brophy by-passes the well-applied and well-worn literary, visual and structural critical paradigms that have traditionally characterized film discourse. Instead of familiar models of textual analysis, Brophy favors what he calls “flow charts of effects” (3); a style of critical engagement that he famously put to effective use in his highly influential 1983 essay on the horror film, “Horrality.” [1] Such a form of critical engagement

requires a different mode of writing whose “flow” is more important in its capture, replay and rendering of a film’s momentum, than it is in summarizing, reducing or even encapsulating a film’s signifying skeleton. A kind of “Braille for the deaf” is required. (3)

Brophy’s concept of “Braille for the deaf” is a bold response to “years of optical and literal” approaches to filmic experience that privilege visual metaphors (2). In this Brophy challenges the critical paradigm of “reading” a film and seeks, in its stead, to heighten a genuinely audiovisual approach to such experience. As a metaphor for a style of “a-literate” critical writing (ix), this concept is an audacious experiment in writing in print, after the fact, of the dynamic complexity of an encounter with the “psychological sonorum” of a film (2). Before assessing the success of Brophy’s approach to writing of his cinesonic experience of 100 films, it is important to clarify exactly what he means by the concept of the soundtrack. Moreover, we also need to have some understanding of the conventions of his “Braille for the deaf,” if only to grasp how he expects to achieve his critical ends in the severe discipline of 500 words per film.

4. What, then, is a soundtrack and what makes it modern? Brophy’s initial sortie into definitional territory is straightforward enough, identifying the soundtrack as a chimerical amalgam of film score (commissioned music for a scene) and sound design (the editing and mixing of sound for a scene, such as dialogue, sound effects, etc) (1). What is decisive about Brophy’s treatment of this formula, though, is his absolute resistance to the critical tendency to separate the two. His interest in the soundtrack in this respect is informed by his own practice as both sound designer and composer for short and feature films. However in 100 Modern Soundtracks he is predominantly interested in the act of sensory engagement with this composite assemblage of music, noise, sound and speech: and this is despite the impressive list of sound auteurs whose work he anonymously discusses (Ennio Morricone, Jack Nitzsche, Nino Rota, Walter Murch). All cinema (with the exception of silent film) possesses a soundtrack thus defined. Brophy, though, is interested in a particular experience of the soundtrack that in no way attempts to naturalize sound as simply an emotional or psychological accompaniment to the visual scene. Drawing on a particular inflection of the term modern, Brophy is interested in artifice, formalism and technological reflexivity. He is interested in “films of a peculiar sono-musical bent” (15) that excite the “auditory membrane” (3). Another way of putting this is that the modern soundtrack is akin to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque, exaggerated, inflated and preoccupied with itself. The modern soundtrack, then, foregrounds the experience of sound as the locus of our sensory, psychological and emotional engagement with a film. It is a “hyper-dimension where the becoming of sound overwhelms any separate cine-linguistic mode of expression” (15). In this sense, Brophy asserts that the tradition to which the modern soundtrack belongs is not cinematic. Its allegiances are sonic, echoing the reverberations of modernist composers such as Erik Satie, experimental architects of sound such as Harry Partch and Karlheinz Stockhausen, wunderkind producer Phil Spector and the great shaman of feedback, James Marshall Hendrix.

5. The real danger with a project such as this is for the actual entries on the films to become something of a free-for-all, a series of personalized and highly autographical sound checks. Brophy skillfully avoids this problem by identifying in the Introduction a series of characteristics of the modern soundtrack (such as the use of sound effects, the processing of the voice, orchestration, the use of music and songs, etc.) His extended discussion of these “technical and symbolic manoeuvres” (4) offers a kind of Baedeker to the sonic terrain he is about to take us through. Each individual entry, therefore, addresses the particular feature or features that are especially salient in the film at hand. Of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), for instance, he elicits, with exemplary compression, how the film’s use of rock ‘n roll music doesn’t simply replace the film score, nor merely provide historical contextualization. The “acoustic rendering” of songs by Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly serves as a “base terrain that maps teenage mobility” through early ‘60s Californian suburbia, capturing the “sonic landscape of how radio was broadcast in this epoch” (20). In Jan De Bont’s The Haunting (1999) sound is used to amplify “how much we presume insignificant in acoustic auras” (125). The use of the orchestra is explored in relation to Chuck Jones’ sublime Guided Muscle (1955). “Sonic explosiveness” (118) is an apt musical correlative for one of the most celebrated Roadrunner and Coyote animations. For Brophy, the orchestral bombast of the soundtrack in Guided Muscle exploits the ‘50s’ fascination with unadulterated noise (industrial grinding and clanking, detonation, the capricious mixing of musical genres.) Inviting us to shut our eyes and listen, we hear in his commentary the “shards, snaps and cracks” as Guided Muscle escapes the gravity of cinematography and “veers towards sonic pornography” (118).

6. It is an understatement to suggest that the lean format of these film soundings is challenging, both for author and reader. In some cases there is a flatness that tends towards rather summary description, which, unfortunately, falls on deaf ears. But on the whole Brophy’s shorthand, economical style works to great effect. To write with aplomb in 500 words on the 9 minute Guided Muscle is impressive. To write with equal power of Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) is a tour de force. I have singled out this particular text to evidence discussion of a film that I actually know very well. What is striking in this instance is Brophy’s ability to bring the film’s “opulent soundtrack” (170) to presence with such brevity:

The scream of the train whistle pierces their hermetic sound fields. When the train comes to rest, it chugs ominously with a heaving rhythm that now replaces all others. As the dusters are about to leave, a wailing harmonica – complete with distended reverb – cuts through the train’s steamy surges. The dusters’ response matches our double-take: is this “noise” score or diegetic sound? Harmonica (Bronson) emerges through the steam like an avenging angel, harmonica in mouth, breathing it to play his signature seething which symbolises the revenge he seeks. (170)

Faithful to his “Braille for the deaf” style of writing, I felt I was listening my own memory of the scene, but heightened and amplified by Brophy’s incisive counterpoints and nuances. By way of contrast, I was intrigued by his account of Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000). This is a film that I am not familiar with, nor, for that matter, thought that I ever would be:

Once on the island, Noland has to realign his audiovisual balance. Terrorised by the sound of the unknown, he hears “bumps in the night,” which prove to be strange fruit falling from the trees. No living being directed these events; just the life of the island, devoid of such controlled presence. Eventually, Noland gets to read the island as a manual of patterns, frequencies and ratios […] Over the end credits, the refrain of music which hardly marked the film sails forth. But then a quiet mystical gesture is struck which confirms the considered modulation of humanism of Cast Away: the sound of waves gradually fades up and builds in mass, eventually dissolving the score. Music thus becomes the ocean – an ebb and flow of tidal call-and-response to itself; the ocean thus becomes air – the totality of atmosphere which carries sound. (58-59)

One the basis of Brophy’s account, an evocative sense of the film’s soundscape not only came to my mind’s ear, but I feel much more inclined to see and hear it for myself.

7. Hopefully these samples reveal that 100 Modern Soundtracks is not only a guide to how a particular film can be listened. I’m persisting with this awkward, intransitive particle to concentrate Brophy’s interest in the experience of the soundtrack as active, affective and material. As he notes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the “score is not to be assumed as accompaniment. The film integrates it and transforms it into a cinesonic substance which fires the film’s psychotic expulsions” (186). Furthermore, I want its discordance to be a shock to the ear, as a way of drawing attention to what I think is the most important critical contribution of 100 Modern Soundtracks. Brophy wants to awaken us to an aural imagination, in which we “auralise” as well as visualise a film (234). Without compromise or fuss he forges an appropriate critical language that, while perhaps unsettling to many ears, says exactly what he wants to say, without defaulting to the privileging of visual metaphors. We “witness and audition” the anarchy of a Rolling Stones recording session in Jean Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One) (1968); we visualise and “auralise” the roiling tension of Travis Bickle’s exhausted longing in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Each individual entry is an “audit” rather than analysis, a mnemonic encounter with previous auditions. This is not to suggest that Brophy is interested in supplanting a visual paradigm with an aural one. On the contrary, he is alerting us through language to a greater sensitivity to language, to the language of the cinema and the critical languages with which we describe, analyse and imagine it. There will be many films in this book that you thought you knew. Go and listen them again.


1. This essay was originally published in Art + Text, 11 in 1983. It was reprinted in Screen, 27, vol.1, n.2 in 1986 and anthologized in Ken Gelder’s edited collection The Horror Reader. London, Routledge, 2000.

Darren Tofts is Associate Professor of Media & Communications, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.