Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 Marc Holthof 1 Jan 1992

The Panoramic Ear

While the eye sees only 180 degrees, the ear hears a panoramic 360. Yet, the ear must submit to the eye. Using the melodious equality of the composer Rousseau, the hearing camera of Jean Renoir and Straub/Huillet's objections to post-synchronised film sound, Marc Holthof demonstrates that equilibrium between audio and video is possible.

In 1935, just before the elections brought Léon Blum's front populaire to power, Jean Renoir made a film after an idea of the Spanish painter Jean Castanier. The title of the project was Sur la Cour – on the courtyard. At the insistence of the producer, poetJacques Prévert took Renoir's and Castanier's scenario in hand and changed the title into: ''Le Crime de Mr. Lange.

Le Crime de Mr. Lange, as the French film critic André Bazin said in his classic review, is in a way a thesis film: against the bad bosses, the capitalist exploiters, and in favour of solidarity among workers and the benefits of workers' cooperatives.'' Quite a few film characters were gathered around the courtyard, living or working there: the caretaker and his wife, the laundresses, Valentine, the printer's employees working for the corrupt and brutal Batala: the typographers, the secretary – one of Batala's many mistresses – and the office clerk Mr. Lange, who will eventually murder him.

Bazin points out that the pavement of the courtyard is not by chance concentric. Not only does the whole mini-world depicted in thefilm revolve around it, but Renoir also films the climax of the story in a – now famous – 360-panoramic shot. Mr. Lange hascaught Batala, previously believed dead, in his office. Batala goes into the courtyard, where Valentine recognises him. The camera follows Lange as he walks through the studio, descends the winding stairs, and follows Batala all the way down. But instead of following Lange further, the camera turns anti-clockwise, showing us the entire courtyard, only to return to Batala and Valentine when the circle is complete, just at the moment when Lange comes back into the picture and shoots Batala down.

This strange camera movement, which seems to defy all logic, might have been made with ulterior motives of a psychological or dramatic nature (it leaves an impression of giddiness, of insanity, it creates tension), but its main intention lies elsewhere: it is the purely spatial expression of the entire mise en scène, writes Bazin. To him, the scene was an outstanding example of the elaboration of a cinematic story which can express everything without breaking the world into pieces, which can reveal the hiddenmeaning of man and thing without breaking their natural unity.

The Ear of the Philosopher

If we want to break free from the largely sterile film-theoretic 'realism' debate conducted since (and mainly against) Bazin, then wewill have to interpret the phenomenon of the 360-panoramic shot differently. I would like to suggest that what Renoir shows in thefamous scene from Le Crime de Mr. Lange is the result of a long social and cultural process which began 200 years earlier, that is:with the music theories of the French pre-romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What seems to be about the eye, about image realism, is in fact a question of the ear, of sound ecology.
It is relatively unknown that Rousseau (1712-1778) was also a composer, and not even, like Friedrich Nietzsche, an amateur one.Rousseau's dream of a musical career was nipped in the bud by his older and much more famous colleague Jean-Philippe Rameau, when he publicly slated Rousseau's opera Les Muses galantes. Because of this musical failure, Rousseau resigned himself to becoming 'only' a philosopher and novelist. However, music remained very important to his philosophical theories. Indeed, it is the key to his work.

Rousseau and 'La Guerre des Bouffons'

From August 1752 to March 1754, an Italian opera ensemble performed short 'opéra bouffes' in Paris. The Italians enjoyed greatsuccess, for example with La Serva Padrone, by Pergolesi, a short erotic and popular-tinted work, not with the usual mythologicalcharacters from the 'opera seria', but with a boss and his maid as its heroes. The Encyclopedists seized the chance to launch anattack on the prominent representative of the 'obsolete' baroque mythological court spectacles: Jean-Philippe Rameau. Jean-JacquesRousseau, Baron Grimm and Denis de Diderot went into battle, and the former in particular demanded a new, simpler, popular, kind of music.

Of course there was more behind the row: Diderot had Versailles in view, the German Grimm the entire dominating French culture,and Rousseau wanted revenge on Rameau. The court composer, then 70 years old, also kept his end up - with the entire establishment behind him. He struck back with, for example, his Erreurs sur la musique dans l'Encyclopédie, in which he attacked in particular Rousseau's contributions to the famous reference work. The final result of this Guerre des Bouffons was that the Italian opera ensemble, which of course had nothing to do with the whole polemic, was expelled from the country, by order of the court!

Medium and Remedy

Apart from personal resentment, other factors also played a role in Rousseau's attack on Rameau. Rousseau's intention was to promote a new kind of music. A number of his (public) letters with regard to the Guerre des Bouffons, his Lettre sur la musique française (Letter on French music), his Essai sur l'origines des langues (Essay on the origin of languages), his Dictionaire de Musique (Musical Dictionary) and his musical contributions to the encyclopaedia, denounced by Rameau, reflected Rousseau's views on music. The cry plays an important role in his visions. To Rousseau, it is the first form of language and music uttered byprimitive man. He regrets the separation between singing and speech which came about later.

To Rousseau, music is first and foremost vocal music, because vocal music allows us to retrieve the lost unity of speech and singingof primitive, 'unspoiled', man. Against the Baroque dictatorship of harmony (i.e., Rameau), Rousseau places the simple melody,singing to the heart and stirring the emotions (and naturally also the sexuality). Opera - his kind of opera – is to Rousseau a remède dans le mal: a necessary evil, by means of which the decadent civilisation can try to retrieve something of the lost unity of word-music-dance from the celebrations of primitive tribes and the Greek musical tragedies. An artist of genius (Rousseau means himself, but Nietzsche will say it is Wagner) must evoke the primitive cry of the first human, recover the unity of senses of the bygone festivals. Therefore, to Rousseau, music is an attempt to recover the ancient social-ritual unity by means of a kind of communion. Wagner's Parsifal is not far away!

Vocal Politics

Rousseau's aesthetics is probably also the first media theory. Indeed, in the work of composer-philosopher Rousseau, art isgranted a major socio-political role. His views on music are in perfect keeping with, for example, the social rules he proposed in Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract). A phrase such as Every one of us puts his person and his capacities in the service of the supreme leadership which is an expression of the general will (...) If we unite in this way, a moral and collective body will come about, which consists of as many members as the assembly has voices, applies just as well to a choir as to the democratic assemblée - which is what Rousseau is actually talking about. In Rousseau's terminology, 'voice' can mean 'vote' as well as(singing) voice. Jean Starobinski concludes: It is hard to avoid the impression that the concept of unity we see emerge in connection with the social order, is the link between Rousseau's aesthetics and his political ideas. Because, each at a different level, both provide a clear answer to the fundamental problem of the communication between individuals. The result is that social history can be seen as a vocal history.

To Rousseau, music and politics are two forms of communication. In a successful democracy, he hears the voices sound together,en concert. A failing democracy (or bad music) is that in which the voices sound separately – as in Rameau's music: If every party has its own voice, all these voices heard together will destroy one another. Rousseau is talking about music this time, but once again his statement applies just as well to politics. The composer-philosopher turns the ear into politics, and politics into ear. What he rejects in Rameau's music is not only the emphasis on baroque harmony, but also the subordination of music to an aristocratic hierarchy. Rousseau advocates a melodious equality. In music as well as in society, it is of vital importance to make the voices sound melodiously together, so that everyone can be heard. Rousseau is the sound technician among the French Enlightenment philosophers.

His contemporaries were well aware of this: after an interruption, due to the 1789 July revolution, the Paris opera reopens with a performance of Le Devin du Village, by... Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The proceeds are distributed among the families of the rebels who fell in the attack on the Bastille... The most beautiful homage one could imagine. Lacanal writes in a report dated 29 Fructidor de l'an II (15/9/1794): it is in fact the revolution that has made clear to us the significance of Rousseau's Contrat Social

The Panoramic Celebrations of the Revolution

O, welche Lust, in freier Luft / Den Atem leicht zu heben!

sings the chorus of prisoners in Beethoven's Fidelio (1814), whose libretto is based on a French example:
Léonore, from 1798. Revolutionary France was also gasping for the air of freedom: a letter from Verginaud, dated January 16th, 1790, describes how, in a village in the Périgord, the villagers had forced the parish priest to leave the tabernacle door open, because they wished their good Lord to be free...

Rousseau's musical views required a different organisation of space. Long before the revolution, Rousseau had advanced popularcelebrations as the ideal, as opposed to the court parties: ...No, happy people, those (court parties) are not your kind of celebration.It is in the open air, under the open sky, that you must gather and yield to a tender feeling of happiness... What shall be the themeof such celebrations, what shall be performed? Nothing, if you like. Plant a stake adorned with flowers in the middle of a square,gather the people there, and you shall have a party. Or better still: make the spectators into spectacle, make them into actors themselves, make sure that everyone recognises and loves himself in the others, so that they shall all be one.

The purpose of the celebrations during the revolution was no longer to amuse a few hundred people in a small dark hall, but to celebrate abundantly in the open air, with access for everyone. Public joy should be able to spread unhampered. (...) The ideal site for a revolutionary celebration is that of the 'panorama', where all events are immediately visible (Mouillefarin, 1790, in his Mémoire sur le remplacement de la Bastille). And furthermore: the round shape (of the panorama) is more suitable for the historic facts that have to be immortalised

The Film Maker as the Son of the Painter

Rousseau had considerable influence throughout Europe (for example, through Herder, also on German Romanticism), but it was enormous in France. Rousseau's views did not only deeply influence the music of the revolution and Romanticism (for example,through the Paris conservatoire), but also the representation of space. The Panorama was invented by the Scottish painter RobertBarker in 1787, and was first exhibited in Edinburgh and London. In France it was introduced by Fulton, in 1799. On the 26th Fructidor of the revolutionary year VIII, a report on Barker's invention was published in the Mémoires de la classe des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut. In 1787, the landscape painter P.H. de Valenciennes, one of the first who made figureless - almost photographic -sketches after nature, became a member of the Academie Royale. In 1791, Quatremère de Quincy proposed offering courses inlandscape art to students at the Paris academy. These only applied to the art of painting the new nature feeling which Rousseau, in his Rêveries d'un promeneur solitaire (Dreams of a solitary walker), was one of the first to formulate. More and more often, painters, as lonely walkers, were stepping out to breathe the air under the open sky. With the school of Barbizon, the impressionists, and Van Gogh, this plein-airisme grew into a true artistic religion.

The aesthetics of Jean Renoir (son of the famous painter Auguste) also reverts implicitly to the musical-political ideas which Rousseau defended against Rameau during the Guerre des Bouffons. Renoir's aesthetics, too, emphasises the ear as opposed to thetheatrical spatiality of the eye - as it dominates the classic Hollywood cinema. When Renoir uses his strange, illogical (says Bazin), 360-panoramic shot, it is by analogy with the sound: image space trying to escape its theatrical shackles to imitate sound space.

The Ear of Space

Renoir had understood that sound-film poses a spatial problem: the visual space is restricted to an angle of some 180 degrees, whereas we can hear all around us: 360 degrees. Classic cinema tries to solve the problem by also restricting the sound to 180 - by trying to make our ear 'perspectival' (by means of sound-mixing, directed microphones, by shutting out all non-dramatic background noises, etc.). However, as sound theoretician Michel Chinon emphasises, this never works perfectly: even the most accurately directed microphone will 'hear' a sound coming from behind if it is strong enough.

Against this classic solution, of adjusting sound to image and, as it were, pushing sound into an artificial 'frame'; that is, making our ear 'blind' to half the space perceived, there is another one. There are a few film makers who pursue a kind of honesty, an 'ecology', of sound and image. This tradition owes a great deal to Jean Renoir.

To Renoir, life was larger than the framework of film. Renoir tried to capture the environment, the space within which the characters move and dialogue takes place. This space 'joins in'. Literally, because Renoir does not rid the sound-track of all background noises, as in Hollywood films. He makes use of direct sound to preserve the natural space of the voice. This is precisely what he isaiming at in Le Crime de Mr. Lange: the camera shows the 'space' which joins in harmoniously when Lange has murdered Batala: indeed, Lange is the representative of the whole courtyard, and metaphorically of the whole nation, which settles the score with the 'brute' Batala. And that is what the 360-panoramic shot suggests.

Thus, Renoir tries to transpose his loyalty to the sound environment to his way of visualising space as well. In his work, the ear influences the eye, and not the other way around. By analogy with sound, Renoir's 'free' camera creates an image space of 360 degrees: the cinema suddenly proves capable of showing more than the 180 degrees of the 'scène Italienne'. Life is given priority over theatrical context. And life, movement, that is in the first place sound – as Rousseau already knew: Colours are the ornament of a lifeless thing, every matter has colour; but sounds announce movement, the voice announces a living being; only animated bodies can sing, as he wrote in his Essai sur l'origine des langues.

The Bedazzled Gyroscope

Si vous fermez les yeux, vous perdez le pouvoir d'abstraire

Michel Serres

An ear cannot see, yet it perceives the environment: we hear our position in space. It is much more via the ear than via the eye that we determine our position in space: we hear where we are, in the field, the street, the room. Our reality is primarily acoustic. The eye only provides us with attendant information, on obstacles, moving or changing objects in our path. But with our ear we can look around a corner, we can hear a car coming before we even see it. Our ear warns us of every danger. Moreover, the ear is also our organ of balance, it actually functions like the gyroscope in a modern aircraft: it tells us the direction, position and angle of elevation in space, whether we are lying down or standing up. In fact, the functioning of our ears is not all that different from that of a bat,which is perfectly capable of flying blind.

Whereas hearing 'around' is perfectly natural (because we cannot close our ears: a truism which is also repeated by, for example,Jacques Lacan), looking around 360- is not natural at all. Only very rarely do we look around us in all directions. Precisely at the moment when we are disorientated, when our primary gyroscope: the ear, is confused; when our eye is looking for a beacon to regauge our internal navigation system. And it is precisely this primary experiential data of disorientation that the 360º camera movements are also playing with.

Referring to Le crime de Mr. Lange, André Bazin already said: Perhaps this strange camera movement (...) was made withulterior motives of a psychological or dramatic nature (it creates an impression of giddiness, of insanity) (...). He also talks about Renoir's peculiar preparation for it, using a drunk to introduce the panoramic shot. Renoir has unconsciously prepared us toaccept this scene by means of the previous scene, in which the drunken caretaker drags a rubbish bin all around the courtyard.

The Dazzle of Music

Two hundred years earlier, Rousseau wrote about the performances of the Italian 'bouffons' in his Lettre sur la musique française: It is thanks to the ingenious modulations, this simple and pure harmony, the lively and brilliant accompaniment, thatthese divine songs move or carry off the mind, overwhelm the spectator, making him utter, in his ecstasy, a kind of cry ourrespectable operas were never rewarded with. The ideal music (far removed from Rameau's humbug music, you can hear Rousseau think) takes the viewer/listener beyond himself, bedazzles him.

Someone who is bedazzled begins to 'float', and eventually looses his balance. Dazzle and balance, dazzle and ear, dazzle and music,dazzle and space, dazzle and looking around, spinning around: it all belongs together. And there can hardly be a more exquisite example to illustrate this than another famous 360-panoramic shot from film history: the waltz scene from Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary (1949).

Static representation of the 19th-Century novel by Gustave Flaubert...Jennifer Jones is too sedate in the lead, pontificates the Motion picture encyclopaedia. It forgets to add that Minnelli built up this whole film around this one scene – which is anything but static or sedate, on the contrary. In his autobiography I Remember It Well (1974), Minnelli describes the scene as follows: "The standout scene of the picture was the waltz. The dance was new to the period, and the sequence conveyed all the giddiness that enveloped Emma at the ball. I told composer Miklos Rosza what I wanted to create for the scene, and he wrote a neurotic waltz with an accelerating tempo that would work well with what we had in mind. All the action of the scene was shot to his pre-recorded music.

As Emma swirled around, the baroque mirror and chandeliers swung around with her. The camera movement suggested her dizziness and breathlessness, and explained why the host ordered the breaking of the windows, an action we retained from the book." (p.206) The ballroom is literally too small for Emma's whirl (meanwhile her husband is drinking himself into a dazzle elsewhere), she is out of breath and people are smashing the windows to pieces with chairs, to get her some fresh air!
Minnelli makes use of the same kind of hysterical 360-pan in another film: Two Weeks in Another Town, for a crazy, drunken car ride after a Roman orgy à la Fellini. In the background, as a psychological alibi for the use of the exceptional style figure of the 360-panoramic shot, the dazzle emerges, time and again: with Renoir, the drunk, Emma's dazzle and that of her husband in the waltz scene from Madame Bovary, the orgy dazzle of the crazy ride in Two Weeks in Another Town. The dazzle is the breaking of the commandment, the opening of the tabernacle to give the good Lord (or Emma Bovary) some air, the breaking down of the Bastille to make place for the panoramic open space. But the dazzle naturally also recuperates the opening created: it is only a dazzle, temporary ecstasy, the hangover will follow. There is always the morning-after...

Synchronous Natural Sound

Il y a un terrorisme qui se pointe et qui cherche à supprimer le son synchrone

Jean-Marie Straub

20. Long shot, Marzabotto. Horizontal pan 360 degrees, left to right, beginning from the little museum of Etruscan archaeology on the left of the field and from what can be seen of the village down in the Reno valley to the right of the field, passing over the poppy field in the foreground which descends towards the valley, and over the paper mill below this field along the river, then circling the mountains which surround the plateau of the Etruscan town, to return to the little museum (...)
(lens 12.5)/Synchronous natural sound.

(from the screen play for Fortini-Cani - Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub)

In the ascetic cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet we find a few examples of direct sound and 360-pans going hand in hand, such as Fortini-Cani (1978) or Moses und Aaron. Here, the dazzle has made place for cinematic-political reflection. It seems as if Straub-Huillet, in the above scene from Fortini-Cani, have tried to film Rousseau's What shall be performed? Nothing, if you like. The performance is reduced to nothing. The shot only acquires meaning if we know that Marzabotto, the empty landscape we are shown without any comment, was the site of a Nazi massacre. Straub tries to catch the 'reality' of this by letting us hear the landscape with 'synchronous natural sound', that is, the real sound of the space.

Sound Ecology

Jean-Marie Straub is a fervent opponent of all non-directly recorded sound. On the subject of post-synchronised films (following in Fellini's example, all Italian film makers post-synchronise their films), he said: Dubbing is not only a technique, it's also an ideology. In a dubbed film, there is not the least rapport between what you see and what you hear. The dubbed cinema is the cinema of lies, mental laziness and violence, because it gives no space to the viewer and makes him still more deaf and insensitive. In Italy, every day the people are becoming more deaf at a terrifying rate.

With this statement, Straub only echoes his mentor Jean Renoir (he was, after all, Renoir's assistant during Elena et les Hommes): If we lived in the 12th Century, all those who post-synchronised their films would have been burnt as heretics in the marketsquare. Post-synchronisation equals believing in the duality of the soul. And in a 1961 interview with Jacques Rivette, Renoir said: Condoning dubbing (...) is the same as no longer believing in the unity of the individual.

Whereas Renoir expresses himself in a theological manner, Straub and Huillet rather emphasise the bond between sound and space: to betray sound is to betray space. Because for Straub, as earlier for Rousseau, sound and space are inseparable. In an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma 260-261, Straub and Huillet declared: The post-synchronised film tells a lie. Not only are the lips moving on the screen not the lips speaking the words we hear, but space itself becomes illusionary as well.

Indeed, Straub-Huillet's views are diametrically opposed to the synthetic sound practices of the commercial cinema. In Hollywood,post-production of sound is the rule. Sound is seldom or never linked with a real, existing, space: the space of sound is simulated in the studio. The present opposition between the sound ecology of Straub and company, and the sound simulation of Hollywood, is in fact precisely the same as that between Rousseau and Rameau during the Guerre des Bouffons. Straub and Rousseau put the emphasis on an original, uncontaminated sound space - whereas Rameau and Hollywood advocate simulation, give priority to the art(ificial) over the real. Straub and Huillet are using their ears, Hollywood takes our ears for a ride.

Did Rousseau Fail?

In the last few decades, Jean-Jacques Rousseau has pre-eminently been the butt of deconstructivist philosophers and philologists,such as Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida. Not entirely without reason, they have been reproaching Rousseau for paying little or no attention to the material aspect of the sign. It is not within the scope of this article to enter more deeply into this discussion. Suffice it to say that the deconstructivist reproach for Rousseau can easily be transposed into a similar one for Straub-Huillet: that as filmmakers they are harbouring illusions about their own practice. A 360-pan over an Italian landscape conveys very little of the reality of that space (and nothing at all of the horror that once took place at that spot). In scenes such as these, Straub and Huillet are cherishing illusions over the transparency of film and advocate a kind of idealistic 'realism' which is usually associated with the Hollywood cinema.

But of course – and this is a weakness in the deconstructivist logic - Straub makes anything but Hollywood cinema. On the contrary, nothing could be less Hollywood-like than this 360-pan. Only compare it with another pan of (many times) 360-, in a film such as Dressed To Kill by Brian De Palma. In Straub's outward-directed pan there is not a living soul in sight. In De Palma's pan, however, the camera is circling around the character. Straub throws the tabernacle open, De Palma shuts the character in again, by means of camera movements.

There are more weaknesses in the deconstructivist logic: Rousseau proves to be much less naïve than many (especially right-wing conservative thinkers from after the French revolution) thought him to be. Jean Starobinski and Tzvetan Todorov have demonstrated that Rousseau harboured no nostalgic yearning for an unspoiled past. He, too, knew that that was only a myth. He only made use of that hypothetical past as a logical construction to indict the degeneracy of the present. Rousseau is, still, a highly subversive thinker. Admittedly, he advanced the seemingly naïve thesis that man is good by nature, but immediately added: the first source of all evil is social inequality.

Anyone trying to find the inner logic of Rousseau's work in music - and that of Straub's cinema in sound - will notice that there is indeed a material aspect at the basis of his/their thinking, although not material in the conventional sense of the materiality of the letter or image sign. For Rousseau and Straub, sound and voice prevail over letter and image. But they do not allude to the voice as a transparent (logocentric, Derrida would say) coding of words, rather to the cry, the guttural sound, the timbre, the intonation, the tone of voice in which speaking and singing have not yet been differentiated.

They also mean the voice which essentially sounds together with other voices, and joins in with its space; with the environment in which it is situated. This was, and is, an essential solicitude of Renoir's and Straub-Huillet's cinema. The central issue in the work of composer Rousseau and film makers such as Renoir and Straub-Huillet is the ear with which we listen. An ear which refuses to be curtailed and boxed in, but, on the contrary, wishes to be free, free to listen, free to 'look' at the whole of reality – all 360 degrees of it.

translation OLIVIER/WYLIE

With special thanks to Bert Beyens, who has helped to develop the ideas on panoramic film shots.