Suture and Off-Screen Sound

I’m kind of cheating here, since I’m essentially copying/pasting what I’m working on for my final paper, but I figured I’d share my thoughts anyway as they seem relevant to this week’s/last week’s readings. Metz states:

…everything out-of-frame brings us closer to the spectator, since it is the peculiarity of the latter to be out-of-frame (the out-of-frame character thus has a point in common with him: he is looking at the screen.

He continues:

By offering himself as a crossing for the spectator, he inflects the circuit followed by the sequence of identifications, and it is only in this sense that he is himself seen: as we see through him, we see ourselves not seeing him.

Here Metz is referring exclusively to characters (physical bodies in the visual sense) off-screen. With off-screen sound, on the other hand, it would appear as if the opposite were the case. An interesting case study is von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others. Our protagonist, Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe), a captain for the East German Stasi, is ordered to wiretap a famous playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). There is a consistent juxtaposition between the character listening (Weisler) and the character being listened to (Dreyman). However, when the sound is off-screen (I.e., when we see Weisler and hear Dreyman) we identify with Weisler. And when we see Dreyman on-screen we remain in identification with Weisler, whom we know is still listening upstairs. In this sense, Metz is correct in asserting that the spectator/auditor will identify with the character off-screen, but this thesis is not universal with all off-screen elements, particularly sound. In other words, when characters are off-screen we identify with them as Metz states “the out-of-frame character thus has a point in common with him: he is looking at the screen” (though in the case of Weisler his look has to be imagined since he is not actually present in the room), but when sounds are off-screen, we could assert something quite the opposite; “we have a point in common with the on-screen character: we are both hearing the same thing”. Therefore, off-screen sound can act as a form of suture, but in a manner that doesn’t require the shot/reverse shot system. “The Absent One”, to use Oudart’s term, is Weisler when we see Dreyman. When we see Weisler and hear Dreyman, there is no absent one. The synthesis of sound and image acts as the suture. The spectator may still desire to see Dreyman, and he/she can, but this desire is not based on a fulfillment of a lack or absence since Dreyman is present, at least aurally, when we see Weisler.

Another good example of this concept is Fritz Lang’s M. A blind man recognizes the murderer whistling off-screen, but we don’t identify with the murderer. We are sutured into the text because we hear what the blind man hears.

Here are some clips. The scene I’m referring to in M occurs at 56:02.

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3 Responses to Suture and Off-Screen Sound

  1. Amy Herzog says:

    I’d be really interested to hear what people think about the use of off-screen sound as a suture. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. My instinct is that sound is a much more unstable type of suture than a visual reverse-shot, that it’s more easily co-opted, that our desire to SEE what produced that sound leaves us unsettled until that gap can be visually resolved.

  2. Rebecca says:

    When I think of off-screen sound, I tend to think not of films but of reality t.v. (or shows imitating reality t.v., like early episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). I think this is because, since the cameras aren’t always able to capture the person who is speaking – that is, shots aren’t necessarily planned ahead to account for shot/reverse shot – we experience off-screen sound so often that it becomes normalized. A typical technique in reality t.v. is to cut from a “talking head” to the situation they are describing (turning that voice into a voice-over) or a cut from the person speaking to the person/people they are speaking to (voice turns into voice-off). I think that in the former we identify with the person speaking, and with the latter we identify with the person/people being spoken to, but either way I’m not sure it is discomfort we experience. Perhaps we experience discomfort when there is off-screen sound in film but not so in reality t.v. since the genre is so widespread, its conventions are so accepted within that genre, and most reality t.v. shows are fairly light-hearted/cheesy anyway that the viewer is hardly expecting to feel ill at ease (depending on the reality show, I suppose!).

  3. Alex Bordino says:

    Non-fiction (even the most trivial reality TV) is always a great example regarding sound since, from a filmmaking perspective, it is structured primarily by sound bites (often in a manipulated way). The image track is almost a secondary concern. There are certainly instances in which the spectator identifies with the off-screen sound (voice). I suppose the identification involves more of an identification with the subject that is listening, since the spectator is listening to the same thing. In the case of an interview subject in non-fiction, we the spectator are being addressed directly via the voice and therefore can only identify with ourselves as listening subjects (which may be why non-fiction can easily affect our opinions – we are always aware of our own, amenable subjectivity – unlike narrative film where we are consciously interpolated into a position within a fictional story). Interestingly, we desire visual recognition of the interview subject at some point, otherwise the voice would transcend the diegesis and become a voice-over (though I guess this could work as a less effective form of suture). I definitely agree that off-screen sound as a suture is problematic without some sort of visual recognition.

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