media notes #7: Sound/History by Rick Altman

What is cinema? If when considering cinema you only account for “image” then there’s an obvious history, but “cinema’s sound identity has undergone constant redefintion.” In cinema’s early -pre-1930’s- period, it combined with various audio media to the extent that they cannot be seen separately.

Media is constantly changing, be wary of projecting the current conception onto the past. Because it combines “image and sound technologies” film can integrate or “blend in” any relevant new technique that “serves a particular aesthetic or economic purpose.”

“Nickelodeons” were largely a silent format -a matter of “moving photographs” on literal film. The “familiar audio/visual phenomenon we now call cinema” is not present at this early moment. Soon after however, films began to be shot “in view of a specific accompaniment.” As the cliché has it “the silents were never silent.”

The “phonograph” or “graphophone” was then combined with “the picture machine” to create “the singing and talking moving picture.” This process is primarily identified with the company Cameraphone who initiated the “star system” via their “decision to record vaudeville on film.” However, “it would take nearly two decades to install a durable sound film system.”

“We make more sense of the film industry by understanding it as a complex of related production strategies.” Thanks to this dynamism, early film “could pass rapidly from opera to cartoons and back.”

“Televison was referred to as radio throughout the twenties.” With regards to film and radio “the borders of the media remained an open question” and they had not “definitively separated” by 1922. Film audio was simulcast over radio to multiple theaters in the “Rothacker process.”

The “Victrola” was a “revolution in the phonograph field.” Early sound films “were an outgrowth of the record industry” and emphasized audio, “a telephone, plus a phonograph plus a radio” as one critic put it. “What is a talking picture but a phonograph record with plenty of amplification behind it?” wrote another.

“Representational technologies” like the above audio/visual innovations “take on multiple identities,” are “constantly redefined” and “are subject to the vagaries of reception.” This is opposed to simple notions of “substitution” or “succession”. “Equivalence and improvement in one area are accompanied by a zone of non-equivalence in another.”

Cinema’s history of “conflation with other media” precludes any notion of a succession of “true equivalents.” “Representational technologies” tend “toward multiple definition,” in the case of early cinema “as a circus,” an “exhibition,” or “theater.” In the history of cinema definition is a multifaceted “ongoing struggle” of “jurisdiction.”

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