Pudovkin on Sound by John Grierson*

Vsevolod Pudovkin

Pudovkin sums it up by saying that we Occidentals have failed to
use sound dramatically. We have not yet learned to make sound an
essential factor in our film construction. Our dialogue is derivative
of the stage, our songs of the music hall, our recitals of the lecture
room, our natural sound of melodrama; and sound film seldom
conveys any fuller sense of the object than mute film did before it.
A worse sense if anything, for dialogue has depraved the sense of
action. Pudovkin generalises perhaps too readily; forgetting, or not
knowing, the split choruses of Lubitsch and Clair, the unemployment
sequence of Three-cornered Moon, the gossip sequence of The
Night of June 13th, and the other occasional ingenuities of our
technique. But on the whole he is right. We do not use sound to
develop the art we discovered with silent cinema. We use it so
much for its derivative values—in dialogue, in interlude—that it
slows our pace, makes image and sequence of image incidental to
literary meaning, and diminishes the peculiar power of the screen.
Much of Pudovkin’ s theory, as set out in the new chapters of
‘Film Technique’ (London: Newnes, 3s. 6d.), is no more than
common sense; and we hardly need a special discourse on asynchronism
(not even the longer word explains it) to tell us that the
sound should complement the mute and not merely repeat it. The
first function of sound, says Pudovkin (or his translators), is to
‘augment the potential expressiveness of the film’s content.” It
widens the scope of the film; it allows more things to be said; and
more variously; and more shortly. The sound strip and the silent
must each follow its own rhythmic course. The synchronous use of
sound is only “exceptionally correspondent to natural perception.”
In so far as Pudovkin is exclusively interested in story values (he
always is in his theory, if not in his films) his examples of asynchronism
are curiously shallow. He thinks of a town-bred man in
a desert accompanied by city noises ; of a cry for help which silences

the natural sound of traffic and cakes its place; of a total cessation of
sound in a period of tension; and, in general, he makes a great ado
of the difference between objective fact and its subjective interpretation
by his characters. This, of course, is a sufficient gambit
for an elementary dissertation on sound, and it is proper in Bolsheviks
to regard us as imbeciles. But the interplay of subjectiveobjective
is not a sufficient theoretical platform for sound film if we
for a moment imagine the orchestrational possibilities of a complementary
Bach or Beethoven. There is only passing excitement in
the notion of a sound film “made correspondent to the objective
world and man’s perception of it together, where the image retains
the image of the world, while the sound strip follows the changing
rhythm of the course of man’s perceptions; or vice versa’ . . . only
passing excitement when the two might so easily go off the earth
Such subjective-objective distinction may be real from the
characters’ point of view, but it is unreal from the artist’s point of
view. For him all elements of sound or mute are materials which
together—together orchestrated—create his transfigured reality.


They do not interpret as across a barrier, but are images together
–give a meaning together—in a common recreated world. Mute and
sound may swell together in a single symphony; silent images may
join with sound images in a single poetry; a Greek chorus in sound,
whether in formalised vers litres or in documentary bits and pieces,
may join with narrative mute in a single recital. It is only misleading
to make one a special interpretation of the other; sound film is
thereby reduced to the wheezy psychological mechanics of people
like Ibsen.
One should not puncture a man’s theory by his own
creative example, but Deserter is a better account of Pudovkin on
sound than these chapters under review. The trouble with Pudovkin
is that he performs like a poet and theorises like an elementary
school teacher. As a theoretician, indeed, he very successfully
makes inexplicable the very mature beauties he, as a creator, represents.
How on a subjective-objective theory can he explain (a)
the chorus of steamer whistles which attends his procession of ships
(they are both orchestrations of perception) ; (b) his waltz-time
accompaniment of waltz-timed traffic cops (they are both fancifications
of perceived reality); (c) the triumphant march which
accompanies his defeated street demonstration (they are both
mounted in processional); (d) his cutting of rivetting machines into
workers’ applause (they are both rhetorical) ? These are the high
lights of sound accompaniment as he uses it, and it would be false
analysis to say that the accompaniment in any one of these cases
is an interpretation of the mood or meaning of the mute (or viceversa) .


The effect they give is given together, the interpretation is a
single interpretation. They are not two separate rhythms—or they
ought not to be—but one single rhythm in which sound and mute
are just so much imagistic raw material. The black and the white
notes (the ” Oban Times” said it more wisely than Pudovkin) must
be played upon with an equal facility.

film quartely, *Film Quartely, Vol. 2 No. 2, Winter 1933-34. Pages 106-110


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