chapter  7
12 Pages

Tom Conley The Talkie: Early Cinematic Conversations

Not that speech and the image had ever been divorced from each other. At the turn of the twentieth century Alice Guy and a host of vanguard filmmakers produced shorts that offered synchronous sound emanating from recording machines that were meticulously timed ro be in concert with the flow of images. These films were of short duration and set in the context of miniature narratives built around the wonder given to hold in synchrony. Some were built for well-known performers to sing arias among groups of picnickers on the shores of the Seine outside ofParis. Others were static takes of orchestras playing familiar tunes. 1 Even if film first saw light without speech, it nonetheless was located in worlds where conversation was amply present, as shown by the use of sound cues from its beginnings in nickelodeons.2 Before its invention there was the cabaret, and the cafe-a locus amoenus in silent film, where the film seemed to enact in dialogue an instant replay of the vital inanities of everyday life. There were, to~, the conversational spaces where time was, in the words of Henri Lefebvre, forever "mediated," such as in the tramway, the horse-pulled bus, and the new subway, in whose wagons people, pushed into each others' noses, if they knew each other, could "talk" about the movies they had seen.3 The aubible conversations of people going to the movies had, in an immediate and crucial effect of ideology, to be reproduced in silence in order, after the films were seen, to be reanimated in life. The silent din of conversation in the pre-talkie years no doubt set early standards of what had been called, in the early years of the printed book, the manual of "civil conversation." The spectator could go to the movie in order to leam how to talk in the imagination, and how, to~, to revive dialogue within his or her own body, in mimesis of a new panoply of

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silent types, without the need of interlocutors.4 What Benjamin called the shock of modern life was no doubt alleviated by the conversation that chimed with it, especially in areas were cinema could be "talked about" for the sake of a common practice of everyday life.