By Amanda McQueen
We at UW Cinematheque are pleased to announce the release of a new book from our founder and former director Dr. Lea Jacobs, entitled Film Rhythm After Sound: Technology, Music, and Performance. Jacobs' book focuses on the early years of sound filmmaking and the evolving methods for synchronizing sound and image -- both technological and formal -- that transitioned us from the awkward first talkies to the comparatively advanced films of the late-1930s. In particular, Jacobs examines the strategies filmmakers employed during the early sound period to create cinematic rhythms. Looking beyond just the beat of the score or the speed of the editing, Jacobs analyzes the intricate relationships between music, dialogue, acting, and visual style that were made possible by the coming of sound.
Jacobs undertakes her analysis through a diverse set of case studies, which she combines with discussions of sound technologies and examinations of contemporary discourse on film tempo and rhythm. She begins with director Sergei Eisenstein's theory of rhythmic montage and an analysis of his collaboration with composer Sergei Prokofiev on Ivan the Terrible (1944). Jacobs then turns to a number of prototypical examples of early sound filmmaking, including:
- Walt Disney cartoons like The Three Little Pigs (1933) and Playful Pluto (1934)
- The Paramount operettas directed by Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian, such as Monte Carlo (1930) and Love Me Tonight (1932)
- The early sound films of Howard Hawks, such as The Dawn Patrol (1930)
Through these examples, Jacobs shows how filmmakers in the early sound period experimented with different sound synchronization technologies and developed a variety of formal strategies to create rhythmically unified scenes. Jacobs thus demonstrates that cinematic rhythm can take many forms -- from the tight matching of sound and image known as "mickey mousing" in the Disney cartoons to the carefully timed dialogue in Hawks' films -- and her book offers a new method of audiovisual analysis that takes into account how rhythm, as a formal device, is best understood as a complex relationship between multiple elements of film style.
The detailed prose analysis in Film Rhythm After Sound is also nicely supplemented by online clips, which generally place the scene under consideration alongside a musical score that has been annotated with lines of dialogue and key figure movements. As the clip plays, the annotations help the reader see and hear how various filmic elements work together in real time to create the scene's overall rhythm. As an example, here's one of Jacobs' annotated clips of Ivan the Terrible.
Lea Jacobs' Film Rhythm After Sound offers fascinating new insights into early sound filmmaking practices and has been receiving high praise within the academic film community. We hope that you'll check out this work for yourself. For those interested in film sound and music, in films of the 1930s, or in questions of film history and aesthetics, Jacobs' book proves a particularly rich and readable source of information. Film Rhythm After Sound is currently available from the University of California Press.