Decoder (1984)

By Tony Williams.

Much of value appears in this book, and the hard read required is often worth it to discover some unique insights.”

Emerging from the prestigious University of Minnesota Press, The Sound of Things to Come is a weighty tome in more than one sense. As well as reflecting the scholastic orientation of this press, it is also a text that “takes no prisoners” in the demands it makes on readers. Throughout its 468-page length, the book contains many examples of challenging dense prose inviting viewers to engage documented subject matter with full seriousness of its sonic theoretical implications. Some of the sentences evoke the halcyon days of Screen, influenced especially by Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987), the latter’s Chaosmis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (1992) and The Machinic Unconscious: Essays in Schizoanalysis (2011). Yet, despite the foreboding nature of these texts, Reddell adopts them in terms of a bricolage or tool-kit in terms of navigating his way across the cosmic dimensions of the science fiction film (see 33-34) “to boldly go” where no acoustic critic “has gone before.”

Reader beware! There are sections in this book that are really challenging. For example:

Guattari establishes his concern with the “phylogenetic evolution of machinism” by framing two overlapping and mutually contingent forms, the mechanosphere and biosphere, both of which are in fact autopoetic “living machines” capable of generating, maintaining, and expanding their own internal organization and external boundary limits…Guattari prods Francisco Varela’s thoughts about the biological constraints of autopoetic organization to get at something, more inclusive of nonorganic systems and the idea of machinic heterogeneity. (167)

On a low day, this could provoke the reviewer’s automatic reaction equivalent of “boys behaving badly,“ impatiently demanding a more accessible rendition. However, it is a temptation needing avoidance especially when further textual explorations lead to recognizing the sincere pioneering attitude of the author. Much of value appears in this book, and the hard read required is often worth it to discover some unique insights.

Thankfully, the remainder of this book does not fall into overtly theoretical discourse since it is highly important for its contribution to sound and generic studies. Observations deserve close attention and direction to the films themselves, many of which are available (for the moment on YouTube). Understanding the specific uses of sound in any form of cinema is crucial, no more so than in science fiction whose promises of “brave new worlds” often involve new forms of literary, sonic, and visual experiences. Following the 42 page introduction “New Sounds in Science Fiction,” five highly detailed chapters follow charting the development of this concept beginning with chapter one’s “The Origins of Sonic Science Fiction (1924-50)”; followed by “Ambient Novum, Alien Novum (1950-59)”; “Cosmos Philosophy and Thought Synthesizers (1959-68)”; “Sonic Alienation and Psytech at War (1971-77)”; and “Sonorous Object-Oriented Ontologies (1979-89).”. These chapters contain detailed arguments conveyed by appropriate precision, and they contain several examples that readers can immediately consult thanks to the educational developments of new technologies. You Tube’s inclusion of several Soviet era films I’d never seen before in their original versions proved valuable in following the highly sophisticated arguments made about their sonic significance and relationship to the development of new musical technologies.

Introducing readers to the introduction of the Theremin (an instrument indelibly associated with science fiction, as any devotee of The Outer Limits knows) in the late 1920s, Emergent Digital Practices Professor Reddell introduces his audience to varied aspects of extra-terrestrial sonic novelty common to many international examples of science-fiction cinema complementing those new speculative futuristic experiences that these films attempt to evoke.

Particularly since the late 1970s SF films have provided research and development zones for auditory innovations that shape the aesthetic sensibilities of their audiences. By introducing noise reduction technologies, multichannel sound reproduction, theater design, loudspeaker configuration, and home entertainment media formats, SF films have profoundly changed how we listen. Whether directly or indirectly, sonic science fiction involves not only the making of sound but also the creation of auditory experiences and expectations of film audiences. (6)

Yet the potential is not merely progressive but also contradictory:

The popularization of new sound technologies in the science fiction film goes hand in hand with its cyclical embrace and rejection of avant-garde experiments with composition, instrumentation, performance, and cultural contextualization. (7)

The book attempts to examine several complex sonic techniques that characterize a varied number of science fiction films. The author approaches the field “through the notion of the sonic novum in order to construct audible histories of difference, and second as a media theory invested in the intersection of film sound and consciousness, which I approach through the framework of sonic technologies” (8). Developing Darko Suvin’s definition of the novum as a key trope in science fiction, Reddell emphasizes the acoustic aspect “to mediate the transformation of the ear and listening body given the changing technocultural condition of emerging acoustic technologies in the twentieth century” (24). Contrasts exist between those films that employ “cinematic devices that favor immersion and those that mobilize and help us navigate technoacousmatic spaces by expediting methodologies of critical listening” (27),

Sound may contain the potential for critical engagement but it may also mystify by sonic mechanisms of control (29). Reddell focuses on a variety of neglected sonic texts including Metropolis (1927), Things to Come (1936), Rocketship X-M (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Gojira (1954), This Island Earth (1955), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Barbarella (1968), The Andromeda Strain (1971) and The Thing (1982). He also covers “usual suspects” such as Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001 (1968), Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters (1977), Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Art-house and independently produced films such as La Jetee (1962), Alphaville (1962), Decoder (1984), along with planetarium Vortex Concerts and quasi-mystical documentaries such as For All Mankind (1989), receive relevant focus to demonstrate Reddell’s definition of a science fiction cinema that acts not just as a rejuvenating catalyst for creativity but also as a vehicle for the future of sound.

Even in the early silent era, composers explored “the sonic dimensions of emerging mechanical and technological forms” (43) forming a tool-kit for later experiments in science fiction. Metropolis initially appears an unusual choice since it is a silent film but Reddell not only notes the restored version’s synchronization with the original atonal, dissonant, and mechanical rhythmic score of Gottfried Huppertz but also its relationship to many of the speculative ideas of Hugo Munsterberg concerning cinematic development concerning future sonic psychotechnological practices (45). In 1931, Abel Gance worked on what was to be France’s first sound film, La fin di monde (1931), but his sound techniques proved difficult, and it was released in a version he never intended. However, Lang proved more successful in realizing Munsterberg’s speculations concerning the innovative use of sound.

Reddell specifically refers to the fox-trot Yoshiwara sequence that involved a mechanical synchronization of sound with images evoking “mass sensory manipulation and control, a spectacular equivalent to the lockstep rhythms of hard labor…This moment of spectacular excess stalls narrative momentum even while it remains critical of spectacle” (70). It is an early example of a unique sonic novum other films would develop. By contrast, Arthur Bliss’s Things to Come score operates more impressionistically by creating “an ambience of larger-than-human forces and energies, in this case the power of progress itself channeled toward the technocratic reordering of the whole world, directing social evolution, conquering nature and reauthoring history” (79). The chapter ends by considering the development of the Theremin in the work of contemporary musicians, both experimental and mainstream, that would influence 50s science fiction.

Rocketship X-M (1950)

Chapter two represents this influence in two notable 50s films – Rocketship X-M (partially written by then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The first conveys not just the different perceptions astronauts receive on the Martina landscape but also a particular type of soundscape conveying, “a troubling psychogeographical depth to the most disturbing dimensions of the film’s narrative by way of its ambiguous position between music and noise” (93) far more effective than the sonic techniques of Destination Moon (1950). While the second film uses different tonal theremins to convey the alien consciousness of Klaatu and Gort, the device is at its “most brutal” (95) in The Thing from Another World (1951). There it “affectively sonifies issues of identity, estrangement, alienation, technological vitalism, the alternative states and abilities of extraterrestrial consciousness, and posthumanity typically explored in alien visitation and invasion narratives” (96). The hybridity of Gojira’s name (“gorilla-whale”) also relates to its soundtrack containing “a postwar polyphony of musical styles and sensibilities” whose alien is “an uncanny mixture, possessing no clear identity of its own, and to some extent ultimately undone by the specificity of naming” (98).

Reddell is clearly acquainted with the world of science fiction literature as he is with sound and relevant theoretical approaches. So it is unsurprising that he searches for examples that reveal key developments rather than repetitive formulas. Yet a difference exists between “our perception of difference through mediating technical forms” and the dangers of technological “permeation of our place in the cosmos” (105). It is a tension that reflects generic examples and as well as attempted progressive practices of the sonum novum. Reddell’s analysis of the theremin’s association with the haunting Martian landscape in Rocketship X-M and avant-garde modernist experiments is highly significant, especially with connections to psychogeography.

Chapter three is no less profuse in pages and has some interesting observations on the science fiction work of Godard and Marker that contain

radical experiments in sound editing that yields an experience at once fragmented, disjointed, multilayered, and often disconnected from the visual content, yet they beg multiple layers of viewer cognition and engagement. They also explore the capacity of cinema to transform time and consciousness through a common dedication to the assemblage of vast but ultimately broken sonic novums that completely permeate the cinematic experience.” (193-194)

Within this context, Reddell draws parallels to the British New Wave experiments in science fiction pioneered by J.G. Ballard’s 1962 guest editorial in New Worlds where he asked “Which way to inner space?” that Michael Moorcock answered when he took over editorship in 1964. He encouraged non-traditional generic forms influenced by “the experimental techniques of avant-garde writers like William S. Burroughs, particularly his use of the cut-up and other unconventional techniques, and Thomas Pyncheon with his densities of languages and references to pop culture” (194). Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head (1969), with its “neologistic play and formal experimentation” also suggested “that the sonic novum can exist in text as well as film or audio-recordings” (195) with the experimental linguistics within Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) anticipating this collision.

Ikarie XB 1 (1963)

Before engaging in intensive analysis of Alphaville and La Jetee, Reddell explores the golden age of Soviet science fiction, citing examples such as the Czech Ikarie XB 1 (1963) for its sonic experimentation. Hollywood versions not only removed different ideological undertones from such films but also replaced non-political electronic music with “existing soundtracks consisting of classical Hollywood orchestrations” (222). (1) The remainder of the chapter contains detailed analysis of Fantastic Voyage, Barbarella, 2001, and Planet of the Apes (1968) in terms of their different and innovative explorations of sound. The next chapter notes a contrast in certain 1971 films such as THX-1138, A Clockwork Orange, and The Andromeda Strain that “resolutely shut down the expansive psychtech mobilized three years earlier to plunge into the most aberrant political, physical, and psychic domains of the human condition” (285). Significantly, Reddell recognizes the acoustic conservatism operating within two key examples defined by Andrew Britton and Robin Wood as “Reaganite Entertainment,” Star Wars, and Close Encounters, making this reviewer feel that he is “not alone” in opposing today’s revisionist Spielberg cosmos. While Star Wars “eschews psychological depth, development, and connection to instead emphasize each character’s alignment with mythic and predestined Forces” (288), its Reaganite partner-in-cinematic crime “recasts the primitive hypersensitivies of sonic affect and embodiment in terms of childhood fears ranging from monsters under the bed to abduction, even as these lie alongside adult fantasies of returning to idealized childhood freedom and mythic irresponsibility” (288).

If Robin Wood recognized the presence of the reactionary horror film counterpointing its progressive peer within the horror genre, Reddell understands the differences between progressive and reactionary uses of sound in Star Wars and Close Encounters.

“An aesthetic sonic immersion emerges that favors cognitive saturation over estrangement. Not only does this leave the filmgoer little leverage for critical engagement, it also tends to support patriarchal mythic forms hitched to the nostalgic longing for films of old, products of putatively simpler worlds, whether that of the light comic strip style of the early serials or Disney features. The content of this mythos is culturally conservative rather than progressive even though it is technically innovative. These, then, are sonic novums in conflict.” (288) Well said, Trace!

Decoder: like Ikarie XB 1, it is a film needing hearing as well as seeing…and calls for a new form of genre.

Two innovative but little known films receive significant coverage: Decoder (1984) and the 1989 pseudodocumentary of the Apollo space program For All Mankind. I will skip the detailed and worthy explorations of Alien, The Thing, Tron, and Blade Runner, all innovative in their use of sound, to focus on what the author leads this reader to recognize as the truly innovative sonic novum. Decoder is an avant-garde cyberpunk film significantly influenced by the work of William Burroughs, Byron Gysin, and contemporary avant-garde musicians especially in the use of cut-ups as a revolutionary sonic technique and the use of alternative sounds to combat corporate music techniques such as the insidious muzak employed as institutional controlling devices. Like Ikarie XB 1, it is a film needing hearing as well as seeing. (2) It is radical in so many ways, a film whose devices could never be recuperated by the Hollywood machine as so many innovative Soviet films of the 50s and 60s were by being dubbed, re-edited, and re-scored for popular circulation. As Reddell remarks, the film fulfills Ballard’s call for a new form of genre – “Decoder maintains SF cinema’s function as a conduit for a future that is already now” (424). It employs the oppositional avant-garde strategies of William S. Burroughs and is “meant to be a novum that prompts action, both a moment and a means for the further eruption of the new into corporately scripted reality” (424). Reddell devotes the last nine pages of his book to noting how director and composer in For All Mankind avoid the traps of nostalgia. They instead “perform a profound distancing that recasts the Apollo missions as a lost, ambient technomyth, and it is for this reason that I consider them a form of science fiction and a form of sonic novum respectively” (432).

This is a highly detailed book, and probably impossible to summarize and review adequately. Yet, it is a challenging text deserving careful reading and study as one of the best works in this field.


1. A non-subtitled version is currently available on YouTube.

2. Long may You Tube preserve its archive and repertory identity since it allows reviewers to see the films they may not have done before. For Decoder (link removed, as of 8/23/20). However, the frog sequence is inexcusable despite the Crowley black magic associations.

Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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