I just watched The Jazz Singer (1927) a few days ago. One of the first feature films to employ synchronous soundand the first to be a successit's actually mostly silent, save musical interludes and a few lines of dialogue. It's fascinating to watch: you can feel the excitement in the air at the time of its release, the buzz surrounding this noveltysound. But what did that breakthrough really mean? Silent films had always been accompanied by music: the image had never been truly silent. Many filmmakers in the 20's were afraid that the advent of the talkie would destroy the art of cinema. Looking back on this fateful moment in movie history, I feel tempted to entertain a few lofty questions. . . Is film, in its essence, a visual art? Is the foundation of the cinema the image or the projection of sound onto the image? Proponents of silent movies focus on the image, whereas a theorist like Michel Chion claims that sound is just as important, whether it be the synchronized sounds of the sound era or the musical and live accompaniment of the silent era. Who's right? Or is there even an answer? Does cinema have an essence to speak of? Is it just a hodgepodge of different things? Is that its essence? Does it even make sense to speak of an art having an essence? Is cinema even an art? Should we even care?
Obviously, this kind of thing can go on for pages, for hours, and lead in many different directions. To avoid such tangents, let me just say that I highly recommend The Jazz Singer to anyone who hasn't seen it. Sure, it's dated in many ways, and its use of blackface is offensive, but it remains a crucial film. In it you can feel two eras and two camps, silent and sound film, facing off: the great divide is there, right before your eyes (or ears). Of course, many later films were also part silent, part talkie, but in The Jazz Singer you feel the novelty of the effect, as if it were still palpable. Indeed, it's hard to understand the issues of sound in film without understanding what that movie meant in its timefor better or for worse.