MasterBlog: Voice, Sound, Ownership and Intimacy

I’ve come to organize my ideas on sound (and how we hear) into two lines of thought: that pursuing pleasure through sound is an active mechanism, and pursuing truth through sound is an automatic mechanism that is constantly confronted. Of course, sensual pleasure and truth/positive identification are related, but like Freud says, they arise separately and are later conflated. I’ll get to truth later, but first I wanted to engage the concept of aural pleasure.

Although I struggled with Zizek’s breakdown of Lacan’s metaphysical “letter” and its “destination,” I found easier access into this framework with his analysis of City Lights. The kind of cool thing is that Zizek begins with an idea about sound as a “ghostlike object” with no source that changes film “into a trick” and then mostly focuses the rest of the piece on the gaze (how the Tramp is an interrupter of it, how it constructs a “fantasy filler” object, etc). But really, everything he writes about letters, destinations, fantasies, and subjective interpretation can be applied to sound as well. And I’m not just talking about his discussion about how sonic identifiers (car door, jangling coins) constructs a “fantasy filler” persona. If we think of the ear as the eye and the sound as the visual object, we can apply a theoretical “Tramp” framework to Singin’ in the Rain in a really interesting way. If the new “talkie” film audience is the subject, Lina Lamont’s voice is the “fantasy filler” object, and Kathy is the Tramp. Her voice effortlessly fills the void created by Lina’s open mouth on screen – it interrupts the “gaze” between the subject and its proper object, it “occupies a space not meant for [it].” More interestingly, if we think about SitR using this framework, Donald becomes an incredibly modern Spectator in the Text character; he literally mobilizes Kathy into this role. As a film made during a boom of big movie musicals and epics in the 1950s, SitR found an incredibly rich ground in using 1920s “talkie” films (and the Hollywood that surrounded them) as its setting. It’s such a notable text because it’s a text ABOUT the formation of texts and the audiences who love and need them.

I also wanted to quickly bring up how much SitR absolutely DELIGHTED me with the tap-dancing sequences. What is it about rhythmic tapping, perfectly matched with movements on screen? Neil Verma really clarified this particular type of pleasure for me with his discussion of voice and perceived closeness: the voice promises intimacy, “which is why it is so affecting when the narrator is…unreliable.” For all the elements of sonic unreliability in SitR, the dances are never one of them. You see Gene Kelly’s toe tap or Donald O’Connor’s foot drag, and you hear precisely the matching sound. There is so much less ambiguousness or trickery (or at least it appears so). This idea of pleasure relating to truth, or something being indistinguishable from reality outside the cinema experience, leads me to my next set of thoughts…

One point I meditated on is: where does an audience go FIRST with their senses to seek authenticity and stability and identification? What I mean is: which sense do we believe most? Paul Gilroy actively attempts to dismantle the way we “establish the limits of the authentic racial community exclusively through the visual representation of racial bodies – engaged in characteristic activities,” and I think sound is an interesting frontier to start with that. We discussed a little last week how the film viewer knows that both their gaze and the objects of their gaze within a film are unreliable, that, as Zizek says, film is essentially a trick. But is it the same with sound? Does the way we HEAR interact differently with our psychological/emotional impulses than the way we SEE? (Sorry for my excitable all-caps). That’s something Illusions really elucidated – and complicated – for me. On the one hand, the young black singer Esther, visually signified by her dark skin and curls, is easily organized into a racial ontology by both white and black spectators alike. Mignon, with her ambiguous complexion, “passes” as white. However, Esther also “passes” – in the world of sound and song, Esther’s style seemingly carries signifiers of whiteness. This is such a compelling question of isolating audio and visual when we study axes of difference within cinema: what is the advantage of examining them separately, and should we always privilege the visual? Can we make more room for sound in our study of gender and racial representation?

P.S. I REALLY responded to (student 1) afterthought on his blog about the “tertiary identity” being that of the cultic fandom or public opinion. Like, responded in a “make a note of this for your dissertation” way. I was talking with (student 2) after our screening about being a Singin’ in the Rain first-timer, and how my particular media brain viewed this film through the lens of fan culture – i.e., I retroactively connected modern media that is derivative of SitR, and instinctively compared Donald, Cosmo, and Kathy to the modern fanwork trope “OT3” (a platonic or romantic relationship between three people). It seems to me such a rich topic, to dissect the double-pronged audience experience of immersion as well as deliberate intertextuality. Everything happening at the same time!

P.P.S. Also really loved that (student 3) brought up In a World. As a film, I didn’t think it was all that and a bag of chips, but it brings up some really fascinating ideas about the disembodying (and un-gendering) of the voice from the speaker’s end. It somewhat furthers Illusions’ feminist musings on the ownership of the voice and its role in building a more revolutionary, transcendent social identity.

P.P.S. Sorry this is getting ridiculous, but I also wanted to add that this week’s topic immediately brought The Sopranos to mind for me, with its iconic dream sequences that, for me, really changed the game of exploring the subconscious audiovisually on TV. Sometimes in these sequences, like in “The Test Dream” or “Pax Soprana,” the voices that emerge from the mouths of Tony Soprano’s sexual objects are those of his mother or psychiatrist. It’s not so much disembodiment as it is the complication of Tony’s relationships to women and his character’s strongly demarcated lines between sex, love, comfort, etc.

Media discussed:
City Lights (1931)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Illusions (1982)
In a World
The Sopranos

Slavoj Zizek – Enjoy Your Symptom: “Why Does a Letter Always Arrive at Its Destination?”
Neil Verma – Theater of the Mind: “Intimate and Kaleidosonic Sound.”
Paul Gilroy, “After the Love is Gone: Bio-politics and Etho-poetics in the Black Public Sphere.”

Leah Steuer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015


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