Play it Again (and Again), Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film (Part Three on the 1980s)

[If you missed the first two installments, hit "pause" and rewind to June’s piece on Noir, and July's discussion of Walter Murch].

The third and final installment of my summer series on the top 6 appearances of the tape recorder in film focuses on the 1980s, a decade obsessed with what Hillel Schwartz called “the Culture of the Copy.” While the taped recordings made in earlier films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Touch of Evil (1958) remained essentially records, discrete evidence of a moment in the past, 1980s films throw the recording itself into question. After all, the mass production of professional grade recording equipment increased the chances that the power once wielded by police, teachers, and audiophiles now lay at the fingertips of say, Ferris Bueller.
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Furthermore, with the development of ever-higher fidelity, gone are the garbled screes of The Conversation (1974) and the feedback squelches of Touch of Evil: 1980s tapes are crystal-clear stand-ins for the original itself, which makes the idea that they could be altered or faked even more terrifying.  There is a sense of both excitement and fear in 1980s’ culture that copies can either best or replace the originals. Remember “Is it Live or Is it Memorex?”? or, my personal fave, the Maxell Guy?
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As the wind blasting the Maxell guy’s oh-so-perfect 80’s coiffure shows, copies have a palpable impact on the world. Copies can defy space, moving orchestras into one’s living room. They break the bounds of time, appearing not to age or die. They can be sped up, slowed down, edited, remixed. Perhaps most anxiety-producing of all is that, unlike human beings, copies can theoretically be  flawlessly reproduced, all but instantaneously. Or, conversely, flawed copies can proliferate with frightening speed. All these powers invested in the tape recorder reflected and shaped a mixture of awe and terror about recording’s afterlife —what happens after it leaves its maker’s hands?  And, like Jean Baudrillard famously asked in Simulacra and Simulation(1981) does the original even matter (or exist) anymore? Or, will all originals be subsumed in an ironic (and seemingly insatiable) cultural lust for authentically manufactured reality?
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The Diva (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) Sings

At the center of this lust is the female voice, turned fetish in the 1980’s films Diva and Blow Out. Whether screaming in terror, singing the heights of the sublime, or confessing the depths of a passionate hatred, both movies construct women as emotive objects to be recorded, often against their will, and the recordists in these films clamor for and are repelled by the female sounds they capture. (For additional Sounding Out! of the “problem” of women’s voices in contemporary media culture see last week’s post, Liana Silva’s “Eye Candy” and Aaron Trammell’s recent “GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control“). In fact, this series has traced the cultural construction of the “sound man”: how mainstream films naturalize recording as the province of men (and, with the exception of Touch of Evil, of white men). The tape recorder’s increasing accessibility should have meant that women were using the equipment in greater numbers, but according to Hollywood, tape recorders continued to mediate power relationships between (white) men. Think Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. Harry Caul and his anonymous boss. Ferris and Principal Rooney..

Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys at the console recording "Impossible" (VH1)

With such a proliferation of representations of male recorders, it can be difficult to imagine a female hand twiddling the knobs, so much so that 95% of the professional recording industry is now male, according to the nonprofit organization Women’s Audio Mission, that works to increase the number of women behind the boards through youth outreach and training programs. While the sole responsibility for this chronic and widespread underrepresentation does not rest entirely on the shoulders of America’s dream factory—an NPR story from 2003 on Women Music Producersby Neda Ulaby discusses additional reasons “Why Female Producers Are a Rare Breed”—we must also acknowledge that cinematic images actively shape reality, they do not just passively reflect it. Representations limit our imaginations as much as as they embolden them. The images of recording in 1980s films remind us that the mere presence of women’s voices is not enough to enable gender equity in our increasingly mediated and technologized public sphere, women must also “man” recording equipment, structuring (and shifting) the conditions under which their voices are recorded, framed, heard, and remixed into public consciousness.

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Changing the Face of Sound: Lauren Tabak Punches in (courtesy of Women's Audio Mission)

Okay, for all the completists out there, a quick recap, the first two films are: 1. Double Indemnity (1944) and 2. Blackboard Jungle (1955), with a little Mike Hammer for good measure: Kiss Me Deadly (1955).  The second two are: 3. Touch of Evil (1958) and 4. The Conversation (1974), and a leap into the 1980s: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

5. Diva (Les Films Galexie, 1981, Dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix):

The global sex trade. Transatlantic circulation of music and capital. International piracy rings. The Vietnamese diaspora. Imperialist fetishizing of the bodies (and voices) of women of color.  Taiwan as a rising force in the international economy. Police stings and gangland killings. Operatic performance and fan worship. Described by Frederic Jameson as “the first French postmodernist film” in Signatures of the Visible (1990), Diva is a rich, multilayered narrative that locates the tape recorder at the center of the vast cultural flows and postcolonial power struggles of late capitalism. As much fun Diva sometimes has with copies—there are duplicate cars, convenient doppelgangers, random mannequins, multiple decoy tapes—it also explores the melancholic cultural loss caused by a medium that holds out the promise of saving everyone, at the rate of 38.1 centimeters per second.
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At its heart, Diva is an intertwined tale of two tapes, both highly volatile recordings of women’s voices that threaten to escape masculine control.  The first is a bootlegged performance of an acclaimed African American opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez) made by Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a young, mild-mannered moped-riding postal delivery man who blows his meager checks on top-of-the-line recording equipment and opera tickets. The second is a self-made confession by the tragic Nadia (Chantal Deruaz), a prostitute and the mistress of Jean Saporta (Jacques Fabbri), a crooked cop and underworld kingpin who sends hit men to kill her as she stumbles barefoot down a crowded Parisian street, en route to turning herself in to the cops.  Nadia’s dying act is to sneak the incriminating cassette into Jules’s messenger bag, unbeknownst to him, and he spends most of the film zipping around the city on his “mobillette” wondering why both the cops and the bad guys are chasing him.  All he wants to think about is his Diva, Cynthia, and the secret recording he has made of her latest performance.

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Well, it was secret. Until Jules lends it out to impress a preteen roller skating, record-stealing Vietnamese fashionista named Alba (Thuy An Luu) who plays it for the (way) older man she lives with in a creepy ambiguous arrangement, a fortysomething Zen Buddhist hipster tough guy named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), who then tries to arrange a deal with two nameless, emotionless, mirrored-sunglass wearing, carbon copy Taiwanese business men (yellow peril much?) who are willing to pay top dollar for the tape.  As Cynthia’s manager eventually warns her in the most realistic moment of an otherwise over-the-top film, “the quality of the recording is perfect. . .and Taiwan never signed any international copyright agreement!”

Jules (Frédéric Andréi) and his Nagra

Diva asks audiences to imagine that Cynthia has never been recorded—she wants to preserve the aura of her performances as “unique moments”—and she considers pirated recordings as akin to “theft, rape even.” The metaphor is uncomfortably extended by the sexualized recording sequence when Jules finally captures her voice, squirming and fiddling with his recorder, hidden underneath a jacket on his lap, as tears stream down his face.  After the show, he steals the Diva’s dress and returns to his apartment to clutch it while listening, over and over, to her voice. Eventually even the  illicit sonic reproduction cannot contain Jules’s desire to possess Cynthia; he tries to create a reproduction-in-the-flesh by seeking out a black prostitute and paying her to wear the stolen gown.

Through unsettling images such as these, Diva depicts the tape recorder as a technological phallus. It isn’t only that women are fetishized recording objects, but they are actively chased away from the machine.When an excited Alba reaches out to grab Jules’s Nagra, he pushes her away, barking “Don’t touch my stuff. It is precious. Don’t touch it. . .The levels were precisely set.”  She backs off, sighing, “You and your Nagra,” in a tone that is both taunting and resigned. The only woman to make her own recording, Nadia, ends up dead, although grateful that her tape will at least allow her to “pick the time and place to die. There will be witnesses and evidence.” At least she hopes so.

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6.  Blow Out (MGM 1981, Directed by Brian DePalma):

Jack Terry (John Travolta) and his shotgun mic

Fresh off the success of Grease and Urban Cowboy, 70s hearththrob John Travolta brings macho swagger to the role of Jack Terry, a burned out sound designer who is complacent about getting the “perfect” female scream for B-grade horror flicks. When his director busts his chops about finding some “new wind”—he had been squeaking by with library sounds—he finds himself doing some midnight lurking in a Philadelphia park. Armed with his trusty shotgun microphone, he is ready when an out-of-control car careens around a corner and plunges off a bridge.  Instantly casting his equipment to the ground—oh! not The Nagra III!!!—he pulls a drowning woman from the car, the woefully vulnerable Sally (Nancy Allen).   As if this isn’t bad ass enough to beef up the rep of “sound guys” for eternity, Jack cockily lets the investigating detective have it when he insinuates that Jack misheard what happened on the bridge: “I know what an echo sounds like, all right? I’m a sound man! The bang was before the blow out, all right?”

Carrying overtones of Chappaquiddick, the incident that Jack earwitnessed involved the death of a very prominent governor who was headed to the White House. The powers that be want to silence Sally and erase all traces of her presence in the passenger seat, so they turn a deaf ear toward Jack’s insistence that he has a tell-tale shot on tape that proves the “accident” was really murder. Ostensibly about the tenuous relationship between politics and “the truth,” Blow Out also asks audiences to press pause and consider the disposability of women in our contemporary culture–how their real lives are often mixed down, edited out, and even erased, while their recorded representations are hyperamplified and hungrily consumed.

Terry, listening for the telltale shot

Inspired by The Conversation and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Upin which a swinging London photog enlarges a photo to reveal a killer—Blow Out depicts Jack on an obsessive rewind rampage, listening and re-living the incident on the bridge trying to prove the murder. The tape recorder is a both a necessary foundation of the film’s plot and a figurative device sparking audiences to listen again and to listen differently, to simultaneously question what they hear and to stake their lives on it. Interestingly, in a movie obsessed with sound and depictions of careful listening, audio itself cannot tell the whole story; it is only after Jack merges his soundtrack with a DIY film reconstructing the murder via newspaper photos that he feels his voice will finally be heard. Ultimately, however, the brash and principled sound man fails to find a listener. The haunting ending of the film, which I will not reveal, suggests that American culture mainly values “reality” and “truth” when it comes packaged as throwaway entertainment and that the female voice in terror is at the very heart of this titillating cycle of consumption.

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And in a supporting role. .  . 


Real Genius (Tristar, 1986, Director Martha Coolidge.  This film is notable for having five women on the sound team, editors Anna BoorstinVirginia Cook-McGowanJulia EvershadeRoxanne Jones, and assistant editor Christy Richmond).

"Math on tape is hard to follow, so please listen carefully!"

The tape recorder slyly appears in the midst of this sarcastic blast to the late cold war that chronicles the revenge exacted by a band of brilliant college students (led by a young Val Kilmer) when they find out that the laser they developed for their university was intended for use by the U.S. government as an airborne weapon. Appearing in the first of two iconic 80s montages—this one set to the Comsat Angels’ “I’m Falling”—the vector-like proliferation of tape recorders silently communicates much anxiety about the technological landscape of the 1980s.  When our irrepressible uber-nerd protagonist Mitch (Gabriel Jarrett) first begins his semester, he arrives at a full math lecture, barely noting the peppering of small personal recorders nudged to the corners of his classmate’s desks.  As time passes, the camera revisits Mitch, still earnestly scribing notes alongside what is now only a handful of other students; he is surrounded by a sea of boom boxes the size of bread boxes and flat black slimline recorders, with a few candy apple red models thrown in for ‘80s hipness.

Finally, the earnest Mitch arrives alone, notebook in hand, only to find a completely empty lecture hall, save for the spinning spools of various tape recorders. The professor, too, has left the building—a reel to reel drones on at the head of the classroom, in front of a chalkboard that states, “Math on tape is hard to follow: so please listen carefully.” The pained look on Mitch’s face says it all: the meritocratic world of ideas that he once expected to inherit quite simply no longer exists, if it ever had.  And, in a contemporary moment where online courses and “webinars” are the rule of the day and we stockpile podcasts like we have thousands of years to live, the humor of the tape-to-tape lecture cuts a little too closely. Suddenly I want to tap the mic and ask: “is this thing on? Bueller? . . .Bueller?”


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