Being a teacher, I can’t resist giving out a summer reading list. Being a researcher, I can’t help but want to share the projects that I am working on–which right now includes excavating the cultural history of the magnetic tape recorder in the United States. So, in honor of the Summer Solstice tomorrow (marking the official start of the season) I compiled a three-part summer series for Sounding Out! that does both: “Play it Again (and Again) Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film.”
My summer sound studies A-V list encourages you to fill your idle hours watching the “top 6” featured appearances of the magnetic tape recorder in film, in chronological order (2 each month, with a bonus “supporting role” nod rounding out each post). Not only will “Play it Again (And Again) Sam” help you beef up your cinema buff credentials, but it will trace a little-known history, asking you to consider how the recorder tangled its thin brown plastic tape so effectively into the warp and weft of our twentieth-century lives. You’ll find that my “top 6” list reveals much more human desire than technological determinism; the representations I examine express a complex mixture of fear and fascination, optimism and regret, change and stasis. Often a tool of the powerful, sometimes a weapon of the weak, the tape recorder was a cold war domestic product that could never truly be domesticated. As you will see in this spoiler-free three part series, interactions with the tape recorder remixed America’s workplaces, schools, homes, public spaces and private moments, ultimately shifting how the world was heard (and heard again and again).
So, load up your Netflix queue, shake up your Jiffy Pop, and take a much-needed couch-break from the heat and humidity with these oh-so-cool black-and-whites from the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, we can’t start our films without some “Coming Attractions”: look for part two on July 18th (spotlight on Walter Murch) and part three (the 1980s) on August 15th.
1. Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944, Directed by Billy Wilder)
Okay, so it is actually a dictaphone that appears in this film and the tormented insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) is “putting it on wax” rather than magnetic tape, but this once ubiquitous, now long forgotten recording device has such a haunting presence and a structuring role in this grim noir confessional that, like Neff himself, I am suddenly willing to break my own rules. Outside of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) elaborately sculptured coiffure, the key image of Double Indemnity is Neff’s lips murmuring his murderous late night confessions into the dictaphone’s horn, a physical and metaphorical stand in for the ear of his hardnosed boss (and the true object of his desire) claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).
The dictaphone was Billy Wilder (director/screenwriter) and Raymond Chandler’s (screenwriter) deliberate addition to the filmscript; James M. Cain’s 1943 novella was essentially Neff’s scrawled confession to the reader of his almost-perfect plot to kill Phyllis’s husband and reap double insurance rewards. The introduction of the dictaphone transformed the standard noir flashback voiceover into an even-more intimate exchange of anxious aspiration, guilty pleasure, and homosocial desire channeled through Neff’s tense vocal grain and fierce grip on the machine’s cord. A familiar office machine made strange by Neff’s late-night admissions, the dictaphone mediates the entire film, transforming the audience into eavesdroppers, listening in to an act of recording made for Keyes’s ears only. After stumbling into his office and jamming a cylinder into the machine, Neff begins, sternly: “Office memorandum. ‘Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don’t like the word ‘confession.’ I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose.” Sound, in the form of Neff’s heated breath pressed through the dictaphone’s curves and into our waiting ears, is the perfect device to exorcise the unseen desire in a film that tests the boundaries of darkness.
2. Blackboard Jungle (MGM, 1955, Directed by Richard Brooks)
Most people remember Blackboard Jungle for its seductive visual representations of juvenile delinquency, stoked by the sound of Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock,” the 1952 song that opened and closed the film (and became a smash hit as a result, as I discussed in a previous archival blog post here). I’d like to add an often-overlooked image to the film’s legacy, that of teacher Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) plunking a bulky case down on his desk and triumphantly announcing “This is a tape recorder!” A cutting edge device at the time—magnetic tape was only introduced in the states after World War II, largely through the efforts of Bing Crosby and Les Paul—Dadier’s recorder is part and parcel of the technological milieu of the 1950s, which evoked positivistic fascination with “progress” even as it was shaped by existent fears and inequalities.
At the point of almost giving up on his surly working class, ethnic, inner-city students to seek a cushy job in the segregated suburbs, Dadier brings in the reel-to-reel as a Hail Mary attempt to quell his students’ noise and remake them into good Cold War citizens once and for all. As he tells them, “We all talk, but nobody listens.” From the moment he enters the classroom, the students continue to defy the white male authority embodied in Dadier and housed in his machine—“Did you bring your cosmetics to school, Chief?” taunts one student (Gregory Miller, played by Sydney Poitier)—and they undermine his assignment by selecting the “noisiest” student in the class to make a recording: Puerto Rican Student Pete Morales. As I have discussed on this blog and in print, the concept of “noise” has a racialized edge, particularly in the 1950s, when Cold War cosmologies of colorblindness and “enemies within” ruled the day. Sound was an efficient way to separate “Us” from “them”—the noisy dissident from the quiet citizen—without making explicit reference to visual markers of race. And, let me tell you, Morales’s obscene, heavily-accented speech—peppered with “stinkin’”s, 14 of them in total—really makes Dadier’s spools spin. To hear more on the tape recorder in 1950’s American life and this film, see my essay “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in a Blackboard Jungle: Race, Cold War Liberalism and the Tape Recorder” forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound (September 2011).
And. . .in a supporting role:
Kiss Me Deadly (Parklane Pictures, 1955, Directed by Robert Aldrich)
The byzantine stairwalks and gingerbread Victorians of Los Angeles’s defunct Bunker Hill neighborhood are not the only ghosts you will encounter in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. Our first glimpse of Mike Hammer’s (Ralph Meeker) space-age Wilshire Boulevard bachelor pad includes a shot of his wall mounted, reel-to-reel answering machine, quite a technological marvel in 1955; it would be over 15 years before Phone Mate introduced the first commercially viable home model in 1971. His recorder manages to look both ridiculously large yet streamlined–and to twenty-first century audiences, old yet futuristic. However, it also allows the hunted, haunted private detective to take just a little more control of his tailspin of a life. After the jarring ring of a telephone call, the spools spin, and a sultry female voice intones: “This is Crestview 5-4124. Mister Hammer, whom you are calling, is not available at present. If you wish to leave a record of your call, please state your message at the sound of the tone.” His back inevitably against the wall, Hammer brings a suave tension to an act that has now become mundane: call screening. Removing the small surprise of who’s on the line, Hammer uses his recorder to listen just a step ahead, pacing an increasingly mysterious world given over to the dangerous riddle of the “whatsit” that leaves so many in the morgue by the film’s end. For a more general take on sound in this film (with a brief mention of Mike Hammer’s tape recorder), see Noira-Blanchè-Rougi’s November 2009 blog post, “The Use of Sound in Kiss Me Deadly.”
So it looks like concerns about truthiness and tape been with us a lot longer than all the press about Ke$ha’s recent beef with Britney’s lip-synching and Jay-Z’s self-declared (and apparently one-man) war against autotune. Here’s a tidbit from a 1955 Hi-Fi booklet. . .
Overediting of Tape
“As we have already noted, tape recording allows for considerable latitude in corrective re-recording and sound editing. This fact has been a godsend to many recording artists who cannot or will not present a competent beginning-to-end performance of a work of music for recording. Thus performances are often made in bits and pieces, and the artist decides which parts he wishes used.
It is interesting to note that the record companies are not usually to blame for this practice, except for the fact that they readily accede to the demands of their artists [ed:!?!?]. But one must wonder who is the real artist here, performer or tape editor?
The editor may receive instructions to use various passages from a number of different takes, to alter the pitch on this passage, to correct the dynamics on that, even to change the timbre overall. This results in a record which is possible better than any single public performance given by the artist. And it really is a synthetic performance. It may sound fine, but is it music? Is it art? Is it high fidelity?”
Let’s see what J-Hova has to say about that. . .
I’ve recently opened up a little online record shop focusing on what I like to call “Hand-Made” music. To me, that ranges from the DIY punk that I grew up with to the oldest kinds of rural music to field recordings from all over to the underground harsh noise tape/CD-R/vinyl scene. I’ve been thinking a bunch about how something like hand-made music gets heard. I figure that it gets passed around. Here’s what I mean.
Right now I’m listening to, get this, The Minutemen’s “The Anchor” on a digital copy of side two of a cassette tape called “Afraid of the Dark: ‘Garage’ Rock ‘n’ Roll 1965-1981.” It’s a mix tape made in 2008(?) by a record label/store in Portland, OR called Mississippi Records. Why is this relevant? The Minutemen exemplify the best of punk rock, three friends who started making music to create, to share, to inspire. “The Anchor” is on a mix tape put out by a record store and label that sells only “dead” media: vinyl and cassette. The store makes the mix tapes to spread the word about music they love. I can discern no other motive. They release reissues of music they love: old-time blues, warbly ragas, creaky punk rock and more–clearly labors of love. A store like this doesn’t distribute records and tapes in any broad sense of the word, it only passes around music to people who know the store. That’s not many people.
It’s funny. I have What Makes a Man Start Fires, the record that “Anchor” comes from and I could put it on my imachine and listen while I type, but the song, with all the vinyl static intact and squeezed between Richard Hell & the Voidoids and The Petticoats, takes on a new life in the context of the mix tape. I can hear the aha! moment that must’ve occurred as the tape was being compiled. We can follow “The Anchor” from its LP release in ’83 to someone at Mississippi Records hearing it and loving it and passing it on to friends and soon enough deciding that it warrants a place on their mix tape. They gave me the opportunity to re-hear something beautiful. “The Anchor” sounds better by having all these fingerprints on it. I feel more connected to it hearing it through this history, having passed through this many hands.
So I offer it to you, fingerprints and all. Imagine this on a homemade tape:
One of the most exciting possibilities emerging within sound studies is the emphasis on the listener and his/her role in shaping a sound’s meaning and content. Sounds disconnected from their contexts of reception rarely answer our questions about the past, but merely make for new listening experiences in the present. Thinking with our ears is profound, but thinking through our ears can be life-changing—moving us closer to an understanding of sound’s power and its intensive connection to memory and the emotive forces of both life and death.
Until very recently, I had not heard the sound of my Grandmother’s voice in over eight years. I had actually never expected to hear it again, as she died in 2001. It is a clichéd understatement that I loved my grandmother very much; when she died, I was barely a “real” adult and I felt like we had just gotten acquainted. However, I thought I had already made peace with the passing of her beloved throaty crackle into the world of furtive dreams and spotty memory, until one night in 2004, when this loss was suddenly found.
Somewhere around two a.m. on a weekday, the phone rang. Once you are past a certain age, the shrill peal of a telephone after midnight can be downright terrifying. Someone has died. Someone is calling from jail. Someone’s life is in shreds. Nothing good. My hand hovered over the receiver for a second, as I rubbed my tired eyes and steeled myself for whatever might be at the other line.
“Hello,” I mumbled, hesitatingly.
Silence, for a second. And, then, the keen of my sister’s voice, choked through tears, “I found it.”
Inexplicably, my groggy listening ears automatically knew precisely what “it” was : an oral history of my grandmother I recorded in 1998, on teeny-tiny tapes in an itsy-bitsy recorder my sister used to record her professor’s lectures. I borrowed it, and like a good sister, I returned it. Tapes included. At the time, I thought there would be plenty more opportunities to have deep convos with Grandma. I had always assumed my sister recycled it, replacing my grandmother’s words with her bio prof’s. With three little gasped words, I realized she hadn’t.
You’d think my first reaction would be excitement—and I was thrilled, but in the nineteenth-century sense. My heart was pierced by even the thought of hearing my Grandmother’s voice again; the imagined sound tremored through me and, in a moment of pure protective reflex, I immediately cast the receiver away. In a sense, I had heard my grandmother’s ghost. The sounds magnetized on that tape seemed to resurrect her and mock the promise of that hour of conversation, when we had no idea what lay ahead.
Even though I made the conscious decision not to listen to the tape, I let the thought of her audio presence haunt me for five years. I could not escape the thought of her voice both in my memory and in this new audio embodiment. Oddly enough, I surrounded myself with pictures of my Grandmother as remembrances—cheeky 1940s shots from her youth as well as seasoned photos of us together—but those images brought me cool comfort. Their framed borders demarcated a long-gone past. When my chest got too tight, I could look away. Not so with the vibrations of her voice, which sounded out the contours of her absent body. Her voice threatened too much wonder, and with it, an attendant dose of insatiable longing. Unlike the frozen photographic slices of life, the sound had an animated heft to it. It breathed.
Ultimately, I was unable to listen to the tape through my own ears. It wasn’t until the birth of my son that I even considered playing it. Suddenly, my grandmother wasn’t mine alone, but also the great-grandmother my son would never really know. The new relation between the two of them allowed me to fashion another set of ears; I became a new listener, connected to the voice by life rather than death, by shared possibility rather than the solipsism of grief. So on a snowy night last January, I finally pressed play. With my infant son in my arms, I listened, at long last, to that beautiful crackling voice spinning stories of her childhood in Iowa and adult life in California. Ironically, I almost immediately realized there were actually two dead voices on that tape. I had long since shed the happy-but-halting girlish voice of my youth like an ill-fitting skin, but hadn’t quite realized it until I heard my old nervous laughter fill the speakers. I realized that, someday, I’ll have to introduce my son to that young woman too.
My Grandma and I talk about WWII and the sinking of the Ruben James:
My Favorite part of the interview: