[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]
In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”
The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.
The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.
In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.
For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.
With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.
Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.
Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.
As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?
Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.
Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0
Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled “The Play of History.”
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past” -Andrew J. Salvati
“The Noise of SB 1070: Or Do I Sound Illegal to You?”- Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
“DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks” -Tom McEnaney
This is the opening salvo in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Primus Luta, along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to productivity algorithms. So, program your presets for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s exhilarating opening think piece from SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
We drafted a manifesto.
Microsoft Research’s New England Division, a collective of top researchers working in and around new media, hosted a one-day symposium on music technology. Organizers Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne invited top scholars from a plethora of interdisciplinary fields to discuss the value, affordances, problems, joys, curiosities, pasts, presents, and futures of Music Technology. It was a formal debrief of the weekend’s Music Tech Fest, a celebration of innovative technology in music. Our hosts christened the day, “What’s Music Tech For?” and told us to make bold, brave statements. A kaleidoscope of kinetic energy and ideas followed. And, at 6PM we crumpled into exhausted chatter over sangria, cocktails, and imported beer at a local tapas restaurant.
The day began with Annette Markham, our timekeeper, offering us some tips on how to best think through what a manifesto is. She went down the list: manifestos are primal, they terminate the past, create new worlds, trigger communities, define us, antagonize others, inspire being, provoke action, crave presence. In short, manifestos are a sort of intellectual world building. They provide a road map toward an imagined future, but in doing so they also work to produce this very future. Annette’s list made manifestos seem to be a very focused thing, and perhaps they usually are. But, having now worked through the process of creating a manifesto with a collective, I would add one more point – manifestos are sloppy.
Our draft manifesto is a collective vision about what the blind-spots of music technology are, at present, and what we want the future of music technology to look like. And although there is general synergy around all of the points within it, that synergy is somewhat addled by the polyphonic nature of the contributors. There were a number of discussions over the course of the day that were squelched by the incommensurable perspectives of one or two of the participants. For instance, two scholars argued about whether or not technical platforms have politics. These moments of disagreement, however, only added a brilliant contour to our group jam. Like the distortion cooked into a Replacements single, it only serves to highlight how superb the moments of harmony and agreement are in contrast. This brilliant and ambivalent fuzziness speaks perfectly to the value of radical interdisciplinarity.
These disagreements were exactly the point. Why else would twenty academics from a variety of interdisciplinary fields have been invited to participate? Like a political summit, there were delegates from Biology, Anthropology, Computer Science, Musicology, Science and Technology Studies, and more. Rotating through the room, we did our introductions (see the complete list of participants at the bottom of this paper). Our interests were genuine and stated with earnestness. Nancy Baym declared emphatically that music is, “a productive site for radical interdisciplinarity,” while Andrew Dubber, the director of Music Tech Fest, noted the centrality of culture to the dialogue. Both music and technology are culture, he argued. The precarity of musical occupations, the gender divide, and the relationship between algorithm and consumer, all had to take a central role in our conversation, an inspired Georgina Born demanded. Bryan Pardo, a computer scientist, announced that he was listening with an open mind for tips on how to best design the platforms of tomorrow. Though collegial, our introductory remarks were all political, loaded with our ambitions and biases.
The day was an amazing, free-form, brainstorm. An hour and a half long each, the sessions challenged us to answer a big question – first, what are the problems of music technology, then what are some actions and possibilities for its future. Every fifteen or twenty minutes an alarm would ring and tables would exchange members, the new member sharing ideas from the table they came from. At one point I came to a new table telling stories about how music had the power to sculpt social relations, and was immediately confronted with a dialogue about problems of integration in the STEM fields.
In short, the brainstorms were a hodgepodge of ideas. Some spoke about the centrality of music to many cultural practices. Noting the ways in which humans respond to their environments through music, they questioned if tonal schema were ultimately a rationalization of the world. Though music was theorized as a means of social control many questions remained about whether it could or should be operationalized as such. Others considered different conversations entirely. Jocking sustainability and transduction as key factors in an ideal interdisciplinarity and shunning models that either tried to put one discipline in service of another, or simply tried to stack and combine ideas.
Some of the most productive debates centered around the nature of “open” technology. Engineers were challenged on their claim that “open source technology” was an unproblematic good, by Cultural Studies scholars who argued that the barriers to access were still fraught by the invisible lines of race, class, and gender. If open source technology is to be the future of music technology, they argued, much work must still be done to foster a dialogue where many voices can take part in that space.
We also did our best to think up actionable solutions to these problems, but for many it was difficult to dream big when their means were small in comparison. One group wrote, “we demand money,” on a whiteboard in capital letters and blue marker. Funding is a recurrent and difficult problem for many scholars in the United States and other, similar, locations, where funding for the arts is particularly scarce. On points like this, we all agreed.
We even considered what new spaces of interactivity should look like. Fostering spaces of interaction with public works of art, music, performance and more, could go a long way in convincing policy makers that these fields are, in fact, worthy of greater funding. Could a university be designed so as to prioritize this public mode of performance and interactivity? Would it have to abandon the cloistered office systems, which often prohibit the serendipitous occasion of interdisciplinary discussion around the arts?
There are still many problems with the dream of our manifesto. To start, although we shared many ideas, the vision of the manifesto is, if anything, disheveled and uneven. And though the radical interdisciplinarity we epitomized as a group led to a million excellent conversations, it is difficult, still, to get a sense of who “we” really are. If anything, our manifesto will be the embodiment of a collective that existed only for a moment and then disbursed, complete with jagged edges and inconsistencies. This gumbo of ideas, for me, is beautiful. Each and every voice included adds a little extra to the overall idea.
Ultimately, “What’s Music Tech For?” really got me thinking. Although I remain skeptical about the United States seeing funding for the arts as a worthy endeavor anytime soon, I left the event with a number of provocative questions. Am I, as a scholar, too critical about the value of technology, and blind to the ways it does often function to provoke a social good? How can technological development be set apart from the demands of the market, and then used to kindle social progress? How is music itself a technology, and when is it used as a tool of social coercion? And finally, what should a radical mode of listening be? And how can future listeners be empowered to see themselves in new and exciting ways?
What do you think?
Our team, by order of introduction:
Mary Gray (Microsoft Research), Blake Durham (University of Oxford), Mack Hagood (Miami University), Nick Seaver (University of California – Irvine), Tarleton Gillespie (Cornell University), Trevor Pinch (Cornell University), Jeremy Morris (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Diedre Loughridge (University of California – Berkley), Georgina Born (Oxford University), Aaron Trammell (Rutgers University), Jessa Lingel (Microsoft Research), Victoria Simon (McGill University), Aram Sinnreich (Rutgers University), Andrew Dubber (Birmingham City University), Norbert Schnell (IRCAM – Centre Pompidou), Bryan Pardo (Northwestern University), Josh McDermitt (MIT), Jonathan Sterne (McGill University), Matt Stahl (Western University), Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research), Annette Markham (Aarhus University), and Michela Magas (Music Tech Fest Founder).
Read the Manifesto here and sign on if you dig it. . . http://www.musictechifesto.org/
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #15: Listening to the Tuned City of Brussels, The First Night– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini
“I’m on my New York s**t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City– Liana Silva-Ford
The podcast is (or, can be) an intimate performance venue on the internet because it allows you to whisper into the ears of your fans. It allows you to grow close to communities of listeners. And podcasts also do one last thing, to be revealed at the end of this piece, after we’ve seen how far I can take you. For now, I will quote podcasters I admire to help explain these ideas in their own words. I also quote these podcasters in an audio format. I have recorded this essay as an episode of the Sounding Out! podcast. You can listen right here, and I suggest you do. Go ahead, press play:
The podcast is what’s happening if you’re listening to these words. Are you? Because remember: my central claim is that a podcast is an intimate performance venue on the internet. Keep that in mind.
I am a podcaster, musician, and assistant professor of Economics. I have released six episodes of my own podcast, The Lion in Tweed.
My podcast is primarily a narrative, with music and sound effects interwoven. It is about a character, The Lion in Tweed, and his experiences as a musician and professor of economics. He is also a lion. The second half of each podcast episode is a references section where I cite my sources and leave the fictional Tweedoverse canon to discuss real things.
I am not the first podcaster to remark on the ability of podcasts to traffic in intimacy. Chris Hardwick, of the Nerdist podcast, has claimed that, due to their intimacy, podcasts are the best medium going. He stressed: “you’re talking directly into the ears of your listeners.” There is no doubt that Hardwick was referring to those white iPod earbuds, which are a primary method of listening to podcasts. Part of a podcast’s intimacy comes from the closeness of the earbud to the membrane in the ear. Listening to earbuds evokes the intimate, and physical, closeness of someone whispering in your ear. Hardwick’s style of podcast is also intimate: vocal storytelling, mostly three comedians talking about the funniest things that have happened recently. The fact that it is not visual accentuates the intimacy of “whispering in your ears.” Although I would like to argue that the visual always reduces a sense of intimacy, I may simply prefer the sonic over the visual. Nevertheless, I believe that, the intimacy to which Hardwick is refers, is tied to the fact it is only sonic.
Podcasts as performance have a strange kind of liveness, episode-to-episode interactivity. By this I mean that they are not immediate; they lack the urgency of a theater-goer’s applause, or a heckler’s retort. Though not immediate, they are still dynamic, with their episodic pacing. And, unlike heckling, almost completely positive. This sense of long-term interactivity provides a foundation for understanding a second way that podcasts are intimate: they can cultivate intimate and interconnected communities of listeners.
They [Stop Podcasting Yourself, hosted by Graham Clark and Dave Shumka] have a really good community of people, community interaction: people send them stuff, sometimes people send them stuff unprompted. And they have a phone number [for people to call in messages that they play].
To illustrate how interconnected this community is, let me describe to you where this quote came from. It is a clip of Dan Sai, recorded by Davin Pavlas at MaxFunCon (the annual convention of the MaximumFun.org podcast label). I know Davin because of our mutual love of MaxFun podcasts. When I brought The Lion in Tweed into the world, I advertised it on podcasts in the MaxFun network. When Davin heard the description, he began to listen to my podcast. Now we are collaborating on an episode of The Lion in Tweed, which will quote these very words when it comes out two weeks from now. Similarly, UK resident Will Owens and I exchanged tweets after he started listening to my podcast and I found out he reviewed various narrative media on his website, and now he has written a review of my podcast, which we both promote. Ours is a community in which a feeling of value comes with a sense of connectedness. The podcasts give a shared culture.
SO IN PODCASTS, WE FIND A MEDIUM that is both sonic and vocal. They provide a platform for intimate and interconnected communities, which are rooted in an alternative kind of interactivity (long-term liveness), to grow. The whisper-in-the-ear quality of podcasts, as well as the feeling of community, all but completely explain why podcasts are so intimate.
Podcasts may be hip and modern, but they are not ironic. Podcasts represent a distillation of what the podcasters genuinely love, and in that they find their authenticity. According to Paul F. Tompkins, a comedian and podcaster:
It’s very freeing to be able to say: “Here are all the things that I like; I’m going to put them all into this [podcast].”
That was at minute 50:32 of Nerdist podcast ep 33 hosted by Chris Hardwick, with Paul F. Tompkins as a guest.
I can mostly just do things that I am interested in, and so I don’t have to do something that is false to me, and I can let my guiding light be, “Do I like this and think it’s worth doing?”
And we see that authenticity completes the puzzle: podcasts are intimate because they feel so real. In podcasts it feels like you are listening to a real person because you are listening to the things that a real person loves…and interacting with real people is much more intimate than feeling like you are interacting with a marketing department (as you may when listening to a CD, or radio-show).
This is how I construct intimate performance venues: Audio-only, voice/storytelling focused, in which I try to build and exploit supportive, interconnected communities of fans with a shared culture (the podcasts). And, in doing so, I try to remain true to what I truly love. This authenticity, I believe, deepens the intimacy.
In the background of this podcast episode, Andreas plays an instrumental cover of “Bound for Hell” by Love and Rockets.
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.”