In the radio dramatization of Return of the Jedi (1996), a hibernation sickness-blinded Han Solo can tell bounty hunter Boba Fett is in the same room with him just by smelling him. Later this month, Solo: A Star Wars Story (part of the Anthology films, and as you might expect from the title, a prequel to Han Solo’s first appearance in Star Wars: A New Hope) may be able to shed some light on how Han developed this particular skill.
Later in that dramatization, we have to presume Han is able to accurately shoot a blaster blind by hearing alone. Appropriately, then, sound is integral to Star Wars. For every iconic image in the franchise—from R2D2 to Chewbacca to Darth Vader to X-Wing and TIE-fighters to the Millennium Falcon and the light sabers—there is a correspondingly iconic sound. In musical terms, too, the franchise is exemplary. John Williams, Star Wars’ composer, won the most awards of his career for his Star Wars (1977) score, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and three Grammys. Not to mention Star Wars’ equally iconic diegetic music, such as the Mos Eisley Cantina band (officially known as Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes).
Without sound, there would be no Star Wars. How else could Charles Ross’ One Man Star Wars Trilogy function? In One Man Star Wars, Ross performs all the voices, music, and sound effects himself. He needs no quick costume changes; indeed, in his rapid-fire, verbatim treatment, it is sound (along with a few gestures) that he uses to distinguish between characters. His one-man show, in fact, echoes C-3PO’s performance of Star Wars to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, a story told in narration and sound effects far more than in any visuals. “Translate the words, tell the story,” says Luke in the radio dramatization of this scene. That is what sound does in Star Wars.
I believe that the general viewing public is aware on a subconscious level of Star Wars’ impressive sound achievements, even if this is not always articulated as such. As Rick Altman noted in 1992 in his four and a half film fallacies, the ontological fallacy of film—while not unchallenged—began life with André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” (1960) which argues that film cannot exist without image. Challenging such an argument not only elevates silent film but also the discipline of film sound generally, so often regarded as an afterthought. “In virtually all film schools,” Randy Thom wrote in 1999, “sound is taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of technical operations, a necessary evil on the way to doing the fun stuff.”
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about Star Wars on original release in what Gianlucca Sergi terms a “harmful generalization” that its defining characteristic was its “loudness.” Loud sound does not necessarily equal good sound in the movies, which audiences themselves can sometimes confuse. “High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien creature vocalizations” do not equal good sound design alone, as Thom has argued. On the contrary, Star Wars’ achievements, Sergi posited, married technological invention with overall sound concept and refined if not defined the work of sound technicians and sound-conscious directors.
The reason why Star Wars is so successful aurally is because its creator, George Lucas, was invested in sound holistically and cohesively, a commitment that has carried through nearly every iteration of the franchise, and because his original sound designer, Ben Burtt, understood there was an art as well as a science to highly original, aurally “sticky” sounds. Ontologically, then, Star Wars is a sound-based story, as reflected in the existence of the radio dramatizations (more on them later). This article traces the historical development of sound in not only the Star Wars films (four decades of them!) but also in other associated media, such as television and video games as well as examining aspects of Star Wars’ holistic sound design in detail.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .
As Chris Taylor points out, George Lucas “loved cool sounds and sweeping music and the babble of dialogue more than he cared for dialogue itself.” In 1974, Lucas was working on The Radioland Murders, a screwball comedy thriller set in the fictional 1930s radio station WKGL. Radio, indeed, had already made a strong impression on Lucas, such that legendary “Border blaster” DJ Wolfman Jack played an integral part in Lucas’ film American Graffiti (1973). As Marcus Hearn picks up the story, Lucas soon realized that The Radioland Murders were going nowhere (the film would eventually be made in 1994). Lucas then turned his sound-conscious sensibilities in a different direction, in “The Star Wars” project upon which he had been ruminating since his film school days at the University of Southern California. Retaining creative control, and a holistic interest in a defined soundworld, were two aspects Lucas insisted upon during the development of the project that would become Star Wars. Lucas had worked with his contemporary at USC, sound designer and recordist Walter Murch, on THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, and Murch would go on to provide legendary sound work for The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). Murch was unavailable for the new project, so Lucas then asked producer Gary Kurtz to visit USC to evaluate emerging talent.
Pursuing a Masters degree in Film Production at USC was Ben Burtt, whose BA was in physics. In Burtt, Lucas found a truly innovative approach to film sound which was the genesis of Star Wars’ sonic invention, providing, in Sergi’s words, “audiences with a new array of aural pleasures.” Sound is embodied in the narrative of Star Wars. Not only was Burtt innovative in his meticulous attention to “found sounds” (whereas sound composition for science fiction films has previously relied on electronic sounds), he applied his meticulousness in character terms. Burtt said that Lucas and Kurtz, “just gave me a Nagra recorder and I worked out of my apartment near USC for a year, just going out and collecting sound that might be useful.”
Inherent in this was Burtt’s relationship with sound, in the way he was able to construct a sound of an imaginary object from a visual reference, such as the light saber, described in Lucas’ script and also in concept illustrations by Ralph McQuarrie. “I could kind of hear the sound in my head of the lightsabers even though it was just a painting of a lightsaber,” he said. “I could really just sort of hear the sound maybe somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before.” Burtt also shared with Lucas a sonic memory of sound from the Golden Age of Radio: “I said, `All my life I’ve wanted to see, let alone work on, a film like this.’ I loved Flash Gordon and other serials, and westerns. I immediately saw the potential of what they wanted to do.”
But sir, nobody worries about upsetting a droid
Burtt has described the story of A New Hope as being told from the point of view of the droids (the robots). While Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) to create the characters of droids R2-D2 (“Artoo”) and C-3PO (“Threepio”), the robots are patently non-human characters. Yet, it was essential to imbue them with personalities. There have been cinematic robots since Maria, but Burtt uniquely used sound to convey not only these two robots’ personalities, but many others as well. As Jeanne Cavelos argues, “Hearing plays a critical role in the functioning of both Threepio and Artoo. They must understand the orders of their human owners.” Previous robots had less personality in their voices; for example, Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, spoke each word crisply with pauses. Threepio is a communications expert, with a human-like voice, provided by British actor (and BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company graduate) Anthony Daniels. According to Hearn, Burtt felt Daniels should use his own voice, but Lucas was unsure, wanting an American used car salesman voice. Burtt prevailed, creating in Threepio, vocally, “a highly strung, rather neurotic character,” in Daniels’ words, “so I decided to speak in a higher register, at the top of the lungs.” (Indeed, in the Diné translation of Star Wars [see below], Threepio was voiced by a woman, Geri Hongeva-Camarillo, something that the audience seemed to find hilarious.)
Artoo was altogether a more challenging proposition. As Cavelos puts it, “Artoo, even without the ability to speak English, manages to convey a clear personality himself, and to express a range of emotions.” Artoo’s non-speech sounds still convey emotional content. We know when Artoo is frightened;
when he is curious and friendly;
and when he is being insulting.
we started making little vocal sounds between each other to get a feeling for it. And it dawned on us that the sounds we were making were not actually so bad. Out of that discussion came the idea that the sounds a baby makes as it learns to walk would be a direction to go; a baby doesn’t form any words, but it can communicate with sounds.
The approach to Artoo’s aural communications became emblematic of all of the sounds made by machines in Star Wars, creating a non-verbal language, as Kris Jacobs calls it, the “exclusive province” of the Star Wars universe.
Powers of observation lie with the mind, Luke, not the eyes
According to Gianlucca Sergi, the film soundtrack is composed of sound effects, music, dialogue, and silence, all of which work together with great precision in Star Wars, to a highly memorable degree. Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), noted that when filming light saber battles with Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), he could not resist vocally making the sound effects associated with these weapons.
This a good illustration of how iconic the sound effects of Star Wars have become. As Burtt noted above, he was stimulated by visuals to create the sound effects of the light sabers, though he was also inspired by the motor on a projector in the Department of Cinema at USC. As Todd Longwell pointed out in Variety, the projector hum was combined with a microphone passed in front of an old TV to create the sound. (It’s worth noting that the sounds of weapons were some of the first sound effects created in aural media, as in the case with Wallenstein, the first drama on German radio, in 1924, which featured clanging swords.)
If Burtt gave personality to robots through their aural communications, he created an innovative sound palette for far more than the light sabers in Star Wars. In modifying and layering found sounds to create sounds corresponding to every aspect of the film world—from laser blasts (the sound of a hammer on an antenna tower guy wire) to the Imperial Walkers from Empire Strikes Back (modifying the sound of a machinist’s punch press combined with the sounds of bicycle chains being dropped on concrete)—he worked as meticulously as a (visual) designer to establish cohesion and impact.
Sergi argues that the sound effects in Star Wars can give subtle clues about the objects with which they are associated. The sound of Imperial TIE fighters, which “roar” as they hurtle through space, was made from elephant bellows, and the deep and rumbling sound made by the Death Star is achieved through active use of sub-frequencies. Meanwhile, “the rebel X-wing and Y-wing fighters attacking the Death Star, though small, emit a wider range of frequencies, ranging from the high to the low (piloted as they are by men of different ages and experience).” One could argue that even here, Burtt has matched personality to machine. The varied sounds of the Millennium Falcon (jumping into hyperspace, hyperdrive malfunction), created by Burtt by processing sounds made by existing airplanes (along with some groaning water pipes and a dentist’s drill), give it, in the words of Sergi, a much more “grown-up” sound than Luke’s X-Wing fighter or Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV. Given that, like its pilot Han Solo, the Falcon is weathered and experienced, and Luke and Leia are comparatively young and ingenuous, this sonic shorthand makes sense.
Millions of voices
Michel Chion argues that film has tended to be verbocentric, that is, that film soundtracks are produced around the assumption that dialogue, and indeed the sense of the dialogue rather than the sound, should be paramount and most easily heard by viewers. Star Wars contradicts this convention in many ways, beginning with the way it uses non-English communication forms, not only the droid languages discussed above but also its plethora of languages for various denizens of the galaxy. For example, Cavelos points out that Wookiees “have rather inexpressive faces yet reveal emotion through voice and body language.”
While the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special may have many sins laid at its door, among them must surely be that the only Wookiee who actually sounds like a Wookiee is Chewbacca. His putative family sound more like tauntauns. Such a small detail can be quite jarring in a universe as sonically invested as Star Wars.
While many of the lines in Star Wars are eminently quotable, the vocal performances have perhaps received less attention than they deserve. As Starr A. Marcello notes, vocal performance can be extremely powerful, capitalizing on the “unique timbre and materiality that belong to a particular voice.” For example, while Lucas originally wanted Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan, Alec Guinness’ patrician Standard English Neutral accent clearly became an important part of the character. For example, when (Scottish) actor Ewan McGregor was cast to play the younger version of Obi-Wan, he began voice lessons to reproduce Guinness’ voice. Ian McDiarmid (also Scottish), a primarily a Shakespearean stage actor, was cast as arch-enemy the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, presumably on the quality of his vocal performance, and as such has portrayed the character in everything from Revenge of the Sith to Angry Birds Star Wars II.
Sergi argues that Harrison Ford as Han Solo performs in a lower pitch but an unstable meter, a characterization explored in the radio dramatizations of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, when Perry King stands in for Ford. By contrast, Mark Hamill voices Luke in two of the radio dramatizations, refining and intensifying his film performances. Sergi argues that Hamill’s voice emphasizes youth: staccato, interrupting/interrupted, high pitch.
And affectionately parodied here:
I would add warmth of tone to this list, perhaps illustrated nowhere better than in Hamill’s performance in episode 1 – “A Wind to Shake the Stars” of the radio dramatization, which depicts much of Luke’s story that never made it onscreen, from Luke’s interaction with his friends in Beggar’s Canyon to a zany remark to a droid (“I know you don’t know, you maniac!”). It will come as no surprise to the listeners of the radio dramatization that Hamill would find acclaim in voice work (receiving multiple nominations and awards). In the cinematic version, Hamill’s performance is perhaps most gripping during the climactic scene in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells him:
According to Hamill, “what he was hearing from Vader that day were the words, ‘You don’t know the truth: Obi-Wan killed your father.’ Vader’s real dialogue would be recorded in postproduction under conditions easier to control.” More on that (and Vader) shortly.
It has been noted that Carrie Fisher (who was only nineteen when A New Hope was filmed) uses an accent that wavers between Standard North American and Standard Neutral English. Fisher has explained this as her emulating experienced British star of stage and screen Peter Cushing (playing Grand Moff Tarkin).
However, the accents of Star Wars have remained a contentious if little commented upon topic, with most (if not all) Imperial staff from A New Hope onwards speaking Standard Neutral English (see the exception, stormtroopers, further on). In production terms, naturally, this has a simple explanation. In story terms, however, fans have advanced theories regarding the galactic center of the universe, with an allegorical impetus in the form of the American Revolution. George Lucas, after all, is an American, so the heroic Rebels here have echoes with American colonists throwing off British rule in the 18th century, inspired in part because of their geographical remove from centers of Imperial rule like London. Therefore, goes this argument, in Star Wars, worlds like Coruscant are peopled by those speaking Standard Neutral English, while those in the Outer Rim (the majority of our heroes) speak varieties of Standard North American. Star Wars thus both advances and reinforces the stereotype that the Brits are evil.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that James Earl Jones’ performance as Darth Vader has been noted for sounding more British than American, though Sergi emphasizes musicality rather than accent, the vocal quality over verbocentricity:
The end product is a fascinating mixture of two opposite aspects: an extremely captivating, operatic quality (especially the melodic meter with which he delivers the lines) and an evil and cold means of destruction (achieved mainly through echoing and distancing the voice).
It is worth noting that Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles, perhaps the most famous radio voice of all time, to portray Vader, yet feared that Welles would be too recognizable. That a different voice needed to emanate from behind Vader’s mask than the actor playing his body was evident from British bodybuilder David Prowse’s “thick West Country brogue.” The effect is parodied in the substitution of a Cockney accent from Snatch (2000) for Jones’ majestic tones:
A Newsweek review of Jones in the 1967 play A Great White Hope argued that Jones had honed his craft through “Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt.” Sergi has characterized Jones’ voice as the most famous in Hollywood, in part because in addition to his prolific theatre back catalogue, Jones took bit parts and voiced commercials—“commercials can be very exciting,” he noted. The two competing forces combined to create a memorable performance, though as others have noted, Jones is the African-American voice to the white actors who portrayed Anakin Skywalker (Clive Revill and Hayden Christensen), one British, one American.
Brock Peters, also African American and known for his deep voice, played Vader in the radio dramatizations. Jennifer Stoever notes that in America, the sonic color line “historically contoured, identified, and marked mismatches between ‘sounding white’ and ‘looking black’” (231) whereas the Vader performances “sound black” and “look white.” Andrew Howe in his chapter “Star Wars in Black and White” notes the “tension between black outer visage and white interior identity [ . . ] Blackness is thus constructed as a mask of evil that can be both acquired and discarded.”
Like many of the most important aspects of Star Wars, Vader’s sonic presence is multi-layered, consisting in part of Jones’ voices manipulated by Burtt, as well as the sonic indicator of his presence: his mechanized breathing”
The concept for the sound of Darth Vader came about from the first film, and the script described him as some kind of a strange dark being who is in some kind of life support system. That he was breathing strange, that maybe you heard the sounds of mechanics or motors, he might be part robot, he might be part human, we really didn’t know. [ . . .] He was almost like some robot in some sense and he made so much noise that we had to sort of cut back on that concept.
On radio, a character cannot be said to exist unless we hear from him or her; whether listening to the radio dramatizations or watching Star Wars with our eyes closed, we can always sense the presence of Vader by the sound of his breathing. As Kevin L. Ferguson points out, “Is it accidental, then, that cinematic villains, troubling in their behaviour, are also often troubled in their breathing?” As Kris Jacobs notes, “Darth Vader’s mechanized breathing can’t be written down”—it exists purely in a sonic state.
Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them
Music is the final element of Sergi’s list of what makes up the soundtrack, and John Williams’ enduring musical score is the most obvious of Star Wars’ sonic elements. Unlike “classical era” Hollywood film composers like Max Steiner or Erich Korngold who, according to Kathryn Kalinak, “entered the studio ranks with a fair amount of prestige and its attendant power, Williams entered as a contract musician working with ‘the then giants of the film industry,’” moving into a “late-romantic idiom” that has come to characterize his work. This coincided with what Lucas envisioned for Star Wars, influenced as it was by 1930s radio serial culture.
Williams’ emotionally-pitched music has many elements that Kalinak argues link him with the classical score model: unity, the use of music in the creation of mood and character; the privileging of music in moments of spectacle, the way music and dialogue are carefully mixed. This effect is exemplified in the opening of A New Hope, the “Main Title” or, as Dr Lehman has it (see below), “Main/Luke A.” As Sergi notes, “the musical score does not simply fade out to allow the effects in; it is, rather literally, blasted away by an explosion (the only sound clearly indicated in the screenplay).”
As Kalinak points out, it was common in the era of Steiner and Korngold to score music for roughly three-quarters of a film, whereas by the 1970s, it was more likely to be one-quarter. “Empire runs 127 minutes, and Williams initially marked 117 minutes of it for musical accompaniment”; while he used three themes from A New Hope, “the vast majority of music in The Empire Strikes Back was scored specifically for the film.”
Perhaps Williams’ most effective technique is the use of leitmotifs, derived from the work of Richard Wagner, and more complex than a simple repetition of themes. Within leitmotifs, we hear the blending of denotative and connotative associations, as Matthew Bribitzer-Stull notes, “not just a musical labelling of people and things” but also, as Thomas S. Grey puts it, “a matter of musical memory, of recalling things dimly remembered and seeing what sense we can make of them in a new context.” Bribitzer-Stull also notes the complexity of Williams’ leitmotif use, given that tonal music is given for both protagonists and antagonists, resisting the then-cliché of using atonal music for antagonists. In Williams’ score, atonal music is used for accompanying exotic landscapes and fight or action scenes. As Jonathan Broxton explains,
That’s how it works. It’s how the films maintain musical consistency, it’s how characters’ musical identities are established, and it offers the composer an opportunity to create interesting contrapuntal variations on existing ideas, when they are placed in new situations, or face off against new opponents.
Within the leitmotifs, Williams provides various variations and disruptions, such as the harmonic corruption when “the melody remains largely the same, but its harmonization becomes dissonant.” One of the most haunting ways in which Williams alters and reworks his leitmotifs is what Bribitzer-Stull calls “change of texture.”
Frank Lehman of Harvard has examined Williams’ leitmotifs in detail, cataloguing them based on a variety of meticulous criteria. He has noted, for example, that some leitmotifs are used often, like “Rebel Fanfare” which has been used in Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rogue One. Lehman particularly admires Williams’ skill and restraint, though, in reserving particular leitmotifs for very special occasions. For example, “Luke & Leia,” first heard in Return of the Jedi (both film and radio dramatization) and not again until The Last Jedi:
While Williams’ use of leitmotifs is successful and evocative, not all of Star Wars’ music consists of leitmotifs, as Lehman points out; single, memorable pieces of music not heard elsewhere are still startlingly effective.
In the upcoming Solo, John Williams will contribute a new leitmotif for Han Solo, while all other material will be written and adapted by John Powell. Williams has said in interview that “I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into, and drink it, and be sustained by it.” The sounds of Star Wars have sustained it—and us—and perfectly illustrate George Lucas’ investment in the equal power of sound to vision in the cinematic experience. I, for one, am looking forward to what new sonic gems may be unleashed as the saga continues.
On the first week of June, Leslie McMurtry will return with Episode II, focusing on shifts in sound in the newer films and multi-media forms of Star Wars, including radio and cartoons–and, if we are lucky, her take on Solo!
Featured Image made here: Enjoy!
Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University. Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras. Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Speaking American–Leslie McMurtry
Out of Sync: Gendered Location Sound Work in Bollywood–Priya Jaikumar
Welcome to the third and final installment of Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, our series about sound in contemporary films. We’ve been focusing on how filmmakers are blurring the boundaries between music, speech, and sound effects – in effect, integrating distinct categories of soundtrack design.
In our first post, Benjamin Wright showed how celebrated composer Hans Zimmer thinks across traditional divisions of labour to integrate film sound design with music composition. Danijela Kulezic-Wilson followed up with an insightful piece on the integration of audio elements in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, suggesting how scholars can apply principles of music, like tempo and rhythm, to their analyses of the interactions between a film’s images and sounds. In this final entry, Randolph Jordan, considers another dimension of integration: a film’s sounds and the place where it was produced. In his provocative and insightful reading of the quasi-documentary East Hastings Pharmacy, Jordan, who is completing a post-doctoral post at Simon Fraser University, elaborates on how the concept of “unsettled listening” can clue us into the relationship between a film and its origins of production. You’ll be able to read more about “unsettled listening” in Jordan’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema, to be published by Oxford University Press.
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking in this series as much as I’ve enjoyed editing it with the help of the marvelous folks at SO!. Thanks for reading. — Guest Editor Katherine Spring
A mother and son of First Nations ancestry sit in the waiting area of a methadone clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, their attention directed toward an offscreen TV. A cartoon plays, featuring an instrumental version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” that mingles with the operating sounds of the clinic and ambience from the street outside. The tune is punctuated by a metal clinking sound at the beginning of each bar, calling to mind the sound of driving railway spikes that once echoed just down the street as the City of Vancouver was incorporated as the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (beginning thus the cycle of state-sanctioned erasure of indigenous title to the land). The familiar voice of Bugs Bunny chimes in: “Uh, what’s all the hubbub, bub?”
Hubbub indeed. Let’s unpack it.
The scene appears one third of the way through East Hastings Pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012), a quasi-documentary set entirely within this clinic, staging interactions between methadone patients (played by locals and informed by their real-life experiences) and the resident pharmacist (played by an actress). Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, dubbed Canada’s “worst neighborhood” for its notorious concentration of transients and public drug use, is also home to the largest community of First Nations peoples within the city limits, a product of the long history of dispossession in the surrounding areas. When the film presents this indigenous pair listening to a Hollywood fabrication of the sounds that marked their loss of title to the city it is a potent juxtaposition, especially given the American infiltration of Vancouver’s mediascape since the 1970s. Long known as “Hollywood North,” Vancouver is more famous as a stand-in for myriad other parts of the world than for representing itself, its regional specificity endlessly overwritten with narratives that hide the city and its indigenous presence from public awareness.
In her essay “Thoughts on Making Places: Hollywood North and the Indigenous City,” filmmaker Kamala Todd stresses how media can assist the process of re-inscribing local stories into Vancouver’s consciousness. East Hastings Pharmacy is one such example, lending some screen time to urban Natives in the 21st Century city. But Todd reminds us that audiences also have a responsibility “to learn the stories of the land” that have been actively erased in dominant media practices, and to bring this knowledge to our experience of the city in all its incarnations (9). Todd’s call resonates with a process that Nicholas Blomley calls “unsettling the city” in his book of the same name. Blomley reveals Vancouver as a site of continual contestation and mobility across generations and cultural groups, and calls for an “unsettled” approach that can account for the multiple overlapping patterns of use that are concealed by “settled” concepts of bounded property. With that in mind, I propose “unsettled listening” as a way of experiencing the city from these multiple positions simultaneously. Rick Altman taught us to hear any given sound event as a narrative by listening for the auditory markers of its propagation through physical space, and recording media, over time (15-31). Unsettled listening invites us to hear through these physical properties of mediatic space to the resonating stories revealed by the overlapping and contradictory histories and patterns of use to which these spaces are put, all too often unacknowledged in the wake of settler colonialism.
East Hastings Pharmacy provides a great opportunity to begin the practice of unsettled listening. The film’s status as an independent production amidst industrial shooting is marked by the intersection of studio-fabricated sound effects and direct sound recording, as in the example described above, and further complicated by the film’s own hybrid of fiction and documentary modes. That speaks to the complexity of overlapping filmmaking practices in Vancouver today, a situation embedded within the intersecting claims to land use and cultural propriety on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. To unsettle listening is to hear all these overlapping situations as forms of resonance that begin with the original context of the televised cartoon and accumulate as they spread through the interior of the clinic and outwards across the surrounding land. So let’s try this out.
The cartoon is Falling Hare (Robert Clampett, 1943), a good example of the noted history of cross-departmental integration at The Warner Bros.’ cartoon studios. The scene in question begins at 1:55, and here the metallic clinking sound is just as likely to have been produced by one of music orchestrator Carl Stalling’s percussionists as by sound effects editor Treg Brown. This integration can be heard in the way that the music’s unspoken reference to railway construction charges each clink with the connotation of hammer on spike. However, the image track in Falling Hare doesn’t depict railway construction, but rather a gremlin whacking the nose of a live bomb in an attempt to do away with enemy Bugs seated on top. James Lastra would say (by way of Christian Metz) that the clinking sound is “legible” as hammer on spike for the ease with which the sound can be recognized as emanating from this implied source (126). But this legibility is premised upon a lack of specificity that also allows the sound to become interchangeable with something else, as is the case in this cartoon.
East Hastings Pharmacy capitalizes on this interchangeability by re-inscribing the clinking sound’s railway connotations, first by stripping the original image and then by presenting this sound in the context of the dire social realities of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the city’s sanctioned corral for the markers of urban poverty – and indigeneity – that officials don’t want to spill out across the neighborhood’s increasingly gentrified perimeter.
As one of a string of Warner Bros. cartoons put in the service of WWII propaganda, the Falling Hare soundtrack also resonates with wartime xenophobia and imperialist expansion, branches of the same pathos that leads to the effacing of indigenous culture from the consciousness of colonizing peoples. In Vancouver, this has taken the form of what Jean Barman calls “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity,” the process of chasing the area’s original peoples off the land while importing aboriginal artifacts from elsewhere to maintain a Native chic deemed safe for immigrant consumption (as when the city paid “homage” to the vacated Squamish residents of downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park by erecting Kwakiutl totem poles imported from 200km north on Vancouver Island) (26). This is an interchangeability of cultural heritage premised upon a lack of specificity, the same quality that allows “legible” sound effects to become synchretic with a variety of implied sources. And this process is not unlike the interchangeability of urban spaces when shooting Vancouver for Seattle, New York, or Frankfurt, emphasizing generic qualities of globalized urbanization while suppressing recognizable soundmarks from the mix (such as the persistent sound of float plane propellers that populate Vancouver harbour, the grinding and screeching of trains in the downtown railyard, or the regular horn blasts from the local ferry runs just north of the city).
The high-concept legibility of Warner Bros.’ sound effects – used in Falling Hare to play on listener’s expectations to comic effect – is further unsettled by its presentation within the context of documentary sound conventions in East Hastings Pharmacy. Bourges’ film commits to regional specificity in part through the use of location sound recording, which, as Jeffrey K. Ruoff identifies in “Conventions of Documentary Sound,” is particularly valued as a marker of authenticity (27-29). While Bourges stages the action inside the clinic, the film features location recordings of the rich street life audible and visible through the clinic’s windows that proceeds unaffected by the cameras and microphones. This situation is all the more potent when we account for the fact that, in this scene, the location-recorded cartoon soundtrack and ambient sound effects were added in post-production, and so represent a highly conscious attempt to channel the acoustic environment according to the conventions of “authentic” sound in documentary film.
While the film uses location recording as a conscious stylistic choice to evoke documentary convention, it does so to engage meaningfully with the social situation in the Downtown Eastside, underlining Michel Chion’s point that “rendered” film sound – fabricated in studio to evoke the qualities of a particular space – is just as capable of engaging the world authentically (or inauthentically) as “real” sound captured on location (95-98). By presenting this Hollywood cartoon as an embedded element within the soundscape of the clinic, using a provocative mix of location sound and studio fabrication, East Hastings Pharmacy unsettles Hollywood’s usual practice of erasing local specificity, inviting us to think of runaway projects in the context of their foreign spaces of production and the local media practices that sit next to them.
Finally, this intersection of sonic styles points to the complex relationships that exist between the domains of independent and industrial production around Vancouver. In his book Hollywood North, Mike Gasher argues for thinking about filmmaking in British Columbia as a resource industry, pointing to how the provincial government has offered business incentives for foreign film production similar to those in place for activities like logging and fishing. Here we can consider how the local film industry might follow the same unsustainable patterns of extraction as other resource industries, all premised upon willful ignorance of indigenous uses of the land. Yet as David Spaner charts in Dreaming in the Rain, the ability to make independent films in Vancouver has become largely intertwined with the availability of industrial resources in town. Just as Hollywood didn’t erase the independent film, colonization didn’t erase indigenous presence.
East Hastings Pharmacy offers a powerful example of how we can practice unsettled listening on the staged sound of Falling Hare, devoid of local context and connected to the railway only by inference, to reveal a rich integration with regional specificity as the cartoon’s auditory resonances accumulate within its new spaces of propagation. In this way we can hear local media through its transnational network, including the First Nations, to understand the overlaps between seemingly contradictory modes of being within the city. And in so doing, we can also hear through the misrepresentation of the Downtown Eastside as “Canada’s worst neighborhood” to the strength of the community that has long characterized the area for anyone who scratches the surface, an important first step along the path to unsettling the city as a whole.
Featured Image: Still from East Hastings Pharmacy
Randolph Jordan wanted to be a rock star. Academia seemed a responsible back-up option – until it became clear that landing a professor gig would be harder than topping the Billboard charts. After completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia University in 2010 he floated around Montreal classrooms on contract appointments before taking up a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. There he has been investigating geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography, research that will inform the last chapter of his book Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (now under contract at Oxford University Press). If you can’t find him hammering away at his manuscript, or recording his three young children hammering away at their Mason & Risch, look for him under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge where he spends his “spare time” gathering film and sound material for his multimedia project Bell Tower of False Creek. Or visit him online here: http://www.randolphjordan.com
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This piece is co-authored by Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson.
Scholarship rarely happens in isolation, despite quantitative demands in the humanities for “single-authored” works. Instead, intimacies of different shapes and configurations, transpiring in spaces as variegated as “the institution,” cocktail bars, cars, and even boudoirs, have profound effects on how we think, and on what we eventually write. However, academics have very few forms beyond the citation, the footnote, or even the acknowledgment, through which to admit our debts, recognize our inspirations, and lay bare the narcissisms of our small differences.
Our current areas of research—karaoke for Karen, ventriloquism for Sarah—traverse what may appear to be a narrow terrain of sound studies currently focused on “voice” or “the voice.” And yet the strains of sound studies that draw us to these topics do not exclusively concern themselves with the tropes or techniques of voice and vocalization that karaoke and ventriloquism conjure. Though voice presents itself as the most basic and fundamental connection between these two concepts and practices, we are each more invested in exploring karaoke and ventriloquism as actual sound technologies, as well as technologies of power. As you will read below, ventriloquism, for all its associations with archaism and mysticism in certain historical contexts, is also depicted as a technology and technique of deception, statecraft, and power. Meanwhile, karaoke, for all its associations with the expressive and participatory potential of amateur vocalization is also, crucially, a technological apparatus, whose media archaeology bears the traces of intercolonial conflicts, negotiations, and aftermaths. Finally, we are also both interested in the ways in which these sound technologies and techniques have been transformed into critical, intellectual, and affective methodologies, especially since they’ve both been harnessed as broader cultural metaphors for judgments at once moral and aesthetic.
Over an obscenely caloric breakfast, we devised several questions touching upon some keywords and concepts we believe are applicable to both karaoke and ventriloquism, two topics that undermine notions of authorship, source, and origin. In our respective writing about these two subjects, we’ve both occasionally (or more than occasionally) been besieged by the anxiety that our work is melding together into some indeterminate blob. To put it another way: like any other lesbionic duo resisting the “urge to merge” (as so many other queers have warned against), we’ve arrived at that moment in our intimate and intellectual relationship where we’ve decided to sort out whose socks are whose. Somewhat ironically, then, we wrote this post together to establish some of the crucial differences between karaoke and ventriloquism.
The following “ventrilokeal” dialogue shows, from a conceptual standpoint, where some of the boundaries between karaoke and ventriloquism harden, while others remain porous.
We each provide separate answers, engaging the other person’s answer when appropriate. Feel free to supplement some of our questions in the comments section, addressing either or both of us. And thanks for indulging.
1) How do both karaoke and ventriloquism—as terms, metaphors, and practices—conjure and/or reframe our understandings of originality and derivation?
KT: Karaoke, at least in my mind, has become the prevailing metaphor for derivation in the contemporary moment. Whenever the term is tossed about casually as a cultural metaphor, with little regard to the geographical contexts, modes of performance or the technologies that underlie its current practice, “karaoke” functions as a kind of shorthand for “the unoriginal,” the debased copy, the amateur reenactment. Novelist Dubravka Ugresic’s long essay on “Karaoke Culture” (2011) provides a perfect example of these applications of “karaoke.” And yet, karaoke in the U.S. in the last 15 years or so has also been construed as something that unlocks the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men (see Lost in Translation, the forgotten Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Duets, and a recent pair of books I actually quite like, Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life and Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke). Of course, it will take all of Empty Orchestra (my working book title), to answer this question properly, but one of the principles guiding my own account of karaoke as a metaphor for copies and reenactments (in addition to my exploration of its material practices and technological history), is that derivation and mimicry have always been a key concern of—and a point of intersection between—queer theory, aesthetics, critical race studies, and (post)-colonial studies.
SK: When ventriloquism is employed as a metaphor in popular cultural contexts, it’s also often used to connote a lack of originality. The term tends to describe (and to fantasize) a situation in which one individual acts as the communications medium—usually the speaking or singing vessel—for words, songs, and other ideological formulations that originate or originated with someone else. So, in contrast to the mass copying and amateurism invoked by “karaoke,” “ventriloquism” suggests an unoriginality that can, and that must, be traced back to a discrete body and distinct point of origin. Think, for example, of George “Dubya” Bush and Dick Cheney, who were often represented as a ventriloquial duo. Political cartoons depicted Dubya as Cheney’s open-mouthed dummy, perched on the knee of his puppet master, the “actual” leader of the free world. Here, ventriloquism was used to image a scenario wherein the man who seemed to be in power was both secretly and openly manipulated by another man, who was the true source of power. In this case, unoriginality on Bush’s part connoted originality on Cheney’s, whereas in the case of the Beyoncé lip-synch scandal (more on this below), unoriginality signified very differently. Generally speaking, however, “ventriloquism” implies that a deceptive act has occurred, one that masks the origin of its own workings. It signals the veiling and subsequent exposure of a powerful apparatus. This apparatus is usually vocal in nature, the voice’s historical connections to power being well documented. In his Western cultural history of ventriloquism, Dumbstruck (2001), for example, Steven Connor traces the form back to Greco-Roman oracular myths in which divine prophecy is primarily accessible as a voice, transmitted through the mediating body of a priestess.
Contemporary ventriloquists like the British performer Nina Conti often claim to be surprised by what their dummies say, which suggests that, far from being an omnipotent machinator, the ventriloquist is a bifurcated entity—one whose practice places her beside herself, in conversation with herself (or, as others have noted, with her unconscious). My recent work argues for bifurcation as a workable antidote to the tired, either/or question of originality vs. derivation to which popular cultural forms are repetitively subjected.
2) The terms “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” are both frequently employed in adjudicatory ways. As Karen has pointed out elsewhere, “karaoke” is often used in reality TV contexts (American Idol, The Voice) as a negative judgment of performance quality, i.e. “that performance was shit—mere karaoke.” “Ventriloquism,” for its part, is often used to connote a deviousness or deception that disqualifies a performance (think folks condemning Beyoncé post-lip-synched inauguration performance). What are the differences between “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” as judgments?
KT: I actually think that one of the primary differences between these two terms as judgments, and perhaps more simply as just terms, is that “karaoke” condemns the person performing it, or performing something in “the style of” karaoke (i.e. derivatively, as a copycat, as a mere echo of the “original”), as a lightweight. Pulling off a feat of ventriloquism seems like a heavier, more sinister, and more complex operation of power, at least as I’ve heard you explain it, and as you describe it viz. Bush/Cheney above. Karaoke as a performance practice also lacks ventriloquism’s gravitas and requisite skill, insofar as ventriloquism is an archaic-seeming art form. Karaoke is the opposite of serious or sinister: it’s laughable, buffoonish, and absurd. It’s all surface and no depth. Ventriloquism, at least as I’ve heard you describe it to me on many occasions, in different situations, seems more layered. This is not to say, however, that I actually believe that karaoke is lightweight, or only about surfaces, but as a term of adjudication, it can’t really break free from those associations to mean anything more.
SK: Yes, as you say above, “karaoke” as judgment indicates amateurism and insubstantiality, whereas “ventriloquism” suggests a more menacing, or at least a more complicated, operation. And when one actually does karaoke, one can’t even conceal one’s appropriation—it’s part and parcel of the practice. A ventriloquist, on the other hand, hides herself in plain sight: the greater the attention focused on her dummy, the less it matters that—as the audience well knows—she’s the one talking. This is called “misdirection”: if the eyes are on the dummy, the ears will follow, and the dummy will appear to speak even if he doesn’t have his own microphone.
The interesting thing about the liberal accusation that Bush was Cheney’s ventriloquist dummy was that, though the image of Cheney as evil puppetmaster was sinister, it still served a reassuring function, in that it allowed for the continuation of the idea that there was a source, or origin, of power, period. As opposed, let’s say, to a more Foucauldian understanding of power as dispersed, not traceable to an isolated sovereign body. In contrast, when Beyoncé allegedly lip-synced, but in fact sang over, her own recording of the National Anthem at the 2013 presidential inauguration, her performance—which, as many have pointed out, was not unusual by pop industry standards—was framed as ventriloquism in order to cast doubt on her legitimacy as a live performer, i.e. as a performer whose voice could “stand up” in non-studio conditions (which are still, and ironically, just as much mediated as studio conditions). These ventriloquial scenarios are, it should go without saying, gendered and racialized: Bush-Cheney as ventriloquism emasculated Bush while restoring power to Cheney’s white, male, visibly disabled body; Beyoncé-Beyoncé as ventriloquism rather unsuccessfully attempted to pit Bey against herself (mediated, recorded Beyoncé vs. live Beyoncé) in order to devalue her corporeal body and frame her as unworthy of (national) subjectivity.
3) Both karaoke and ventriloquism are mass, but not mainstream, cultural practices. Karaoke is a mass cultural activity, but one that still carries with it the frisson of doing something slightly risqué (hence its frequent overlap with inebriation). Ventriloquism, while not being a cultural activity practiced by the masses, is a mass-mediated and mass-consumed cultural form, despite the aura of Vaudevillian anachronism (and/or pathology) it persistently conveys. How might we account for the “mass but not mainstream” quality of both practices?
KT: I actually have to credit Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco, co-authors of an ambitious book, Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (2007) with the “mass vs. mainstream” formulation. At this point, karaoke is globally ubiquitous, thanks to the many delivery systems that have evolved from the first karaoke and sing-along machines from Japan and the Philippines. There’s actually a popular app called Sing!, which enables you to perform karaoke and compete against anyone in the world. Meanwhile, YouTube is replete with karaoke videos to perform and practice with (some KJs, or “karaoke jockeys,” use YouTube as their primary interface), as well as with videos of people from all walks of life performing karaoke in various bars or at family functions in the home or elsewhere. These days, practically every sitcom on primetime TV stages a requisite “karaoke outing,” that usually leads to disastrous, if hilarious consequences for its characters.
And yet karaoke as a mass practice can’t quite broach the mainstream, because of its various “abject” associations with immigrant communities, aspirational everymen longing to be idols, isolate geeks who only interact with the outside world through their computers, drunkards, gaggles of girls group-singing to Madonna, queens bereft of the piano bar’s liveness, slumming with an electronic delivery system for their show tunes, and other such “sad” spectacles. Once someone excels at karaoke—at singing someone else’s song so well that they transform it in some way—we are apt to think they actually exceed karaoke, and leave behind the form, much in the same way that, as you suggest in your opening comments, a good dummy eclipses its ventriloquist. When (in the words of many an Idol judge), someone makes someone else’s song “their own,” we enter into the territory of the cover, the reboot, the repurposed. The failure of the form to transcend its own limitations, even if it serves as the vehicle for many to otherwise achieve transcendence in myriad ways, is what keeps karaoke abject and not quite ready for mainstream acceptance.
SK: In the U.S., there’s a genre of white, masculine ventriloquism that’s currently extremely popular. This genre is typified by U.S. ventriloquism’s two biggest guns, Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham, who, following in the footsteps of Edgar Bergen, brought their ventriloquism to television to increase the art’s spread. Fator won America’s Got Talent in 2007 and now gives nightly performances at The Mirage in Vegas, where he has a theater named after him. He’s made hundreds of millions this way. Dunham has a strong presence on Comedy Central and is also one of the top-grossing U.S. standup acts. Both vents are especially popular with “Heartland” audiences, and both have casts of gendered and racialized puppets to whom they, as white male ventriloquists, play the straight man. Dunham, in particular, takes an unapologetic stance towards his own redneck identity, which permits him to criticize and recuperate this identity in one fell swoop. For instance, Dunham’s “white-trash trailer-park” dummy Bubba J drinks a surfeit of beer and is of low, if any, intelligence, but he remains benign in comparison to the rest of Dunham’s cast of characters, which includes Achmed the Dead Terrorist (a bin Laden caricature) and José Jalapeño on a Stick (use your imagination). Fator and Dunham’s ventriloquism evokes the practice’s historical connections and overlaps with minstrelsy, consolidating a fragile white masculinity in the process.
This culturally bounded reading of contemporary ventriloquism’s mass popularity directly resonates with your reading of karaoke as a practice with “abject” associations that is accordingly repurposed to “unlock the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men.” While ventriloquism is difficult to perform well, vent instruction manuals always stress that, with practice, anyone can ventriloquize. One of the reasons that the practice isn’t mainstream is that it’s associated with a perverse desire, even a need, to speak through someone else in lieu of being able to speak “for oneself.” Edgar Bergen was always said to be shy with women, and to woo them through his brash, confident alterego Charlie McCarthy. And in his autobiography, Who’s the Dummy Now? (2008), Terry Fator (or his ghostwriter) writes about how his father found his ventriloquism perverse, and how he literally closeted his dummy as a result. Ventriloquism is too blatant a form of triangulation to be normal, and is thus coded as deviant, a perversion of heterosexuality’s direct, unmediated operation. Hence Fator’s book title, which aggressively restores authority to the formerly emasculated ventriloquist.
4) As the previous question suggests, and as prominent scholars of ventriloquism have also suggested, ventriloquism is ever anachronistic. Karaoke, too, is suffused by a sense of belatedness, reflected in nostalgic, hits-driven karaoke song choices and/or by the practice’s enduring connection to seemingly obsolete technological forms like laser discs. In what ways is each form out of time, or behind the times, and, alternatively, why do these forms appear as such even as they continue to exist in time?
KT: As I mentioned above, karaoke’s purported abjection in the U.S. is, in many ways, a consequence of its association with the immigrant communities from Asia who imported the practice, as well as karaoke technologies, to the west coast as early as the mid-1970s. In that sense, karaoke functioned as a vehicle of nostalgia for those in the diaspora who longed to connect with memories of “home” through certain musical repertoires, even if some of those repertoires were actually already comprised of American pop hits folks grew to love when they were still “back home” (e.g. songs by the Carpenters, or any of the Johns—Elton, Olivia Newton, Denver). I haven’t quite worked it all out yet, but there is a certain circular temporality to karaoke. I have a hunch that the form is Romantic insofar as it is, at once, about the moment and its “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet prone to saturating those powerful feelings with the “passionate recollection of youth.” There’s also something anticipatory and performative about karaoke, insofar as it has the capacity to do what it purports to articulate. I wrote something about this from a personal perspective in a piece about my favorite L.A. karaoke bar, the Smog Cutter. As the question above remarks, karaoke also feels belated, or emblematic of a particular era, because of the visual peripherals that accompany some song catalogues, especially those released on laser disc in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s (i.e. the videos comprised of b-roll, and oblique narrative re-imaginings of certain songs). I can’t get into all of it here, but my plan is to devote a chapter to the karaoke video—from its production history (of which Brian Raftery offers an excellent preliminary account), to its repurposing in contemporary queer performance art.
SK: I’m still working on understanding ventriloquism’s anachronism—why it continues to appear, or to feel, outmoded despite its present popularity—besides the obvious fact that its contemporary iterations evoke Vaudevillian performance. Nina Conti, who has, like Fator and Dunham, distributed her ventriloquism across multiple media platforms, makes many jokes about this. Her puppet Monk, who sounds like a muffled Sean Connery trapped in a fuzzy, simian body, will often deride her for practicing such a “dead art,” and Conti’s documentary, Her Master’s Voice (2012), theorizes the ventriloquist dummy as a “bereaved object” that loses its voice repeatedly, and finally for good. Conti’s film, however, argues with its own assertion by reanimating the dummies of a dead ventriloquist with new voices, a process that could theoretically continue ad infinitum. Steven Connor argues that present-day “revivals” of ventriloquism like Conti’s are always “necromantic,” conjuring the form’s prehistory while at the same time referencing “newer” media like film (which, according to Rick Altman (c. 1980) and Michel Chion (c. 1982) is itself a form of ventriloquism). Writes Connor, “Whether because it is scandalously or mysteriously archaic, or uncannily premonitory, ventriloquism is always anachronistic, never quite on time.” And Mladen Dolar tells us that the voice itself is ventriloquial, leading to the extrapolation that ventriloquism literalizes or visualizes what the voice has always already done.
I tend to think of ventriloquism as temporally bifurcated. A ventriloquist has to exist in both the future and the past to make her practice work. She has to anticipate what’s going to be said next while remembering what’s just been said, and she has to keep her lips still while moving her tongue—acts that circumvent linearity and synchronization. In saying this I’m not arguing for ventriloquism as a “resistant cultural practice”; rather, I’m simply pointing out the temporal perversion to which the art lends itself.
Reflecting upon this conversation on karaoke and ventriloquism—a conversation that is, of course, ongoing—it has become even more apparent to us that both forms are sound technologies struggling against obsolescence, even as they are so frequently imagined as possible gateways to some human “truth” or “essence” precisely because of their associations with the voice. Though vocalization and vocality are reflexively associated with both forms, we hope we’ve been able to underscore some of the ways in which their powerful associations with “voice” naturalize, and to a certain extent also neutralize, the technical elements of each practice. We appreciate the opportunity to make some key distinctions, and to sound some of these issues out, here on the SO! Blog. Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever and Liana M. Silva for their generous editorial input. Like Conti’s bereaved puppets, who lose their voices only to be invested with new ones, we now relinquish ours—for the time being.
SK & KT
Featured Image by Flickr User Sam Grover
Sarah Kessler is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she is writing a dissertation on ventriloquism in contemporary British and U.S. popular culture. She received an M.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Kessler’s writing on art, film, and media has appeared in artforum.com, the Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and Public Books, among other publications, and she has held editorial positions at Triple Canopy and Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry. She is currently completing an article on the documentary work of ventriloquist Nina Conti.
Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently the series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and just completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.
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“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson
“Head Games?: The Strategic View of Liveness and Performance”-Andreas Duus Pape
“New Wave Saved My Life*”-Wanda Alarcon
On a recent episode of Law and Order: SVU Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson takes her new paramour, David Haden (played by Harry Connick Jr.) to see Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. When Benson asks him what he thought of the film, he replies with notable disdain: “I think maybe there’s a reason they don’t make silent films anymore.” When Benson responds nervously to his subsequent display of affection, presumably fearing that someone from work might see them, Haden pronounces, “Don’t worry. Nobody we work with could sit through two hours of black-and-white, no talking.”
Haden’s response might seem surprising given the box-office and critical success of the film, with The Artist grossing more than $120 million worldwide and receiving five of the Academy’s most coveted Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Actor in a Leading Role. In fact, with both The Artist and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo walking away with a preponderance of Academy Awards, many critics, including the editors of Cineaste, began to wonder if we were finally seeing a long-overdue challenge to “long-entrenched cultural prejudices against silent cinema.” There seems to be a renewed optimism that, with The Artist’s critical and commercial success, the popular stereotypes about silent film—heavy-handed acting, artless cinematography, mundane plots—may finally begin to break down.
As a film studies professor who specializes in the pre-sound era and frequently asks even my freshman students to engage with at least one silent film, I am both buoyed and dubious about this supposed sea change in public attitudes toward silent cinema. While some of my students sound a lot like David Haden after I ask them to watch even the most accessible silent slapstick comedies, many of my upper-level students now count works like F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise among their favorite films. And I’ve discussed the merits of The Artist with many of those same students, who easily recognized the film’s many references to other silent-era works, and appreciated its ability to mimic a very particular brand of silent film. I honestly believe there is some truth to the claim that films like The Artist and Hugo have encouraged spectators to engage with other silent films, including the recently restored color version of Trip to the Moon that is showcased in Scorsese’s film. In fact, in recent weeks there has been considerable buzz about skyrocketing demand for silent films via streaming services and even Cinemark’s XD-equipped theaters will be screening the 1927 film Wings as part of its “Reel Classics” series in late May. Rumor has it that Broadway will soon be hawking a production about Charlie Chaplin’s life and 2012 will see the life of silent film star Rudolph Valentino represented in Silent Life.
Michel Hazanavicius explains in the production notes to The Artist that his desire to make a silent film had been brewing for years: “From the beginning of my career, I fantasized about making a silent film.” But he also viewed the dream as far-fetched, one that would be unlikely to draw support in contemporary film production circles: “I call it a fantasy because whenever I mentioned it, I’d only get an amused reaction—no one took this seriously.” Despite this resistance, Hazanavicius refused to let go of the idea and continued to imagine how he might capitalize on the unique artistic potential of the silent medium: “As a director, a silent film makes you face your responsibilities. . . .Everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial; the fact that there is no text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that only works on the feelings you have created. I thought it would be a magnificent challenge and that if I could manage it, it would be very rewarding.”
Despite the initial skepticism Hazanavicius faced, The Artist’s unexpected international success has revealed consumers’ (perhaps temporary) appetite for silent film. Parody trailers of upcoming Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers have aped silent film form and The Artistifier allows users to transform any Youtube video into a silent film.
Even hipster clothiers, Shabby Apple, have taped into silent film’s newfound cultural cache by launching a “Silent Era” collection of swimsuits with names like the “Bara swim mini” and the “Karloff swim top.” Despite this recent upsurge in references to and imitations of the silent film medium, advertisers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have expressed a nostalgic reverence for silent film for decades. Between 2007 and 2010, Janelle Monáe released her Metropolis and ArchAndroid Suites, which refashioned Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film, Metropolis.
Mimicking both the film’s visual style and political message, Monáe also refashioned herself as Metropolis’s iconic android and adopted her trademark tuxedo attire after seeing photos of Marlene Dietrich, the silent and sound film star who helped mainstreamed this androgynous look in the 1920s (and also as a tribute to the working class uniforms of her parents). From AFLAC’s 2006 satirizing of the medium’s stereotyped damsel in distress, to IBM’s 1986 series of ads featuring Charlie Chaplin, marketers have frequently banked on silent films’ ability to attract the public eye.
What do we make of this renewed interest in silence? We must first remember that, as I tell my students, silent films were never designed for silent viewing at all given that most were screened with musical accompaniment that ranged from a single organist to a 40-piece orchestra. Even the composition of The Artist reveals the lie behind silent film “silence,” with composer Ludivic Bource employing 80 musicians from the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra in developing the score for the film. Despite the fact that live orchestral accompaniments of silent film have become staples of film festivals around the world, most of today’s viewers’ experiences with silent film are limited to watching DVD transfers of varying quality, with canned music that is sometimes recycled from one DVD release to another, regardless of film title or subject matter. Few viewers, including those who have attended screenings of The Artist, have truly experienced the “silent” medium as it was intended, with sound and image working in tandem via a combination of “live” music and projected celluloid. Two years ago, I saw the transformative effect of recreating a more authentic silent film viewing experience when I arranged a screening of Sunrise at the University of Northern Colorado with the Mont Alto Chamber Orchestra providing live musical accompaniment. Many of my students still speak of that experience with tremendous reverence, explaining that they finally understood what it meant to truly experience a “silent film.”
While popular audiences tend to neglect how integral sound was to silent film, Rick Altman has argued in Silent Film Sound that sound has thus far failed to establish its own “autonomous measure of worth,” with scholars arguing that because film’s historical roots are bound up in silence “cinema is thus essentially a visual art” (6). Yet, this bias seems to be belied by the reaction to The Artist, with even the Oscars ceremony choosing to use the film’s only synchronized sound scene when introducing it as a the Best Picture nomination. It seems that even an acclaimed twenty-first century silent film must flaunt its, albeit brief, reliance on synchronized sound. Certainly, the many viewers who demanded refunds from their local cineplexes reflect the prevailing opinion that film must include sound if it hopes to maintain their interest and earn their cinema-going dollars.
So, what is the appeal then of these “silent” films in which, though accompanied by music and sound effects, dialogue is not spoken but read via soundless lips or intertitles? For me, the attraction comes from both understanding the aesthetic and technological roots of an art form that I admire and the fact that they require the development of character and narrative in purely visual terms. I am also attracted to its higher degree of abstraction, its ability to create a kind of poetry while also defying the very essence of language itself. And I see in the absence of sound a refreshing denunciation of contemporary demands for ever-increasing realism. Silent film is the antithesis of today’s fetishizing of 3-D.
While I acknowledge this statement may seem naïve given that Scorsese’s aforementioned film manages to combine that “new” technology with a tremendous reverence for silent film’s seemingly “primitive” techniques, I firmly believe that the aesthetics of “silence” have an important resonance for contemporary viewers raised on Dolby. After hearing my frequent complaints about the current impetus toward 3-D, one of my students has taken to calling me Charlie Chaplin, seeing in my resistance a mirroring of the great comedian and director’s opposition to sound technology. Like Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times who cannot keep up with the machine-age and its insistence on productivity, I often find myself longing for something simpler from film, something more retrained and abstracted, less motivated by the demand for “progress” and, at least on the surface, The Artist’s return to silence seems to fulfill that admittedly nostalgic desire. While it is an imperfect, and perhaps misleading, example of the silent medium, even the modernized form of silent cinema that we see in The Artist demands that viewers consider the relationship between history and memory, between film’s relatively youthful heritage and its contingent representations of the past, between sound and silence.
April Miller is an Assistant Professor and Director of Film Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. Her research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature, film and socio-scientific concerns such as criminality and mental illness. She is currently completing a book manuscript, Offending Women: Modernism, Crime, and Creative Production, which investigates the female criminal and her often-overlapping sites of representation in literature, journalism, and silent film.