At the center of this lust is the female voice, turned fetish in the 1980’s films Diva and Blow Out. Whether screaming in terror, singing the heights of the sublime, or confessing the depths of a passionate hatred, both movies construct women as emotive objects to be recorded, often against their will, and the recordists in these films clamor for and are repelled by the female sounds they capture. (For additional Sounding Out! of the “problem” of women’s voices in contemporary media culture see last week’s post, Liana Silva’s “Eye Candy” and Aaron Trammell’s recent “GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control“). In fact, this series has traced the cultural construction of the “sound man”: how mainstream films naturalize recording as the province of men (and, with the exception of Touch of Evil, of white men). The tape recorder’s increasing accessibility should have meant that women were using the equipment in greater numbers, but according to Hollywood, tape recorders continued to mediate power relationships between (white) men. Think Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. Harry Caul and his anonymous boss. Ferris and Principal Rooney..
With such a proliferation of representations of male recorders, it can be difficult to imagine a female hand twiddling the knobs, so much so that 95% of the professional recording industry is now male, according to the nonprofit organization Women’s Audio Mission, that works to increase the number of women behind the boards through youth outreach and training programs. While the sole responsibility for this chronic and widespread underrepresentation does not rest entirely on the shoulders of America’s dream factory—an NPR story from 2003 on Women Music Producersby Neda Ulaby discusses additional reasons “Why Female Producers Are a Rare Breed”—we must also acknowledge that cinematic images actively shape reality, they do not just passively reflect it. Representations limit our imaginations as much as as they embolden them. The images of recording in 1980s films remind us that the mere presence of women’s voices is not enough to enable gender equity in our increasingly mediated and technologized public sphere, women must also “man” recording equipment, structuring (and shifting) the conditions under which their voices are recorded, framed, heard, and remixed into public consciousness.
Okay, for all the completists out there, a quick recap, the first two films are: 1. Double Indemnity (1944) and 2. Blackboard Jungle (1955), with a little Mike Hammer for good measure: Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The second two are: 3. Touch of Evil (1958) and 4. The Conversation (1974), and a leap into the 1980s: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
5. Diva (Les Films Galexie, 1981, Dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix):
Well, it was secret. Until Jules lends it out to impress a preteen roller skating, record-stealing Vietnamese fashionista named Alba (Thuy An Luu) who plays it for the (way) older man she lives with in a creepy ambiguous arrangement, a fortysomething Zen Buddhist hipster tough guy named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), who then tries to arrange a deal with two nameless, emotionless, mirrored-sunglass wearing, carbon copy Taiwanese business men (yellow peril much?) who are willing to pay top dollar for the tape. As Cynthia’s manager eventually warns her in the most realistic moment of an otherwise over-the-top film, “the quality of the recording is perfect. . .and Taiwan never signed any international copyright agreement!”
Diva asks audiences to imagine that Cynthia has never been recorded—she wants to preserve the aura of her performances as “unique moments”—and she considers pirated recordings as akin to “theft, rape even.” The metaphor is uncomfortably extended by the sexualized recording sequence when Jules finally captures her voice, squirming and fiddling with his recorder, hidden underneath a jacket on his lap, as tears stream down his face. After the show, he steals the Diva’s dress and returns to his apartment to clutch it while listening, over and over, to her voice. Eventually even the illicit sonic reproduction cannot contain Jules’s desire to possess Cynthia; he tries to create a reproduction-in-the-flesh by seeking out a black prostitute and paying her to wear the stolen gown.
Through unsettling images such as these, Diva depicts the tape recorder as a technological phallus. It isn’t only that women are fetishized recording objects, but they are actively chased away from the machine.When an excited Alba reaches out to grab Jules’s Nagra, he pushes her away, barking “Don’t touch my stuff. It is precious. Don’t touch it. . .The levels were precisely set.” She backs off, sighing, “You and your Nagra,” in a tone that is both taunting and resigned. The only woman to make her own recording, Nadia, ends up dead, although grateful that her tape will at least allow her to “pick the time and place to die. There will be witnesses and evidence.” At least she hopes so.
6. Blow Out (MGM 1981, Directed by Brian DePalma):
Fresh off the success of Grease and Urban Cowboy, 70s hearththrob John Travolta brings macho swagger to the role of Jack Terry, a burned out sound designer who is complacent about getting the “perfect” female scream for B-grade horror flicks. When his director busts his chops about finding some “new wind”—he had been squeaking by with library sounds—he finds himself doing some midnight lurking in a Philadelphia park. Armed with his trusty shotgun microphone, he is ready when an out-of-control car careens around a corner and plunges off a bridge. Instantly casting his equipment to the ground—oh! not The Nagra III!!!—he pulls a drowning woman from the car, the woefully vulnerable Sally (Nancy Allen). As if this isn’t bad ass enough to beef up the rep of “sound guys” for eternity, Jack cockily lets the investigating detective have it when he insinuates that Jack misheard what happened on the bridge: “I know what an echo sounds like, all right? I’m a sound man! The bang was before the blow out, all right?”
Carrying overtones of Chappaquiddick, the incident that Jack earwitnessed involved the death of a very prominent governor who was headed to the White House. The powers that be want to silence Sally and erase all traces of her presence in the passenger seat, so they turn a deaf ear toward Jack’s insistence that he has a tell-tale shot on tape that proves the “accident” was really murder. Ostensibly about the tenuous relationship between politics and “the truth,” Blow Out also asks audiences to press pause and consider the disposability of women in our contemporary culture–how their real lives are often mixed down, edited out, and even erased, while their recorded representations are hyperamplified and hungrily consumed.
Inspired by The Conversation and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Up—in which a swinging London photog enlarges a photo to reveal a killer—Blow Out depicts Jack on an obsessive rewind rampage, listening and re-living the incident on the bridge trying to prove the murder. The tape recorder is a both a necessary foundation of the film’s plot and a figurative device sparking audiences to listen again and to listen differently, to simultaneously question what they hear and to stake their lives on it. Interestingly, in a movie obsessed with sound and depictions of careful listening, audio itself cannot tell the whole story; it is only after Jack merges his soundtrack with a DIY film reconstructing the murder via newspaper photos that he feels his voice will finally be heard. Ultimately, however, the brash and principled sound man fails to find a listener. The haunting ending of the film, which I will not reveal, suggests that American culture mainly values “reality” and “truth” when it comes packaged as throwaway entertainment and that the female voice in terror is at the very heart of this titillating cycle of consumption.
And in a supporting role. . .
Real Genius (Tristar, 1986, Director Martha Coolidge. This film is notable for having five women on the sound team, editors Anna Boorstin, Virginia Cook-McGowan, Julia Evershade, Roxanne Jones, and assistant editor Christy Richmond).
The tape recorder slyly appears in the midst of this sarcastic blast to the late cold war that chronicles the revenge exacted by a band of brilliant college students (led by a young Val Kilmer) when they find out that the laser they developed for their university was intended for use by the U.S. government as an airborne weapon. Appearing in the first of two iconic 80s montages—this one set to the Comsat Angels’ “I’m Falling”—the vector-like proliferation of tape recorders silently communicates much anxiety about the technological landscape of the 1980s. When our irrepressible uber-nerd protagonist Mitch (Gabriel Jarrett) first begins his semester, he arrives at a full math lecture, barely noting the peppering of small personal recorders nudged to the corners of his classmate’s desks. As time passes, the camera revisits Mitch, still earnestly scribing notes alongside what is now only a handful of other students; he is surrounded by a sea of boom boxes the size of bread boxes and flat black slimline recorders, with a few candy apple red models thrown in for ‘80s hipness.
Finally, the earnest Mitch arrives alone, notebook in hand, only to find a completely empty lecture hall, save for the spinning spools of various tape recorders. The professor, too, has left the building—a reel to reel drones on at the head of the classroom, in front of a chalkboard that states, “Math on tape is hard to follow: so please listen carefully.” The pained look on Mitch’s face says it all: the meritocratic world of ideas that he once expected to inherit quite simply no longer exists, if it ever had. And, in a contemporary moment where online courses and “webinars” are the rule of the day and we stockpile podcasts like we have thousands of years to live, the humor of the tape-to-tape lecture cuts a little too closely. Suddenly I want to tap the mic and ask: “is this thing on? Bueller? . . .Bueller?”
The second installment of my summer series, “Play it Again (and Again), Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film” continues to unspool chronologically, this time focusing on the recorder’s key role in two films indelibly imprinted by legendary editor Walter Murch: Touch of Evil (1958) and The Conversation (1974). [If you missed my first installment, June’s piece on Noir, you can catch up to speed right here].
Most famous for his work on American Grafitti (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The English Patient (1996), Murch was one of the first folks catapulted into the critical pantheon of sound studies. Not only is his sound (and image) editing intuitive and innovative, but he is one of the only sound editors to speak and write extensively about his creative process. His collaborative book with Michael Ondjaate, a transcription of their extensive and wide-ranging discussions entitled The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002), is stunning in its depth, breadth, and accessibility: an intellectual trifecta. It is the kind of summer beach reading that is both gripping and brag-worthy.
In The Conversations, Murch describes the excitement of being age 10 and discovering the tape recorder for the first time, especially how
“That passion, which was a kind of delirious drunkenness with what the tape recorder could do, completely possessed me” (6).
In homage to “that passion,” the next two films on my “Top 6” list of the appearance of the tape recorder in film show how Murch’s oeuvre carefully and affectionately represents not only the early drunken experiences with the machine’s heady possibilities, but also the lingering technological hangover in the 1970s, not just for Murch but for the U.S. writ large.
For those keeping track, the first two films on my list are: 1. Double Indemnity (1944) and 2. Blackboard Jungle (1955), with a little Mike Hammer for good measure with Kiss Me Deadly (1955). And, before you get comfy on the couch, don’t forget our third and final installment, on the 1980s, coming August 15th.
3. Touch of Evil (Universal, 1958, Dir. Orson Welles):
And how, you ask did Walter Murch possibly have any part in editing 1958’s Touch of Evil, given that he was all of 15 years old? Murch didn’t get his hands on the film until 40 years later, when film preservationist and scholar Rick Schmidlin tracked down the complete version of Orson Welles’s single-spaced, 58 page production memo to Universal’s studio heads, telling them how to fix the mess they had made of his movie. Welles had been pulled from his film as he worked laboriously on the rough cut and the studio completely re-edited the movie, even filming additional scenes. Once Touch of Evil was finished, Universal allowed Welles one shot at the film in a private screening room, with no pauses or rewinds, and the astonishingly detailed (and restrained) memo is the result of that screening. Unfortunately for Welles, Universal completely ignored Welles, releasing the studio re-cut of this late-noir gem as a B-movie. Welles never again directed a major film and his memo was thought to have been placed directly into the circular file until Jonathan Rosenbaum published selections from it in Film Quarterly in 1992. [For full details and a link to the lost memo, check out Lawrence French’s web essay].
Once Schmidlin tracked down the entire piece, he was determined to re-cut Touch of Evil according to Welles’s written directions. Here Schmidlin discusses how Murch became involved:
“When I was given the green light to re-edit Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, based on his memo, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know who I wanted to re-edit this film. I got Walter’s phone number through a friend and called him at home. I said, Walter, this is Rick Schmidlin. You don’t know me, but I’m producing a re-edit of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and I can’t think of any intellect that could match Orson Welles’s better than yours. Would you be interested? Walter said, Mmmm. Send me the memo and I’ll take a look” (The Conversations, 182).
Murch was able to make all 50 of Welles’s suggested changes and then some; he unearthed an additional 9-page sound memo after tracking down the 89-year-old former head of post-production at Universal, Ernie Nims, who had stashed it in his attic. Tim Tully’s “The Sounds of Evil” from Filmsound.org provides a detailed description of Murch’s editorial process and the end result, which manages to be both subtle and dramatic. Film people actually like (and increasingly, prefer) the 1998 re-release, which speaks volumes about Murch’s work (and Welles’s presience). I refer to Murch’s version in the thoughts that follow.
So Touch of Evil features Charlton Heston in brownface doing his best to look like Vicente Fernandez; I am not going to deny (or defend) this casting disaster. However, I will say that this 1958 story of U.S. police corruption on the nation’s borders has reinvigorated after last week’s revelations of the FBI’s “Fast and Furious” importation of illegal firearms into Mexico. Our current era of the “Global War on Terror” has produced, imagined, and inflamed an insatiable sense of national vulnerability that demands “illegal alien” scapegoats (peep John McCain’s recent assertion that “substantial evidence” exists that Mexicans crossing the border started Arizona’s recent spate of wildfires). However, the GWOT had its precedent; America’s post-WWII Cold War anxieties ended any semblance of a “Good Neighbor Policy” long before films like Touch of Evil portrayed the border as a lawless, indefensible place where wealthy, pleasure seeking white men can be killed in bomb blasts and white police corrupted by easy money and hard-line policing. As protagonist Miguel Vargas (Heston) tells his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh), “This isn’t the real Mexico, you know that! All border towns bring out the worst in their country.” Although no one ever says it aloud, by film’s end it is clear that Welles intended this barb to cut both sides of the border.
The plot of Touch of Evil pits Vargas, a straight-arrow Mexican drug official on his honeymoon, against the celebrated but hard-drinking and crooked-as-they-come American police captain Hank Quinlan (played by an especially sweaty Orson Welles). Both are working the same case—a car-bomb kills a rich man and his mistress as they cross the border to the U.S.—but from decidedly different angles. Quinlan, in bed with Mexican gangster “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) plants evidence on the investigation’s hastily drummed-up prime suspect, Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan). Vargas knows it, and sets about trying to prove Quinlan’s guilt to the skeptical and increasingly hostile American police force, led by Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), even if it means postponing his honeymoon and his trip to Mexico City to testify against the Grandi crime family. Quinlan would prefer that he never gets there, if you catch my drift, and he arranges for the kidnapping of Vargas’s wife, among other cruelties.
Vargas, compassionate and honor-bound even as he is grimly world-weary—“There are plenty of soldiers who don’t like war,” he tells the Americans when they question his commitment to the job—decides to use the tape recorder as a weapon of truth in his dirty war against Quinlan, “a potent weapon” according to Murch (194). While it is difficult to discuss specifics about the recorder’s prominence in the film without spoiler alerting all over the place, I will say that the machine heightens the tension of the cat-and-mouse game Vargas is forced to play with Quinlan, especially because the technology of the moment did not allow for distant long-range audio surveillance, like we will later see in The Conversation. The intimacy he shares with Quinlan, shadowing him closely to stay in range of the radio-mic without being seen or heard, unnerves Vargas and he displaces his discomfort onto the recorder: “I hate this machine, spying, creeping.” However, as the bodies ultimately fall where they may, Vargas’s tape emerges as the lone certainty and lasting proof against the sordid, shifting, (and exceedingly sweaty) janus-faced juggernaut that is Hank Quinlan. Absent the recorder’s stark evidence to untangle the truth, all that remains is chaos: the dangerous and mixed-up dominant border imaginary of the 1950s U.S.
4. The Conversation (Paramount, 1974, Directed by Francis Ford Coppola):
“In that denouement of Touch of Evil, Welles worked out something that’s very close to my heart because it’s so similar to the beginning of The Conversation–namely, to make the resolution of the story depend on different shadings and perspectives of sound”–Walter Murch, The Conversations (194)
What is especially interesting to me about having Murch’s editorial touch on Touch of Evil is not only that the climax features the tape recorder, but also that this scene is echoed (and almost entirely undone) in the plot of The Conversation. One of Murch’s first feature films, The Conversation was edited by hand, a process similar to what audiences actually see onscreen in the film (Murch did not use AVID until 1996’s The English Patient and he is rather aptly credited for “sound montage” in The Conversation). I know many sound peeps are already hip to The Conversation thanks to Murch’s experimental work and the plot’s tense emphasis on the importance—and the fraught ambiguity—of sound and listening, but I want to add a new technological wrinkle via the tape recorder.
Released in April 1974, The Conversation is prescient in regards to the paranoid atmosphere around the tape recorder in the early 1970s. That same month, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the “White House Tapes,” obtained through years of secret surveillance with phone taps and lavalier bugs, that contained damning evidence linking then-President Richard Nixon to the Watergate break-ins. After first attempting to edit the tapes, Nixon resigned just four months later, days after the full transcripts were released. The recorder’s secretly-obtained evidence proved indisputable against any of Nixon’s public pronouncements of innocence and post-Watergate its listening ears were seemingly everywhere: “Do you see him? The man with the hearing aid like Charles?” says Ann (Cindy Williams) through frozen lips in The Conversation’s tense opening scene, “right there with the shopping bag? He’s been following us all around and he’s been following us close.”
Akin to John Cage’s forays into the anechoic chamber—which opened up new realms of previously ignored and unheard sounds to the artist—evidence produced by various recorders confirmed that there were audible shadow worlds operating underneath power’s prettier public face. In addition to such unnerving domestic politics, the use of the tape recorder in The Conversation also mirrored shifting Cold War policies. No longer a blunt tool of coercion as it was in Blackboard Jungle or a technology of intimacy like in Touch of Evil, the tape recorder is instead an anonymous precision instrument of consent, performing its work in the hidden underbelly of windowless vans, grimy warehouses, and bland, spartan apartments, all key settings in The Conversation.
At the film’s center is “the best bugger on the West Coast” Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert who feels that he is more machine than man, an analog Bartleby the Scrivener. “I don’t care what they’re talking about,” he growls about his human subjects, “I just want a nice, fat recording.” While hard at work splicing and cleaning up some surveillance tapes, Caul overhears a simple phrase that will eventually be his undoing: “he’d kill us if he got the chance.” Chasing him through fitful dreams and into confessional booths, the haunting phrase causes Caul to doubt his mission. He begins asking uncomfortable questions—who is paying him? To what end?—and goes on the hunt, obsessively rewinding the tape again and again trying to make some sense out of the voices he has captured as if their recorded traces were technological tea leaves. However, the faith he places in the tape recorder and in its ability to isolate, clean up, and amplify the truth is his ultimate undoing, causing him to ignore the human flaws of his own listening ear.
And in a supporting role. . .
Admittedly, this film has nothing to do with Walter Murch (that I know of), but I wanted to end with some lighter fare and a *perfect* preview for Part Three of “Play it Again (and Again), Sam” coming on August 15th, which focuses on 1980s films.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount, 1986, Director John Hughes): There have been some great recent analyses of the silver anniversary of this John Hughes flick—I especially dug Alan Siegel’s “Get Over ‘Ferris Bueller’ Everyone” for The Atlantic—but all of these posts missed a critical attraction of the film: Ferris’s ease with new technology (part of the 1980’s “invisible knapsack”of race and class privilege). Let’s give credit where credit is due: the tool that enabled Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) to have his fabled day off was, in fact, the tape recorder. First, Ferris’s crew rigs up microcassette messages between Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) and Cameron Frye’s (Alan Ruck) answering machines to throw the sniveling Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) off their trail: one weepily attests to the death of Sloane’s grandmother, while the other purports to be the funeral home. And who can forget the mannequin rigged up to a tape loop of snorts and snores designed to fool Ferris’s mom (Cindy Pickett) into thinking that he is deep in sickness-induced slumber. Personal recording technology was part and parcel of Ferris Bueller’s über-privileged white suburban teen resistance to the conveyor belt of contemporary American life. Before the kids at school took up a collection to “Save Ferris,” Bueller was already using the recorder to save himself.