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What is the 21st Century?: The Human Voice

What is the 21st Century? is the column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.


Above: Alden Ehrenreich (left, facing away) and Vincent Gallo (right) talk in Tetro.

We talk about the human face, but almost never about the human voice. But there's no Welles, no Godard, no Resnais, no Davies, no Marker, no Sokurov without the voice. No Denis without the voice, infrequent as it is in her work. Certainly no Rohmer, who composed for the voice. Fuller could've existed without the voice, but he loved the way people talked too much. Where'd Two Lovers be without the warmth of its voices? Or what kind of a director would Jacques Demy have been if he could have distinguished between talking and singing? Maybe we don't value it as much because we tend to think of the voice as belonging entirely to acting, the way we used to think facial expressions were entirely the work of the people whose faces were being photographed. But the act of recording and mixing can make a soft voice shrill or a nasal one pleasant. It can turn words into mumbles or give a shape to whispering. There's just as much that can be done with the voice as with the face.

When I write about the voice, I don't mean dialogue. I mean the recording of the voice, something like the image of face — the voice as a pure expression. We have so many ideas related to the body and the face in film, and just as many related to the voice, though we tend to not notice them (is it just that we'd rather not think about it?). There are films where it seems like the sound recordists' names should be placed in the opening credits, like the cinematographer's — we think of them as "techinicians," but the director used to be just a technician, too, a name not even worth knowing. The microphone can be close or far, like the camera; a lavalier mic can get even closer than a camera ever could. We have a theory of the voice, even if we don't realize it. Why else would we be so offended by the voices in Public Enemies, which are supposedly "too quiet?" We wouldn't have the same complaint about footsteps, a door opening, or any of the other sounds that can be just as important to a film. The theory of the voice that we've developed goes like this: "There are sounds, and then there is the voice." To treat the voice as just a sound is offensive. The voice, as long as it's not part of a crowd, is sacred.

The lone, expressing voice is the closest we have in contemporary cinema to a direct link to the individual. That's why it's such a key ingredient for Wong Kar-Wai (ingredient is the right word; Wong's films are all mixtures). Wong's displaced voices are displaced souls; whatever the body may be, the voice has always stood in for the soul in his films, as it did in before for Andrei Tarkovsky, though Tarkovsky's hushed dubbing always made it seem as though the soul and the body had separated at the moment of filming. It's as true of My Blueberry Nights as of 2046, though in the Anglosphere we didn't treat My Blueberry Nights quite as kindly because we realized how direct Wong's voices had always been — confessional, almost embarrassing to listen to. It's easy to imagine understatement when you don't know how a language is supposed to sound. In the foreign tonalities of Cantonese, we could imagine whatever emphasis we wanted for the dialogue. Faced with "the real thing," we're always surprised; we say the director "doesn't understand" the culture because we don't want to admit that maybe we didn't understand the director to begin with (anyway, with just one American film Wong seems to have a better grip on America than Wim Wenders ever did). For Wong, the voice can exist apart from the body, especially in a film. Robinson Devor has taken this even further with his most recent two films, completely separating the voice (which to Devor isn't just a sound) and the image.

A scene from Café Lumière, directed by Hou Hsia-Hsien (MP3)

Sound in cinema is often the most "artificial" (and therefore real) aspect. It remains one of cinema's most dangerous aspects. So there's a perversity to recording sound as it actually occurs instead of how we experience it. People — especially people who've lived most of their lives in cities — usually don't notice the diverse noise around them (I'm thinking here of the tourists I see in the South Loop, covering their ears when an El train passes overhead, unused to blocking out the screeching like the rest of us). We hone in on voices. At a party, we hear the person talking to us more clearly than whatever music might be blaring. Consistently since The Nun, Jacques Rivette's recorded dialogue from a distance. It's the most "theatrical" element in his films, not because it's got anything to with theater, but because what you hear reminds you of sitting in an audience. The audible creaking of the floorboards, the sometimes uncontrollably loud footsteps, makes every apartment into a stage. If Rivette ever set out to make ordinary life resemble theater, he accomplished it with the sounds, not the images. The creaking of The Duchess of Langeais, the crackling of the fire place, the sound of furniture and clothes rustling is at the same volume as the dialogue. Rivette's voices are always bouncing off of walls and floors.

What connects him to Hou Hsiao-hsien is the fact that neither is interested in a "dramatic" treatment of the voice. As a body takes up only a portion of the frame in one of Rivette's medium or wide shots (his close-ups can be counted on one hand), the voice should only take up a portion of the sound, even if it's the only loud thing around, just as the body might be the only thing that's moving. Hou has had no trouble working in foreign languages (Japanese in Café Lumière, French in Flight of the Red Balloon) and it's because he records every language as if it's foreign. Like in a Rivette film, the microphone picks up the voices by recording the room. It's not like the eavesdropping of Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, where every voice is overheard, but something more "organic," as if every word said is inseparable from the situation where it occured. Voice-over would seem out of place in a Hou film, as he doesn't believe in the voice existing apart from its two sources: a person and a situation. Dubbing never really suited him, either, not the way it suits Béla Tarr. There aren't characters more designed than Tarr's, bodies and voices coming from different actors at different times. We're quick to praise the effects of his tracking shots, but not the effects of his dubbed dialogue, which has become as much a part of Tarr as the black-and-white and the long takes.

Francis Ford Coppola and his usual editor and sound mixer, Walter Murch, have made beautiful use of of dubbing in Youth Without Youth and Tetro. Like in the old Italian movies, the dubbed-in voices are all mixed at the same level (Aleksandr Sokurov did a similar thing with the dubbing of Russian Ark). It gives the films a claustrophobia, the kind you usually associate with the clarity of a novel — the dialogue closer to text, with no sense of volume. The shot might be an exterior, two people in a cafe, but the sound is all interior, as if recorded from inside their heads. This isn't something new for Coppola — in Rumblefish, he had Mickey Rourke's airy mumble mixed at the same level as the rest of the dialogue — and in fact, it could be argued that, aside from a few concessions to popular taste in the 1990s and a few overlaps in the 1970s with what was then considered "good cinema," his cinema has remained unchanged. It's always been strange, though now it's found more ways to explore its strangeness.

Sometimes the classic can help you to understand the contemporary. You read, you see, you hear something old and it puts the new into perspective. Last week, I saw two movies at Doc Films I'd watched before. Watched, but maybe not seen, at least not the degree I think I've seen them now. Two beautiful, noisy movies. The first was George Romero's The Crazies, a rediscovery for myself and Ben Sachs, who'd written the film up for, and, sitting in the row behind me, leaned forward in the first reel to tell me he thought we were watching "Weekend, as directed by Don Siegel." I think it might've been the audience, which seemed to validate a lot of what we'd previously only suspected about the film — its humor, its surreality, its politics. The other was Chimes at Midnight. There are bits of the image you can only pick up on a small screen and certain things you can only hear in headphones, just as there are certain aspects you can only see in projection and certain sounds you can only understand when you hear them blasted through speakers. The Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes, which on video had appeared political, maybe allegorical, becomes more intense in projection. It seems less "designed" and more "felt." But it's not the images and the edits that I want to talk about — it's the sounds. The dialogue in Chimes at Midnight was, surprisingly, as difficult to understand at Doc as in my apartment. "Overlapping" is the wrong word; I don't even feel comfortable saying "mixed." It's thrown together, a big pile of spoken words, but not layered or structured like in one of the Dolby Godards, but polyphonic, maybe even dodecaphonic. A composition for recorded voices which blend, the words losing meaning, the voices wound together into a single complex feeling. I think of Peter Brotzmann's saxophone on Machine Gun. The Crazies is different — it's shrill. Every voice is like a fire alarm. Every line is an emergency. I think of the voices in those two films even more than I do of the faces. Here is the recording of the voice as both a way to convey dialogue and something abstract, just a sound, as if it wasn't a voice at all. But it's possible to go further. There's that Fernand Léger quote: "As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no evolution in pictures of people will be possible." We could say the same thing about the voice. Michael Mann, who is always ten steps ahead of everyone else, has recorded and mixed the voice unsentimentally in Public Enemies. Someday, we'll forgive him for it.

Hou uses voice-over in MILLENIUM MAMBO…
An interesting essay, I’d like to hear more about Tarr’s dubbing as it really through me off the first time I watched Werckmeister Harmonies. I always assumed it was because Tarr was using foreign actors and learning Hungarian would have been difficult. Also I feel like Bresson deserves a mention, when I think of sound in film Bresson is the first to come to mind.
Daniel, You’re right! But, still, something about it feels more additional element, than, say, Wong’s voice-overs. sandwiches, Tarr films are much more designed than I think most people realize. He does cast foreign actors, but because he likes their faces and the way they carry themselves. He has no problem with “artificiality” (I remember a Tarr panel in Chicago where someone brought up the fact that all of rain and wind in Satantango is artificial). I think Tarr prefers “designing” his films to simply letting the production “happen.” Sound is key to Bresson, but I think, for all of his wonderful voice-overs and the care with which he rehearsed the cadences of his actors, he could exist without the voice.
Hou also uses voice-over in The Puppetmaster—it’s the structuring device. Hou always seems like he’s grounding the elements within a scene—a particular time and place—but Flight of the Red Balloon, maybe most of all, is full of flashbacks and possible reimaginings and impossible cuts.
Yes — I think it’s best to rephrase myself and say that I think Hou is incapable of having a voice apart from some particular location, even if we don’t see the location (his narrators are people speaking — they aren’t communicating to us directly). But I disagree on Flight of the Red Balloon — out of all of his films, that one seems most directly tethered to Hou’s sense of “reality.” The balloon is a device for intersecting with that reality, but I think that, more than any of his other movies, that one is about “the stuff of life.”
great article. i had the same feeling about my blueberry nights the first watch, “because we realized how direct Wong’s voices had always been — confessional, almost embarrassing to listen to.” i remember wanting to leave the room during the catpower scene because it embarrassed me so much. i recently watched it again and really liked it so much more. the directness has a tendency to make us turn away, but i found myself relaxing in it and just enjoying the film’s observations on love, however sweet and sugar-coated they are.
Nice write up. I saw an early Lumet film, ‘The Hill’ recently and much of the political anger comes from the pitch of the dialogue delivered by the actors (actually the actors literally scream their dialogue) – it might be theatrically obvious but it works brilliantly to heighten the tensions on display and make everything altogether overwhelming for the spectator.
Omar, I’m not as up on the 1960s Lumet as I should be. I’ll check The Hill out. I remember reading a review somewhere for it that complained about the sound recording (apparently the British dialogue is impossible to understand) — which is usually a good sign. Willi, Yes! The scene with Cat Power, which is the one I ended up linking to within the post, has this directness. It’s almost anti-idiomatic, very uncool. It makes me think of Willem Dafoe’s speech at the end of Go Go Tales — have you had a chance to see that?
I think Fellini and Tarantino are worth a mention too. Watching Jakie Brown a few days ago I noticed the sound of wind zipping through the bars of a fence as the camera passed. The sound was low in comparison to the dialogue, but I thought it was pretty cool.
The sound of those Fellini films — post-synced like most Italian films of the period — is partly where I think Coppola and Murch get their sound design. I don’t think Fellini’s films would seem as “busy” if he had recorded the dialogue on set (it’s also what makes Antonioni’s character feel more remote, especially when he would get Italians to dub in French or British actors; they become constructions). And Tarantino — there’s a man who loves the voice!
Interesting observations. But you’re overlooking one of the most important contributors to a radical use of sound in cinema — Marguerite Duras. In “India Song” the soundtrack dominates image rather than the other way around as usual.

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