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November 1996, Week 3


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Peter Thomas <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 19 Nov 1996 13:24:12 +1000
text/plain (78 lines)
I guess I'm coming at this problem from the other direction.  In Blow Up we
have a disjunction between what is seen and what is heard.  Consider how
ordinary it would be if the tennis ball were present but its noise absent.
We would simply motivate its the distortion of realism as an emanation of
the observer's subjectivity.  Distortions of the soundtrack are one of the
most popular ways of flagging a distorted subjectivity, and often are very
important in motivating related visual distortions.  To take two quite
mainstream examples
 1) In the opening of  Falling Down the main character's inner turmoil
constructed by an expressive (MTVish) montage and overwrought soundtrack.
The montage fragments space in a series of ever closer shots until the act
of looking too hard has destroyed any context  or content that the
individual details may have had - an overload of nothingness rendering the
protagonist's hysteria.  The film's transition from a relatively objective
construction of the traffic jam he's in to these inner pyrotechnics is
bridged by the soundtrack.  Initially composed of very low key non-diagetic
orchestral music and a diagetic radio talk-back show, the sudden
introduction of searing guitar riffs, drum bursts and other rock heroics
flag the change in perspective. Without this signalling, this sequence
would probably seem like one of those late 60s early 70s films which create
their ambience by suppressing non-diagetic music and thereby the RELIABLE
information that this emanation of the narration (diagetic music  is of the
diagesis, non-diagetic music is of the narration) normally provides.
2) A more obscure but fun second example is Souls for Sale / Confessions of
an Opium Addict . Having been compelled to smoke opium, Vincent Price must
flee the den pursued by the Tong.  The entire scene is played in slo-mo (a
good 5 minutes) and the soundtrack is virtually silent.  The noise of Price
crashing through windows and being shot at are included, but not properly
synchronised and not in any 'slo-sound-mo'.  But at the beginning of the
sequence what the viewer notices first is the conspicuous silence.  Price
is lying on a bed, so movement is no issue.  The silence is what
contextualises the slo-mo when it starts as an emanation of Price's stoned
subjectivity. In an only moderately interesting B-film, this sequence is
notable for how effective it is  - it's riveting.
As much as we might trust the camera's eye, as the cinematic equivalent in
many ways to the authoritative voice of the storyteller, the soundtrack
perhaps more than the visuals (think of how much the soundtrack tells us
about how to approach the visuals) is expected to reliably narrate.  The
scene from Blow Up as it stands uses the more extreme disruption of the
soundtrack to  insist  that tennis is being played.  Where a silent match
could easily be motivated by as subjective realism, the sequence as it
stands cannot be so easily assimilated.  Realistic reading being thus
blocked, the symbolic level becomes foregrounded. [This is not intended as
an exhaustive reading]  We know tennis is being played, we hear it, we see
the players, but the ball alludes us.  In the film as a whole we know an
investigation by a detective character is being carried out, but in this
game the ball (the crime, clues, information) , which we're accustomed to
watching, is entirely suppressed.  It is specifically by violating the
soundtrack's 'position of trust' that this effect is created.
As to those examples of conflict between what a narrator says and what they
actually did, ie., in a flash back - Clint Eastwood killing confederates
coldly in The Beguiled while telling people how humane and honourable he
is, the prospective tenant in Shallow Grave  answering 'No' to the question
of whether he has ever killed a man while the flashback shows him doing so
and the great number of comic usages of this kind of thing - the reason we
privilege the flashback itself when there is conflict is not a video/audio
thing in these cases but because flashbacks are of the narration, where as
dialogue is of a character. Where audio is of the narration, non-diagetic
music, we tend to consider it reliable, where it is of a character -
dialogue, voice overs - we are at least ready to accept that it may be
unreliable.  Similarly flashbacks can be constructed unreliably if they're
sourced strongly to a character, as in  The Usual Suspects  and also used
for expressive purposes if linked closely enough to a subjectivity - Mr.
Orange's cops-in-the-toilet scene in Reservoir Dogs - or accepted as
accurate if the film distances them from any narrating character or
subjectivity, as in The Beguiled etc.
well, let me know what you think
Peter Thomas
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