Impassion, Impassivity, Immobility


published in Real Time No.43, Sydney, 2001

War is noise. Tactical land warfare reconfigures space as an amplified terrain of threatening sonic occurrences whose indistinction and multiplicity confer sound as noise - as a complete collapse of decipherable sound. From faint rustles in the bush to simulated bird calls in the jungle to rebounding echoic gunfire on mountains, the key signifiers of sound - its origin, source, perspective, orientation, content and purpose - are rendered invisible and hidden; disguised and undisclosed. Ducking and diving, you experience an excess of the sonic with next to no visual correlation. In its life-threatening and death-affirming din, war thus becomes the penultimate dislocation of sound from image. It is no surprise, then, that so many survivors of the battlefield suffer a variety of forms of shock. Their psyches still reverberate, wrack, shudder and flinch with psychoacoustic replays of military 'noisefare' encoded into their being and looped into uncontrollable and unpredictable cycles of playback and feedback. That bomb blast you survived haunts you with every loud slam of a car door; that rocket launch whoosh you dodged taunts you with every buffet of wind through overhead power lines. From the actual sonic event in the past, to its acoustic resemblance in the present, to its imaginary recall in your mind, all sounds can trigger the same disorienting asynchronism advanced by the audiovisual dislocation in war.

The postwar body - from the aged veteran to the youthful discharge - experiences the sonic landscape of peaceful territories in a way deeply removed from our non-militarized comprehension of urban, suburban and rural space. We may be familiar with 'images of war' embodying the potential to trigger, erase and reconfigure perspectives of the past (in the form of sculpted memorials, videoed testimonials and cinematized stories), but we have extremely little collective understanding of how the sound of what one has experienced on the battlefield can transform one's inhabitation of space beyond the battlefield. We have no idea whether a buzzing earth hum could be soothing to a Korean War vet, a distant spluttering generator could be terrifying to a Vietnam vet, or a droning air conditioner could be numbing to a UN peace-keeper who spent time in Kosovo. Shallow understanding of the relation between sound and psyche irresponsibly verges on ignorance in the hands of so many healing sciences of the mind. Unmitigated dismissal of the importance of the sonic and the psychoacoustic in audiovisual media plays its part in painting a landscape of deafness in which psychology maintains its scopic mandates of inquiry.

When Francis Ford Coppola embarked on the making of Apocalypse Now (1979) he outlined a swelling body of documentary footage from the era as a field from which to paint an intentionally accurate picture of the American intervention of Vietnam which escalated between 1964 and 1973. One key documentary cited was Eugene S. Jones' observation of US Marine field combat with the Viet Cong in 1966, A Face Of War (1968). Coppola went as far as to request a print of the film to screen to his actors on location in the Philippines back in 1975. His contacts with Jones during this period prompted Jones to provide what was to be a revealing document which precisely described what it was like to hear the sounds of war. Jones submitted a 26 page letter to Coppola's film company which included 16 pages of detailed sono-spatial notes on just about every piece and component of weaponry and ammunition used in the Viet Cong field and jungle conflicts. This information undoubtedly formed a valuable aural topology for both Coppola and sound designer Walter Murch. It has taken decades for their collaborative work on this landmark cinesonic film to be openly acknowledged as a major force in the shaping of American modern film sound - but little has been noted on how important Jones' sound documentary was in providing the clear and experienced perspectives for guiding Coppola and Murch's work. The Vietnam era has been historically mediarized as a McLuhanesque rupture of the domestic by the electronic image (televised images with little location sound and maximal voice-over reportage), leaving us to presume that the sonic, the acoustic, the spatial and the psychoacoustic had no role to play in 'Nam and interventionist conflicts around the globe since.

If we are deaf to how the post-war terrain betrays a deafening silence wherein sonic memories, vocal traces and aural scars operate beyond our emotional and psychological listening range, we are just as likely deaf to the importation and exportation of music and song in the shattered shuttling between zones of war and spaces of peace. Heddy Honigmann's Crazy (2000) somehow has grasped this in an intuitive and explorative way. Soldiers, aid-workers and counselors who have spent military duty and/or peace-keeping time in places like Seoul, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Lebanon, Kosovo and Rwanda are interviewed about what songs they cherished from their time spent in those places, and what memories the songs bring back. Then, in a recall of the camera gaze shared by Warhol and Ackerman, we watch their faces as they listen to the songs. The beauty of the film is not in what many will probably misinterpret as a humanist celebration of the will to survive beyond the ravages of such hellish experiences, but in its foregrounding of how song - in its most consumerist guise and outright commodification - can transcend just about every damning critique of pop music ever written by stodgy old farts who think Bob Dylan and Van Morrison define the pantheon of modern song form. (Please take that personally.)

The film opens with the phased churning of a chopper intermingling with strains of The Three Tenors singing "Nessun Dorma" (from the Puccini opera Turandot). Of course, Apocalypse Now is loosely evoked by this clash of beauty with death. Despite the oft-ignored fact that opera is about the clash of beauty with death (and hence a grand template for all modernist audiovisual destructo-narrative), Coppola's use of The Ride of The Valkyries from Wagner's Ring Cycle is specifically about the bombardment of death with beauty. The music is blasted at the Viet Cong from the choppers, freaking them with European bombast to disorient their aural landscape. But in Crazy, it is revealed that Nessun Dorma is less a musical projectile and more an aural impression which maps the face that listens to it. As we watch the ex-soldier listen to one of the 80s' most kitsch grotesqueries of High Art super-group bellowing, it is as if the pores of his skin exude with all the space between the laser-burnt pits of the CD recording. In other words, the surface of his face shows only the slightest quivering in response to the sound waves of the music as it fulfills his being. Eyes open, occasionally blinking, audibly breathing, he - like most of Crazy's subjects - does not fit the desired romanticized semi-religious icon of the ecstatic listener, enthralled by harmonic rapture with eyes wide shut. His face is removed, ungiving, transported. The effect is undeniable: we bear witness to the phonological materiality of the song as inscription; as that which is listened to rather than that which is encoded, recorded, produced or performed. The transparent psycho-sonic skin which wavers between objectivity (the song as music) and subjectivity (the song as experience) shimmers and fluctuates.

How can I say this? Because all the songs played in the film hold no particular significance or pleasure for me, yet I am moved by their presence in the film. Plus, I am clear that I am not pathetically responding to an overtly emotionally loaded situation. (Dumb humanist identification is predicated on the puerile Pavlovian response to only the grossest displays of emotion.) More pertinent to this discussion of the grey borders of song's phenomenological status, I can actually hear the architecsonic impact of the song as it guides its listener (simultaneously the film's on-screen subject and me) in a way that transports me beyond my taste in music. The songs, then, are possessed by an ownership far greater and more powerful than my relation to the music. Not one example in Crazy provided me with a song I could 'share' via my taste - though even if there were such a song, my relation to the song would most likely feel trivial and flighty compared to the clinging lifeline the song undoubtedly has provided to these people.

Is this axial shift in identifying music possible with anyone? And with any song or music? Is it an event of experiential revelation or a linkage in a developed sensibility? For as long as I can remember, 60s recordings of slow-paced cabaret crooning with reverberant voices cooing in a manner reminiscent of 50s doo-wop have always struck me as achingly empty in their echoic rendering and stylistic somnambulism. To many (especially film people) such songs are camp, tacky, kitsch and great to use in send-up situations. As I hear those swooping violins, that muted 'lounge' rhythm and the self-mockingly maudlin voice, I associate the songs with Korean vets and their metal implants, withered penises, dysfunctional marriages and psychosexual cracks, alone at a bar and gripped in a sodden existential stasis. Powerful songs can be those within which you can sense the navigational path for someone's potential empathy with the song, irrespective of your preferences or reading of the song's importance.

Cinema is a wonderful machine for generating this effect. The laying of music 'on top of' someone's face on a screen can not only project an emotional reading of the character's state of mind, but it can also externalize the interiority of the imagined person. Crazy outrightly documents this. Each song states: I am what is inside this head, behind this face, within this listener. Crazy also proves absolutely that any narrative can embrace any song for any purpose. In fact, it is in such a rare documentary instance like Crazy that song and music raises these issues, while virtually all fictional film dramas engineer the film score as if music and song has to control, shape and dictate the emotional energy maps of its characters. This notion of film music is typical of the authorial delusion which governs the act of writing in general and cinema in particular - that all elements in the fictional scenario are there to reinforce the power of authorial voice which places them there. Film scoring - the act of laying a particular piece of music 'on top of' a face - is a desperate claim for the selective power of music and how it can be used as a controlling force within narrative. Crazy evidences music - in the receptacle of songs - as an uncontrollable force, both from the song-writer/singer's intention and in the film subjects' reception of the song. The ex-soldiers all fix their songs to precise incidents and moments which did not call for the songs that fused themselves to their listeners. Such music - as one guy puts it in the film - is "weird stuff". In the end, all the songs perform as a talisman against the craziness in which they found themselves gradually sinking. Crazy is a testament not merely to the human spirit, but to the power of song.

When Tom Logan (played by Jack Nicholson) slits the throat of Lee Clayton (played by Marlon Brando) in Arthur Penn's Missouri Breaks (1976) , Logan invokes and externalizes Clayton's own crazy (psychotic) disposition. Leaning over him and breathing into his nostrils, he says "You know what woke you up? Lee, you just had your throat cut". Face to face, they mirror each other not with symmetrical precision, but through a resonant balance. Nicholson lives out the impulse to bear witness to the death of his nemesis less as a classical gesture of narrative closure, and more as a will to discern whether the aural bears any witness to its visual encoding on the face. It doesn't. Sound exists in the much deeper recesses of the mind. The face is but an iced-over veneer of still pools whose traumas operate at frequencies beyond registering of troubled waters. The blank face of the traumatized is not an impassive countenance; it is an impassable terrain, saying "If you could only hear how I hear".

Text © Philip Brophy 2000. Images © VPRO