Philip Brophy



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. 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. From the actual sonic event in the past, to its acoustic resemblance in the present, to its imaginary recall in the 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 have little collective understanding of how the sound of what one has experienced on the battlefield can transform one’s inhabitation of the space beyond. 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 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 in Vietnam. 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 even requested a print of the film to screen to his actors on location in the Philippines. Their contact prompted Jones to provide what was to be a revealing document that 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 guiding Coppola and Murch’s work. The Vietnam era has been historically mediarised 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, acoustic, spatial and 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 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) has grasped this in an intuitive and exploratory 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 written by stodgy old farts who think Bob Dylan and Van Morrison define the pantheon of modern song form.

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). 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. 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 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 hold no particular significance or pleasure for me, yet I am moved by their presence in the film. 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.) 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. Even if the music did reflect my taste, my relation to the song would most likely feel trivial compared to the clinging lifeline it provided to the film’s subjects.

Is this axial shift in identifying music possible with anyone? And with any 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 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 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 that any narrative can embrace any song for any purpose. It is in this rare documentary that song and music raises this issue 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. Such music—as one guy puts it in the film—is “weird stuff.” In the end, all the songs perform as talismans 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 (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. Logan 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…”

Crazy, directed by Heddy Honigmann, screened at the 2000 Sydney Film Festival and is currently touring as part of the AFI’s European Film Festival.

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 16

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001