Sound in Diabel (1972) and Invasión (1969)

26 06 2010

When I was a teenager enjoying late-night movie viewings, I would usually turn down the volume to avoid annoying my parents. Godard, Tarkovsky, Bresson… all of them subjected to near muteness. Most of my late-night viewings were subtitled foreign films anyways, so I didn’t have to hear anything to understand the dialogue. And even if the film was in English, I would have closed-captioning turned on. Of course, I would miss a lot of aural information. There would be enough volume for me to recognize that a musical theme was playing, maybe even perceive the main notes. Yet all sense of detail and texture was annihilated in the midnight silence. My hearing loss exacerbated the problem. Since the age of three, I have had to use hearing aids, which gives me near adequate hearing, without erasing within me a strange aversion to listening closely. It is as if, irked by my hearing difficulty, I shunned away all effort at actually hearing, outside of putting on my hearing aids. I am annoyed by the difficulty, depressed by it, and don’t want to be reminded of it in the middle of the night by paying attention to barely audible dialogue.

Also since the age of three, I have been told that headphones are bad for me, that they would only increase my hearing loss. This applies, I guess, mostly to extended use. I can still use them in small increments. Either way, they’re not recommended. Alas, the hearing aids I have had for the past five years have a special option that I have barely used since my purchase: pressing a little button, the hearing aid alternates from capturing general environmental sound (people talking to me, cars passing by outside, steps in the hallway) to focusing on specific sounds, like sounds coming from behind me or from a telephone. This last option, telephone mode, also works for headphones. Since I am terribly busy nowadays, I can only watch films on my laptop and late at night. With family in the house, and not always interested in deathly quiet Lisandro Alonso movies, I decided to make good on my headphones, which have traveled from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires just to be with me.

What a difference! Granted, I chose two films, for my little experiment, that I knew had considerable aural action. Diabel I had not seen before, but I had read it had interesting music. Invasión I had already seen and I was well aware, despite having been one my nearly-mute late-nighters, that it had a unique soundscape.

I would not even call it music in the case of Invasión. There is a musical theme, a bandoneón tango tune that resonates throughout. But the highlight is the constant emergence of guttural, incomprehensible, dissonant, and shrill noises, which contradict the apparently conventional film noir surface. This goes to the heart of Invasión, which uses film noir conventions as an opportunity for friction: the protagonists are trapped by the conventions of their meaningless game and this entrapment is what makes the film so sad. I was not aware of this sadness the first time I saw the film, or I was, but I did not recognize it until after the word “fin” — “the end” — materialized on the screen. As Borges himself said of Invasión, the heroes do not know that their fight will be eternal. We share their ignorance, until the scene that plays after the end, after we read the word “fin”: droves of heroic soldiers, all dressed up in civilian clothes, line up to retrieve their own personal gun in their march towards the eternal fight. When the procession fizzles out, the woman who has been distributing the guns from behind a desk stares at the camera with a distraught look on her face. She is not triumphant or invigorated by her little army. She knows the fight will never end. Cut to black.

Invasión privileges the surface of the plot rather than its content. It is obsessed with the movements that comprise the war between dark-suits and white-suits, but we don’t get the context that justifies all of this movement. We don’t know why they are fighting, only that they are. We soon suspect that this is the point. There is no reason for this fighting. It is as if the fighting had been going on for so long, that nobody remembers why it was begun. Since the fight is so ancient, nobody questions it. Invasión is about highly organized movement on top of empty space. I am reminded of those Looney Tunes cartoons, like those with Wile E. Coyote. He runs after the Road Runner, desperately hoping to catch him. Upon making a bad turn, he is suddenly running above a precipice. Since he doesn’t realize there is a precipice, he keeps running on air. But eventually he has to realize there is nothing sustaining his weight, and so he falls. That is what happens to the protagonists of Invasión. What separates them from Coyote is that they keep running on air even after noticing the precipice below them. They will fall, just like Coyote. But they have to wait a long time for the fall to begin. They keep running, completing their futile missions, biding their time until destiny decides to drop them into darkness.

All the film noir trappings build an empty edifice. They introduce the conventions that the characters are compelled to follow. Without a reason to follow these conventions and with no hope of success, there is no energy or vitality in our heroes. Let us look the scene where they strike the enemy stronghold. One member of our heroic team offers himself up to produce a diversion. But he is the opposite of a gun-ho strong-willed soldier. He has offered himself up to die. He says as much. And there is not a smidgen of enthusiasm in his offer. In fact, he might have made his offer in the secret hope that it be rejected, so that he could both survive and appear to be brave in.front of his chums. His facial expression when his offer is accepted is one of preemptive defeat and dispirited acceptance of death. Like the woman distributing the guns, for this poor man the fight is something to be perpetuated without conviction. It is done because it must be done even though there is no reason for it to be done since all we be lost regardless.

We get to the soundscape, which parallels these themes. Like in Alphaville, the soundscape is a distant cousin of conventional noir music. But in Alphaville there is a humorous, mocking aspect to this soundscape. It could be called appropriate noir music. Paul Misraki provides all the jarring cues, suspenseful notes, and romantic passages we would want in a film noir — they’re just placed at the “wrong” time or don’t really mesh graciously with the sardonic imagery. Invasión, released four years after Alphaville and probably partially inspired by it, does not even try for appropriateness. Maybe a little bit, when the bandoneón plays its tango, which is ironic enough: the bandoneón is always ironic, always hurtfully caustic about tragic events, but caustic in a way that includes itself. The bandoneón is saying: “You’re suffering now, just like the rest of us.” Here, in Invasión, the bandoneón gives the proceedings their hidden beat, urges the heroes onward towards their demise, like rattling antlers calling forth the hunting prey. When the bandoneón is not playing, what we get is even stranger: Edgardo Cantón, with sound effects produced in the Di Tella Institute, adds barks, rings, thuds, footsteps, screeching — a collection of surprising explosions of cacophony. This awkward din often follows the on-screen movements, but not always. It behaves like environmental noise — existing parallel to the characters, rather than highlighting specific gestures and plot-junctures and thus intersecting our heroes — except the origin of the noise is missing. We do not quite know where the noise is coming from, and even when we do, the soundscape far exceeds the environment’s capacity to justify it. One scene takes place in a tropical island. We are immersed in the typical wildlife clamor of bird calls and monkey whoops. But what is this tropical island doing there? And how can such a little island have this orchestra of fauna?

Invasión is a clock coming apart, its complicated mechanisms shattering throughout the running time, and we’re inside the clock body as its springs and gears fly in every direction. We listen to the growling of a dying world. We are witnessing the decadence of an endless game, a perfectly constructed surface that is sick underneath. Diabel attempts a similar feat: crescendos, corny music, climactic booms, delirious beats. And the characters dance to it all: epileptic episodes resemble some sort of schizoid break-dancing technique. It is simultaneously hilarious and horrible. If the dissonance in Alphaville tends towards humor and the dissonance in Invasión tends towards tragedy, then Diabel stands between both effects, combining them to heighten both. The datedness — the suspicion that this is all very seventies — is a quality that the film has gained with time: the costume and production design, and the palpable being-there communicated by the actors, who manage to truly inhabit their period setting by being so insistently passionate, have a dialogue with the trippy datedness, so that there’s a double-datedness: the period setting and the seventies campiness.

Even if we ignore the seventies campiness, even if we dismiss it altogether, reasoning that, since there is nothing quite like Diabel, it is unreasonable to compare it to anything else by dropping it into a generic decade-based grouping, we are still confronted with the mysteriously coherent incoherence of hilarious drama. What makes this hilarious drama work is its obsessiveness. I take this from Adrian Martin, who believes that Chilean director Raul Ruiz is as unconventional as he is because he is obsessed. Even though Raul Ruiz borrows from dozens of conventional sources, his obsession with the borrowed pieces makes the conventional unconventional. He goes overboard. So does Zulawski. We cannot say that he moves between the realms of comedy and seriousness with ease, because he doesn’t move between realms. There is only one realm, Zulawskian insanity. And in this realm, comedy and drama are the same thing because they are both obsessed. When the comedy and the drama are so intensely exaggerated in opposite directions, all that is left behind is the intensity. No more directions are possible. It is not a potpourri of diverse emotions, because that would imply a patch-work and you can see the separate patches in a patch-work. It is a perfect blend where both ingredients are lost in their entanglement.

We find the same blend in the music: at once a satire of loud dramatic music and loud dramatic music, Diabel makes us all deafer by hollering into our ears. We are amused and terrified. The musicians have obviously lost their minds. Their music is ridiculous and ridiculously appropriate. As the protagonist walks from one scene to the next, meeting family, friends, and associates, killing them all in 18th Century Poland circa the Second Partition by the Prussians, so do the musical notes react to his deeds. But these are obsessed circus-like reactions. They’re not whimsical or nonchalantly ironic. They’re mad, absolutely mad. Some scenes cut to black as if there were chapter breaks. These cuts are always accompanied by significant music cues, the type that usually accompany Important Happenings. And that is how they function here, save that the choreography is all wrong. The extremely self-important cues clash with the extreme silliness on display. But since the resulting equation is “extreme + extreme” there is no clash but only harmonious teamwork leading towards higher plateaus of “extreme,” and since so much “extremeness” can only be deeply emotional and painfully human — the excesses of a raging soul — then the higher plateaus are increasingly affecting. Every laugh is in fact a wince. We are protecting ourselves from incoming pain.

Headphones enfold you like a crib. The soundscape in Invasión and Diabel is simultaneously diegetic and non-diegetic. Even when it appears to be the latter kind — that is, sound that is not produced by an in-film source — it still comes across as the former. We know the music, the thuds, the barks, the screeching, we know these are not logically included inside the world of the movie, at least not consistently. But these sounds still feel like emanations arising from this world, emanations that are as diegetic as can be, because the world itself is producing them, chastising the characters for continuing to exist. It is the world speaking to its subjects by churning and bothering everyone with its chaos.

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