Featured image: Yours in Sisterhood (Irene Lusztig, 2019).
The Mediated Voice
A collective playlist compiled by Dr Lucy Donaldson, University of St Andrews.
On 11th November, the Centre for Screen Cultures ran a roundtable discussion focusing on the theme of the mediated voice. Before the event we ran a screening of Irene Lusztig’s marvellous documentary Yours in Sisterhood (2019), and we invited the director to talk about making her film. Four film scholars – Jaimie Baron, Tessa Dwyer, Jennifer O’Meara and Shruti Narayanswamy – responded to the film and drew on their own research to expand on this theme.
What follows is a collective playlist that builds on that event to explore connections of voice to gender and race, of dubbing and performance, of authenticity and creativity.
As So Mayer has described of Yours in Sisterhood, the film “delves into the archive and renews the word, bringing neglected letters into the circulation they sought, and changing their unpublished pasts into public futures where their voices are heard. It uses the letter as a form of time travel, and even teleportation.” In the making of the film, Lusztig searched through about 2,000 letters to Ms. magazine, the first feminist magazine in the United States now housed at the Schlesinger Library. She selected 300 and then filmed people reading out the letters in what has been described as a performative, participatory documentary.
The film is currently available on Kanopy. For more information, check the website
You can view a trailer here
Suggested by Jaimie Baron, Associate Professor of Film Studies, University of Alberta:
Illusions (Julie Dash, 1982)
It’s 1942, and Mignon Dupree, a Black Hollywood studio executive passing as white must consider her own part in creating a misleading image of whiteness when Ester Jeeter, a (non-passing) Black woman serves as the invisible singing voice for a white Hollywood star. In contrast to Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1952), which finds comedy in vocal substitution, Dash’s film reveals how the practice of replacing one person’s voice with another’s is based on and perpetuates racist societal hierarchies.
Available on Kanopy and Youtube.
Everything’s Fine (Natasha Lyonne, 2020)
Comedian Sarah Cooper became known on TikTok for lip syncing to some of Donald Trump’s incoherent and repulsive ramblings, her imitations reminding us of just how absurd his statements are, even if we had become inured to them due to endless repetition. In this short film, Cooper stars as a Black host of a news show whose forced cheer is increasingly at odds with the horrors of her experience and the realities surrounding her. While Cooper’s lip syncs are only one element of this film, both her character and her impersonations indicate the ways in which contemporary media forms frequently encourage the construction of “personalities” in the place of actual people.
Suggested by Tessa Dwyer, Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University, Melbourne:
College Chums (Porter, 1907)
An early film by Edwin S. Porter that was designed with ‘talker troupes’ in mind, a popular form of film exhibition at the time whereby ‘silent’ films were performed or ‘voiced’ by travelling troupes of actors who were positioned behind the projection screen or curtain, and sometimes mimed the actions of the bodies on screen to lend their voicing added authenticity and expression. The film is also noticeable for its particularly creative and playful use of text on screen, which is used to great effect in a scene involving a telephone conversation. In both these ways, the film shows how important various forms of ‘talk’ were to its conception, distribution, exhibition and reception. [Available on YouTube]
The Canary Murder Case (St Clair, 1929)
An early talkie starring ‘dubbed’ silent film star Louise Brooks who broke her contract with Paramount (when refused a pay rise) and refused to cooperate further on the film, forcing Paramount to hire a voice and body double (Margaret Livingston). Notice the many awkward scenes in which Brooks’ character (‘the Canary’) is shown talking, that feature the Canary from behind, in silhouette, in blurry long-shots or obscured by items of furniture; all fashioned to conceal this duplicitous doubling. As Natasa Durovicova notes in “Local Ghosts: Dubbing Bodies in Early Sound Cinema” (2003), such doubling practices were actually quite widespread within Hollywood at the time. [Available on YouTube]
Waltzes from Vienna (Hitchcock, 1934)
A fascinating analysis by Charles O’Brien (“The ‘Cinematization’ of Sound…” 2010) reveals how Hitchcock directed this English-language film with foreign audiences in mind. In a similar fashion to The Canary Murder Case, talking characters are often shown from behind, in profile or with their mouths or faces obscured. According to O’Brien, this was to facilitate the film’s later dubbing into French (removing the need for lip-synch) and extend its transnational audience. [Available on YouTube]
Querelle (Fassbinder, 1982)
This film by acclaimed German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was shot in English and stars an international cast with American Brad Davis in the lead. However, when it was released in the US, distributors felt it would be better received by audiences if dubbed into German and then re-translated into English via subtitles (see Peter Lev, The Euro-American Cinema 1993). Seeking to affirm the film’s arthouse and foreign auteurist credentials (whilst also making its controversial exploration of queer sexuality more palatable), this distribution strategy indicates the cultural and economic complexities at play within operations of screen translation and vocal disembodiment.
Suggested by Jennifer O’Meara, Assistant Professor in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin:
The Suitcase of Love and Shame (Jane Gillooly, 2013)
Artist Jane Gillooly’s found footage documentary highlights the complex ethics of archive-based documentaries. In 2009, Gillooly bought a suitcase containing the cassette tapes on the e-commerce site, eBay for $100. The tapes feature the intimate exchanges of a couple, Jeannie and Tom, who were carrying out an affair largely through vocal correspondence in the 1960s. Four years later, Gillooly’s released her experimental documentary compiled of Jeannie and Tom’s tapes accompanied by abstract video footage. Watching the film, or rather, listening to the film while watching some evocative imagery, is an uncomfortable experience because of the sheer authenticity of the voices. [Available to stream on Amazon US or iTunes]
The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, 2013)
Like Yours in Sisterhood, this documentary on ‘riot grrrl’ musician Kathleen Hanna underscores various interesting links between the voice as written and the voice as spoken or sung. In testament to Hanna’s sustained investment in prioritising women’s voices (through punk music and activist zines), she insisted that almost no men be featured as ‘talking heads’ in the film, leading to an uncommonly female-focused bio-doc. [Available on YouTube or Dailymotion]
If you enjoyed this list, don’t miss the The Mediated Voice: Expedition Content coming up 12-14 April.