My philosophy teacher Avital Ronell always says that all of Hamlet happens in the ear. I think all of love does too, which is why the work of listening is also the work of love. We are accused of being bad listeners, not bad watchers. This tells us something about what we’re not hearing. What we’ve missed, what’s lost inside of us. Noir as the ear.
More than watching movies I’ve spent my life listening to them. This is probably why Love Sounds, a 24-hour oral history and ontology of love in English-speaking cinema, and the final installment in my immaterial trilogy, came naturally to me. Sound is sight for me. More eavesdropper than voyeur, I tend to forget what I’ve seen onscreen but can remember where and when words took place in every movie I have ever watched. What listening has shown me, which is the word I mean to use here as I take Jean-Luc Godard’s instruction that sound is something to be looked at and images something to be listened to, is that I have been listening to love too closely and not closely enough. Now that cinema is ostensibly over and post-cinema has moved in to take its place, we need to ask ourselves what the movies tried to tell us about love when they still had all their cultural power.
In my writing about film I have become increasingly interested in the tonal typographies of love, which include the guttural, sublingual off-shoots of proclamation, exclamation, stuttering, screaming, crying, begging, whimpering, kissing, fucking, grunting, cuming. It makes think about, as Jean-Lucy Nancy puts it in his book Listening, “What, in the saying, is other than what is said.” Paying attention is mostly about listening, more precisely, re-hearing, and one should listen precisely because one can get away and has gotten away with just seeing. This is easier said than done, however, as movies are so easy on the eyes. We see and hear them through the famed faces and bodies of stars, forgetting that a voice’s resonance and alterity cannot be reduced to the star struck sighting of bodies alone. By extracting the tonal history of love in all its renditions from the thick visual casing of cinema, Nancy’s “What, in the saying, is other than what is said” is reformulated in Love Sounds as: what, in the seeing, have we failed to hear? Which translates to: what do we still not understand about love?
In Love Sounds thecinematicstorage bank of love—which include the sounds made by the failure to love—is the condition that allows us to consider this vast archive in the form of oral sonority. For, despite all the so-called love rampant in movies, movies have always shied away from the actual makings of happiness. Thus we can hardly say we even know what love looks or sounds like to this day.
The work of Love Sounds is also a reckoning with the tragic but familiar way that we talk about things at all the wrong times, to all the wrong people, as we don’t quite know what the right time or right people—the right feeling for the right thing, or as Bresson put it, “passionate for the appropriate”—are. Arrangement and timing have never been our human forte. Because cinema largely takes place in the subjunctive mode (wishes coming true), and love in cinema is about seizing language in a way we usually fail to do off-screen, the history of love is also about loving the wrong people with the wrong words at the wrong time, so movies, unlike life—so hell-bent on wronging rights—have always attempted to right these wrongs.
After working through the 1930, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, I spent the month of March on the 1980s and most of April on the 1970s. The 90s are next. Here are some thoughts on a handful of the audio clips I recently recorded and edited.
Love Sound #1:
In Harold Becker’s 1989 crime thriller, Sea of Love, New York police detective Al Pacino bitterly laments the death of his marriage over another man’s dead body during a murder investigation. Every crime in the film recalls and triggers the earlier crime: his wife’s betrayal. Death adds up like surround sound. Pacino’s partner on the case is the man his wife left him for. It’s the right time (job) as any for him mourn his marriage, as with noir, solving one crime or tragedy is a way to solve another. What Deleuze refers to as the detective mind or detective structure is what Barthes calls the semiotics of the lover’s discourse. The lover is always also a detective, rescinding, rewinding. The mourner, masquerading as the detective, is in a constant state of whodunit.
Sea of Love, Harold Becker, 1989
Love Sound #2:
In Louis Malle’s 1992 film Damage, Juliette Binoche’s Anna Barton suggests that the idea of survival (surviving trauma, surviving time, surviving the loss of originary Others) is a kind of cynicism that makes love and desire dangerous, if not impossible. What Anna calls damage could be just that: those of us who don’t die. Those of us that go on. Who survived a thing so bad all other things are smooth sailing thereafter. Experience is buffer. Earlier in Damage Anna confesses at dinner with Martyn’s family that her brother committed suicide at the age of 16 over love. Love is capital here. The word love kills the conversation and the dinner. There is no getting over a love this singular. There is no loving anyone else. Why live without it? Anna’s brother couldn’t, so he didn’t.
Damage, Louis Malle, 1992
When Stephen’s (Jeremy Irons) son Martyn, who, we’re told by Anna’s mother, looks like Anna’s dead brother, discovers that his father has been having an affair with Anna, he cannot recover either and dies from a fatal fall upon sight of Stephen and Anna fucking.
Damage asks what it means to not be killed by things that should kill us, which means it’s asking about the ethics and requirements of living. At the end of the film, Stephen’s devastated wife, Ingrid, grieving both her son’s death and her husband’s betrayal, asks, “Why didn’t you kill yourself? You should have killed yourself when it began.” For Ingrid the willingness and ability to die is proof of real feeling. The idea here is that even being able to start something so deadly, so death-inducing, is the mark of a damage that is antithetical to living. Ingrid doesn’t ask Stephen why he didn’t stop what he was doing. She asks him why he didn’t kill himself for the fact that it even happened at all.
Ingrid is bruised and battered from self-inflicted wounds on her face because “the pain was unbearable.” Unlike Ingrid, Martyn, and Anna’s brother, Anna and Stephen, both melancholics, are not people who die, but people who incorporate death and pass it to others. They can live with it—with death, with killing others. “You thought you could go on…into the future?” Ingrid questions Stephen in disbelief. And Stephen simply answers, “Yes. Yes.” Ingrid falls to the kitchen floor in agony. She is inconsolable. Stephen calmly kneels down to her. He takes his wife’s two hands into his and tells her, “Give the death to me. Give Martyn’s death to me.” Judith Butler: “Melancholy is…a miming of the death it cannot mourn.”
The 90s was the Goodbye decade (the 80s was return of the Hello). Taken on socio-historical terms, Damage, a classic 90s film about late 20th century (Western) fatigue, historical and emotional damage is equal to the fatal capacity to live past a certain end-point and end-time, just as living in (through) late capitalism—the accrual of experience—is evidence of Life corrupted.
Love Sound #3
In Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg, Greta Gerwig’s Florence Marr relays her singing coach’s adage that “hurt people hurt people.” Florence is on the phone with the petulant narcissist Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) when she delivers this telephonic proverb about the tit-for-tat of pain. Roger is at his house, Florence is at hers. Being one of the hurt who hurt, man-child Roger must repeat Florence’s slacker mantra to himself over and over like a riddle he can’t solve. While Greenberg posits a banal, reflexive, presentist resignation to being (as) damaged, 90s renditions of disaster were still operatic and consequential. Now damage is both our opening line and our closing act. The beginning, middle, and end. In a friend’s text exchange about heartbreak last month, she observed, “It seems like the point is pain.” Thirty years earlier, the writer Kathy Acker noted, “Since we’re both maniacs, let’s be nice to each other.” Breaking with the viral inexorableness of pain, Acker radically reforms the narcissistic reverb of Greenberg’s “hurt people hurt people,” with “since we’re both hurt, let’s not hurt each other.”
Greenberg, Noah Baumbach, 2010
The question, however, is not whether or why people are hurt. Or even: can hurt people stop hurting people. The question is: can life, at this late stage of capitalism, be more than simply an economy, exchange, barrage, testimony, chronicle, compulsion of damage-making? Roger is the person par excellence—more specifically, the emotionally stunted (stunned) white man-child—to pose this question to, as he is deep in the repetitive stupor of damage.
Love Sound #4 & 5
In the following two clips from Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously a diagram of disappointment resounds, creating a loop of damage. When paired together, however, a distinction between the original and the derivative is made, as the two clips form a kind of dysfunctional couple. Cause and effect. Hurt makes hurt. The dirge, Why can’t you learn (the verb learn being the operative word here) to love echoes Acker’s, “Since we’re both hurt, let’s not hurt each other.”
The Year of Living Dangerously, Peter Weir, 1982
The Year of Living Dangerously, Peter Weir, 1982
Love Sound #6
In 1993, while suffering blindness due to HIV, the late filmmaker Derek Jarman made his metaphysical, all-tonal masterpiece, Blue, a film divested of sight. Radiating the ontology of color, Blue is precisely the exquisite sonority one gets when one has been “released from image.” Jarman described his film this way: “Because there are no images in Blue, you can be as free as you like…People see all sorts of things they don’t see on screen.” In the clip below, Jarman remembers his dead lovers, creating a resounding elegy. “My heart’s memory turns to you…Love is life that lasts forever.”
To read more about Love Sounds and watch the trailer, click here.