Psychoanalytical Analysis of Cinematic Sound – The Phenomenon of Eavesdropping

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The question that interests me is that if voyeurism is such a fertile subject for film, to what extent is there an aural equivalent? Is eavesdropping a neglected aspect of the compelling connection between audiences and films?As a dramatic device, eavesdropping goes back as far as Greek drama and is a favorite trope of Elizabethan dramatists. Think of the overheard conversation about a handkerchief in Othello or Polonius behind the arras. In comedy, especially farce, misunderstandings of overheard conversations may be the single most prevalent catalyst for motivating plots. It can be more than just a plot device, however; it can have larger implications: incomplete overhearing or misinterpreting what is heard can sometimes be a metaphor for how we misunderstand the world and our relationship to it.

In film most psychoanalytic writing on sound in film usually focuses on the significance of the voice. Cinematic moments that might be considered eavesdropping are cited within discussions of the appropriation or fetishization of the voice.

Much early psychoanalytic theory when applied to film sound evolved from Laura Mulvey's suggestion that voyeurism is so central to cinema because it is one of two forms of mastery by which the male overcomes the castration threat posed by the sight of a woman onscreen. Mulvey calls voyeurism sadistic: the mainstream cinema neutralizes and contains the woman's threat through the plot; the plot punishes the woman-kills her off, desexualizes her; the male character investigates, demystifies and/or saves her. Kaja Silverman and others have suggested that voice can also be used fetishistically, that "Hollywood requires the female voice to assume similar responsibilities to those it confers upon the female body . . . as a fetish within dominant cinema, filling in for and covering over what is unspeakable within male subjectivity." (Silverman, 1988, p. 38)Although psychoanalysts vary in their interpretations, all agree that overhearing is a primal phenomenon that invokes anxiety. Freud thus prefigured the very cinematic axiom that a threat that is heard but left unseen can allow the audience to imagine something more terrifying than anything a filmmaker could embody in a specific image. More specifically, it can help explain the frisson created by menacing off-screen sound in thrillers, war movies, and science fiction scenes where the enemy's location is usually identified by sound long before it appears.

Plot situations where we are likely to find eavesdropping include: scenes involving the telephone, tape recorders or answering machines; deliberate bugging of people or rooms; confessions, particularly in Catholic confession booths; therapy sessions; conversations overheard in adjacent rooms or spaces, particularly by jealous or paranoid characters; non-realistic scenes in which we or characters can overhear thoughts, as in Wings of Desire or many Godard films; and all films about sound recordists.

Nearly all narrational uses of eavesdropping call for the examination of two all-encompassing considerations about the relation between the listener and the overheard party. The first is that eavesdropping raises issues concerning intrusion, the invasion of privacy. The second is that it is the separation that is important; this separation defines the eavesdroppers and their subjects in an opposition of social inclusion vs. exclusion. The person constructed as the outsider may be the eavesdropper or the overheard party.

In every case the eavesdropper acquires some form of Knowledge. It is often not important what words are overheard; rather, that knowledge is often of something momentous, terrible (anxiety producing), erotic, and secret-carnal knowledge. The knowledge may bring pleasure or pain to the listener. In such cases, the acquired knowledge imparts power or control over the overheard party. Two additional professional situations often imply eavesdropping: psychotherapy and the Christian confessional. The therapist and priest are figures whose role is to be entrusted with people's innermost secrets, but, like professionals who wield microphones, they can abuse their privileged positions as listeners. No wonder that so many therapy and confession scenes act as the intermediary for the cinematic audio-viewer and have reflexive implications.

Krzysztof Kieslowski's eavesdropper appears in Red (1994), the culmination of his 'Three Colors' trilogy. One of the two protagonists, a retired judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is a misanthropic recluse in Geneva, whose main preoccupation is listening in on his neighbors' telephone conversations. In a sense, his private listening is an extension of the 'hearings' he had held professionally-but without his having to render judgments. The judge's social isolation is interrupted by a model-a professional exhibitionist, whose life intersects with his when she accidentally injures his dog. She is present when he listens in on a neighbor, who is ostensibly a happy family man, having a warm phone conversation with his male lover. When the model runs next door to warn the wife, she cannot bear to destroy the woman's complacency and leaves without saying anything, even though she sees their young daughter listening impassively to her father's conversation on an extension phone. The judge and the model argue about whether they should interfere with the lives of those they overhear.

The model eventually manages to forge an emotional connection with the reclusive judge, and she tells the judge to stop eavesdropping. That night he turns himself in to the police, thereby facing a trial and public contempt. But he is also redeemed. Red, which opens with an image of transatlantic telephone cables, is about connections among people. Kieslowski, having created in Blue, White and Red, a whole trilogy of characters who have cut themselves from off society, finally allows for reconciliation in this, his last film. The judge is shown to be capable of reintegration within the social sphere. Or he may have gone further-there is a suggestion, that having earlier quit the bench and dropped out of society in order to avoid any responsibility for human or even canine life, the judge now goes to the other extreme and controls the fates of those he overheard (and even characters from earlier films of the trilogy) with the omnipotence to determine who survives a transchannel ferry accident-that he may himself have caused.

Kieslowski's film operates both as an exploration of human psychology and as a philosophical investigation. He investigates the nature of eavesdropping per se, but ultimately places the eavesdropping in broader contexts: the reciprocal relationship between spying and being spied on, our ethical connections to people we see and hear, our social responsibility for each other, and ultimately our ability to control our own fate and those of others.

BIBLIOGRAPHY1.Silverman, Kaja. (1988). The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.