The sounds of hybridity

Good camp that it is, Madame X highlights the material, sensual features of its figures: their makeup, their costumes, their movements. After the crew's pirate raid, the booty is inventoried so as to underscore its lush physicality: "Ninety-seven cushions of crimson damask laid with silver parchments, footstools with cloth tissue, and thirteen yellow satin chairs." As these references to textures, fabrics, and tactility demonstrate, camp is more than visual image. Its surfaces can be appreciated through a number of senses, even though critics typically address its visual component.

Not incidentally, homosexuality has been read in much the same way. Diana Fuss writes that "[i]n its popular incarnations . . . [homosexuality] is 'gleaned' from the surface of the body. [H]omosexuals are said to distinguish themselves by their extravagant dress, their exaggerated mannerisms, their hysterical intonations, their insatiable oral sex drives, and their absurd imitations of 'feminine' and 'masculine' behavior."32 Putting aside the absurdity of taking such tendencies for ontological truths, Fuss's remarks underscore the extent to which homosexual identity, so aligned with the play of appearance, finds a parallel in camp. Camp's key terms come from visual cultures: "cliché" from photographic reproduction; "mimicry," from mime performance and from colonial and African-American cultures. Rather than simply reconceptualize camp's "surface" as visual image, both Ottinger and Treut use sound and music as components of camp's material surfaces.

Treut's Virgin Machine is filled with sounds that scream out their phys-icality: traffic, bikes, boats, planes, wind, rain, dripping faucets, typing, telephones, television sets—the sounds are edited in, amplified, goofy in their noticeability. Most of them provide imaginary commentary on what is visually depicted. When Dorothee and her brother stage a puppet drama recounting a story of happiness forfeited for love, we hear the camped-up sounds of a frenzied thunderstorm. When she ponders the socio-sexual aspects of biological love, we hear chimpanzees; elsewhere and throughout the film, we hear children and dogs. The sounds of animals provide a fascinating motif in a film intent on blurring boundaries like German/non-German; lesbian/nonlesbian; organic/mechanical. (Significantly, Treut's production company is named Hyena Films, after the animal that has features of two sexes.) Dorothee's ambiguously sexualized friend, Dominique, states that her "great love" is her scrappy cat, a remark that is just a playful statement of fact. These animal motifs help primordialize the desires that run every which way in Virgin Machine. They also evince a sense of physical embod-iedness that endures despite the film's deconstruction of human gender and sexuality. Mixed species, mixed genders: Treut's hybrids reinscribe nature, while simultaneously questioning what is considered natural.

Virgin Machine is just as heterogeneous in its use of music. Queer in its very eclecticism, it includes music that is contemporary and electronic, and some that is vaguely classical. A schmaltzy tune recurs in bits and pieces, an all-female band performs jazz (diegetically), and different contemporary pop music forms appear over the course of the film. The disco-inflected "When Boys Talk" accompanies Ramona's performance at the club. Most other pieces are styled after the grunge rock popular in the United

States at the time of the film's production. The songs feature raw, aggressive vocals, topped by a stunning performance by Pearl Harbor, the brass-lunged singer from Los Angeles. She performs part of "Voodoo You" in pig latin (another species-bending detail) with lyrics such as,

I thought I was a snake Crawling on the ground I thought I was a dog Barking like a hound I thought I was a cat Howling at the moon.

Sound is an important prop for fantasy, and Ottinger's film also has no reservation about using it to camp up her proceedings. A heartbeat, for instance, accompanies Karla Freud-Goldmond, revealing the official, quantifying form of scientific inquiry she represents. Although familiar musical pieces like "The Leader of the Pack" and Satie's "La diva de l'empire" appear in the film (accompanying the biker mama and Miss Blow-Up, respectively), music is for the most part treated like so many sound effects and is often indistinguishable from them. We hear nondiegetic roars of lions and other animals, as in Virgin Machine. Human voices, for the most part, fall somewhere between language, song, and rhythmic sound. The film was postdubbed, and most of the soundtrack is nonsynchronous, increasing the distances between image and sound source. When the crew attacks a fish to eat, for instance, we hear seagulls. It is an acoustic cliché that renders the female characters both hunter and prey, birds and fish (the sexual connotations of which are further developed in the lion's roars and the purring of pussycats that accompany characters like X). Like Virgin Machine, Madame X uses animal sounds to stress a raw form of instinctual desire. Beyond that, they evoke specific historical and cultural references, namely the MGM lion. At once corporate and primal, human and not, that hybrid sound turns acoustic fidelity into a joke, borrowing clichés from outside the diegesis, along with their cultural baggage. Cinematic sound does not provide a stabilizing source as it might in the form of character dialogue; instead it becomes as decorative and campy as the film's visual clichés.

Dialogue is no exception. The meaningful aspects of language deteriorate quickly in the film. At the beginning, Rainer's voice reads X's invitation in English. But Madame X quickly moves on to a Babel-like mixture of German, English, Russian, and other languages, steering clear of any anchoring language (say, German) and moving towards groans, roars, and other nonlinguistic sounds. Jungle noises join the abundant cackles, whoopees, and applause on the soundtrack, sounds that grow increasingly primordial as the tyrant's control of ship and crew intensifies. The frac tured sounds, mixed languages, and lack of sync sound all enhance the film's general sense of splintering, reflecting the breakdown of a civilized female utopia into raw desire. The acoustic clutter seems an appropriate complement to the complex fantasies of the characters.

In Ottinger's subsequent film, Ticket of No Return, language deteriorates just as quickly, at least as a meaningful form of communication. Few of the film's figures actually speak. One who does, Lutze, the "bag lady" (Betty Brillo from Madame X), babbles constantly, and her fragmented speech races from one unfinished thought to another. The trio of "Hounds-tooth Women" tonelessly recite social rules and regulations at various points in the film. The glamorous protagonist (again performed with sartorial splendor by Tabea Blumenschein), out to drink herself to death, is silent through almost the entire film. As the drinker's outfits grow increasingly cumbersome, sounds become more abstract and noticeable—literally obstreperous, signs of the glamour that becomes too much for her to support. At the end of the film, the character appears in a crinkly, metallic dress reminiscent of Lili Marleen's, as she moves away from the camera in a hallway full of mirrors. As she walks, we hear what sounds like crushed shards of glass: the sound, perhaps, of an "image" breaking. In a 1981 interview, Ottinger said:

In my opinion film should not be based on dialogue. It makes the film lack a certain sensuality which I find very important. . . . The relation of image to objects is quite different than that of words to objects. This is not to say that I consider words or sound to be superfluous. To the contrary, I am making very conscious use of sound. I am working with twelve tracks to achieve the kind of sound rhythm I want. But again, this sound rhythm does not rely on language alone but equally as much on music and noises, also on fragments of various things.33

This emphasis on the physical aspect of sounds, music, and noise is very much in keeping with camp's interest in surface, effect, and facade and the feel and texture of objects. It is as if Ottinger detached sounds from their standard contexts and cut them into pieces. Sounds retain their cultural and historical associations, but are sent up for fun—and possible critique. Consider the pecking birds and the hungry women, Madame X and the MGM lion, jungle music and Noa Noa.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment