Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What does authenticity sound like?

This article from the Columbus Dispatch entitled "'Lincoln' full of  authentic sounds" was recently forwarded to me. In order for the rest of this post to make sense you should, dear reader, take 5-7 minutes for a read-through or two of the above link. Clicking the link should open up in a new tab so you won't have to worry about losing your spot here.
There's a couple of really interesting aspects of this article that seemed to be worth commenting on.
1) The title of this article is worth noting. If the title read 'inauthentic' instead of 'authentic' what would an inauthentic sound be? Would it be if, during the movie, the watch was displayed and it didn’t tick or if the sound of the watch was from Big Ben? Or if the sounds of John Wilkes Booth's watch was played when seeing the watch? Or perhaps an inauthentic sound is one that is not historically grounded. But the term “historical sound” doesn't quite fit. I'll come back to this.
2) Additionally I found this article is interesting because it seems to be dealing with a need or desire to explicitly point out the supposed authenticity of sounds in an entertaining/entertainment medium. I think this is due to dealing with an historical subject or biography, with what we refer to as 'historical fact(s)' and trying to use the sound of a legitimate historical object to lend credence to the authenticity of the storyline in a medium that is very much about intertwining truth and illusion.

     I would posit that the interest in 'authentic sounds' stems from the desire to make movies about historical figures or history as believable as possible. The concept of originality is rather highly prized in Western art and culture-making where the original is supposed to matter more than an unoriginal or a copy. Hence calling someone or their work/art "original" is truly a compliment while calling someone's work "derivative" indicates that the creative foundations or source(s) of an individual's art work are too easily linked to the influence of other artists and thus does not seem to arise ex nihilio and is therefore not original or not original enough.
     Truthfully I've not actually seen the movie Lincoln yet but the concept explored in this article has been bouncing around my head for the past couple of weeks. In referring back to item 1, if the article hadn't pointed out that particular sounds were from historical artifacts and places, the viewer wouldn't notice. Because the viewer doesn't know that the recorded watch sound is from a watch Lincoln owned, the sound is, of itself, without meaning or weight. Substituting a recorded sound for the watch's true, as it were, tick may actually be less authentic since it is not the seen watch which generates its own tick that is heard. The watch is, if you will, lip-syncing. And in the context of human performance lip-syncing is often seen as one of the deadly sins of live performance, fit for scandal and  wild speculations. (Note the very recent brouhaha of Beyonce's performance at the inauguration. There's whole other area to explore here of the belief in originality and live performance, but that's for another time.)
Adorno suggests that "mass media are not simply the sum total of the actions they portray or of the messages that radiate from these actions. Mass media also consist of various layers of meanings superimposed on one another, all of which contribute to the effect." (p. 164, The Schema of Mass Culture) The sound of the watch must be portrayed as 'authentic' in order to contribute to the overall layering-of-meaning process. The authenticity of the sound is supposed to bring authenticity to the movie, because of the factuality of the sound the rest of the movie now has greater meaning or weight. The contribution of a specific historic recorded sound to the movie watching process, which is filled w/ other, supposedly, historically accurate item, layers on the acting and visual elements to add layers of convincing meaning to the reception of the film. The viewer has no way of knowing this, until educated, but the sound of the watch is supposed to matter more than other sounds.
 "Everywhere the public's nose is being rubbed in the alluring aroma of authenticity so that everyone can experience the intoxication of watching as it happens and Being There...In cinemas every second set of opening or closing credits announces that the film is based on real events." (p. 45 Five Dials No. 26) In the end it doesn't really matter what sound gets used for the watch.  The source of the sound is supposed to give its authenticity to the moment of observing Lincoln's watch. The ticking indicates that what you are seeing is real even though the watcher does not hear the ticking of the watch that they are seeing. They are hearing a second watch, layered onto the visual of the first watch to make the first watch, and the movie by extension, an authentic experience. I would suggest that by engaging in this layering process the notions of original or authentic are actually undermined. To describe this sound as authentic is to engage in what Adorno refers to as the 'jargon of authenticity'. Those art/entertainment-works practicing or using this jargon are ultimately more concerned with the appearance and reception as authentic (realer than real) than actually being so.