Suffering In Rhythm
The trope of the ‘haunting melody’ recurs in film noir of the classic era (1940-1959). In classic noir, a melody may function as a leitmotif for a specific character or situation, as it does in Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945) and The Blue Gardenia (also by Lang, 1953). It may provide the clue to the solving of a murder, as it does in Nocturne (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) and Black Angel(Roy William Neill, 1946). Or it may even come to represent the oneiric qualities of the film itself, as is the case in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), where David Raksin’s intoxicating theme-tune becomes a haunting melody for the audience, plunging us into the content of a dream, just as the film’s detective protagonist is deliriously immersed in the mystery of the title character. Very often, the ‘haunting melody’ serves a metonymic function, one whereby a song is employed to allude to oppressive or repressed elements of a character’s past. This particular function of the ‘haunting melody’ can be found in a film such as Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945), where it is to the fore, but also in a film like Clash By Night (Lang again, 1953), where it is used fleetingly but to intense effect. The important point is to note its recurrence and the diversity with which the trope is deployed.
‘Suffering In Rhythm’ is a meditation upon this trope and the range of potential meanings and affects it is invested with, both in classic noir narratives and in ‘modern’ noir narratives which, since the 1970s, have become far more self-conscious about such tropes and conventions. Weaving together clips from relevant films, the video essay looks at the topic in relation to two different qualities of human experience which the ‘haunting melody’ tends to address in noir: the psychological on the one hand; the affective on the other. (Of course, psychology and affect are mutually informative elements of human experience, and certainly not so distinct as to prohibit the operations of one and the other at the same time.)
Significantly, the essays draw inspiration from the work of Theodor Reik and his study, The Haunting Melody. But the essay also responds to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas about the significance of the musical ‘refrain’ as a kind of affective shelter under which the shaping of identity takes place while remaining open to alteration and transformation. In effect, ‘the refrain’ constitutes an affecto-rhythmic tendency in all living things that enables us to negotiate the myriad environments, interactions, and becomings of our lived experience. As such, it is invested with a distinct potential for perseverance, transition, and affirmation. It is true that, in noir, the refrains that haunt characters tend to oppress them psychologically and to close down their potentials. However, there are also a number of noirs in which the affirmative affective potential of a musical refrain is suggested. In a film like The Man Who Wasn’t There (the Coen Brothers, 2001), for instance, though the narrative seems to conclude in a ‘negative’ or resigned fashion, the affective potential inherent in the Beethoven melodies that mark the protagonist’s mental and emotional awakening actually suggest a strange sense of affirmation nonetheless. It is as if the film’s protagonist responds to the affirmative force of melody in the same manner that Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist icon, Roquentin, wishes to do at the end of Nausea: i.e. ‘to suffer in rhythm’: “without complacence, without self-pity, with an arid purity”. My video essay documents different inflections of such ‘suffering in rhythm’, from the melancholy and debilitating to the potentially liberating and transformative.
The audiovisual essay is a perfect medium through which to reflect upon the proliferation of ‘haunting melodies’ in film noir. In ‘Suffering In Rhythm’, I have attempted to find a balance between the poetic and the instructional elements of the form. As part of that commitment to the poetic, the essay meditates not only on the aural resonances between the films in question, but also on their graphic resonances. In noir, it is striking how frequently objects of affective exchange – ‘expressive objects’ as they are known in performance practice – are complicit in these scenes where a ‘haunting melody’ takes hold. In my essay, these expressive objects range from lockets to dog-tags, jewels to photographs, keys to perfume scents, and they can be seen to function in parallel with the melodies, becoming emblematic of the complex networks of identity, memory, and affect in which the noir protagonist is typically suffused.
In addition to trying to find graphic matches to compliment the aural matches, the practical exigencies of working with media-editing software made a new strategy apparent to me during the making of the essay. A number of my film clips were mildly impaired by flaws in sound or image quality, with the clips from Scarlet Street and Detour in particular suffering from unobtrusive but certainly noticeable noise and static. My initial instinct was to go through the extraction process once more and hope to increase the quality of these clips. However, once I began working with them, I realised that the minor crackle and noise complimented the theme of the essay itself very well, with these weatherworn clips from ‘old’ films and a nigh-on ‘residual’ medium (cinema) now coming to represent the ‘haunting’ quality of classic film noir itself. In ‘leaving in’ this crackle – which resonates well with the repeated crackling audiovisuals of the records that play in the essay – I hope to invoke something of the hauntological practices pursued by music artists such as The Caretaker and Burial, and theorised very influentially by Mark Fisher.
The most difficult decision taken in relation to the composition of the essay was whether or not to include intertitles. (Because of the significance of audio to the project, a voiceover was never a viable option.) While I would have liked to have let the sounds and images speak solely for themselves, I opted for intertitles in the end, feeling there was a need to set a context for what the viewer was watching, and to outline the variations with which this trope of the ‘haunting melody’ has been employed. In making this decision, I realised that the text would now inevitably ‘lead’ the viewer through a certain argument, reducing more open responses to the video. However, it felt necessary to the broader project of emphasising the range and variety with which this trope continues to be deployed in noir.