Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

On How Queer Cinema Might Feel

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

On How Queer Cinema Might Feel

Article excerpt

Drums beat onwards, a snapping and crackling trickle of beats. These sounds are archaic, visceral, and elemental. Projected onto three screens are images of water cascading and falling; on the left side we see drops of melting ice falling through the fingers of a brown-skinned hand, fingers cupping the droplets; the right image is that of water gushing forth, volcanic, sculptural bursts of foam and columns of mist. The beating drums and the sound of water flowing endlessly through chasms of rock and ice transport us to an arctic environment of magnitude, beauty, and mysticism.

Images unfold slowly and unsteadily in Isaac Julien's digital video installation True North (2007). Subtle, elemental sounds crystallise such images, crafting edges, sculpting glittering textures and sharp, elliptical rhythms which mirror the arctic landscape and its microcosms depicted within the filmic diegesis. True North, a film about the post-colonial re-appropriation of the North Pole (notably, from a black female perspective) and its alternative narratives, is visually arresting, but it is the ambient, rhythmic sound of its filmed spaces of ice and snow, trickling, drifting, and smooth, which haunts the viewer long after the images fade and drift.

True North is ostensibly a very sensuous audio-visual project, but the evocative vocabulary pertinent to phenomenological film theory serves to assert its visual rather than sonic attributes. Phenomenological theory provides an appropriate theoretical framework through which to further discover and flesh out the meaning of Julien's rich mapping of the North Pole, but, crucially, its subject matter cannot be easily reconciled with embodied film theory, since its questioning of sexual difference and subversion of post-colonial histories tends to scramble, as it were, the co-ordinates of corporeal subjectivity. Films like True North and, as we shall see, Derek Jarman's seminal Blue (1993) attune viewers to different ways of hearing and sensing cinema, and they mediate different ethical responses to film sound in the context of haptic criticism. This paper posits the thought that such alternative, embodied responses to Blue or True North, haptic or otherwise, might increasingly demarcate a new territory for queer film experience, and this, above all, leads me to question the extent to which haptic criticism can account for such complex, enigmatic viewing relations.

The most embodied responses to the films I wish to discuss are prompted by their audio-visual rendering of human existence as sonic and visual phenomena. Jarman's Blue opens up the viewer to a dimension of film that is receptive to both the material aspects of the medium and the materiality of the body in the diegesis (the director's body, dying of AIDS). On the other hand, Julien's True North diegetically experiments with sound, space, and light in order to transform the geographical location and, most strikingly, historical specificity of the film's subject matter (the discovery of the North Pole). Both films use colour in a way that appeals to an embodied response. Indeed, according to Trond Lundemo (2006), blue and white are the most haptic colours, the most inviting to the senses, but, as we shall see, it is not only the colour of these films which calls upon a tactile appreciation of film. The contrasting viewing contexts of True North and Blue (cinematic versus gallery projection, multiple channels of sound versus one soundtrack) also raise fascinating questions about their soundscapes, offering greater insight into the queer specificities of moving image media.

(Listening to) Queer Sounds

Before examining the role of sound in True North and Blue, it is vital to clarify the methodology which will illuminate my subject matter. As the title of this paper implies, my main concern is with haptic criticism and its concordances with queer spectatorship. Indeed, introducing notions of queer audio-visual experience to haptic theory presents an awkward challenge. …

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