Talking To Yourelf

Doctor Dolittle

published in Real Time No.26, Sydney, 1998

To be surrounded by sound is one of the prime means by which we place ourselves in the world. Next to gravity and air pressure, the directional spread of contracting and expanding sound waves constitutes the core phenomenological state within which I acknowledge my presence, my essence, my existence. Quite simply, it is in sound that I find myself centred: not 'made centre' as in some archaic id/ego binary, but located within and between activity that forces me to accept that while I might be 'here', there's a whole lot of stuff happening over there. In this sense, the sonic is a liberating force. It takes the pressure off having to worry about the self because the sonic activity happening around you does not require you to be there for its existence. (So take that corny 'if a tree falls in the woods' schtick and shove it in your classical Euro ear hole.)

But this calm, this pleasure is not for everyone. In fact, the breakdown between what could be termed the 'non-happening self' - the self that is not required for sonic activity - and the sonic activity around one - the city, the room next door, the truck in the street, the kid laughing as you walk by - can induce the most severe of traumas. Schizophrenia is currently advertised as something that can happen to anyone at anytime. The image is of a lightning bolt. A far more apt image would be a person trapped in a whirlpool of sound waves. The most apparent sign of a schizophrenic leaning is the inability to distinguish between the imaginary location of one's inner thoughts as voiced by your aural voice-box (a cast of thousands of voices from your vast history of personal experience) and the acoustic location of someone else's voice external to you. I have never experienced this and can only imagine the destabilising effects of this. Maybe I am already enjoying it and don't realize it, considering how much I wish the sonic to engulf me, terrorize me, paralyse me. But ultimately, my pursuit is intellectual, and privileged by an ability to savour such occurrences.

For many, the state of 'hearing voices' is uncontrollable. It spreads from the self into an enlarged acoustic dome of the social self. That is, the person afflicted with this schizophrenic trait engages in an expanded sense of self within which a multiple of selves exist, and with whom dialogue ensues. To be precise, that person is not 'talking to him/herself', but rather talking to his/herselves. Singularity is vanquished in what essentially is a state wherein the self is surrounded by selves, all of whom appear to be located outside of the 'essential self'. As medical cut-backs send more of these people onto the street, our urban environment becomes louder, noisier. Additional to an increase in bodies on the street, their mass is multiplied and amplified. The noise of the city then becomes the heightened sonorum of this mode of sonic activity: the state within which the self is multiplied and amplified. No amount of fey flirtation with 'big concepts' like "The City", no amount of collaboration with architects, urban planners and city designers, no detached fawning over the impressive/oppressive visual cock-throbbing of Big Buildings comes near to addressing this. Buy your inner city apartment; do your "The City" installation-cum-performance; work with town planners to beautify the streets with commissioned sculptures. Schizophrenia is building yearly and drowning out every pithy optical/conceptual moment and event you execute from your deluded CAD blueprints.

Viewed through the audio-visual slats of schizophrenia, the cinema is a squirming melanoma: a mark which is surveyed to check on its symptomatic state. If the 80s was a cinema of morphology, corporeality, pornographs and expansive/contracted bodily potentialities (and it was), the 90s has seen an alarming rise in the sublimation of schizophrenic states via the transubstantiation of the human voice into all manner and form of oral/aural bodies. In other words, films have become obsessed with giving vocal identity, performance and character to things which do not speak. In particular: robots, babies and animals. Frighteningly, they're all family movies. This brief article cannot address the insidiousness of encouraging children's imagination to hear/talk to the non-vocal only to damn that freedom in adult social spheres later in life. But a recent film is frightening enough to mark this trend as contemporary malaise

The doctor is in. He's Eddie Murphy - he of the long tradition of loud-mouthed, rubber-lipped, tongue-smacking, in-your-face, motor-mouth comic viciousness. Now he is Doctor Dolittle - wrenching the role from Rex Harrision on a musical fantasy island, and slam-dunking it down in San Francisco. The doctor says a very telling line in the new DOCTOR DOLITTLE: "I'll end up like one of those people on the streets talking to themselves. It ain't a good look." How right he is. San Francisco has one of the most dense concentrations of street/homeless people in all of America. From burnt-out acid casualties in Berkeley to the disenfranchised of the Mission district, 'street crazies' hover slowly, surely, steadily. 10 years ago, south of Market Street was acknowledged by the tourist trade there as being the no-go zone. North of Market and you start heading into the business district (where people wander around talking on mobile phone with lapel mics). Like a rising tide, street/homeless people populate at least 5 blocks north of Market street, their increase emulating a living multi-media demograph. In America, street/homeless people are psychologically rendered invisible through the more fortunate ignoring their voice. You don't make eye contact; you don't engage in dialogue; you learn to treat their voices as voices not directed to you, but encased within their own 'acoustic self domes'. Visually, they blend with the urban grime. But aurally, they can trap you into responding. This complex audio-visual distancing is both striking and unsettling in America's dying metropolis, in that the ability with which its citizens can filter out noise for the sake of their own sanity is amazing. For whenever one hears the floating voice of schizophrenia, one is hearing the potential reverse echo of one's own demise.

In DOCTOR DOLITTLE, the term 'schizophrenia' is never audibly mentioned, but it is screamed in every aural moment of the film's soundtrack. Like a mega mix of the soundtracks to MILO & OTIS, LOOK WHO'S TALKING and BABE, a thousand and one wannabe comedians desperately vie for your attention on screen and of screen with their smarmy wise-cracks. DOCTOR DOLITTLE is like being forced to sit through a condensed, accelerated marathon of that most desperate of all social discourses: topical comedy. Comedians read the newspapers (as if newspapers are meaningful and relevant) and then say something incredibly rude and dumb about easy targets like The Spice Girls. This form of comedy itself is a malaise - a neurotic reflex action with no other cause except to be topical. Listening to all those living and dead-stuffed animals with digitally composited lip movements is like wandering through downtown San Francisco. It is cacophonous, pathetic, scary. It is noise at its most fundamental: the collapse of communication through overload; the inverting of interiority; the ultimate surrounding of sound.

DOCTOR DOLITTLE goes as far as having Eddie Murphy interred in a psychiatric hospital because he claims he can talk to the animals. The film soon becomes hopelessly trapped by its own contradictory do-gooding, for at the end of the day, no-one is going to believe anyone can talk to the animals and hear exactly what they say. The films throws intensely absurd plot loops which try to mesh Cosbyesque altruisms with a critique of America's woeful medical system while making a cinematic fluffy white cloud. The more that urban vocal schizophrenia takes hold of the aural metropolis, the more we will try to deny it, and the louder its noise will get. One must not forget the role we as 'non-crazies' play in increasing this audible threshold. Every time we ignore that person talking to themselves, the more we socially enforce a cone of silence which actually allows the person with schizophrenia to expand their 'acoustic self dome'. They figure that our silence is an acceptance of their expanded aural territorialisation - which is exactly what it is.

There are people whose TV sets have additional dialogue tracks. There are people whose radios pick up broadcast frequencies unheard by the normal ear. There are people whose body parts have separate and vocal consciousness. They step onto the tram you catch and transform the aisles into a stage. They cue up at the bank and convert the booths into recording studios. They stand on a street corner and turn the whole city into their own personal Walkman. We are but vague shapes of silence in their surrounding noise. And all of them can talk to the animals.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © David Entertainment / Friendly Films