In Your Head
From the Acoustic to the Psycho-Acoustic
published in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual
Aesthetics, University of Oxford Press, London, 2013
(excerpt only published online)
As leather clad teens adorned with satanic trinkets prance in the voyeuristic beams of Scorpio Rising (d. Kenneth Anger, 1964), a gorgeous warbling caresses their bodies in a series of echoic folds. Like radios out of reach, the reverberant voices of long ago pop vocalists seem uncannily matched to the film’s cramped bedrooms, bare garages and deserted churches. All are sites of quiet reflection, sounding all the more lonely when matched to the maudlin teen angst of said vocalists. Despite being essentially a silent film production, the necromantic eroticism of Scorpio Rising’s pre-gay bacchanal bikers is coded less by their overt paraphernalia and more by the covert phonology of their reinterpreted songs.
The film’s spirited experimental pop audio-vision runs counter to the brutish shrink-wrapping of rock which sociologically embalms Easy Rider (d. Dennis Hopper, 1969). With the latter’s brash proclamation of countercultural affectation being the polar opposite of the former’s inhalation of subcultural exaltation, one wonders if there could be two films so radically opposed at the nexus of sight and sound, space and stage, sex and sense. By intially contrasting the mainstream-counterculture soundtrack of Easy Rider with the amateur-subculture soundtrack of Scorpio Rising, I hope to clear ground for a sharper consideration of the sensory sensationalism in what is hazily defined as ‘rock in cinema’. Following this, I will trace a trajectory from the dynamics, tonality and aura of Scorpio Rising’s audio-vision to discuss ways in which the acoustic sense of performed music in cinema is transformed into a psycho-acoustic sensation for both its performers and its auditors.
Maybe film criticism’s musicological deafness – attuned more to Easy Rider’s broadcast message than to Scorpio Rising’s coded signals – has not helped things. Scorpio Rising’s use of song has been footnoted at Easy Rider’s centrality in the rickety paradigm of rock-meets-cinema, as if the mere utterance of a rock song on the soundtrack fast-tracks one to the social imperatives of musicological discourse. Easy Rider seems to be treated by default as if its music and songs naturally emanate from the film, as though the film releases its music and thus signifies how music and image are indelibly fused in its audio-vision. The serendipitous synchronism born of matching song to music infers Scorpio Rising to be the opposite: an example of how music is unnaturally laid onto film so as to qualify its soundtrack as ontologically Other. As both films absent nearly all location/sync-sound while their songs play (save for the occasional bike rumble), might we not reverse this perspective and view Easy Rider as the fawning attempt to clothe itself in that which it is not, and Scorpio Rising to drag that which it knows only too well what it is not?
When flat-bed travelling cameras weave in front of and along side Hollywood actors on Harleys while Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” (1968) and its brittle AM-radio growl staunchly occupies the soundtrack, I hear the sound of advertising executives constructing aural billboards to tag and track the subjects of the film’s social typing and demographic exploitation. When some delinquents play out a mock initiation ceremony, tearing at the clothes of a squirming initiate while Kris Jensen’s “Torture” (1962) and its tremulously murmured harmonies are gently buffeted by fairground organ and fatigued drums, I hear the sound of hidden testimonies of self-inflicted desire played out equally by Kenneth Anger and his amateur cast. Such are the material characteristics of their contrasting sound worlds; such are the aural semiotics which govern their audiovisual equilibrium when one listens more carefully to the sound world of recorded music when it becomes what we expediently term ‘the soundtrack’. My juxtaposition of these two films proceeds from a dual paradigmatic purpose: (i) to demonstrate how the evocation of sensory aural space in a recorded song employed in a film mix imports an ulterior notion of how one exists in space (as a ‘figure in a landscape’, a ‘man of the world’, a ‘woman framed as a picture’, etc.); and (ii) to evidence how that aural space modulates and redefines the pictorial space counter to how it is a priori defined according to scopic cinematic perception. For the sound of recorded music in film is, ironically, mutable: it renders image sonic.