Gilbey on Film: what’s in a voice?

From James Stewart to Toy Story 3, the way an actor speaks can trigger powerful emotions.

Although cinema is discussed primarily in terms of sight and sound, the latter element is usually considered secondary: a mere embellishment, or an adjunct to a film's visual identity.

If sound design and music only occasionally command our attention and scrutiny, we are even less likely to think about voice. Do we take it for granted because our relationship with voice pre-dates by almost a year any optical engagement with the world? Has voice been with us for so long that we can fail even to notice it?

But if it is through voice (as well as touch and smell, senses that cinema has yet to replicate adequately) that we forge our primal bonds, no wonder the sound of a particular actor can trigger emotional associations that render us powerless.

Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is one of my favourite films, and a work to which I return regularly and willingly. But I wonder what percentage of my positive response to that picture can be attributed to the presence of Michael Hordern as the unseen narrator. You see, Hordern provided the voices for the BBC's Paddington Bear; I was four years old when that animated series -- made in bite-sized, five-minute episodes screened at teatime -- began in 1975 (the same year, coincidentally, that Barry Lyndon was released).

Consequently, Hordern's voice joined the aural collage of my childhood, and I have no doubt now that something in me responded to his gently rumbling timbre when I first saw Kubrick's picture in my early twenties. And yet it only occurred to me when I started writing this post.

Voice is vital to our relationship with character and actor, even when we cannot understand what is being said (Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects), or when the voice does not belong to the on-screen body (James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in the Star Wars films). In his astute appreciation of James Stewart, published in the London Review of Books in 2002, David Bromwich insists that the contours of Stewart's voice are crucial to our understanding of that cherished star:

One thing a casual viewer learns to love, if he is going to like Stewart at all, is a kind of stammer that trips in naturally and convincingly -- a signature touch he seldom allowed to pass into self-parody until his late fifties. An anomaly almost as emphatic is the frequent decision to speak in a soft voice, always with perfect clarity and conveying a range of available senses for words. Stewart does this often in intimate scenes with women, but not only with them, and it shows the passage from theatre to a broader naturalist domain of feeling that the movies uniquely made possible. Even now, when fewer actors bring the wrong kind of theatricality from stage to screen, the freedom to modulate a speaking voice downward is rarely grasped; and if you listen to the better-known stars of the 1930s and 1940s, only a select company of them appear to have glimpsed and taken the opportunity: Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda -- were there many more? Even within that group, Stewart is exceptionally resourceful. His voice can be put in the service of feelings as they bubble slowly from confusion to clarity. Or it can be used to signal the intimation of half-thoughts, shadowy promptings of a kind that only a first-rate writer may catch in words.

The voice has attracted more attention with the rise of animation in the past two decades, and in particular the celebrity voice-casting that has predominated ever since Robin Williams, as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, turned a simple shift in the dubbing studio into a gutsy, full-blown performance. (His was one of the first vocal turns to dictate the direction of the animation, something that now happens routinely.)

But while a few hours at the microphone in the service of an animated film has become part of the career plan of any Hollywood star, I still don't know if we appreciate the extent to which voice can enhance and even define a movie. Tom Hanks won his brace of Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Yet I regard his finest work, and the film in which he seems most emotionally present despite his physical absence, as being his portrayal of Woody the cowboy doll in the Toy Story series. In the tenderness of his line readings, he isn't lip-syncing, or layering his voice over the film; voice and image become indivisible. He is Woody.

There is a similar synchronicity in the vocal performance by the comedian Steve Carell in the upcoming computer-animated film Despicable Me, which I saw recently. (It opens in the UK in October.) To play the super-villain Gru, who is trying to steal the moon in order to trump his nearest rival in the business of evil, Carell has concocted a vocal tangle that suggests a history of movie wickedness. There are some German consonants in there, and a peppering of Russian, but most of all it's that all-purpose Hollywood accent known as "Foreign".

Carell suffuses this with tremors of vulnerability -- like Dr Evil in the Austin Powers movies, Gru is essentially an anxious figure, middle management in essence, who would really just like to be considered good at what he does. The film's 3-D animation will be one of its major attractions, but it would feel flat without Carell.

For more on this subject than can reasonably be covered in any blog, do grab a copy of Michel Chion's groundbreaking book The Voice in Cinema, in which the author also considers the phenomenon of the disembodied voice (HAL in 2001: a Space Odyssey, "Mother" in Psycho). For the best results, I recommend reading it aloud.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs at Cultural Capital every Tuesday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear