Nicole Herr

Over-Dubbed Films and (Perceived) Self-Alienation


When an individual or group is granted agency, we say that they are “given voice.” A bodily production that can be given or taken away, listened to or silenced, the voice is nevertheless presumed to be a reliable means of self-representation and a powerful tool for change. We pay professionals to listen to our voices in an effort to address our “true selves.” Both reifying and transfiguring, it is hard to say where the voice lies between representation and generation. Throughout this ambiguity we act from the assumption that our voices are our own, and that our statements are somehow expressive of who we are. In other words, we tend to tie the voice to identity.

It would be difficult to act otherwise: would we be willing or even able to speak if we truly believed that our voices were not our own? Would we continually ascribe our statements to others? Living under the assumption that each of us is dispossessed of our proper voices (or “possessed” by another’s), would be exhausting if not bottomless. If my voice is not mine, what about my thoughts? If my thoughts are not mine, what about the thought “My thoughts are not mine”? The awareness of vocal self-alienation seems to undermine the stability of the knowledge it founds.

The way we conceive of our relationship to the voice includes this paradox: though we assume that when we speak it must be “us” speaking (our bodies, our identities), vocalizing experiences that are “difficult to put into words” (to say nothing of answering such questions as “Who are you really?”) is considered a daunting, even laughable task. One expects that words will necessarily fail to manifest some deeper self-truth or visceral experience. These failures feel like small possessions, in which the desire to communicate, indeed the very medium of communication, deforms and betrays us—or perhaps betrays the belief that there was something to communicate in the first place, that there is a referent to “us.” Though they are a fundamental production of our vocal chords, breath, and bodies and thus necessarily “our own,” we hold to the belief that words are in discord with the body.

* * *

Poorly over-dubbed foreign films are a very concrete instance of such discord: the movement of the mouth and the pronounced phonemes strain to coincide, their asynchrony reminding the viewer that the voice we hear and the body we see are fundamentally alien to one another. Watching a Japanese actress fail to pronounce lines that nevertheless seamlessly sound always drives me to imagine a ghost body over or beside hers, to search for moments when her mouth and voice are potentially synched. So much so that I forget to listen, or at least decipher “her” meaning. And yet it is the demand for decipherability that necessitates over-dubbing in the first place. In an effort to be understood the actress is over-dubbed, meaning is successfully created, and yet through this success such meaning is no longer of the actress. So much so, I find, that those sounds stop meaning, and become hypnotic.

The Japanese writer Yoko Tawada describes the obverse desire in The Art of Being Nonsynchronous, in which she discusses films that are over-dubbed nearly seamlessly. Tawada finds herself obsessively driven to “discover moments when the synchronization doesn’t work.” Interestingly, Tawada links this fervor for cinematic asynchronization to a mounting paranoia that reaches beyond the confines of the movie theater—the sense that the entire world around her is dubbed. At first this suspicion seems to arise from an anxiety about being surrounded by deceptive audio technology, machines and equipment that make it increasingly difficult to distinguish the “organic” from the “engineered.” “Adulterated sounds have become part of everyday life. There are now sound designers for electrical products. A vacuum cleaner, for example, makes an appropriate noise when you turn it on. […] The actual sound has been dampened and then over-dubbed with an artificial sound to make it appear more ‘real.’” In the age of audio reproducibility, not even our machines sound like themselves. Our ability to reproduce the illusion of “the real” must evolve in accordance with our increasing expectations, which are themselves designed.

Tawada further asserts that tele-phonic technology has severed the “organic” connection between the voice and the living, breathing body: “It’s now become commonplace, one can say, for the owner of a voice not to be physically present when the voice is heard.” Through this skepticism, resulting from the awareness of our ability to technologically engineer sound and thus the introduction of the binary of “organic” and “engineered,” Tawada is able to ask a more fundamental question: “what does it mean for a sound to be original?” And further, “[where] does a voice come into being?” Answering these questions is not so simple as tracking down which sounds around us are engineered, since “[only] in the listener’s head is [the voice] constructed as the voice of a person. We hear selectively, we correct, add to, and adulterate what we are hearing. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand the person speaking to us.” For Tawada, listening is itself an act of over-dubbing, and the assumed “organic” causality between the body and the voice that audio technology seems to undermine is an effect of our perception and assumption.

What interests me most about Tawada’s text is her description of the experience of asynchrony, specifically how her description points to another side of the experience, an almost positive dimension or potential that her discussion hints at but never thematizes. I already mentioned Tawada’s frenzy for finding moments when over-dubbing fails to synchronize the voice that we hear and the image that we see; it strikes me as significant that she describes that frenzy as a state of “possession”—as though her compulsion were itself dictated by an alien spirit. In other words, Tawada’s experience essentially mirrors the condition of the objects of her perception. When over-dubbing “dispossesses” an actress of her voice, Tawada becomes “possessed” by a longing to witness asynchrony between the character and the voice which dubs her—to see the synchronization fail to be seamless. This economy of vocal possession opens the way for an interpretation of vocal alienation besides that of an anxiety. Tawada points in this direction by comparing actors to shamans. The actor permits herself to be deprived of her own voice, giving her body over to the words of the screenwriter and the sounds of the audio engineers. Like a shaman, she subordinates her own voice to another’s.

Though Tawada does not point to the difference between her possession and an actor’s shamanistic power, it has to do with agency: to be possessed is to be inhabited by an alien body or desire without choice, while a shaman consents to his possession (“lets himself be dubbed”) with spiritual purpose. In essence, the shaman is able to navigate possession: he opens himself as a vehicle for speaking an alien voice, and thus presumably can close himself to that voice without exorcism.

But imbuing the actor with this kind of shamanic agency is counterintuitive for me. When Tawada writes “actor,” does she really mean the image that she sees? Is it something about the experience of viewing that allows Tawada to idealize the actor as shaman, while feeling herself possessed? That one regards oneself as possessed, and the other as shamanistic? Or is it about how the actor has succeeded, at least through the medium that she views, in literalizing what for her is mere abstraction? Tawada later writes of reading aloud: “When this is a text written by someone else, it becomes mine when I read it aloud. When it is my own text, reading it aloud turns it into something separate from me.” What Tawada describes here is the experience of acting, both as another and as oneself. In over-dubbing another, she may associate with that other and thus recognize herself. In over-dubbing herself, she ceases to identify with herself. Pushing this logic further: if Tawada could let herself be over-dubbed to the extent that the actor is, she could speak her thoughts while remaining aligned with them. By sounding a voice that is recognizably not her own, she could experience self-continuity. Through what parameters can we judge instances of our own articulation in terms of possession or shamanism? Which do we value more?

Yet Tawada’s insight that the voice is originally a product of the mind suggests that even a passive audience member retains a certain margin of agency. Though it may not be within her power to restore herself to a state of complete self-possession, perhaps she retains, like the shaman, a certain agency. Perhaps Tawada possesses the ability to adopt one or another stance towards her dispossession.

* * *

This brings me to the topic of laugher. For me, there is an irrepressible comedic component to viewing poorly over-dubbed movies. This is no merely personal philistinism. Laughter clearly belongs in some basic way to the experience of vocal asynchrony. This comes through most especially in peaks of drama and pretention. Think, for instance, of the part in Singin’ in the Rain (starting at around 3:30 in the following clip) when a soundtrack error inadvertently turns a melodramatic seduction scene into transvestite camp.

The whole musical is about the doomed—and hilarious— attempt to achieve perfect synchronization: film starlet Lina (Jean Hagen) doesn’t have the sultry voice to match her figure, a discontinuity that her producers and male-partner Don (Gene Kelly) try their hardest to conceal from the public. Though publically Don and Lina are happily in love and thus in accord with their cinematic personae, Don privately falls for not-so-glamorous aspiring stage actress Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), whose voice ultimately stands in for Lina’s in the successful re-release of The Dueling Cavalier. Despite a host of technical glitches, the only issue addressed in preparation for re-release is the over-dubbing of Lina by Kathy. It is as if Lina’s discord of voice and body is so extreme that it pushes the entire soundtrack out of synch. She is the tragic fool, unaware of her own self-discord (“Well what’s wrong with my voice, anyway?”) and of her resulting self-demise (“I liked it!”). She fails to tap into the difference between humor that is “artful” and that which is not, though both make the audience laugh. When the curtain is pulled on her live-dubbing, Lina again misinterprets the audience’s laughter.

Not until the Chaplin-esque comic foil Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) steps in, perhaps attempting to make the performance seem intentionally funny, does Lina realize that the audience laughs not at “her” but rather at the revelation that “she” is not “herself.” At the expense of Lina, this is the moment when the “real” star is revealed: the voice. But can we not identify with Lina in this moment, when our voice or at least our thoughts are revealed as originating in someone else. This anxiety that our statements will be too easily cited. Willfully believing that our audience reacts to us, not to the assemblage of our body and the voice that dubs us. Isn’t this why we use quotations, as a way to pull the curtain on ourselves?

* * *

It’s hard not to see Lina as a tragic figure, as a scapegoat or human sacrifice whose self-humiliation purges the audience of its anxieties about its own vocality. And yet, the most redeeming announcement of this essay has been that what we tend to claim as tragic also takes the form of humor. That self-alienation need not only be something to grapple with, but also to enjoy. What are the conditions of such enjoyment? Does it presuppose some form of self-awareness, or a kind of “artfulness” that Lina lacks? To succeed both by oneself and by one’s audience, must one in some sense “know” what one is doing? What makes something comical, and someone a comic?

Philosopher Henri Bergson’s writings about laughter help shed light on the comedy of over-dubbing, and might also help us envision what a humorous relation to self-alienation could look like. According to Bergson, humor has three main characteristics: (1) it only exists “within the pale of what is strictly human”; (2) it appeals to our intellect rather than to our passions (thus the most effective comedy “requires something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart”); and (3) the intensity of the laughter aroused by a human being is “in exact proportion as [the person’s] body reminds us of a mere machine.”

Poorly over-dubbed films allow for a particularly swift silencing of empathy, since they “fail” to produce realism. We are reminded that the characters are images, not bodies. If we experience empathy while watching over-dubbed films, it is for ourselves. We experience a glitch in synchronization, one that reminds us that what we are seeing is a result of machination. Do we empathize with ourselves when watching over-dubbed films because our experience of articulation is itself an experience of automization? Can our reaction to such be laughter, and if so would that laugh be itself automized—forced, fallible, glitched? Would this undermine the very goal in laughing at ourselves?

Bergson’s descriptions of the comic sound very much like the paradoxes of the voice addressed at the opening of this essay: it is of us (or “strictly human” and identified as our own) and yet in discord with us (or necessitates an automization). “But the vice capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that which is brought from without, like a ready-made frame into which we are to step. It lends us its own rigidity instead of borrowing from us our flexibility. We do not render it more complicated; on the contrary, it simplifies us.” This frame, indeed the very notion of without and within, brings us back to what has perhaps been at the heart of this essay all along: the concept of “identity”—that we have one, and that in speaking we are succeeding or failing at expressing “our selves.” The comic succeeds by wielding an assemblage of frames, even “regarding [himself] as [a] work of art.” Are we to welcome the “ready-made frame” of identity, dubbing ourselves, and thus succeed in being “artful” comics? Or should we play the fool, like Lina, and find our failure to be “ourselves” as likeable purely because it is comical? Laugh along with the crowd, leaving it to them to discern when “we” are in discord.

But by enacting “identities,” do we complicate or merely satisfy the concept? It seems that to complicate the concept of “identity,” one must no longer assume themselves as “identified”—no longer assume themselves at all. Would one even realize if they were successful in such a venture, since notions like “success,” “freedom,” and “self-recognition” would no longer have cues? Perhaps the perception of discord, self-effacement, and asynchrony that we cling to is merely an effect of the effort to perceive ourselves as identities—complex, and even human. Yet, releasing this perception is not so much an act or action (as that of the comic, who willfully adopts personas) as an invisible shift—one that by nature ceases as soon as we recognize it. The actress, or rather the assemblage of image and sound, has this luxury: she is established in two moments. And due to this doubling, her putative self-recognition neither finds nor needs a stable object.

What would it mean to be both before and after yourself?

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