If you listen closely, intensely, you will hear the sounds of loneliness scoring the most profound encounters found on our screens and in their relatable, traceable senses.
Sounding loneliness is heard in the timbre of the vanquished voice, the rhythmic pattern of raindrops falling, the nervous beep of a horn emitting from a car parked in the urban shadows.
Sounding loneliness is made manifest in the cries of a sibling, the weeping strings of a violin, the rustle of yesterday’s newspaper, the click click click of a midnight mouse, and the primordial raptures of the wind banging at the back door.
A goodbye, lamenting kiss; the silence of a dead tear sliding down a wretched face – its liquid vibrations moving the air as it slowly descends. Footsteps gradually fading, aching their retreat into the long drawn out distance – all recall the sounds of loneliness.
Listen. It is the combination of sounds, the intricacies of a text’s sound design that creates a scene of melancholy and malcontent. A scene can be busy, over-wrought with noise and commotion and yet be a soundtrack of loneliness – such as when a character is found lost in the midst of their isolation and distraction as the carnival plays on without them. Party scenes often employ this convention of loneliness to mark out a character in crisis or deep despair. They sit forlornly, with giggles and chatter surrounding them.
Disenchanted environments chant the name of loneliness: a desolate, rocky beach washed with a high tide; a high rise, brutalist housing complex humming to the sound of light strips stripped bare of their dignity; and a vast cosmos emptied of its bright stars and luminous planets. An unkempt woman sitting on the edge of an unmade bed, pinching the sheets with her broken fingertips; a silver kettle boiling in an empty Ikea kitchen; and the creek of a swing in an abandoned playground amplifying the sound of rust as it freezes the still air. All scream out the idle tunes of loneliness.
How one affectively sounds loneliness on screen is dependent on what instruments, melodies, voices and sound effects are used to create a sonic membrane that manifests as melancholy and malcontent. It is in the syncretic and synesthetic entanglement that sounding loneliness takes root. It is in the added value inherent in the “sound-image” – to draw upon Chion1 – that loneliness fully emerges like a black dahlia.
So many lonely people, where do they all come from?
And yet, as I will suggest, this sounding loneliness is not only textually specific, simply or singularly driven by narrative and generic concerns, but is historically contingent and nationally and culturally locatable. For example, the sounds of urban isolation of the American 1940s film noir are different from the Chinese peasant laments of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), or what I will presently argue are the British austere strings of sounding loneliness today. When one employs a “diagnostic critique”2, one undertakes to find the history in the text and the text in the history. It is in the interplay between sound and image that historical and political truth emerges.
These contextualised and historicised soundings change across and within national landscapes and their related imaginings. We don’t just see the crumbling walls of the imagined nation state, but get to hear its desolate tunes: The Specials wailing “Ghost Town” – the anthem of/to Margaret Thatcher’s first wave of 1980s neo-liberalism – is a striking case in point.
But what specifically is this contemporary “sounding loneliness”, and where does it come from? I would like to suggest that this age of loneliness is composed in, through and within the sonic vibrations found in the wretched politics of austerity. My case study will be the anomic soundings of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013).
The Austere Age of Loneliness
We are supposedly living in the age of loneliness; a period of time where we have fewer companions, and where networks are broken down or rendered virtual and ephemeral. In the age of loneliness we are supposedly self-driven isolates, parasocial junkies, endlessly caught in the self-reflexive glare of narcissism, and we suffer, suffer terribly as a consequence. In his article, “The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us”, George Monbiot suggests,
Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults. Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed… Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.3
Zygmunt Bauman takes up a similar position when he outlines how late modernity has stripped away a range of solid connections to be replaced with floating social networks, self-interested neo-tribes without emancipation, and just-in-time-consumption demands that govern all aspects of our lives, including love and intimacy.4 When we gravitate to social media, we find that it doesn’t actually connect us but increases our sense of isolation, and deepens or thickens our profound sense of loneliness.5
Loneliness is writ large, far and wide across the rancid politics of austerity. It is produced by the closure of social, medical and mental health networks; it is found buried in the discourses that define the marginal and the dispossessed, and those on low pay and worse, as pariahs and misfits, scroungers and fakers; and it is consumed in homes and flats where social access has been limited or cut off. As Kirsten Forkert argues in relation to the processes and practices of austerity:
The present moment is marked by anxieties about society falling apart, and nostalgia for a lost era of social cohesion. These anxieties shape the dominant narrative about the causes of the recession – which are seen as resulting not from the excesses of the financial sector but from a profligate welfare system and an overly permissive immigration system, which has given the wrong people access to public services – the unemployed, the disabled, single parents and immigrants. This narrative justifies the austerity measures implemented by the Coalition government; and it is able to do so because of the cross-party consensus about the need for cuts, and the divisions between the “deserving” and the “undeserving”.6
However, little is spoken about the soundtrack to such austere loneliness, or the ways in which isolation is fostered in a sonic environment. So two central questions emerge in relation to anomic contemporary cinema: How might one sound this contemporary cauldron of loneliness? How might one place it within a particular austere framework? The answer is under one’s skin.
The Loneliness of Under the Skin
Under the Skin is a perfect metaphoric and experiential exploration of this epidemic and epidermis of loneliness, set within a dissenting austere Scotland. An unnamed, alien seductress (Scarlet Johansson) lures single, isolated men back to her house where they are submerged in a liquid tar, and their bodies slowly consumed by an unknown force.
The film’s cruising scenes are set in the industrial and urban wastelands of Scotland – Glasgow in particular. The seductress drives a van around the city estates and its empty roads, but also through the teeming metropolis where movement seems both accelerated and dead slow, like time is out of kilter, in a state of temporal crisis.
Under the Skin’s architecture, its sombre materiality and its oppressive mise en scène help create the spatial conditions of brute and fragmented loneliness. The liquid tomb that the single men drown in captures perfectly the sense that modern life is permeable, boundary-less, even as the opportunity to connect and expand connections is never really there. The men drown in the isolated and isolating conditions of liquid modernity – of beguiling austerity – just at the moment they dreamed of, and were close to getting, sexual intimacy.
Scarlet Johansson’s character is also eventually caught in this cauldron of anomie. In one pivotal scene, she stares blankly at herself in a mirror, misrecognising who she really is. She examines her body as if it doesn’t belong to her (which it doesn’t, it has been lifted off a corpse), capturing the sense that the self is a project that can be made, re-engineered, in an age of consumer products and surgical transformations. This is the haunting mirror of neo-liberal individualism staring back into itself.7
Johansson’s character tries to have an intimate relationship with a man in the film but they cannot consummate their feelings – he has forgotten simply how to connect; and she is alien, Other, without a vagina or a womb, and is therefore unable to love or reproduce, but only destroy. The Otherness in the film is the spectre of loneliness: the more human and humane she becomes, the further removed she is from the mechanical and anti-human processes of human harvesting the lonely men are put through – this is austerity in its most brilliant metaphoric form. To be human is to be annihilated.
This is very much an anti-star performance by Johansson: she appears with little glamour, and draws upon a range of authentic performance codes that suggest a hyperrealist embodiment is being presented. Such codes include her mass-market street attire, mournful gait, and the improvised exchanges of dialogue which are filmed in a documentary style. This is a performance that seems to “out” the artifice of stardom, to out what stardom can do to the actor who is caught in its glare. Through her performance, Johansson seems to be addressing the loneliness of stardom itself. Stardom and celebrity ultimately become conduits for this “culture of loneliness.”8
However, it is in the film’s isolating and austere soundscapes that the voices of loneliness truly emerge. I will divide these audio motifs into thematic categories, but it should be noted that it is in their sensory unification that they are best able to paint the film with melancholic colours. Through these soundings the impoverished lives eked out by the lowly inhabitants of austere Britain are established.
The Beehive Effect
Sitting just beneath the dominant diegetic sounds of Under the Skin is the “beehive effect”, described by Mica Levi, the film’s composer, as “this alien language.”9 It stains and stings the images of the film, undermining its hyper improvised realism and impregnating its “improvised” shooting scenes with a cold metallic futile futurism. The beehive effect exists in what can be defined as the “sound en creux”,10 or “sound in a gap”, whereby the orchestration exists in dissonance and contradiction with the mise en scène. In Under the Skin, every image is undermined or destabilised by these buzzing waves. The narrative centre, as a consequence, cannot fully hold. Moreover, this “acousmatisation”, whereby a repeated sound source enters a film without its origin being witnessed and is thus denied embodiment, creates an alienating space for a phantom acousmetre to emerge, or:
…a kind of voice-character specific to cinema that derives mysterious powers from being heard and not seen. The disembodied voice seems to come from everywhere and therefore to have no clearly defined limits to its power.11
One can hear in the acousmetre the very disembodiment of this contemporary culture of loneliness: one cannot be social with it, because it cannot be materialised beyond liquid vibrations. The acousmetre is also the nameless author of austerity, its reach exponential and seemingly without end. The hive-like vibrations it draws forth implies it belongs to, or emanates from, a supra-collective for which human individuals must be sacrificed. But these sacrificial individuals must not be individualised, but framed as living isolates – they are chosen because they will not be missed, not by anyone. The men in Under the Skin form a disconnected mass – they are a herd of near silent and incoherent no-hopers left behind and on their own by the politics of austerity. Their voices are the drones of bees.
This alienating sound en creux requires the viewer to fill in the missing semiotic or representational properties absent from the image. But because the origins of the sound will never be witnessed, the gap can never be successfully filled. Entering into the gap requires one to be also alienated, to become part of the skin of inexplicable loneliness. We are also immersed in the verses of the no-hopers.
Voices in the City
As mentioned above, many of the film’s cruising scenes take place on deserted city streets. The alien seducer – a lone single white female – drives her van into edgy areas in the hope of picking up single men without ties, so they can become food for alien entities we never see. The soundscape in these proto-realistic scenes, many of which were improvised and involved non-actors, is naturalistic, with the urban noise occupying the spaces of the working class urban milieu. The sound here feels thin, essentially lonely, emptied of connection and connectivity – the city is a mausoleum for the near-dead men who walk it. However, these scenes are also filled with the beehive soundings and percussion that beats out a lonely drum. In one key improvised scene, Johansson’s character falls over, and on-lookers immediately go to her rescue. What we witness for less than a bare minute is humanity flood the scene, only to be quickly replaced by disconnection as people return to their winding wasp runs.
Nonetheless, it is in the conversational exchanges between the seductress and the isolated men that the darkest deadening takes centre stage. She draws them in with the faux warmth in her voice, and her easy acceptance of who they are. She initiates the conversation, shows interest in these deadbeat wanderers who in turn reveal their isolation and desire to be wanted. Her warm American accent brings a touch of the exotic, the foreign, to this parochial environment.
The conversations are often about directions but are directionless – monosyllabic and monotone – and yet deceptively flavoured. Delivered as they happened, full of dry, lifeless improvisation, the conversations capture the death of intimate language itself. As viewers we become immersed (versed) in this dialogue of emptiness, and are positioned to see and hear through the delivery bare performances, and the uncanny soundings, loneliness as a deterritorialisation experience. This is the experiential rendering of austerity conversation, the “afterlife of the image.”12
Kaja Silverman has argued persuasively that Classical Hollywood cinema fetishes the woman’s voice and suppresses or contains her speech in the service of patriarchy. Women may also be coded as duplicitous through the lies they tell, their forked words a marker of their deception. The figure of the femme fatale is central here. Men, masculine characters, are seen to control the voice-over, dominate dialogue, auto-position the narrative, in the same way as they hold the gaze:
By folding the female voice into diegetic recesses, submitting it to the “talking cure,” and anchoring it to the female body, dominant cinema attempts to move the male subject from a position of linguistic containment and subordination to… a position of superior speech and hearing. The position is in turn only a reflection of the symbolic order or auditory aura.13
This masculine auto-positioning and silencing of women is complicated in Under the Skin. On the one hand, Johansson’s character is a classically constructed femme fatale – her voice one of the weapons she uses to ensnare the men. On the other hand, she controls the dialogue, directs the narrative – until the film’s ending. She embodies the derided figure of the post-feminist, the hated but voiced figure of much austerity politics.
Decaying Strings and Three Note Seductions
Under the Skin employs a particular microtonal music structure, capturing the decay of the present through wavering between the 12 tones we are used to hearing in mainstream cinema, and filling the void of the film with a fragmented “scrape of the strings” melody, as if the film itself is expressing its own melancholy and loss.
This decomposition is supported by an evolving three-note leitmotif that accompanies Johansson’s character whenever it appears on screen. In the cruising scenes at the start of the film, it is a hushed, buttery seduction arrangement, but by the film’s end it is full of disintegration – capturing her predatory and preyed upon transformation. As Mica Levis notes,
She uses that theme – it’s her tool. At the beginning, it’s like fake – it’s her perfume, it’s the way she reels in these guys with a tune. Then it deteriorates, it becomes sadder. We called it the “capture” melody. Then there’s this major triad, a warm chord, and that’s her “human” or “love” feeling. And there’s this darker minor triad of trilled strings that recurs throughout.14
There is more than a touch of Looking for Mr Goodbar (Richard Brooks, 1977) in the film’s ideological allusions: Johansson’s character is ultimately punished for consuming the men she didn’t desire but wanted on her own terms. This is austerity soundings calling upon rape culture motifs to position women as deadly and deadening sirens. Her murder, an immolation at the hands of a would-be rapist in the hushed, ever-so-quiet snow covered tundra, is a vicious moral retribution of order by the type of “failed” man she had taken to task earlier.
This is where post-feminism is undone in the film – cast as a predatory shadow on Johansson’s character. Much UK austerity discourse has centred on the role and function of women, with “forms of classed and gendered shaming to generate public consent for the government’s welfare reform.”15 Under the Skin’s austere soundings are inherently gendered, and yet no one is at home in the film. Rather, death is everywhere.
Death at the Beach
Some of the most disturbing moments in Under the Skin are two scenes set at a remote and rocky beach. Narratively speaking, they are built around two murders – including one of a baby left to die on the shoreline – but sonically they create layers that are profoundly upsetting and unsettling. We hear the sounds of the waves breaking on the shore, a dog barking, a baby crying, screaming and shouting, as well as footsteps on shale, the beehive effect, and the wind in the air. However, each sound carries its own impressionable register – the sublime enormity of the waves and white horses set achingly against the piercing, hysterical cries of the baby that has been left on the beach. The scene’s horror doesn’t just come with the three adult corpses, two of whom drown, and one of whom is murdered by the seductress, but with the death of the baby that will be. The return to the beach scene some hours later, to find the child still wailing in the (now) acrid darkness, sounding waves now close to his feet, carries real and all-encompassing phenomenological power.
These wretched encounters are “holding onto air” moments; moments that occur when the scene is so resolutely, ethically and morally ghastly, or is so uncomfortable to view, that one feels the need – the unstoppable, thoughtless urge – to reach out and hold onto the nothingness. This is not a screaming moment or a time for looking away from the screen. This is not a moment when you clutch or claw at the person sitting next to you. It is a moment of deafening silence and absolute centeredness. One’s eyeballs ache and one’s fingers and hands reach out towards the horror that one is experiencing. One’s breathless silence is in marked contrast to the noise before one. It as if holding down air will somehow stop the trauma, reconnect one to terra firma and the material underpinnings of everyday life. We hold onto air to arrest the drama unfolding before us.
In these moments of vaporisation, one attempts to anchor oneself on a property that is groundless, because the ground has been swept from beneath our feet. One reaches out, stretching ones arms to their limit, and grips, grasps, grabs, clutches at it – the very act a moment of self-help, a closing off of narrative possibility, and a helpless attempt to intervene in the story-world. Your eyes and fingers silently whisper, stop! We hold onto air as if the thing in the fictive (or factual) world that disturbs us so can be changed and challenged. It can’t. We hold onto air and undergo a quiet death in the process – helpless witnesses rendered complicit in the silencing gaze that wounds.
This attempt to ground the groundless, root the rootless, is very much like the condition of austerity itself. Faced with an impossible discourse we seek ways to stop it and empower ourselves. But we can’t. The message of Under the Skin is that the baby’s abandonment is our abandonment – it is a scene in which bare life is enunciated and annulled, which is the supposed truth of austere politics: stand on your own two feet or drown, drown, drown.
Death is past, present and future tense – the audio envelope that carries all the sounds in this beach scene. This is the state of our exception. Born alone and to die lonely, if only we hear and see its calling. Here, loneliness rises up in the image, in the sound en creux, on the empty beach as the tides of austerity wash in.
A Brief history of Loneliness
The history of cinema can be charted through its relationship with and to loneliness. When you think about it, melancholy, introspection, meditation, detachment, isolation and atomisation are everywhere. Chaplin is but a lonely tramp that finds his lonely flower girl. Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936) is a reverie of companionship marked by deep pockets of loneliness. Gilda only wants Johnny; Johnny may want Balam. While Kolker defines his cinema of loneliness in terms of certain American auteurs,16 I think we could usefully chart a new history of cinema along this axis of loneliness – finding its variants and variations across national cinemas and underpinned by social and political contexts of the time.
To return one last time to Under the Skin: its cinema of loneliness is one generated by the ghastly conditions of austerity, of austere Britain. Its mise en scène is crafted from the urban wastelands of today, and the wilderness the film ends in is both escape from and an extension of austere loneliness. The seductress is both an architect of austerity and one of its victims. Her voice carries the sounds of loneliness throughout the film and into our bare lives…
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted
In my brain still remains
Within the sound of silence
-Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sound Of Silence”
- Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). ↩
- Douglas Kellner, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern (London: Routledge, 1995). ↩
- George Monbiot, “The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us,” The Guardian (14 October 2014), www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us ↩
- Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000). ↩
- Mai-Ly N. Steers, Robert E. Wickham, and Linda K. Acitelli, “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 33:8 (2014): pp. 701–31 ↩
- Kirsten Forkert, “The New Moralism: Austerity, Silencing and Debt Morality,” Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture 56 (Spring 2014): pp. 41–53. ↩
- Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies 25:6 (2011). ↩
- Sean Redmond, “Introduction” in The Companion to Celebrity, eds. P. David Marshall and Sean Redmond (New York: Wiley, 2015). ↩
- Mica Levi, “Interview,” Pitchfork (31 March 2014), http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/9366-under-the-skins-jonathan-glazer-and-mica-levi/ ↩
- Chion, Audio-Vision. ↩
- Ibid., p. 24. ↩
- Ibid., p. 123. ↩
- Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 99. ↩
- Levis, “Interview.” ↩
- Kim Allen, Imogen Tyler, and Sara De Benedictis, “Thinking with ‘White Dee’: The Gender Politics of ‘Austerity Porn,’” Sociological Research Online 19.3 (2014), www.socresonline.org.uk/19/3/2.html ↩
- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). ↩