Notes on Film Criticism (IV)

This week, I’ve put my voice (interesting expression) onto two things: an audiovisual essay I’ve done with Adrian Martin, and this tiny 4 minute film. For years (eleven years, to be exact), I’ve elegantly avoided putting my voice onto anything. First and foremost, because I hated listening to myself. This feeling, I’ve discovered, is shared by many people. It’s worth noticing, though, that it is not always related to an anxiety about speaking. In my case, this might be true. But I’ve had conversations with a good number of people who regularly do (and even enjoy!) public speaking – and, yet, they still find their recorded voice uncanny and unpleasant.

I was relieved when I learnt that there is a perfectly rational explanation for this phenomenon, a number of physical and physiological factors, both at the level of performance and audition, that explain why, when you speak, your voice does indeed sound different to you than when you hear your recorded voice (check my highbrow sources: they are fascinating). Along the years, I’ve tried recording and listening to myself in order to both improve performance and get more used to this gap – the gap between how you think you sound and how you really sound. I have to admit that I haven’t done this very often, because the experience was painful enough to make me depressed for weeks. But, I’ve done it quite a few times. And I have to say: I doubt my performance has improved much, and I’m certain I haven’t got used to that voice.

There’s another reason why I have not so much avoided but fervently opposed the mere consideration of using my voice: it truly pains me, the privileged status that the voice is granted in pretty much everything I’m involved with. I don’t exaggerate if I say that 80% of the (often unpaid) “work proposals” I get are to participate in podcasts, be interviewed, or talk on panels. It seems that (luckily for me!) people now want to hear women’s voices: that might be why I’m asked more than I would have been, say, ten years ago. The amazing thing about all this is that, often, I’m asked to talk about things that are not remotely related to anything I’ve done or do, things that I have nothing to say about, or things that I don’t even know what they are. (I might be a bit short-sighted here, but I have difficulty understanding how am I supposed to engage anybody talking for one hour about whatever, when I can barely engage people to watch a 4 minute little thing I’ve done).

Anyway, after eleven years of silent protest for living in such a voice-centred world, I’m done. Obviously, my gesture of refusal has had no implications for anybody other than me – a gesture not voiced is a gesture not seen. I’ve always been curious about how it would feel if, finally, I decided to use my voice. Over the years, in different events (mostly around the audiovisual essay, but also in other contexts), I’ve kept hearing that the act of using your own voice is self-empowering. Well, now that I’ve done it, I can say this: I haven’t felt an iota of self-empowerment. I still think there might be many valid reasons to encourage people who have issues with their voice to use it – I just don’t think self-empowerment is one of them. But, then again, I might have a general problem understanding how self-something concepts work: in my experience, and at the risk of repeating myself, what gives me power is not the capacity to perform certain acts – even when those acts might be difficult or courageous to perform – but the capacity to affect others with those acts. So, to me, this has felt a bit like losing my virginity, except now nobody cares anymore.

What is it that we call a voice? This is a question I asked myself while immersed in that torture which was listening to my voice. I realised that it wasn’t the qualities of the voice itself that most upset me, but the articulation: the way accents, emphasis, tones were distributed both at a word-level and at a sentence-level. I heard myself, and what I heard did not correspond or reflect at all my speaking intentions. I expected my voice to, somehow, represent me or, at the very least, to conform to the will of the speaker (in this case, me). Instead, I heard a disjointed speech by a voice that did not seem to belong to me. Listening to my recorded voice felt similar to watching my recorded image: it was just too disturbing and alienating.

However, this week I seem to have been magically cured of this aversion to my own voice. I don’t think I’ve become used to it, nor do I think I’ve gained more control over it. I’d rather say it’s the opposite: I don’t have much control over anything anymore. I do not know who this voice should represent. I’ve stopped being sure of what I intend when I speak. I’ve become so alien to myself, as my voice was once to me. (In case you haven’t noticed yet: all first person pronouns in this text, especially the possessive ones, are an ironic bow to convention). The meeting of these two catastrophes has had, however, an unexpected twist: now, apparently, I can listen to my voice. Now that I don’t care anymore about whether this voice represents me (because: what the fuck is me?), now, I can listen to the voice itself. And, let me tell you, it is quite amazing how eloquent a voice can be when you don’t want it to say “I”.

In written film criticism, it is quite common to refer, too, to the critic’s voice. But what is understood to constitute that voice? Is it that the critic likes to embed sentences within sentences within sentences? That he tends to start paragraphs with a question and tends to end them with a blow? Is it his preference for using three adjectives in a row, for turning nouns into verbs, for certain rhetorical devices? Is a chosen vocabulary – an attachment to certain words – part of the critic’s voice? Could her selective use of “anyway”, not for meaning but for pathos, at the start of a paragraph be considered a feature of the voice? (Ha!) Well, I’d say it very much depends on whom you ask. For all I know, some people talk about this or that critic’s voice, and all they mean is that the critic engenders florid insults, likes to talk about his mood that day, and insists predictably on his political positions. All this is just to say that, as with the recorded voice, what constitutes the written voice is quite unspecific.

And, yet, to say of a critic that he has a voice (often “a strong voice”) comes to mean, in the end, something illuminatingly specific: that he is recognisable. It means you could read a few paragraphs of such a critic and, for a number of quite imprecise reasons we’ve come to call “the critic’s voice”, you would know who the author of that text is (even if the text were not signed!). A voice, then, is the signature of the signature. In my favour, I must say that I’ve never cared much about having a voice in writing. But this might be because I’ve never had a signature (too many times I’ve had to remind people to have the fucking decency of not erasing my name from my own contributions: it is difficult to have people recognising your voice when you can’t even get them to acknowledge your existence). But, even leaving all that aside, the truth is: the notion of the critic’s voice was always a bit alien to me. I think I’m more sensitive to the intertwining of things, and more naturally inclined to think of film criticism as a singing with.

You might say that to sing with, you need a voice. And, well, you’d be technically correct. You’d also be unnecessarily annoying. Because the thing is: you might need a voice, but the emphasis is not on your voice anymore, it is on how your voice goes with other threads, noises, and – yes – voices. Lately, I hear a hell of a lot of voices when I’m writing (and I don’t mean those of my neighbours, although I hear those, too). I mean voices I don’t know where they come from, or to whom they belong. Sometimes, they’ll claim a word or, if they are bold enough, a paragraph. Others, I manage to contain them in a parenthetical (because parentheticals are and are not disruptive). Sometimes a voice leads the text, but it’s constantly distracted by other voices that keep popping up, here and there. Some voices make objections to my claims (go figure!); others just give me incredibly beautiful expressions that I have to search for in the dictionary.

Writing, then, becomes this constant orchestration, modulation and intertwining of voices. I think this is what attracted me to audiovisual essays, because they make crystalline what perhaps is not so evident in writing: that it’s all about ways of going together, of singing together. And it is not that writing – the act, the process – obscures that; on the contrary, when one pays attention to it, the process of writing is incredibly revelatory. What obscures the fact that writing involves a multiplicity of voices is, precisely, that we’ve come to identify good writing with “having a voice”. I wish we placed less insistence on the power of the voice, in the necessity for developing a personal, identifiable, recognisable voice, and started considering all the ways in which things can sing together. I would rather have readers tuning to the many voices voiced through my voice. Although, I’d probably settle with just having readers, really.


© Cristina Álvarez López, May 2020


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