THE AMOEBA WEEPS

On hyperreality in spaghetti westerns

October 10, 2017

It doesn't look like Charles Bronson is playing the harmonica or, indeed, like any of the sounds in the opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West are actually attached to their visual sources. But this is not for a lack of detail. Every sound is presented with an impossible richness of detail, recorded in stunningly high fidelity. But fidelity to what exactly? What sort of reality is this scene meant to simulate? The inundation of sonic concreteness and detail in the scene creates an experience that is seemingly more real than reality itself, an experience, in fact, that is hyper-real.

 

Hyperreality and simulacra — as exemplified in the dubbing aesthetic of such Cinecittà productions — manifest a strange, idealized appearance; strange, indeed, if we take Plato's word for it and conceive of ideality (εἶδος) and appearance as being diametrically opposed.  If Sartre posits existence before essence, then hyperreality moves in the opposite direction — it turns a fictional, illusory existence, made impossibly "real", into an unattainable ideal. Whereas art movements prior to the advent of recorded media aspired to a sort of ideality through underdetermination of detail, be it in the idealized formal structure of classical sculpture or the vague sketchiness of expressionism and abstraction, hyperreality acts to establish the antipodal situation — a specious ideality brought on by an overdetermination of detail.

 

This sort of overdetermined "reality" is to be found most everywhere in contemporary life. Expressed through idealized techniques of mediation (close mic'ing, multi-track recording, post-production editing) or in the highly professionalized training and performance practice in the world of classical music, not to mention the ubiquitous portrayals of a standardized perfection in body image or in the spurious happiness and homogenized uniqueness expressed in nearly everybody's Facebook profile, this sort of ideality establishes an impossible standard against which we are all invited to see ourselves as failures.

 

Once, after a concert of music by Lachenmann in Rome, I had a very pleasant chat with the composer. The concert had involved a performance of his Mouvement vor der Erstarrung. Amidst the fragile and shadowy wisps of sound in the ensemble, the piano strikes a sonority, upon which two sinewy assistants vigorously wave the piano lid up and down. Visually, this was among the most remarkable experiences I've had at a performance. Sonically, well...nothing happened. Afterwards he confessed that the sound does not project in a way that is commensurate with the wonderful absurdity and intensity of the visual gesture. However, he said, it works just fine in the recording. One is left to wonder what Lachenmann's ideal for this piece is, especially given how he eschews amplification. Presumably, the fictionalized instantiation of the piece as a studio-produced, close-mic'ed, multitrack-recorded document is what he has in mind. The hyped-up falsity of the hyperreal pervades even the heights of the erstwhile avant-garde.

 

For Cage, a non-intentional attitude toward sound was to open up the possibility for listening in a way that obviates the search for meaning, a listening mode that might free us from the need to understand the world through attachment to preformed categories. One outcome of this is the way that the detailed richness of sound "come into its own" becomes apparent to us and illuminates the possibility for a relationship to the world beyond self-interest. Hyperreality takes that very richness in detail and fixes it into an oppressive ideal.

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