Visual track opening Domestic Violence:

An impersonal, phallic urban setting opens the film.

The swoosh of a cop car introduces the first moment of domestic violence in the film.

A victim is taken away from her abusive home while her screams are attenuated by the gauze.

Music editing in a scene from High School:

The teacher plays a tape of "A Dangling Conversation" from this device, but we hear the song without ambience in the soundtrack.

As the song ends, it fades into ambient sounds from the hallway.

"Simple Simon Says" gym sequence in High School:

This shot suggests the song comes from this speaker in the moment, though the track itself lacks ambience. There are no sounds of the girls exercising, for example—the music is clean.

As "Simple Simon" plays, the girls follow instructions on proper body movement.

The camera objectifies the girls by fragmenting their bodies.


“Simple Simon Says”:
ambience and music as narrator

Wiseman’s films are striking in that they do not build from the meaning translated through words alone, but through the suggestions and guidance provided by other components of his soundtracks beyond the voice. Though Wiseman elides voice-over narration in his films, his use of music in High School particularly, and the structuring of ambient tones in Domestic Violence, present a version of a narrator’s voice, guiding the development of the thesis of the film, and commenting on the actions of the films’ participants.

Ambient sound, typically picked up through an omnidirectional microphone, captures the whole of a sonic environment without privileging a specific sound source in a scene. These ambiences defy logics of listening practice as all sounds within a space are captured within a 360 degree area. Domestic Violence is structured through the placement of ambient tones which develop and change during the interludes between sequences.

Click to hear opening of Domestic Violence with ambient sounds. Midway through this clip, the sounds of the city roar before the swoosh of a cop car transitions us into a scene of Domestic Violence.

The film begins with the loud, nearly deafening roars of city highways in Tampa, Florida. Like Jacques Tati who used traffic patterns and deafening vehicular sounds in Mon Oncle to comment upon de-humanizing effects of modernity, Wiseman relies on a score of mechanical roars to open the film and establish a powerfully uncomfortable, dare I say patriarchal, tone that controls this community. In this ambient track, mass movements of air, represented by the tremendous low frequencies of traffic, chillingly contrast with the immobile, glassy office buildings that rise like masculine pillars of society and economy. Through a sound dissolve, the traffic sounds dissipate to the swoosh of a lone vehicle, a cop car, gliding through the greener, quieter space of a poor suburban neighborhood. The cop car takes the viewer to a house where a woman has been hit.

Soon thereafter, Wiseman returns to the violence of traffic sounds on city streets as he leads us into another scene where cops respond to a call related to domestic violence. In this scene, we meet a woman covered in blood who explains her injuries from within her darkened apartment. Indeed, the blood saturates her clothes and drips down her legs. An emergency worker gives her gauze to plug up her wounds, and she puts this gauze into her mouth and screams from behind it as she is moved from the apartment to the ambulance. As the victim traumatized by domestic violence, her voice can become part of the urban ambience only when attenuated. Indeed, attending to the attenuation of victim’s voices within public space is the point of Domestic Violence.

Wiseman uses the ambient sound of The Spring, a shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, to provide contrast with the exterior environment. Within The Spring, words drive the meaning as women tell of trauma and abuse during intake meetings with counselors, and as shocking statistics are shared.[3] [open endnotes in new window] But ambient spaces of the quiet hallways, sprinkled with children’s laughter, dictate the contrasting tone of this space from the world outside. The Spring’s corridors bring women together as they enter with bags of clothes and car seats loaded with children. At times these interstitials are noisier than at other moments, particularly as the children run through or as a group of elder women receive a tour of the facility. But always, voices within the corridors are clearly differentiated. Volume is expressed, not out of anger and not to control, but rather for glee or agreement.

By generating these shifts in volume association within the walls of The Spring, Wiseman dilutes the connection between volume and power / violence, as he had established at the opening of the film. Now volume builds to represent community, safety and recovery. In this vein, at the close of Domestic Violence, the sound of traffic returns. Here, traffic sounds are placed in the space of night and are merely swooshes of tires on empty streets. The ambience beyond the shelter cannot overpower the viewer as it once did, for it has been unpacked and interrogated.

In High School diegetic music (music that appears to emanate from within the scene itself) functions as ambience, but has been arranged and orchestrated by Wiseman, as editor, to express the themes of the film and to build its thesis. Diegetic music in High School can rarely be read as such and at face value, save for a lesson on percussive instruments, and in an assembly where boys, dragging as cheerleaders, move on stage to tunes played by a school marching band. Even in the classroom where a teacher plays a recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation” to her class, the music shifts from playing ‘diegetically’ to playing non-diegetically.

Click to hear editing of beginning of Simon and Garfunkel song. As teacher begins Simon and Garfunkel's "A Dangling Conversation," the ambient sounds of the high school classroom fade away.

As the teacher begins to play the tape, the spatial signature of the room drops out of the recording altogether. The song plays while lacking the mark of its origination in the classroom. The montage edited with this song focuses on the tape itself, the teacher’s response (insecurity and pleasure in this teaching moment), and to singles on the students, evidencing their interest and boredom.

Click to hear the final editing of the song. The song fades to ambient sounds of a box being dragged down the High School hallway.

The music drifts into images in the hallway—a student leaning against the wall, someone dragging a box, and finally fades into another disciplinary moment in Dr. Allen’s office. As the music floats across space (lacking the mark of space in the recording itself) and motivates this montage, the song associates with the author of the film text and performs as a narrator of these images.

Similarly, at the start of High School, a car approaches the neighborhood surrounding the school, then the school itself. This introduction to the setting for the film is paired with Otis Redding’s tune “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” Later, music dictates the movements of girls in their gym class as the poppy song called “Simon Says” fills the soundtrack. In these cases, the music is masked as diegetic—seemingly emanating from within the scene itself (the car speakers and speakers within the gymnasium respectively.) However, these songs indeed belong outside of the moment and have been placed by the editor of the film.

In her discussion of narrative film music, Claudia Gorbman considers the ways in which music is received by the viewer and the meaning music imparts based on its application in the film text. I argue that the use of music in observational documentary, like the use of continuity editing and dialogue editing, builds from traditions in narrative fiction film and cite Gorbman’s work here based on connections outlined above between the formal traditions. Wiseman’s use of music in the opening of the film and in the gym sequence, like Fellini in Gorbman’s study, “deliberately blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic components of his filmic discourse” (1980, 197-8). Gorbman calls this questionable site of musical source “extradiegetic” and further, “metadiegetic” placing the music within a characters memory or internal, subjective space.

“In reading music as metadiegetic or not, the issue is not its truth/falsity value—for music is not representational, and as such, cannot lie—but rather its connection to a secondary narrator at all. Although the question of “point-of-view music” demands rigorous analysis, we may agree that a metadiegetic reading depends on justification by narrative context and on other specific cinematic conventions.” (198)

The High School sequence in which the bodies of young women swing, move, and stretch to the beat of a tune whose lyrics ironically dictate order and obedience, deserves attention. In Grant’s discussion of High School in 5 Films he describes this scene:

“After questioning students on the telephone about their hall passes, the teacher looks through the window in a door as the pop song “Simple Simon” fades in on the soundtrack. The song’s authoritative commands—similar to much of what we hear throughout High School –reinforce the film’s overall view of the education process as impersonal and authoritarian. The film cuts from the teacher in the hallway peering through the window of the door into the gym, where girls in uniform are exercising to the song, and again we are encouraged to make a connection that the teacher was looking at this particular activity in the gym. Encouraged by both image and sound, viewers have often imputed a predatory sexuality to the teacher in the hallway, reading the camera’s emphasis on the girls’ buttocks as a point-of-view shot from the teacher’s perspective.” (2006, 6-7)

The teacher’s look through a window certainly frames the sequence as his point-of-view, as Grant suggests. But Wiseman does not return to this predatory observer during the extended sequence which would solidify this connection through the shot-reverse shot visual structure heretofore employed in High School. Rather, the camera remains in the gym, further developing fragmented images of the girl’s bodies. The visual focus of the sequence builds around the girls’ mid sections as the camera privileges their behinds and waists moving to the words “do it when Simon says, and you will never be out.” In a moment where the source of this music is called into question, so too is the point-of-view of this sequence and also of the presence of a second narrator, as described by Gorbman above.

Wiseman pays particular attention to the gendered subject in High School. Throughout the ‘day,’ students learn about proper gendered attire, reproduction, and sexed body parts via aural instruction. A teacher reprimands a girl for the inappropriately short length of the girl’s prom skirt. A group of female students are taught how to walk and carry their bodies, working around and against their awkward figures. These gender lessons appear through synch sound sequences, and incorporate the visual and aural structure we saw with Dr. Allen’s scenes. The teacher speaks, the students listen, and time is compressed through edits in the sound track, covered by close ups, to produce conversations with continuity. But in the Simon Says sequence, the visual structure of High School drastically shifts. There is pleasure to be had in the upbeat tempo of the music and in the humor of watching bodies without heads swinging to the beat. For, by removing the head, and particularly, by fragmenting the body, Wiseman removes the potential rendering of these girls’ subjectivity. The commanding music track, occupying all of the sonic space of this scene, presents both a heavy authorial voice articulating the loss of power by a group of students that is particular to gender, and simultaneously a male gaze deriving pleasure through this control.[4]

Kaja Silverman’s work on female voice in the narrative fiction film, illuminates conventions in sound in Classical Hollywood cinema which restrict female characters by distancing them from the filmmaking apparatus. Through multiple techniques, including desynchronization and silence, female characters are differentiated from male characters, and pushed to a recessed space, inside of the story of the film. Silverman argues that within this recessed space, female characters are separated from the author of the film text. They cannot function as narrators or give voice to the direction of the film. (54) In Into the Vortex (2006), Britta Sjogren calls these strict gender-based assigns of the apparatus into question. She explores how female voice in certain works of 1940’s film noir reveal difference and contradiction. In High School, by fragmenting young female bodies and removing the possibility for speech (by removing their heads in the frame), Wiseman creates a contradiction: he aligns the viewer with the principal who looks into the scene while trolling the halls, yet his awareness of patriarchal, gendered proscriptions is clearly apparent throughout the text. While one may consider that this view of the objectified girls represents the gaze of the documentary filmmaker, I wish to conclude that through this scene Wiseman reflexively acknowledges the qualities of cinema that allow for this type of gendered objectification. More relevantly, this gaze is underscored and dictated by the soundtrack itself as the musical beat allows for this disruption in the otherwise consistent style of the film up to this point.

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