High School: boys on stage dragging as cheerleaders, edited against audio of announcement about Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

Football players revel.

Another boy in drag.

High School: Gynecologist gives sex ed talk to boys in auditorium.

The gynecologist laughs at his own joke, “What, with your nose?”

The boys attending the sex-ed lesson get excited.

After joke about “popping a cherry” the gynecologist licks his lips.

Time has passed, and boys seem sedate immediately following a raucous outburst.

Domestic Violence: "We are allowed to talk."

A woman celebrates the new, freeing feeling of being allowed to speak.

The disembodied counselor is “seen” solely through her hand on a chalkboard.


Volume and space: “I happen to be a gynecologist and get paid to do it.”

I wish to extend a discussion of the alignment of male characters with the apparatus by considering volume of voice. By volume, I mean, quite literally, the amplitude of the sound wave carrying the voice of male characters onto the soundtrack of the film. In moments, male voices in High School are reflexively aligned with the apparatus. We see this with Simon Says silencing, to consciously negate female subjects. By selecting these moments, Wiseman, as author attends to a gendered difference in aural space.

Wiseman places two of the loudest moments in High School side by side, connecting them technically, but also thematically, as they both address constructions of masculinity.

Play audio juxtaposition of two key moments in High School's editing. An announcement regarding Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is edited against a drag performance by football players.

The first of the two outbursts in the sound mix occurs in the school assembly as a group of boys dragging as cheerleaders take the stage. A quiet moment precedes this scene as a teacher announces a scheduled discussion around Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Wiseman emphasizes the racist undertones at the school by cutting away immediately to an auditorium bursting with revelry. In this moment, white male students wearing pigtailed wigs and tight fitting cashmere sweaters bedecked with sparkle pasties take to a stage, dismissing the call for dialogue and mourning. The sound track is full of high, mid and low frequencies of great amplitude as the boys prance and dance in front of their audience. A mass of sound fills the screening space as the performance continues, in what may be read as derogatory dragging. This gendered and racialized disruption is manifest through distortions in the sound track pushing at the boundaries of volume and audio control.

In the scene that follows, the sound of boys performing gender again fills the soundtrack. I wish to focus here on the scene wherein a visiting gynecologist speaks to an auditorium of boys using excerpts from Grant’s 5 Films transcript:

“[Cut to Medium Shot of gynecologist at microphone in front of auditorium filled with boys.]

Gynecologist: … [taking a written question.] ‘Is it possible to impregnate a girl by rubbing the surface of the vagina?' With what? Your nose? No. [Laughter and applause from boys.] and I might add, this brings up one other good point. This brings up one other darn good point. Virginity is a state of mind. By that, I have seen several girls who have been physiologically, or by physical examination, virgins; the hymen, the mucous membrane covering the so-called, the cherry—it’s called the cherry because it produces red fluid when it’s busted—is intact. I have seen girls whose hymens were so small that I couldn’t pass a finger through them. [laughter] In fact, I once saw a girl—I happen to be a gynecologist and get paid to do it. [laugher and applause from boys]…’” (82-3)

Upon the first joke, “With what your nose,” the camera pans from the MS of gynecologist to the audience. It takes some time for the boys to settle down aurally, though visibly we only see subtle movements in the crowd and boys getting up to hand in their questions scrawled on paper. Their building excitement is fostered by the performance of the excitable gynecologist. He prepares to deliver the word “cherry” seemingly knowing that he is breaking from script, and pronouncing a colloquial word often not allowed in this space. As he delivers this word, “cherry” his expression shifts. He raises one eyebrow and twists his mouth with sly amusement. He pauses. As he delivers the next line, the tone of the gynecologist further shifts and he creates pauses between words for dramatic effect: “It’s called the cherry because it produces red fluid when it’s (pause) busted.” He carefully articulates this word, ‘busted,’ accentuating the letter “b.” This word, like “cherry,” is another departure from his professional, dry script. After the cherry / busted build up, the boys have already begun to buzz. Buzzing continues as the gynecologist describes how he puts his fingers inside of a female patient to examine her.

Play clip of gynecologist's talk, noting the audio peaks and distortions.

Finally, upon the delivery of his punchline “I happen to be a gynecologist and get paid to do it,” the room explodes with laughter and applause. The boys’ raucous response is communicated to the viewer solely through the audio track. We cannot see the boys, as the camera stays on the gynecologist. But this outburst represents one of the loudest moments in the film. This requires that the doctor then deliver his next few lines over laughs and one-liners from the boys. He attempts to return the room to order by performing dry delivery of pre-scripted material. In fact, only when Wiseman cuts from the medium shot on the gynecologist to close up shots of the boys listening, does the room return to order. This moment, like Dr. Allen’s sequences, masks a sound edit and the removal of time from the moment in situ.

Volume and gender are central in Wiseman’s Domestic Violence. As I discussed earlier, Wiseman utilizes volume in ambient space to comment upon violence and recovery from violence. However, the volume of voice, particularly of the voices of those who have been abused, receives significant attention in the course of the film’s narrative arc. During numerous sessions and in-take meetings, victims of domestic violence speak at length to their experiences. Often, as with most women traumatized by domestic violence, their speeches are delivered with suppressed emotion and numbness.[5] [open endnotes in new window] They present flat, affectless descriptions of being pushed into walls, punched, controlled, intimidated, yelled at and raped. Counselors have space and time to tell the women about cycles of domestic violence—just as their silence was taught to them through intimidation, so must they learn to speak here at The Spring. And through these lessons, feeling returns to their voices. Near the end of the film, one woman exclaims: “We were talking about this this morning. (yelling now) We’re allowed to use the tel-e-phone! We’re allowed to talk!”

Domestic Violence audio clip: "We are allowed to talk." In Part 2, a woman finds her voice and regains vocal and aural freedom in the film. Listen for how the sound of the counselor is on-mic (suggesting a lavaliere) while she who speaks of the telephone includes more room in her voice and was likely recorded with a directional, shotgun mic.

Technically, Wiseman seems to employ two methods of sound recording in these group sessions. The recording of the women who have been abused and are residents at the shelter carries with it spatial signature, which suggests a boom mic or hand operated shotgun was used for audio pick up. At times, one recognizes a dip in volume as the microphone travels to the direction of a new speaker (moving from off to on-mic).

The audio clip of the whispered story, again. Listen here for how the voice increases in volume as the microphone finds her.

However, the recording of the counselor’s voice who leads the discussion is on mic at all times and lacks spatial signature, suggesting that she was recorded with a lavaliere microphone or a planted directional microphone on a separate channel. Because of this difference in recording technique, the quality of her voice varies drastically from the quality of the voices of the other women in the room. Most strikingly, when she speaks, Wiseman does not cut to an image of her speaking. Rather we only hear her and see the women in the room listening to what she says.  As evidenced by Sjogren, female voice is not always contained and controlled by the apparatus, particularly when it is disembodied voice off and/or voice-over (2006). In applying Sjogren to this observational documentary, the disembodied voice-off of the counselor, devoid of spatial signature, positions her as an authorial voice more closely aligned with the apparatus. Interestingly, this counselor is also a woman and her associations with the technology of documentary production, in this instance, does not connect her with a masculine space of domination. Rather, her voice, resounding with spacelessness and on-mic delivery, becomes the message that must be repeated so that others may heal and so that the experiences of these particular women, and other abused women, may be understood, thereby suggesting Wiseman’s feminist apparatus.

Music masked as diegetic, dialogue rearranged and reconstructed, jump cuts supported by logical flows of words, and ambient sound emphasized and placed constitute manipulations common in the work of Wiseman and observational documentarians who study and work to emulate his techniques. Frederick Wiseman, considered by many as the mastercraftsman of observational cinema, openly acknowledges the manipulations inherent in this mode of documentary production. However, Winston notes that while claiming subjective construction, Wiseman speaks from both sides of his mouth, simultaneously arguing that he is editing with purpose, but insisting the viewer find meaning in the text for themselves. (2008, 163)

“The claim now was that it is the film-maker’s subjectivity that is being objectivity recorded. In this, though, direct cinema films remain evidence of something – the film-maker’s ‘witness’.” (2008, 164)

For Winston, this denouncement of objectivity by the direct-cinema filmmaker, while simultaneously claiming the film reflects the filmmakers’ point of view, is a “profound contradiction” that cannot undo the films’ signing as objective, realistic, evidence. (163-165) Winston looks to a moment in the Maysles’ Primary where synch was faked as a moment when audiences were made to consider the film as scientific evidence, not construction and mediation. (151)

In the tradition of direct-cinema that continues today, this moment and this technique, is indeed primary. Wiseman’s films continue to rely on and benefit from the invisibility and malleability of the audio track. As such, sound editing provides the foundation in several documentary styles: be it voice-over narration enveloping and guiding an entire film, or the invisible sound edits in observational works linking sentences that never were, nor belonged, together. In practice, at the stage of post-production, documentary filmmakers employ transcribers to visualize the word. We highlight, cut and paste, rearrange these typed words into scintillating dialogue and cohesive interviews. Further, by arranging selections in music of the period and place, accentuating and arranging ambient tones, and adjusting and managing volume, the filmmaker, Wiseman, asserts his critique of a particular institution and recognition of social trauma. I do not condemn Wiseman and other documentary makers who have built upon his techniques for taking such liberties. In Bill Nichols' terms, these are storytellers “representing reality.” Like Winston, I see that selection, arrangement and manipulation are a necessary part of the craft. He charges audiences to ‘embrace an understanding of the inevitable mediations of the film-making process.” (2008, 289) As filmmakers, we must also acknowledge how sound editing, and the manipulations therein, are central to the documentary process and look to Wiseman’s sound editing practice as a guide that has influenced much of documentary production since the lessons we witnessed early on in High School and throughout his later films.

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