Saturday, October 24, 2015

The sound that wasn't there: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

As always, David Bordwell's observations on very specific aspects of film art prompt us to search through our mental movie database for instances of particular cinematic techniques. Thinking about the movies we watch in a "transversal" way is an efficient test for checking how much attention we pay to film style, and trying to recall films featuring a particular framing, cut, camera movement, mise-en-scene etc. can actually turn out to be a surprisingly difficult and not always fruitful operation.

A recent entry in Bordwell's blog is dedicated to the use of sound in Nightmare Alley, a 1947 film featuring the downfall of an unscrupulous man working as a barker in a traveling carnival. In particular, Bordwell analyzes a scene in which a police siren is heard, but we can't clearly determine whether this sound is subjective (like an auditory hallucination), objective (probably coming from an off-screen police car), or whether it eludes both categories. He then contextualizes the scene within the overall film, showing that ambiguous sound cues form a motif and in certain cases represent a sort of commentary on the action. I invite you to read his astonishingly detailed, insanely entertaining analysis.

Nightmare Alley merits our attention because it employs sound in unusual ways. In fact, most 1940s films conform to the stylistic palette available at the time, choosing unambiguously between objective and subjective sound and abiding by well-established conventions (for instance, subjective sound is typically signaled by a rather close shot of the character hearing that sound). Nightmare Alley instead challenges those norms, and encourages us to think about things we normally take for granted in movies.

It seems natural at this point to ask whether Nightmare Alley's innovative use of sound is a one-off instance, or if more examples exist. Can you think of a film in which a particular sound doesn't strictly respect the objective/subjective distinction? Note that here we are not taking into consideration the diegetic/nondiegetic categories applied to music. I came up with just one example, Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Spoilers galore!

A brief synopsis. Bennie, piano player in a kitschy bar for tourists in Mexico City, is offered a 10,000$ reward by two strangers to behave Alfredo Garcia, an old acquaintance of him who has gotten into trouble for having impregnated the daughter of a powerful Mexican boss known as El Jefe. Bennie embarks on his truculent mission with his promiscuous lover Elita, who informs him that Alfredo passed away the previous week in a car accident. In spite of many hesitations on the part of Elita, they eventually visit Alfredo's grave in order to retrieve his head and get the money, but something at the cemetery goes horribly wrong: Elita is killed in an ambush and Alfredo's head is stolen. Blinded by remorse and rage, Bennie will take no prisoners in order to get the head back and find the man who ordered the massacre.

Sound in Alfredo Garcia is mostly used in fairly conventional ways, both objectively and subjectively. For instance, driving back from Alfredo's grave Bennie is haunted by memories of Elita singing, playing guitar, and repeating sentences she said on their outward journey ("You're a nice gringo!"). In this case there's no doubt that all this is happening in Bennie's tortured mind, firstly because Bennie reacts to these sounds with grief-stricken rage and hysterical laughs, and secondly because Elita's voice has a reverberating quality that the other simultaneous sounds lack. Elsewhere in the film we have objective sound  what we hear is motivated by what's in or out of the frame.

Except for a single scene. After the film's prologue in El Jefe's mansion, we see Bennie playing Guantanamera in his tavern, when two henchmen of El Jefe appear and start asking questions about Alfredo Garcia with clearly hostile intentions. Intoxicated by the prospect of making money, Bennie hints that he has information for them, so they show him a photo of Alfredo. At this point we hear a faint but clearly audible sound of a car's brakes screeching with no apparent source. What is the origin of this sound and what does it mean? Later in the film we'll learn about Alfredo's death in a car accident, so we are inclined to believe that the car screech is related to this never-shown event; unfortunately, this association doesn't help us establish whether the sound is objective or subjective. In fact, given that Bennie is still unaware of Alfredo's death as the screech is heard, we cannot conclude that it is a product of his imagination. On the other hand, if a car accident had occurred somewhere outside the bar during the conversation, we would expect some kind of reaction from Bennie and everyone present, but such is not the case.

If sound ambiguity in Nightmare Alley form a motif running through the film, in Alfredo Garcia it is limited to the scene I have described. So what are we going to do with it? Again, it seems logical to conclude that the car screech cannot be explained merely in terms of objectivity/subjectivity, but is more likely a hint addressed to us viewers stressing the idea of doom and ineluctable failure, which is a main theme of the film. This explanation, however, seems to me not entirely convincing. If the filmmaker intended to foreshadow the story's tragic outcome, why put the emphasis on Alfredo's fate instead of Bennie's?

I think there exists another possibility. Ever since my first viewing I've thought that Alfredo Garcia had a certain supernatural thread running through it. Bennie's road trip with Elita appears doomed from the start, not only because of the desperate, abominable plan they're pursuing, but also because Bennie obstinately ignores some ominous and almost biblical signs he encounters on the way: a prostitute's beating, the crabs infesting his lower parts, the two Mexican bounty hunters, a miraculously avoided car crash with a bus, the encounter with the rapist bikers and, not least, the very fact that Alfredo Garcia is already dead. Even a simple shot like the one above, showing a group of workers asphalting the road with Bennie's red Chevy Impala in the background, in retrospect acquires a sinister meaning once the story reaches its fatal conclusion. There are possibly echoes of Don't Look Now here, Nicolas Roeg's film released the previous year about a man who fails to acknowledge his psychic powers.

This is what I call a biblical undertone.
This supernatural element emerges more evidently, I think, in the film's second half. What we see is that Elita is murdered at Alfredo's grave, while Bennie incredibly survives the attack. But does he really survive? When he emerges from the earth where he has been buried alive, it's like watching a resurrection, and from this moment on he is sort of invulnerable, coming out unscathed from no less than five gunfights  with Elita's killers, Alfredo's family, the two henchmen of El Jefe, the guards who pay him the bounty, and finally with El Jefe himself and his bodyguards. There's nothing "natural" or "realistic" about the way Bennie accomplishes his mission. Everything happens in obedience to a mysterious design, as though Bennie had been given a deferment from death allowing him to take revenge on those responsible for Elita's murder. With Alfredo's rotting head as travel companion, often framed in close-up as if it was silently responding to his delirious soliloquies, in a sense Bennie can't die because he is already dead.

Under this light the car screech could acquire the meaning of a warning directed not at the viewer, but at Bennie. Therefore, the hypothesis of a subjective sound is not to be dismissed too hastily: after all, when Bennie learns from Elita about Alfredo's death, he reacts with astonishment and surprise ‒ maybe also because the news comes as a confirmation of that earlier premonition. Another cue for subjectivity is the close framing on the photo of Alfredo, which seems to suggest a psychological connection between Bennie, who is looking at it, and the sound we hear. Or am I stretching things too much? Well, at least now you know why the blog's subtitle says "abstruse theories". The original script could perhaps shed some light on the matter, but unfortunately on the web I was able to find only transcriptions.

All in all, I find the second hypothesis more plausible, because it sees the car screech not as an isolated, capricious artifice, but as part of a buried (pass me the term) supernatural subtext, which I think does exist. Anyway, the question seems to have no clear-cut solution. I'd love to hear from you any alternate explanation and more examples of ambiguous sounds as well. Please just make sure not to overload the comment section as usual.

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