Saturday, 5 June 2010

Voice Encoded Memory. Joseph Mankiewicz. A Letter to Three Wives


presentation by Corry Shores
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[The following is quotation. My notes are in red.]

Voice Encoded Memory
Joseph Mankiewicz
A Letter to Three Wives


Gilles Deleuze

Cinema 2: The Time Image
Cinéma 2: L'image-temps

Chapter III. From Recollection to Dreams: Third Commentary on Bergson
Chapitre III. Du souvenir aux rêves (troisième commentaire de Bergson)

2c: The two poles of the flashback: Carné, Mankiewicz
2c: Les deux pôles du flash-back : Carné, Mankiewicz


It is not simply several people each having a flashback, it is the flashback belonging to several people (three in The Barefoot Contessa, three in A Letter to Three Wives, two in All About Eve). And it is not just the circuits forking between themselves, it is each circuit forking within itself, like a split hair. In the three circuits in A Letter to Three Wives, each of the women wonders in her own way when and how her marriage began to go adrift, to take a forking route. [Deleuze Cinema 2, 1989: 47bc]

Ce ne sont pas seulement plusieurs personnes qui ont chacune un flashback, c'est le flash-back qui est à plusieurs personnes (trois dans « La comtesse aux pieds nus », trois dans « Chaînes conjugales », deux dans « Tout sur Eve »). Et ce ne sont pas seulement les circuits qui bifurquent entre eux, c'est chaque circuit bifurque avec soi-même, comme un cheveu fourchu. Dans les trois circuits de « Chaînes conjugales », chacune des femmes se demande à sa manière quand et comment son mariage a commencé à déraper, à prendre une voie bifurcante. [Deleuze Cinéma 2, 1985:68d]


the forking points are very often so imperceptible that they cannot be revealed until after their occurrence, to an attentive memory. It is a story that can only be told in the past. [...] This is what governs the three flashbacks of women in A Letter to Three Wives and Harry's recollections in The Barefoot Contessa. [Deleuze Cinema 2, 1989: 48d]

les points de bifurcation sont le plus souvent si imperceptibles qu'ils ne peuvent se révéler qu'après coup, à une mémoire attentive. C'est une histoire que ne peut être racontée qu'au passé. [...] C'est cela qui préside aux trois flashes-back de femmes dans « Chaînes conjugales », comme aux souvenirs d'Harry dans « La comtesse aux pieds nus ». [Deleuze Cinéma 2, 1985: 70d]


In its very essence, memory is voice, which speaks, talks to itself, or whispers, and recounts what happened. Hence the voice-off accompanies the flashback. In Mankiewicz this spiritual role of memory often gives way to a creature more or less connected with the beyond: the phantom in Mrs. Muir's Adventure, the ghost in Whispers in the City [sic. People Will Talk], the automata in Bloodhound [sic. Sleuth]. In A Letter to three Wives, there is the fourth girlfriend, the one that will never be seen, that is once barely glimpsed, and who has made it known to the three others that she is going of with one of their husbands (but which one?): it is her voice-off which looms over the other three flashbacks. [Deleuze Cinema 2, 1989: 49b]

Dans son essence même elle est voix, qui parle, se parle ou murmure, et rapporte ce qui s'est passé. D'où la voix off qui accompagne le flash-back. Souvent chez Mankiewicz ce rôle spirituel de la mémoire fait place à une créature plus ou moins liée à l'au-delà : la fantôme de «L'aventure de Mme Muir », le revenant de « On murmure dans la ville », les automates du «Limier ». Dans « Chaînes conjugales », il y a la quatrième amie, celle qu'on ne verra jamais, qu'on entrevoit mal une fois, et qui a fait savoir aux trois autres qu'elle partait avec un de leurs maris (mais lequel ?) : c'est sa voix off qui surplombe les trois flashes-back. [Deleuze Cinéma 2, 1985: 71b]


[The movie's 'now' time spans a day. Its narrator on the one hand seems to know what is going on, all while at the same time never appears in person. The story is about three married couples. The narrator is a woman who was a friend to all three husbands. She has written one letter addressed to all three wives, telling them that she ran off with one of their husbands. But she does not specify which one. This leaves the three wives to wonder, and to reflect on their relationships, in effort to uncover what might have gone wrong in the past. What this will demonstrate is how the past is created in advance. There is a plot-twist or 'forking' that each one recalls. So as we see it in the film, it is a flashback. But while we see the flashback, it seems to us like it has been reinserted into the present. So let's consider it when it happened in its own present. When it occurred, there was an event that really stood out. Something about the incident hints to us that it will be significant later-on in the future. But at that time, it was not clear how it will be important. So when the forking happens, it is surprising and memorable, but not in an overtly evident way. But in a sense, when the event happened in its present, it is like a time-warp that already takes the person to the future when she will again later remember it. And as we the viewers watch the characters in the 'now' time of the movie, we see how the past event in a way already inserts itself in this new present. So in other words, when the memorable event happens, it was already past, even as it happened in the present. One reason that present events are already past is because they from the beginning are predetermined to be remembered, to reinsert themselves in a future present. This is because time is always 'forking', always inserting memorable difference in the present, and in this way always inserting the past into the present. Present events always even in their freshness already have the mark of the past. The other reason that present events are already past is because present events are always in a way flash-backs: they are made of 'time-warps' of the past throwing themselves upon the present. Hence we might say that time does not just flow from the present back to the past. Time also flows back from the past into the present.

In this clip, we hear the voice of the disembodied narrator, who situates us in the happenings of a 'now' flow of time. At this point we have the impression that she speaks contemporaneously with the 'now' flow. But because she is telling a story, we also get the impression she is recalling events in the past. In all, we get the sense that she is speaking outside of time, in a way. Perhaps we might call it 'narrational time,' which seems like a sort of eternal a-temporality.]

[Clips should play, even though they show no image until the button is pressed.]
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[Here the narrator reads the letter, which in a sense seems to link the 'now' moment of the 'now' flow of time with the temporality of the narrational time.]

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[In this part we watch Deborah reflect on an event in her past. She grew up in a different social environment than her husband. So now she feels out of place. She then spots her husband Brad talking privately with Addie Ross, the narrator announcing she left with one of the husbands. This is a forking of time in this narration. It is a fork, because she is surprised, and it hints of a new direction of development. But it is a memorable event. It is already a memory, even as it happened in the present. And notice also how the face from the memory dissolves and matches the face in the present, as if in the past she was already time-warping to the future, already making the face, and having the realization, that she would later come to have (although implicitly in the past, and explicitly in the future). And consider also the 'now' flow of time, how the remembered past has inserted itself in the present flow, and in this way, we see how the past is contemporaneous with the present.]

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[Here Rita recalls a tense dinner party. She works with radio advertisers and earns most of the household's money. Her husband George is a schoolteacher. He is satisfied making less money, because he would rather not do anything else, especially radio advertising. (We will see more from this dinner when discussing another Deleuze reference). It is George's birthday, but Rita forgot. Addie remembered, and sent a record album with music that is very important to their friendship. An advertiser dinner-guest breaks the record, and later infuriates George, because Rita tried to get him a job in the radio business. But Rita went to great lengths to make the night go perfectly (so much she even forgot her husband's birthday). So she did not expect a disaster like this happening. Again notice the overlapping facial expressions shared between her past realization and her present one, as if in the past she implicitly knew in advance that this moment would be recalled again.]

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[The third and final wife is Laura Mae. She did not have much money, but was courted by her wealthy boss, Porter. She pressured him into marrying her. Deep down, she really did not want the money, but rather his love and devotion. She recalls in particular Porter's ambiguous marriage proposal. She announces the engagement to her mother, who then faints. The unexpectedness then tells us that again it is a forking in time. We can also tell from her ambiguous expression that something is implicitly hinting that she might one day look back at this moment and question it.

After the flashback, we return to the 'now' narrational flow. Laura Mae finds Porter returning home, which indicates that Porter did not run-off with Addie Ross.]

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[Rita found George at home, so she knows he did not leave her. Debora gets a message that Brad will not be returning home that night. So she is convinced Brad left her. However, she later learns from Porter that he himself left his wife, but immediately returned to her.]

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In one of the flashbacks in A Letter to Three Wives there is the dinner scene where the teacher-husband and the wife in advertising entertain the latter's female boss: all the movement of characters and camera are determined by the mounting violence of their dialogue, and the distribution of two opposed sound-sources, that of the radio programme, and that of the classical music with which the teacher challenges it. [Deleuze Cinema 2, 1989: 49c]

Dans un des flashes-back de « Chaînes conjugales » apparaît la scène du dîner où le mari professeur et la femme publicitaire reçoivent la patronne de celle-ci : tous les mouvements de personnages et de caméra sont déterminés par la violence montante de leur dialogue, et par la répartition de deux sources sonores contraires celle de l'émission de radio, celle de la musique classique que le professeur oppose. [Deleuze Cinéma 2, 1985: 71c]

[Here we return to events with Rita and George. (We go out of sequence, because this reference seems to stand out from the prior ones). Notice here that it is a flashback, but we hear Addie read the letter, just as she did in the 'now' narrational flow. This gives us the impression that she is in a temporality that is beyond both past and present, or bound-up in the continual conjunction of the two. Also note the music at the beginning of the second clip. It is the same music that cued the flashback, which also mirrored Addie's voice. So the music she heard also already had the mark of the past, even while she heard it for the first time.

Deleuze wants us to pay attention to how the sounds and voices constitute this flashback. Memory is sound, novel is drama, and story behavior is the conduct of players.]

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[Deleuze does not discuss the use of vocoder in this film. Yet, I would like to, because I think it illustrates his points even further. The vocoder allows for a voice to merge with a sound element in the movie. The sound element is often (but not always) found both in the 'now' narrational flow, and in the environment of the flashback. The voice that merges with the sound also often (but not always) repeats what Addie Ross is saying. Addie's line is the cue for the flashback. So the sounds bridge the environments of the past and present, contracting them together. And the repeated sentences trigger the recollection. So in the past the character heard a sound that would later be what calls her back to this moment, creating a sonic mark of the past even when it was experienced as present. We might then say that in a way, the past is always what is present to us, the past is always in the first place present, and is not secondary to the present.]

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Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London & New York: 1989.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma 2: L'image-temps. Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1985.


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