Siren calls from the past

Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

From Sergio Leone to Dennis Potter – sound, music and flashback

My last post about 1985’s Dreamchild has got me thinking about scenes of remembering from cinema and television, and particularly how sound can be employed to signal a temporal shift in narrative. In the Dreamchild scene featured in my post the incessant ringing of a telephone seems to open up a rabbit hole both into traumatic past events – in this case the spectre of Alice’s possible abuser – and a fantasy world borne of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. By way of a reminder, here is that scene again:

The extract reminds me of another movie scene I have long wanted to integrate into a film- and music-based ESL class on drug use, but I had always felt was perhaps too dark. With some judicious editing it might still work but that project will have to wait another day. The sequence in question is from Sergio Leone’s flawed but operatic mobter opus Once Upon a Time in America (1984), depicting the opium-induced dreams of protagonist Noodles, played by Robert De Niro. The dream tells a kind of récit à rebours underscored once again by the incessant ringing of a telephone.

We hereby learn of Noodles’s betrayal of his former mob associates, who appear to have met a very grizzly end indeed. The telephone, which continues to ring throughout the scene, seems to pertain to the call he once made to the police informing on his friends. It continues to ring even when a call is purportedly answered on screen, suggesting that the imagery and sounds originate from separate temporal levels. The sequence also links one illicit drug, opium, to that of alcohol: we learn that Noodles and his cohorts made their fortune bootlegging during the prohibition.

In both Dreamchild and Once Upon a Time in America, the phone ringing serves as a kind of siren call from the past, or a Proustian madeleine that triggers an analeptic segue in the narrative. Yet neither scene is nostalgic: if anything the telephone serves as a troublingly persistent but unanswered question. We, the spectator, must pick up the threads of implication to make sense of the story.

I particularly like the Sergio Leone scene for its sweeping, probing camerawork – which recalls mid-period Scorcese (Goodfellas, Casino etc.) – and its purely cinematic storytelling (there is no dialogue or voiceover here to explicate events). In this sense it definitely has potential in the ESL-EFL classroom, as the students can use their deductive and descriptive powers to make sense of the action.

Another scene which I had intended to use in tandem with that from Once Upon a Time in America is this one from Dennis Potter’s BBC serial The Singing Detective (1986), from around the same period. The Singing Detective is a work of television about which I have written a great deal, as I explained in my last post, and I cannot understate just how brilliant it is. Way ahead of its time – nothing quite like it had been made for television before, predating what is for me the first truly great American television series, Twin Peaks, by several years. A lot of credit must go to director Jon Amiel for bringing it to screen, and – so it is said – reigning in some of Potter’s more outré tendencies.

As shown in the scene, the serial features quasi-musical sequences in which the characters lip-synch to popular songs of the era: in this case the protagonist Philip’s 1940s childhood. Although Potter had used this technique effectively in Pennies from Heaven (1978), and returned to it with Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), The Singing Detective deploys it with greater pathos.

In a sequence that is, once again, almost entirely non-verbal, a remembered song (You Always Hurt the One You Love by The Mills Brothers) transports Philip from his hospital bed to the working men’s club of his youth in the Forest of Dean. Once more, we are alerted to a betrayal: this time, his mother’s affair with his father’s friend and singing partner, possibly misinterpreted by the watching son as something akin to rape.

The fact that we hear the recorded version of the song, rather than the actors performing it, is not just a form of Brechtian alienation, but highlights the gap between past and present and the fallibility of memory. As with the scene from Once Upon a Time in America, the Dennis Potter scene might not be appropriate for most ESL-EFL classrooms, but the use of music and montage to evoke a broader story has potential for those that like to put sound and image and centre of their teaching.

This post is not intended to be an exhaustive account of the use of sound in film or television as a bridge to memory or fantasy – if you have any suggestions for other great scenes like this, please let me know in the comments box below.

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