Tag Archives: Doane

Silencing Snow White: Blancanieves (Berger, 2012) (BAFTSS 3rd Annual Conference 2015)

As described in my last post, I recently attended the 3rd annual BAFTSS conference at Manchester Metropolitan University (16th-18th April 2015).  While my last post provided an overview of my experience at the conference, in this post I discuss my panel and presentation in more detail.

Myself and three colleagues – Dr Francisca Sánchez Ortiz (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr Paula Blair (Newcastle University) and Dr Lorna Muir (University of Aberdeen) – proposed a panel entitled ‘Performing Woman/Women: Visual Representations of Body, Voice and Space’.  You can read our panel proposal and individual abstracts here.  As the panel title indicates, body, voice, gender and space constituted the thematic and conceptual constellation at the heart of all of our papers.  Alongside my paper were the following presentations:

  • ‘Adaptation and the Problems of Representation: Dead Female Bodies and Human Waste in The Bridge’ – Francisca Sánchez Ortiz (Manchester Metropolitan University).
  • ‘Mediated Women in Post/Conflict Northern Ireland – Paula Blair (Newcastle University).
  • ‘Hearing Her: Voice, Gender and Performing Surveillance Systems’ – Lorna Muir (University of Aberdeen).

All four of us were concerned with the interrelations amongst body, voice and space in contemporary feminist contexts.  The strength of the panel lay in its expansive and inclusive scope, encompassing visual media such as cinema, television and installations from a range of diverse contexts including contemporary Spain, the US-Mexico border, Post/Conflict Northern Ireland and contemporary Hollywood cinema.

My presentation – ‘Silencing Snow White: Blancanieves (Berger, 2012)’ – launched our panel and focused, as the title suggests, on Pablo Berger’s black and white adaptation of the Snow White narrative, set in 1920s Spain.  While I offer an overview of my presentation here, if interested you can view my accompanying Prezi here and listen to an early practice version of my paper here.  An earlier response to the film can be found here.

I began by discussing the manifold ways in which Blancanieves silences its eponymous protagonist: as a child in lidded glass crib at the beginning of the film (Figure 1) and as a young woman and a silent spectacle at the end of the film (Figure 2).  As a means of analysing Snow White and her absent voice, I opened with a quotation from Mary Ann Doane on the transposition of the voice onto the body and intertitles in silent cinema and proposed to examine three aspects of Blancanieves: the body as silent spectacle, the intertitles in terms of who speaks and music in its relation to the maternal.

Figure 1: The Silencing of Blancanieves Part I
Figure 1: The Silencing of Snow White Part I
Figure 2: The Silencing of Snow White Part II
Figure 2: The Silencing of Snow White Part II

My discussion of the body centred on my initial approach to the film as a potentially feminist rewriting of the Snow White narrative in Blancanieves.  I considered the way in which the film dispenses with certain fairy-tale tropes which are difficult to reconcile with a feminist position, such as the Prince Charming character and the dismissal of the Snow White character as passive and maternal.  By opting to have one of the dwarves, Rafa, save Blancanieves and to replace her as the dwarves’ caretaker with cross-dressing dwarf Josefa, the film enacts a feminist, perhaps even queer, rewriting of the Snow White tale.  That said, the silencing of Snow White across manifold levels in the film tempers any feminist potential it might hold.  Her formal silencing – in that this is a silent film – conjoins with her physical stifling in the film.  She is silenced both as an infant and as a young woman, contained within glass cribs and coffins as seen above, as well as throttled by her evil stepmother’s henchman, her breath literally squeezed from her throat.  As a means of relating this to voice and cinema, I drew upon Kaja Silverman’s work in which she discusses the construction of the female subject as a body and champions the notion of the disembodied voice as a feminist strategy – a possibility that formally escapes the women in silent cinema.

Building on this idea of the stifled female voice in silent cinema, I turned to the film’s intertitles.  Various voices make themselves heard through the film’s intertitles, including those of the film’s third-person omniscient narrator, Blancanieves’ father, Blancanieves herself, her stepmother, the dwarves and Pepe, Blancanieves’ pet chicken.  The voice missing from these intertitles is the voice of Snow White’s mother, which is of particular significance when considering theoretical interventions focused on voice and cinema.  Such frameworks, featured in the work of Doane, Britta Sjorgen and Michel Chion, frequently draw on psychoanalysis and as a result draw heavily on the notion of the maternal voice as a means of conceptualising the spectator’s experience of cinematic sound.

While the maternal voice is absent in terms of the intertitles, I argued that there is an interesting point of connection between voice and the maternal through the music in Blancanieves.  The mother of the eponymous protagonist dies in the opening scenes.  However, she posthumously reappears at other points in the film.  Such appearances are connected to music.  As an example, consider the scene in which a young Blancanieves sits beneath the table, sulking because her father has not attended her first communion.  A flamenco rhythm begins and an image of a gramophone followed by a moving image of her mother dancing and singing appears superimposed on the tablecloth.

The lyrics of the song are as follows:

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te llamo y no me contestas/

No sé por dónde estarás

(I look for you but I cannot find you/

I look for you but I cannot find you/

I call you and you don’t answer me/

I don’t know where you might be).

The notion of searching for something and not being able to find it, of calling out for someone and not receiving a response chimes with the absence of the maternal voice within this film.  In a later scene, Blancanieves performs to one of her mother’s records for her father, her image morphing into that of her mother during the performance indicating the connection between music, memory and the maternal in this film.  Music in Blancanieves thus renders the maternal voice present, audible in a film which otherwise formally stifles not just female, but all vocal presences.

But what’s even more striking about this is the fact that the voice we hear is not that of Inma Cuesta, the actress who plays Blancanieves’s mother.  Rather, it is the voice of Catalan singer Sílvia Pérez Cruz (Figure 3).  In other words, the maternal voice conceals another female voice that represents not just the repression of female voices, but also those of peripheral nationalities in the Spanish context.

Figure 3: The Silencing of Silvia
Figure 3: The Silencing of Silvia

Relating the relationship between music and the maternal to theoretical explorations of voice and cinema, I drew once again upon Sjogren who describes ‘female voices-off’ as ‘expressly musical’ (65) and upon Chion who draws a connection between the recorded voice and death: ‘Ever since the telephone and gramophone made it possible to isolate voices from bodies, the voice naturally has reminded us of the voice of the dead’ (46).  Given that Blancanieves’ mother dies at the start of the film, the film draws clear connections between music, the maternal voice and death.  At this point in my presentation, I had rapidly ran out of time so had to come to a rather abrupt halt!  I’m still thinking through the significance of voice in Blancanieves and hope to work further on this in the near future.  Given that this is a developing area of interest for me, I would be especially keen to hear any feedback you might have so please do not hesitate to get in touch via Twitter (you’ll find me at @FionaFNoble) or via the comments function below.

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One

Over the past few weeks, my PhD research has been focused on the convergence of cinema and death in Spanish immigration films. At the level of narrative, death is a prominent theme in my corpus of films – which includes Biutiful, Amador, Retorno a Hansala, and Ilegal. However, the significance of death extends beyond narrative, given its prominence in theoretical explorations of cinema, and of visual technologies more generally. Indeed, the spectre of death that haunts cinema does not originate with the medium of cinema, but rather is inherited from cinema’s representational predecessors, in particular photography.

Theoretical explorations of death and photography begin with three B’s: Benjamin, Bazin, and Barthes. In 1939, Walter Benjamin remarked, in his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, that ‘The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock’. In the mid-twentieth century, in his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image, André Bazin posited photography and cinema as the latest incarnations of the plastic arts, whose aim is to embalm the dead. And in the 1970s, Roland Barthes conducted a slightly bizarre personal reading of the intersection of photography and death in his book Camera Lucida, firstly through his search for the essence of his dead mother, and secondly through the presence of death within the photographic structure, given that each image contains the potential for ‘the return of the dead’. While Bazin views photographic technologies as a means of preservation against death, Benjamin and Barthes tend towards the photographic image as a prediction of death-to-come.

Like photography, the medium of cinema has been haunted by death since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Early cinema is imbricated with death in two ways: firstly, initial reactions to film are characterised by the Bazinian view of this new technology as a medium capable of combating mortality due to its ability to preserve the image of those no longer present; and secondly, early cinema witnessed the emergence of death as subject matter in the subgenre of the execution film, examples of which are here and here. For more on this, see Mary Ann Doane‘s The Emergence of Cinematic Time.

My interest lies in cinema’s conceptualisation as a spectral medium, an idea which has gained further currency in the last decade with the transition to digital, and which has been explored in detail by D. N. Rodowick in his book The Virtual Life of Film. In my next post, I’ll write more about the connection between cinema and spectrality, and how it relates to my chapter.