Thursday, February 15, 2018

Quick Take — Voice, Laughter, and Letting Go in The Last Jedi

By Brooke McCorkle

When it comes to sound and Star Wars, most people immediately think of the triumphant opening fanfare, the plaintive horn leitmotif for the Force, or of Darth Vader’s Imperial March. John Williams’s music defines the Star Wars sound world, but Ben Burrt’s work on sound effects is just as inextricable from the universe-turned-mega-franchise. From Artoo’s (R2-D2) chirps to the electric whir of the lightsaber, sound effects are as important as music in the creation of this galaxy far far away.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, the most recent and perhaps most hotly debated entry into the franchise, is no exception. If there is something indelibly nostalgic about the underscore for The Last Jedi (TLJ), there is also something strikingly different about its sound design. TLJ’s sound supervisor Matthew Wood, who worked under supervising sound editor Burtt on both Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Wall-E, along with sound designer Ren Klyce and many others created an aural world for TLJ that suited director Rian Johnson’s vision of bridging the old and new. Decisions such as the seconds of silence during the destruction of the First Order Fleet were startling enough to cause theater chains to post a disclaimer pointing out nothing was wrong with the sound at that moment. These moments stand out as points of aesthetic departure from the previous films, but not in a negative way. Just as the narrative torch is passed from the original characters to this next generation, so too does sound design in The Last Jedi work as Janus-faced connective tissue, looking back to the earlier films while recognizing the necessity for change (see Jim’s post for more on this). The treatment of voice in particular illuminates this quality in the sound design of TLJ. Even though films generally privilege voice in the soundtrack, in the case of TLJ voice takes on qualities beyond logos that are as semiotically significant as the music.

One of the key ways Wood and Klyce managed this phenomenon was through the voice filter for the masked Kylo Ren. Just as Kylo’s mask bespeaks his Vader fandom as does his associated leitmotif, so too does the filter on his voice when masked. Kylo’s filtered voice is similar yet different from Vader’s; the distorted grain of Kylo’s masked voice immediately marks him as part of the technological monstrosity that is the empire.<1> Early in the film Snoke goads Kylo Ren, commanding him to “take that ridiculous thing off.” In a fit of rage, Kylo destroys his mask and with it his access to the imitation of Vader’s voice. While this voice is not an acousmatic one per se, the technologically mediated voice, whether Vader or Kylo’s, does possess some of the qualities typically associated with the acousmêtre. When masked both Vader and Kylo are ambulatory acousmêtre, their hidden mouths working a kind of fear-inspiring legerdemain.<2> But while Vader is not fully de-acousmatized until the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, Kylo travels between the two realms in The Force Awakens only to utterly destroy entrance into the acousmatic in The Last Jedi. This break from Vader’s path also hints at something more interesting. Kylo Ren may be a monster, but he is a human one. As such, he contains more emotional depth than any displayed by Vader in the prequels and original trilogy. The tortured Kylo is more akin to Anakin than to Vader. He, like his grandfather, is a lost boy torn between good and evil. Again, the situation of voice within the soundtrack is crucial to this sense of Kylo as a layered character.

The psychic conversations between Kylo Ren and Rey exemplify this phenomenon. Appearing three times in the film, they are most noteworthy for the offsetting of the voices, as Frank has noted. Instead of a dense underscore accompanying the conversation between the two, the soundtrack is austere in these scenes. The rich underscore preceding these scenes underlines the soundtrack’s sparseness by means of silent stingers leading up to the conversations.  Here only the reverberating voices of the two inheritors of the Force exist, one belonging to the male heir of the Skywalker dynasty and the other a “girl,” a “nobody.” In these moments, both voices are treated equally and given the same acoustic weight. It is through this that Rey and Kylo, though diametrically opposed, come to better understand the other and connect on a deeper level. The situating of the voices in these moments hint at the political undertones some critics have identified in the narrative, undertones that revel in a multitude of narrative voices, including those of women and people of color, that have heretofore been mostly absent in the Star Wars universe. This decision to “let the past die,” to de-center cis- white male narratives, is part of what makes The Last Jedi so meaningful and so controversial.

Yet even in its turn to the future, it cannot completely relinquish its past, in terms of story, music, or in voice. The voices of Luke and Leia are darkened with age and experience in The Last Jedi, bittersweet reminders that no one, not even heroes, can escape time. Despite this, there are moments that return to their vocal pasts. When Luke excitedly cries “Artoo” when the beloved domed robot awakens, Mark Hamill allows the young boy from Tatooine to emerge from the embittered Jedi’s shadow. The same holds true for Leia; throughout the film Carrie Fisher’s voice is that of a wise (and sardonic) matriarch, but something tugs at both the audience and at Luke’s heart when Artoo projects her recorded plea to Obi Wan Kenobi from A New Hope. Those voices belong to a different time, a different world but they still echo in the present. The past is never completely dead; it lives in characters, and in us viewers, in different ways. Likewise, the manipulation of voices in The Last Jedi does not completely break with precedent, but it does press at established boundaries. We, as auditor-spectators, may choose to push against this shift, but it might be better to take our cue from Master Yoda. His wild laughter, his joyful dance in the light of the burning Jedi artifacts, is a lesson for us all. We might learn from the past and heed it, but we must not enshrine it. It is time for new voices and new stories to be welcomed with laughter’s gleeful abandon and grace.

<1>For more on the connection between sound design, technology, and the empire in Star Wars, see James Buhler, “Star Wars, Music, and Myth,” in Music and Cinema, eds. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, David Neumeyer (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 33-57.
<2>Captain Phasma, another ambulatory acousmatic character is also partially deacousmatized in TLJ. Her bright blue eye gleams as Finn defeats her; the eye here expresses a fear that a fully revealed face could not. That is, by limiting our view of Phasma to her eye, we feel what she is seeing, despite the absence of a point of view shot.
Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.

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