Thursday, 3 March 2011

A Slut with Mutant Lungs (further notes on Burlesque)

In an essay in the current issue of Film Comment (not available online) David Thomson discusses the Imperfect Union of face and voice in the Hollywood film. As a jump off point Thomson uses an interview with dancer Del Burnett in which he mentions working with Marilyn Monroe: “They always used her own voice. She had a very unique quality. I loved her voice, it went with her.” Thomson further rhapsodises about Monroe’s “little-girl breathiness...the imprint of her endangered innocence struggling with the factory system, the cruelty of men, and the implacability of scripts when she wanted to be spontaneous”, but notes that research suggests Marni Nixon would probably have provided some of the tougher notes for Marilyn... “even on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”.

In Burlesque, novice ingénue Ali makes a radical proposition: rather than having the provocatively dressed girls lip sync to numbers, why don’t they sing? The plan is anathema to more conservative minded Nikki :“Who comes to the club to hear people sing?” she reasonably asks, before casting Ali as a “slut with mutant lungs”. (And being a slut is certainly not something we could easily accuse Ali of.)

The number the film uses to demonstrate this shift from pre-recording to actuality is, appropriately enough, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

So who’s right: Nikki or Ali? Is the voice important in this sphere of entertainment? In Showgirls Verhoeven goes so far as to minimise the musical track to make us more aware of the scuffing, shuffling feet on the stage. The mechanically sexual movements are key; the body not the voice. In Exotica, Atom Egoyan makes ironic use of a world weary Leonard Cohen to score the dance moves of his ‘schoolgirl’ stripper.

But it is a voice we associate with Monroe’s pink glove or Dietrich’s suspenders in The Blue Angel. In Burlesque it is Ali’s ability to sing that leads her to unseat Nikki as the establishment’s main attraction. Here the voice is given precedence over the body, and mutant lungs supplant Nikki’s more visceral charms.

This, of course, is all well and good. The only problem is Aguilera’s voice. It certainly is distinctive (although one could hardly call it breathy), but the more her voice takes charge the more the eroticism of the dance is sidelined. By the end of the film she is appearing in full gown, statically belting out forgettable songs to an audience who should be commended for not bottling her.

In Roland Barthes terminology, Aguilera is certainly more pheno-voice than geno-voice. The former is all about communication, expression; the latter more ineffable: a voluptuousness that addresses the listener indirectly. With the pheno-voice there may be plenty of passion but “nothing seduces, nothing sways us to jouissance.” For Barthes the point is where the voice comes from: the throat or the lungs. “The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection; it is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented in the mask that significance explodes. Bringing not the soul but jouissance.”