The City Sounded

1 Oct

Lisbon StoryA number of themes covered in Fado and the Place of Longing are also explored in Wim Wenders’s film Lisbon Story (1994): the city as museum, tourist destination and object of navigation by its citizens; the importance of recording; stylization and the city’s style; the sound of the city; fate and deliberation. The film also allows us to focus on the role of technology in the processes of recollection, witnessing and representation, playing out the double nature of technology as recording and creative tool. Wenders’s film itself contains a film-within-the-film in which one of the characters, Friedrich Monroe, is attempting to document the city and to record the notable.

Lisbon Story began life as a commission from the city of Lisbon for Wenders to produce a promotional film in the year that the city was European Capital of Culture (1994). At some point Wenders decided to add a fictitious narrative to give the film more dynamism. The storyline allows his protagonist, Phillip Winter (a character Wenders would use in other films), to embark on various quests: for his friend Monroe, for a sense of identity, for love and for perfect sounds (Winter is a sound recordist).

Monroe has contacted Winter to ask him to join him in Lisbon, where he has been shooting film of the city and to add sounds to his footage that will bring his visual images to life. From the outset, sound is the medium through which the technological era is explored. The opening scene in Winter’s car as he drives from Germany to Portugal is accompanied by an ever-shifting radio soundtrack that acts as both travelogue and as an example of the web of broadcast sound which had come to dominance in the twentieth century. Winter carries with him the tools of his trade, a variety of recording devices and objects with which to emulate natural sounds. As we discover on his first meeting with the children who follow him around recording him on video, Winter is an illusionist, conjuring sound from the simplest of objects via the magic of technology.

Philip Winter

Monroe, meanwhile, is revealed as a psychogeographer, wandering the city reciting lines from Fernando Pessoa between ruminations on the cityscape; a figure resembling Pessoa is also spotted on a couple of occasions in the street. In the time between Monroe’s original invitation and Winters’s arrival, the filmmaker has become disillusioned; at one point he declares, ‘Images are no longer what they used to be. They can’t be trusted anymore.’

Music is a central component in the film, especially that provided by the group Madredeus, who had already had a prominent recording career prior to the film but gained even greater exposure after soundtracking it and appearing in it. Outside of Portugal, the group became one of the first Portuguese acts – and certainly the first ‘non-traditional’ act – to be included in the newly-formed ‘world music’ category, gaining them further exposure via the emerging world music media. Although there are elements of fado practice and style in the group’s music, theirs is not fado music. It does, however, provide a good example of the ways in which recording technology would be used in the subsequent promotion of ‘new fado’ artists of the 1990s and 2000s.

A notable aspect would be the use of what we might think of as the ‘sacred silence’ of world music recording. By this, I mean the use of recording technology to attain a crisp, digital silence around the voice and instruments and to single out individual sounds (Teresa Salgueiro’s voice, Pedro Ayres Magalhães’s guitar, or the accordion of Gabriel Gomes in the recordings leading up to Lisbon Story). This stylization of the group’s sound is extended into a visual stylization in Wenders’s film in what seems, at times, to be a promotional video for Madredeus.

The group are seen first playing the song ‘Guitarra’, bathed in light in a heavily stylized setting which Winter stumbles upon as an ‘accidental’ witness. The sound attains the clarity we have come to expect from modern studio recordings. These isolated sounds and visuals are contrasted with the ‘mishmash of life’ and ‘sea stew’ of background noises Winter witnesses as he wanders around the city with his microphone. These field recordings are opposed to the clarity of the rehearsal and studio spaces in a manner analogous to the contrast between ‘ethnomusicological’ and ‘world music’ recordings.

Philip Winter

Another way in which Lisbon Story is related to late twentieth century musical aesthetics is in its deliberate (some might say ‘postmodern’) use of glitch. Just as his character Monroe wishes to recreate the early days of cinema by becoming like Buster Keaton’s cameraman, so Wenders pays homage to early film by including deliberate glitches in some of his footage of Lisbon. Early film and early sound recording, of course, achieved their aesthetic due to the limits of the technology; what is notable about much film and music recorded at the turn of the millennium is that the loss of these limits evokes the desire to recreate them, not because it is necessary but because it is possible. Moreover, Monroe knows (because Wenders knows) that there is no one way to approach or capture the city; it must be ‘taken’ from as many angles as possible. Monroe realized the destructive force that can come with the representation of space: ‘pointing a camera is like pointing a gun. And each time I pointed it, it felt like life was drained out of things … With each turn of the handle, the city was fading further and further.’

Monroe’s radical solution is to assemble an archive of unseen footage, filmed automatically and not viewed but stored away for future viewings. His goal is to record the city ‘as it is, not as how we want it to be’. He here enacts a commitment, like Henri Lefebvre, to a politics connected to representational spaces and lived experience. He seeks restrictions that will allow him to remove himself from the controlling centre of representation, believing that an escape from perfection and a moving toward randomness and luck will help to bring the human back into the city.

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