Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012


Josie McDonough


There is a generally held notion that the performance of a song in a film is merely a device to assist the narrative flow, e.g. to reflect on the action or to establish a location or character. It is a view that denies the very audibility of music in deference to the visual image. My own proposition places the song performance as central to our understanding of the thematic and ideological concerns of the film and explores its powerful potential to intensely affect the emotional state of the viewer. 

Whilst diegetic song performances feature in many films, few of these performances have been brought into the foreground and regarded as equal to other elements of the mise-en-scène in expressing the narrative and thematic concerns of a particular scene or indeed of the film as a whole. My overall research focus therefore is: ‘What does a song performance do when it enters the mise-en-scène?’ More specific questions focus on the affective material and corporeal aspects of the elements of the song performance itself, for instance what role does performativity, the potential of the body to express intense emotion, have on the spectator’s experience of that performance and what is exchanged in this sensory communication?  Aspects of collective and individual memory and the impact of star persona also form significant elements of this exchange.  

As I am primarily interested in the powerful affecting qualities of the performance of a song on the spectator’s emotions, I have worked with the Deleuzian concept of pure sensation, that is the idea that the song performance in film is not only music and sound, it also relates to the emotional, visual and expressive world of the film. As Deleuze and Guattari suggest: ‘sensation is not realised in the material without the material passing completely into the sensation, into the percept or affect,‘ (1994:166-7). This is an important point concerning the performance aspect of the song in film. For example, in another of his texts The Logic of Sensation Deleuze describes his own reactions to the artwork of Francis Bacon: ‘As a spectator I experience the sensation only by entering the painting, by reaching the unity of the sensing and the sensed’ (2004:35). My own proposition argues that the song (material) is not capable of sensation until it is performed, only then is it realised as sensation, when the spectator becomes one with the sensation of the experience of being within the song’s performance. I have drawn upon the work of Doane, Chion and Silverman to explore the voice in cinema in some depth, as well as the post-Deleuzian work of MacCormack, Williams and Del Rio on performance and the powers of sensory affection.    

To illustrate my proposition I have undertaken close textual readings of four films, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), Nadir Mokneche’s Viva Laldjerie (2004), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2000) and Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). 

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About the Presenter

Josie McDonough
United Kingdom

Recently graduated (December 2011) from MA in International Film: History, Theory and Practice (with Distinction), Newcastle University.