I am always happy to have non-architects participating to this guest writers series (see the essays by Lucy Finchett-Maddock, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi and Raja Shehadeh) and that is the case again this week thanks to Linnéa Hussein and her essay Old Media’s Ressurection. She recently finished her Master in Film Studies at Columbia University and will soon start a PhD in the same discipline. She was also a teacher assistant at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester (New York).
Her essay investigates the medium that the tape (audio and VHS) constitutes and its return in contemporary cinema. However, instead of only questioning the medium in its form, she explores two films, Omar Gatlato and La Bocca del Lupo in which the tape is both the main object of the narrative and the provider of the plot.
Old Media’s Ressurection
by Linnéa Hussein
In October 2011 The New York Times published an article on the revival of the VHS tape in the horror film genre. What makes these so-called neo-VHS tapes different from their outdated VHS companions is the fact that their role transformed from being technical to being esthetic. Whole magazines such as for example Lunchmeat or Fangoria are devoted to the subject of the VHS now. For these horror fans, the neo-VHS is not preferred for functional reasons, but because the grainy picture quality – i.e. the signs of usage that made the DVD and BluRay replace the VHS in the first place – became an indispensible trope of the bad horror film genre.
Laura U. Marks (Simon Fraser University) talks about a similar notion of old media recycling when writing about The Color of Love:
“…it seems that the real erotic activity…is not between the actors but in the game with death taking place on the surface of the film…the film’s emulsion flowers and evaporates, giving itself up to bliss and death” (Marks 101).
In this sense, the raw material becomes part of the film’s scenery. Directors today may make the conscious choice to record something on 16mm, 35mm, video, or digital for stylistic reasons, however, the motion of the material – its decay – as part of the story, is hard to capture in the making. This stylistic device needs the death drive to come into play. Bringing back Freud on melancholia, Marks paraphrases him by saying that “… the subject never gives up its investment in the lost love one, and thus becomes incapable of transferring its love to a new object” (Marks 103). In other words, melancholia for the lost object prohibits us from accepting the new creation, namely, the transformation of the medium. It is the same melancholia that fosters our urge to preserve documents in archives and the same melancholia that presents us with the paradox of preserving an artifact for the sake of preserving it. If we compare Derrida and Marks, both of them seem to share an obsession with the humanization of documents and artifacts. The death drive becomes a drive of loss (Derrida 9). By projecting human fear of decay and death onto documents, we become obsessed with the conservation of the latter. It is not enough to talk about a discourse, we need to write it down or record it to have proof of its existence; “…there is no archive fever without the threat of its death drive, this aggression and destruction drive“ (Derrida 19). However, since we believe in the decay of a document, writing down or recording is not enough, we need to preserve it in the safest possible manner in order to store it for generations to come. It is exactly at this point that the fear of the loss of documents becomes important for digitalization. In our 21st century mind, anything should be saved onto a hard drive in order be preserved safely for all eternity. This “archiviolithic force” (Derrida 11) is the power behind the establishment of archives, but, similarly, “it will always have been archive-destroying, by silent vocation” (Derrida 10). My way of understanding the death-drive concept is seeing it as an evolutionary process (assuming we stay in the humanization discourse indirectly proposed by Derrida and Marks). Spoken word needs to be written down and stored in an archive forever. In this regard, an archive becomes a graveyard for the conservation of knowledge, which automatically leads us to the next paradox: “The archive always works against itself” (Derrida 12).
To save an artifact’s “life”, it needs to be stored in an archive. We must not restore it, as it would take away its original authenticity; its documentation of the time it derives from. It needs to “sit” there to be at its place of fulfillment. The moment we check the artifact out, it becomes part of the living world again; its meaning might be transformed through new research methods. A new interpretation might result in a new classification for the document. Derrida labels this phenomenon “le mal d’archive” (Derrida 12).
Similarly to the VHS tape, the audiocassette has been phased out and put on the shelves of personal archives for several years if not decades now. As handy and affordable as the cassette recorder, the walkman, or the dictation machine once were, they seemed to be unable to sustain the test of time and survive in a world that is obsessed with digitalizing matter for eternity. The tape, whether in audio or video form, came with an expiration date due to its decay-able and sensitive fabric, that was dying bit by bit for every time its user enjoyed it. The squeaky sound of music recorded on an old audiocassette has not quite yet made a comeback and saved its medium through esthetics like the grainy picture quality of the VHS tape or the static sound of a vinyl recording.
What I am asking in this paper is, what happens when we preserve a dying medium with the help of a stable (most likely digital) one? In the two examples of hybrid narratives I chose for this experiment, it is the audiocassette that links the protagonists back to the ‘real world’ and therewith funambuls on the line between documentary and fiction.
The first one, Merzak Allouache’s Omar Gatlato (Algeria, 1977) was made during the heyday of the audiocassette. The story takes place in post-independence Algiers. Our protagonist Omar “virility & machismo” Gatlato is part of the younger generation that whilst born into an independent Algeria is now facing the tumult among Algerians themselves. While his father’s generation fought the French with all his powers, his generation is unsure of what to do with the country they call their own now. Omar suffers from the same existential identity crisis as his nation. The film tells the story of coming-of-age in a culture, which does not allow a young man to socialize with the opposite sex. Omar is bored with the routine of his life, his job as a jewelry dealer, and obsessed with the mystery of the female sex. He speaks directly to the camera, so the audience learns about his worldview, the position of men he envisions (pride and dignity, living up to his nickname Gatlato), and his love for Hindu music. Privacy does not exist in his life as he shares a room with his divorced sister and her kids in his parents’ apartment. He is trapped in an all male environment, whether at home, at his workplace or outside in the city, and he cannot escape living in a society where gender segregation forbids him to mingle with women outside of his family. A sense of privacy can only be reached when listening to his walkman, or talking on the phone. One day his mini cassette recorder is stolen and Omar asks a friend of his to find him a new one. When he finally gets hold of a used replacement recorder, he is surprised to find an audiotape with a female voice diary in the machine. The female voice makes him aware of what he is missing in his otherwise homo-social life. He immediately falls in love with the speaker and is determined to meet her – only to be unable to actually confront her when she becomes real and is waiting for him on the other side of the street. He flees in distress and the film ends – only to leave us with the same dissatisfaction of love.
The film, however utilizes the audiocassette as well as the audio of phone calls to channel Omar’s feelings that are unimaginable to be expressed face to face on camera. Thus, the affordable audio of the cassette is preserved via the film through its inclusion in the diegesis. In other words, the “unrepresentable” or “invisible” aspects of women in Omar’s life are made presentable and visible with the help of another invisible component, namely, the audio of the cassettes.
Another, maybe more vivid example of recycling old media is Pietro Marcello’s La Bocca Del Lupo (Italy 2009). Both films – as different as their stories seem at first sight, work well in connection with each other given that both films deal with characters caught in an all-male environment (either by culture or by the nature of a prison) and how the audio cassette is used to bridge the gap to the female sex. La Bocca del Lupo documents the love story of Mary Monaco and Vincenzo “Enzo” Motta, who met in the 1970s in a Genoa prison. Mary, born a man, suffered from the harsh reality of being transgender in a prison environment besides various years of heroin addition. Despite crimes, addictions, and prison walls that separated them for over 20 years, the couple managed to keep their relationship going with the help of audiocassettes they sent each other, to bridge Mary’s illiteracy.
The film is constructed in a way that uses old 16mm footage of the actual couple, their hometown, mixed with newly shot 16mm footage of their surroundings. On the soundtrack we hear their audiotapes expressing each other’s thoughts, memories, and feelings. Towards the end of the film, interviews with them united as a couple in their modest apartment are added to the overall cinematic collage that reflects their relationship and help the audience to put together the narrative puzzle that is their story. The tapes that were once functioning as an affordable and efficient tool to communicate with each other, are now used to communicate their story towards an audience. In other words, the recipient of the audio has changed. Whereas in present tense the director might as well have chosen to stick with contemporary interviews of the couple on film and having them tell the story to the audience, he chose to use the tapes to recreate the illusionary imagination of authenticity of a time that has passed. The story that was once told through the audiotapes’ own homogenous temporality, i.e. the story told at the time Mary and Enzo recorded their messages, has now been disrupted. A new temporality and therewith, a new narrative, namely that of the documentary film that already knows the outcome of their love story, is created. This new, recycled creation, however, paradoxically uses the same tapes to support its story’s authenticity as the ones that are being used to form the present tense (future) narrative of the couple, which the tapes recorded in the past of said present could have never known.
This leads us to the question, is the medium that is recycled still the same medium even if it is stripped off all its original powers? The mini-cassette recorder we see in Omar Gatlato as well as the tapes we hear on the soundtrack of La Bocca del Lupo are just props. The audio is not played from a cassette player, we hear it channeled through the soundtrack on a digital DVD copy. As mentioned towards the beginning of this essay, the resurrection of old media seems to evolve around the style, esthetics, and the reputation of a medium more so than about its actual function. For the future, it will be interesting to see if we will be able to define a submode of the audio cassette film, and with that, what genre will preoccupy its resurrection in the way the videotape’s comeback seems to be preoccupied by the horror genre.
 Hybrid consisting of fiction and non-fiction elements
Jacques Derrida Archive Fever – A Freudian Impression, translated by Eric Prenowitz, The
University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London (1995)
Michel Foucault The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, New York,
Pantheon Books (1982)
Laura U. Marks Touch – Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, University of Minnesota
Press, Minneapolis/ London (2002)
Eric Piepenburg “Like the Zombies, the VHS just won’t die”, New York Times Arts & Leisure, 10/26/2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/movies/horror-film-goes-back-to-vhs
Carolyn Steedman Dust – The Archive and Cultural History, Rutgers University Press, New
Brunswick, New Jersey (2001)
Omar Gatlato (Merzak Allouache, Algeria, 1977)
La Bocca del Lupo (Pietro Marcello, Italy, 2009)