Lake Bell’s In A World… is a film about voice. Which, if you stop to think about it for even a second, is a pretty odd thing. We watch movies, we go to see them. Film is a ‘visual’ medium. This strange transplant of an audial mode in a visually-dominated domain made me think about the noises we make and how these are heard.
In A World...’s protagonist Carole Solomon (Lake Bell) is a voice coach and daughter of the successful voice artist, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed). The film begins with the death of the real Don LaFontaine voice of over 5,000 movie trailers and inseparable from the phrase ‘In a world…’. With the appearance of LaFontaine, movie trailers are positioned as the pinnacle of voice acting work. Which makes you think, When was the last time I heard a woman voicing a movie trailer?
Early in the film, Sotto tells Carole that the voice-over industry, and by implication the film industry, ‘does not crave a female sound’. This statement is a useful touchtone to some of the concerns of the film. I’ve read it in several reviews and in a large part this is a film about a woman trying to progress in a man’s field. However, what quoting this statement out of context doesn’t reveal is the particular approach to telling the story of her characters that Bell’s film takes. This is a noisy, chattering film. Sotto’s clear authoritative statement comes in a swamp of dialogue during which he touches on: how he’s tried to help his daughter, an article his girlfriend has printed out from Yahoo health about enabling and an off-the-cuff imagining and then dismissing of a premise where he gives his daughter a piece of his award-winning voice. But it’s not a monologue, as such, Carole pipes in telling Sotto his girlfriend is too young, that he needs to start spin class again, but Sotto has the upper hand, the stronger voice, he refers to Carole’s ‘voice-cracking problem’ which is not really a thing and explains that she needs to ‘stick with the accents’ because that’s ‘her thing’ and so the conversation ends with Carole doing the ‘Russian Star Wars thing she used to do as a kid’ and Sotto telling Carole she needs to move out because his girlfriend is moving in. In this way Sotto’s statement about the industry and women is played out in the form of the conversation around the statement. The woman’s sound is there but unsuccessful in changing what the man’s sound wants. But I’ve simplified it to make it binary and boring, and this film is anything but that. Because Sotto talks so much, it complicates his role as oppressor and the situation as a whole. ‘I’m not being sexist,’ he says. ‘It’s just the truth.’ So merely hoping for the downfall of Sotto is not going to change anything either.
People talk a lot in this film and although it looks beautiful and the physicality of the acting is clever and funny, this layer of noise creates what I think might be the most interesting landscape of the film. And it’s a varied and distinct landscape, especially in the range it gives to female voice. Women shout, they laugh, they make odd noises during vocal exercises. And it’s all manner of female voice which is given space to make sound: high-pitched women with high-rising terminal, fast-talking women, women with accents and the dry, measured voice of the magnificent Tig Notaro. All the female characters have voice in this film. In fact all the characters in this film speak and are heard. The interesting effect of all this talk, as I’ve touched on previously, is that it makes it very difficult to minimise or simplify a character when they’re given so much space to speak. On some levels Sotto and Ken Marino’s character Gustav Warner are the ‘bad guys’ of the film but the way they chatter and talk and talk and talk dissolves any cover for their contradictions and vulnerabilities. In some ways the person who speaks least, Katherine Huling played by Geena Davis, is the character I found the most evil and confronting.
I’ve been playing with the idea lately that art is made in the excesses – those things over and above the bare necessities needed to make sense or be of use. So, as I noticed it I was really interested to go back and see the effect of this ‘decorative’ constant chat and over-sharing. One of my favourite examples of the comedic opportunity of all this talk is a scene where Carole is on the phone to her sister Dani asking her a favour and she suddenly drops in the phrase ‘sister code’. The first time I heard it I let it pass as noise – I didn’t know what it meant, it obviously meant something but not to me – then she throws it in again, and again, ‘sister code’, ‘sister code’, and I started seeing it as possibly this quite funny attempt to distract, then, as she repeated it more and more it became really funny in the strangeness of its sound and the lack of its use in the mechanics of the instructions she was delivering and when Dani calls Carole out asking, ‘What is this “sister-code” thing that you’re doing right now?’ it’s even funnier as Carole explains it’s just something she’s ‘working with’ and does Dani like it and no Dani doesn’t think she does likes it. I really like physical comedy but there is something about dialogue-based comedy that just breaks me apart. I love stand-up and I love it when people over-explain, when they’re caught out doing something that is stupid and they attempt to cover it with words rather than silence. And I think possibly this idea of keeping quiet is an interesting one to look at in relation to voice and talking.
I feel like I learned very early on that smart people are quiet while stupid people talk a lot and I’m pretty sure this belief came from an over-riding message around me that men were silent and women talked – nagged, bitched, bleated, complained, gossiped. I was told time and again to think before I spoke and if I didn’t have anything nice to say I shouldn’t say anything at all. I pretty much never had anything nice to say, so apart from shutting up I only had one option which was to create and sustain a persona which I thought others would find pleasing by preparing words in my head before I said them. So this was the persona people got to know and on the whole people were pleased. But when I look back, the times I’ve felt the most in communication with the world and learnt the most about it and myself are when I’ve said things without thinking, blurted them out, talked and talked and talked too much so that because of the lack of something more to say, I’ve said the truth about what I think or how I see things and it’s often through this over-talking or talking out of turn that I’ve become and recognised who I am today. However, I think this pressure to stay silent affects me even now, decades from the time and place I learnt these lessons about talking and I think it affects me as a writer quite acutely. Making noise is a hard thing to justify when you think the only noises you’re capable of making are nagging or hysterical. I often find myself reading over things I’ve written and thinking, Oh, is that too loud? And I think this is why a film like In A World… has affected me so strongly. It seems to give space for the ‘female sound’ as Sotto calls it, and not just one homogenous version of that. While I feel safer being silent, I think this film has important things to say about making a lot of uninhibited noise.
Almost every week, I feel like I’m thinking to myself, Comedy has to be the most powerful of the arts at the moment. This week it was during Louis CK’s SNL monologue that I thought, You take away the audience laughter and this is a call to arms, a transcript of this, unedited, would read like revolutionary rhetoric. And no one can deny that women are more and more the leaders in this kind of comedy. I’d argue that programmes like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer are saying some of the bravest and most exciting things about the experience of being woman and they’re saying them out of one of our most readily consumed cultural media. These women are not talking about sex and drugs and work quietly over tea with their friends, they’re talking about it loudly and often with little regard to conventional manners on TV. One of my favourite comedians at the moment is Maria Bamford. I feel like she is part of a new wave of comedy which pushes the boundary of how unfunny comedy can be before it’s not funny. I think comedy is so brave at the moment it feels like it’s creating a whole other genre. While nowhere near as raw as Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer or as terrifyingly awkward as Maria Bamford, In A World… seems part of this new wave. There’s an element of the surreal and I’m sure some of this is caused by the connotations brought by the actors Bell has cast – it’s so nicely odd to see Demetri Martin as a romantic interest, Nick Offerman appears without a beard, and it’s hard to watch Rob Corddry without thinking of Dr Blake Downs, especially when he’s acting against other Children’s Hospital staff members Drs Cat Black and Glenn Richie. But it’s so subtle, even the talking and talking feels only slightly odd (it’s not a Hal Hartley film but it orbits a similar artifice) and I think it’s this slight ‘offness’ that feels very fresh and new. The film seems so assured about itself that it doesn’t always play for the laugh and it never plays for the easy laugh, sometimes it plays for the smile, sometimes it plays for the sadness. In A World… is a lot about who gets heard and who doesn’t and I think the decision to use voice so centrally both demonstrates the problems and complicates them. In a way it enacts a utopia of speaking and being heard, but by doing this brings into sharper relief the silences and exceptions and through Katherine Huling’s small and only moment of dialogue demonstrates how damaging truth can’t be unheard. But most importantly, I think In A World… makes a new sound and makes space for more new noise.
I gained an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from Victoria University in 2007, and a PhD in 2012. I was grateful to receive an Arts Foundation of New Zealand New Generation Award in 2012 and my first collection of short stories, Everything We Hoped For (Victoria University Press) won the NZ Post Best First Book Award in 2011. In 2013 Victoria University Press published my first novel I’m Working on a Building.
I went to film school in 1994 and miss working in television and film a lot. I feel really excited about television and film today, especially the work that’s being produced and broadcast through alternative means. I watched In A World… on a DVD which I rented from the best video store in the world, Aro Video.
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Many thanks for this, Pip! Pip also contributed to a post about Jane Campion's workshops in Wellington last year.