The title is based on one of Linda Ronstadt’s iconic song titles, prominently dealing with the ways the human voice is an instrument of emotional articulation like none other. I have already written from the perspective of the human voice and how it often finds itself gagged and constrained by factors beyond our control. This essay expands upon it but also deals with examples of how those on the side of social challenges and facing them employ their individual voices to make a difference.
The human voice is front and center in Darius Marder’s sensitively etched SOUND OF METAL. Here, the dillemas of lead protagonist Ruben Stone( RIZ AHMED) are authentic because he suddenly finds himself without the power of hearing and hence his human voice is unable to articulate a shift in the way he knew his life. The loss of a crucial faculty is always one preparing us to wage a battle against our own inner circle of negative thoughts.
SOUND OF METAL replaces the sense of auditory loss with a sensory articulation of Ruben’s changing circumstances. It is authentic because the director himself knows about the deep impact of such an evolution owing to his grandmother losing her hearing as an adult. He then learnt Sign Language and delved deep within the community, in spirit of empathy, understanding and better humane estimation of the way people reevaluated their standing in society.
By having a group of people belonging to this culture communicating in American Sign Language (ASL) and participating as equals within the principal medium of silence in this instance, he lets us enter a safe space of bonhomie where living with special skills or being specially abled is eventually a way of life we choose to accept and adapt collectively. The presence of LAUREN RIDLOFF, SHAHEEN SANCHEZ, JEREMY LEE STONE and CHELSEA LEE here makes sure their individual gifts of performance art, dance and teaching skills in terms of ASL are utilized in the service of generating awareness, of how they are very much a part of their mainstream and as ‘normal and secure’ as their hearing counterparts. Mr. Marder lets that organic reality sink in without pretense or employing musical cues, to go against the usual ‘normative voice’ one will usually associate with a way of life we may not know about or identify with. He lets his camera and his lead protagonist observe and internalize. It’s a welcome step in the right direction as Ruben has to transform from being an outsider to this world to grasping the soul of living without boundaries of any kind. The beginning point is one defined by denial, regrets of losing a set trajectory regarding a career in heavy metal music, the fear of abandonment from a world unwilling to acknowledge differences in peers and especially in strangers or acquaintances and of course there is frustration and grief for what once was and can never be. The outside world of intrusions or undue expectations, fortunately, never come in the picture. This is Ruben’s awakening, a journey towards achieving patience, stillness and the comfort of silences, given that his hearing may never fully return.
After all, a profound sense of loss is palpable when the very music that communicated so much to you and which was your conduit of self-expression eludes you. The very voice which you still possess is now a drone, a distorted jumble of words; you know you are articulating verbally but those words are stranger to your hearing power. That is a life-altering experience. Embracing that reality with gradual steps towards rehabilitation is what sets the tone. SOUND OF METAL hence revels in the patient unraveling of silence and acceptance with its elemental use of images and sounds, captured so well by sound designer Nicolas Becker and team.
It is no more a cruel twist of fate or an accident wrought by physical hindrances that is meant to put us in a minority. It is part and parcel of life itself, easier said than done in real time, at first. However, Ruben’s journey here is not just of adjustment to a community of non-hearing individuals who rehabilitate him emotionally and mentally. The members crucially allow him to pass through this new era of personal evolution like all of them did individually.
SOUND OF METAL’s real triumph is in casting Paul Raci as Ruben’s mentor and head compeer of this commune. His real-life loss of hearing during his stint in Vietnam and decades of commitment to uplifting his community by dint of his own experience and example informs the rational voice here. His sense of discipline, stoic quality to his bearings and empathy all spring from his background and his refusal to treat ‘deafness as a handicap’ opens up one of the most heartwarming scenes in the screenplay. His mentorship to Ruben is devoid of judgement or pressures to someone beginning to grasp his altered reality. He is the triumphant voice, balanced and even keeled and greatly attuned to Ruben’s conflicts. He revels in his community and his work ethic. But he never overreaches or exhibits those traits. His sense of acceptance and unassuming pride in his programme and commune is visible to us. We are the viewers looking in, trying to make sense of this meaningful arc, just like Ruben.
By the end, he reaches a stage where accepting silences around him puts him on an evenly tempered reawakening of who he is now. Riz Ahmed hence completes his arc with consummate understanding. SOUND OF METAL moves from the point of a gagged voice of understanding to one where we come to accept the reality of being specially abled isn’t equivalent with suffering or wallowing in pain. Yes, the challenges remain manifold and the world may ignore us. But we know we have a community to fall back on and a greater awareness of our sensory attributes. It is a story of beginnings without the potential for easy closures or beautified homilies. Ruben’s individual perspective gets clued in to ours.
As a companion piece, make sure to watch the final part of the new Indian anthology film AJEEB DASTAANS(STRANGE TALES) titled ANKAHI(THE UNSAID), dealing with a middle aged woman’s love and complexity of emotions regarding her daughter who is about to lose her hearing power. Her husband, burdened by work and the general frustrations of personal and professional commitments in a big city paradigm, refuses to devote time to learning the sign language.
Her blossoming relationship with a non-hearing photographer eventually helps her to reconcile with her own penchant for non verbal cues that she has learnt for her daughter’s future communication skills, an outlet of love brightening her mundane life. It’s beautifully captured here, like the glory days of silent cinema imagery and the heartbreak of not overstepping boundaries of her family life leaves it with a sense of ambiguity. SHEFALI SHAH, MANAV KAUL , TOTA ROY CHOWDHARY and SARA ARJUN help in creating this half an hour odyssey of personal transformation, informed by the silences of interpersonal relationships.
NEVER LET ME GO
I read this novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro over the course of three and a half days in April, also since I had procrastinated finishing it after the initial chapters few years back.
This novel truly understands the implications and consequences of growing up with a gagged voice, in an alternate paradigm where technology renders scores of young individuals as ‘clones’, bred for the express purpose of donating organs to the unhealthy and afflicted or being employed as their carers. Individuality, as a concept, is alien to the likes of KATHY, RUTH and TOMMY as also their adult prefects like MISS LUCY while architects of this world like MISS EMILY and the enigmatic MADAME hold their share of complexity, given their complicity in designing futures pushing them towards imminent death.
The baggage of authority, discipline and a regimented way of life within a boarding school establishment, however, hardly cloaks the sheen of friendship among them. Love, desires and poignant, painful emotional mediations with the outside world where the voice of reason is all but absent from their mainstream entangle them through the years. Tommy’s primal scream after uncovering the lack of mystique behind their childhood and young adult trajectories, Kathy’s stoic but vulnerable lifetime and Ruth’s rebellion and cold exterior are all placed within an identifiable social order bidding for the last vestige of their muddled innocence.
Boasting of a cinematic version with CAREY MULLIGAN, KEIRA KNIGHTLEY and ANDREW GARFIELD starring in the leads, which I haven’t seen, this book is a gateway to the identity crisis that grips our youth and an era of quarantine will make one relate with its core of repression and lack of resolves. Read this novel where even the meandering passages informed by memory duplicate the mundane rhythm of lives governed by strictures without a cause.