Clean, Shaven by Lodge Kerrigan: The Sound and the Fury

A montage of stills nearly as seen in just over a minute of the film Clean, Shaven, featuring Peter Greene. Can a film be captured in its parts? What sense does a performance make if it is given to us in frozen segments? Film commentary is a mode of observation. If stills can help communicate observation then something is gained.

Clean, Shaven is a small indie by Lodge Kerrigan made in 94. Kerrigan’s recent film Keane was astonishing (as was Damian Lewis). Like Keane, this film features a genuinely real and captivating performance by an actor playing a schizophrenic. The film’s movement is fragmentary, roped together by a soundtrack that reveals the voices we might suppose are echoing within our character’s unbound mind. His actions are confusing to him, and make us increasingly reluctant to watch, as watching makes us complicit with what he does, which is bad. As many bloggers and reviewers have written on this film as have seen it, possibly more. So I won’t address the story but instead touch on Kerrigan’s use of sound—a cinematic element that Kerrigan here turns inside out, and which I hope I can explain here.

The use of sound in this film practically makes it worth watching in its own right, pun intended. In the critic’s video essay that accompanies the Criterion release of this film, which is pitched to grad level film students (and that’s not a complaint), Michael Atkinson remarks that the director uses “objective” sound, not “subjective” sound. It’s true that the sounds that fill the film’s soundtrack are given us from the external world, often through the protagonist’s car radio and sometimes simply through the ether. But I’d disagree with Atkinson. I don’t think this is just use of objective sound to a parallel the film’s fragmented and “subject-less” subject and narrative. Yes, it’s a different use of sound, but it’s a complication of subjective sound, not a departure from it. After all we hear the soundtrack, and therefore we can’t but believe that the subject hears them.

The use of sound here is interesting, I think, because the protagonist is not hearing them but producing them. We’re given the sounds as he hears them, but they echo and resound within his schizophrenic mind, as they are the schizophrenic’s world. Voices unattributed, perhaps real, perhaps recollected, but certainly not sounds that anchor the schizophrenic to reality. Rather, sounds that divorce him from the world, catching him as abruptly as an unexpected blow to the head. Short, sharp, shocks that knock about and bring into consciousness commands, put-downs, and other forms of verbal punishment that trouble us for their detachment. We don’t know who’s saying them. Which means we don’t know why they are being said, which means (as Atkinson notes), we don’t know what to think of them.

Where Atkinson hangs these sounds on a reel of film though, my sense is that they should be hung on memory, which is not a reel of film, is certainly subjective, if not multiply subjective, and is not objective in the slightest for the simple reason that memories can’t be. Our schizophrenic protagonist’s relation to sound is that he’s caught in a compulsive listening, but cannot hear. The coup in Kerrigan’s sonic genius, I think, is that in memory is the protagonist’s pain, and it’s a pain he suffers, often, without making the slightest of sound. But for the one that we hear.

Clean, Shaven on Criterion
Keane, reviewed by Michael Atkinson

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