Sound of My Voice is the other independent critically acclaimed award winning science fiction film of 2011 in which Brit Marling both stars and co-somethings a lot of the other responsibilities of the film. Another Earth was the other one, which was a similar film in that it is smart and moving science fiction with a distinctly different vibe. One could almost say that there’s a subgenre of science fiction, set in worlds almost indistinguishable from ours, with the focus on the small details of humanity’s relationship with itself and the universe. It would be a sub-genre that rarely includes little green men, only occasional space travel or monsters and ray guns. They’re the sort of stories that are universal, that could be set at any time and place in history, but that are set in a science fiction context because it really serves the story best. We could identify such a genre, but it would be a one-to-one mapping with what we call “good movies,” so it might be a redundant sub-genre.
Sound of My Voice presents us with a couple who have set out to make a documentary about cults. In particular, they are documenting a specific cult so obsessed with cleanliness and secrecy that just going to meetings involves monitored showering, white robes, and blindfolded trips by minivan. The couple is well-acted, beginning the film as dedicated to exposing the inevitable lies and hypocrisy of the cult, using all manner of tricks like a camera embedded in glasses, GPS chicanery and such in order to gather information (and not to worry, this isn’t found footage, or shot in faux documentary format). The couple begins to diverge as they go deeper into the cult, as they discover that the truth of this cult is both stranger than they could have imagined and far more mundane. There are elements of the cult that are eye-rolling, the stuff of cliché: the charismatic leader with an impossible story, the demand of faith without evidence, the promise of a coming apocalypse, the strange rituals of cleansing, long meandering lectures that are at times half-baked pseudo-philosophy, yet manage to attain something like real emotional resonance when taken seriously enough by the adherents.
It’s a fantastic film, one in which maintains a tension throughout between the certainty that the cult must be a fraud perpetrated by the delusional and the uncertainty that creeps in through the little details. The film excels at parcelling out just enough doubt that uncertainty remains all the way through past the credits, never giving you the easy out of solid evidence one way or the other. The audience has to feel its way through just like the characters.
It’s easy for a film to present characters at the beginning who know nothing, and to show their progress towards knowing something. Mysteries are perhaps the closest thing to the pure form of this concept. At the beginning there is a question, by the end there is an answer. Bad fiction is unable to accomplish this. No more is known at the end than was known at the beginning. Good fiction succeeds, but there is still something missing by its lack of absence. See, perfectly competent fiction succeeds in delivering the answers, but it leaves a hollow feeling on deeper reflection, a disappointment that the mystery is gone. Mystery is not just a genre, not just a descriptor of that which is unknown. It’s a holy word that maps onto knowledge the Nietzschian notion of the abyss that stares back. Mystery is ignorance filled with terrible knowledge. Mystery is knowing that we do not know. And so one of the tricks of great fiction, which is borrowed from philosophy and religion, is the art of being wise enough to know nothing. By the end of a great story, we do not simply know more, we know that we know less. Mystery is not revealed when held up to the light, it is deepened.
That is the kind of story that Sound of My Voice tells. By the tale’s end, both the audience and the characters fundamentally have the answers to the questions that set the plot in motion in the first place. Yet what remains are deeper questions.
This isn’t to say that it’s a cop out. “Lost” and its brethren mimic this sort of storytelling, by supplying an endless supply of new questions with unsatisfactory answers. But rattling off ever more questions without illumination is like two parrots reading a dictionary. It has the form of debate, but there are no ideas undergirding the form. It’s the difference between answering the question of what the world sits on with the question destroying answer of “it’s turtles all the way down” and the answer that detonates into more questions of “nothing.” It’s the difference between filling the abyss and staring into its emptiness.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.