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READ THIS WHILE LISTENING TO...
All this time, you’ve been listening to distinctly inhuman voices and thinking of them as human.
When the audience is introduced to Richard Harrow in Season One of Boardwalk Empire, he is contemptuously reserved. He speaks in a veteran language, through the half-sounds of his disfigured mouth. What we hear is coded, inferred between soldiers—James Darmody, one of the series’ main characters, knows the code. Harrow shares a book with Jimmy and explains, “It occurred to me, the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. And they don’t.” This disconnection paradoxically allows the reader to be more connected to Harrow; we want to see him connect to others through a fiction. He can be respectful, considerate, thoughtful, even quietly sexy. And yet he’s a former sniper now hitman, estranged from his twin sister. (The familiar layered monster trope.)
For some, it began with a crash: ‘It sounded to me like some one had dropped a glass bottle into a porcelain bathtub,’ an American soldier recalled of the day in June 1918 on which a German bullet smashed into his skull in the Bois de Belleau. ‘A barrel of whitewash tipped over and it seemed that everything in the world turned white.’ (Smithsonianmag)
She prepares an easily chewed Easter dinner plate of veggies, potatoes, and the like, and sets it out for him in the kitchen—not because she’s disgusted by the idea of him eating at the table, but because she (rightly) assumes that Richard wouldn’t want to make “a big fuss” out of eating in front of the others. (Vulture)
The “rightly” in this recap is revealing. We feel at liberty to assume Harrow’s potential insecurities—his overall emotional state as a holiday guest. We understand him by Season Three despite his presence on the periphery. We know that he would avoid observation. He is disfigured, therefore demure, and therefore the observer.
He is also a collage artist.
This is an engaging representation of a written culture’s move toward the visual, driven by advertising, technology, entertainment, and luxurious post-war ideals of the 1920s. Harrow understands what is normal through marketed pop. We’re shown the picturesque ad-family pasted onto the not-blank page of a book (presumably a novel, since Harrow establishes his disenchantment with fiction). There is evident composition— one piece that resembles Raoul Hausmann or Hannah Hoch. We see the cut&paste of Harrow’s work, reflected by the cut&paste of his facial deformity and constructed mask.
Kathleen Scott, a noted sculptress and the widow of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctica fame, volunteered to help Gillies, declaring with characteristic aplomb that the ‘men without noses are very beautiful, like antique marbles’ (Smithsonianmag).
There is a hand-picked period tune (“is there still room for me ‘neath the old apple tree?”). He’s looking in from the outside—is this a television show about “the lost”? Does access to recordings alienate us from voice (presence)? Those returned, but not returned, from war; shaped violence.
The phonograph had begun as a means to document a musical performance, to offer a representation of the ‘real,’ but Edison was telling the world that this equation no longer held. From now on, recordings would not sound like the world; the world would sound like recordings (Milner 7).
Of course he’s an artist. Let’s pick a bone with the user who titled the Youtube clip…Harrow isn’t lonely here (merely alone). He studies and makes, attentive. Not wholly the/lost, with an impulse to document.
[Edison] believed that a perfect recording could provide music that was truer, purer, realer than the musical event it documented. It could provide a direct link to the music’s essence, collapsing the real and metaphorical distance between the singer onstage and the listener in the audience (Milner 8).
Harrow is a proxy for the audience—we review history through this television series, events we have no agency in, our difficulty evident in terms of perceiving the essential way to know. Becoming Harrow. His disfigurement opens art…
Angela (Jimmy’s wife) draws his portrait, yet Harrow already embodies collage. He was deconstructed and reassembled (“You ever been in love?”). He is separate from his twin. The camera narrows on his eyes, cutting up the different areas of his face, the mask in his hands, then the revelation of his wounds. One half blown apart.
In Sidcup, England, the town that was home to Gillies' special facial hospital, some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view […]
‘Always look a man straight in the face,’ one resolute nun told her nurses. ‘Remember he's watching your face to see how you're going to react’ (Smithsonianmag).
Humans gawk. We thread idealism through that hollow eye socket. Harrow’s had some breaks. Sure Harrow kills, but he’s a caregiver. Harrow’s soft, but he skins the right snakes. And so we gawk. Harrow — in part of his uninterrupted campaign to become an HBO audience’s most-loved character on the show — steps up with a handy election-year reminder that ‘Debs is a Socialist.’ […] (Vulture).
Anna Coleman Ladd was an American sculptor and artist who designed and constructed soldier’s portrait masks during World War I. See “Studio for Portrait Masks” and “Tin Noses Shop.” We’re not supposed to hear the sutures. A recording is nothing until it is decoded, and what it decodes is always an illusion (Milner 22).
Static, set for all time in a single expression modeled on what was often a single prewar photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless (Smithsonianmag). Static is an analog sound—we hear it as the fabric of this playlist from 1920. It’s the white noise, somewhat meaningless but not lifeless. Static has increasingly become the language of history’s record. We can’t hold Harrow’s mask, but we can hear what it was like to live then. Is this the disconnection between people that Harrow refers to? The woods, the wolf—the almost ghost in the series… The more Edison thought about it, the more he decided that the phonograph was revealing the auditory logic of the natural world, the science that we ourselves were not equipped to perceive on our own (Milner 35).
What do we want from Harrow? A sense of glamour, a fling with a ghost? He is safely disfigured (enough to win the Vulture’s HBO popularity contest). Harrow’s danger as an expert murderer is deemphasized as the series moves on. We cheer for his killings now, in fact (since they are based on worthy revenge). What’s emphatic is our romance with him.
For us, recordings are the ways we keep in touch with ghosts—by preserving not just the voices of the dead but also the discarded and lingering ideas of who we are and what we want (Milner 25).
Our romance with the record.
Notes & Extras:
Alexander, Caroline. “Faces of War.” Smithsonianmag, February 2007. Web. 3 Nov 2012.
Milner, Greg. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. 2009. Print.
Walls, Seth Colter. “Boardwalk Empire Recap: It’s Hard to Know What to Say to You.” Vulture, Oct. 29, 2012. Web. 3 Nov 2012.
Full Lehr-curated “Richard Harrow” playlist @ The National Jukebox, Library of Congress: http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/CDA11A5128E901D0E0438C93F11601D0
Boardwalk Empire: http://www.hbo.com/#/boardwalk-empire/index.html
Anne Coleman Ladd & portrait mask imagery: