American Hustle is, foremost, a film about appearances, about what is real and the constant dialogue between the diegetic and the extra-diegetic, which is especially compelling at the level of sound.
Moments before David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013) begins in earnest with a close-up on Irving’s (Christian Bale) rotund stomach, the audience sees the words “some of this actually happened” and hears a faint voice on a radio announcing “if you give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” The film runs a lot longer than twenty-two minutes, but these innocuous few seconds, in tandem with Irving’s first scene, set up the entire narrative. American Hustle is, foremost, a film about appearances, about what is real and the constant dialogue between the diegetic and the extra-diegetic, which is especially compelling at the level of sound. Sound as voice (the characters’ voice-over and the acousmatic radio voice), sound as music (the thirty-one songs are mostly hits from the 1970s meant to underscore the reality of the time period), and the verbal MacGuffin (not an object, but rather a story within the story of the film) are the devices that drive the narrative forward and deepen the conflict between what is real and what isn’t.
American Hustle is loosely based on the Abscam affair from the ’70s; it follows two scam artists, Irving Rosenfeld and his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who, after being caught by the FBI, wind up working with agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in an effort to unveil large-scale corruption in the state of New York. Con artistry, sting operations, forgery, and scams – these elements are all at the heart of the film, as well as, one might say, of cinema itself. The first scene announces all of that deftly. The words mentioned above, “some of this actually happened,” are a variation of the nowadays almost ubiquitous “based on real events”; but they read as a restraint, not “all of it,” just “some.” That’s easier to believe. The acousmatic radio voice promises the audience the world. And it delivers. So this is not a complete lie. And yet it is; all of cinema is.
The first shot shows us one of those manufactured lies – Bale’s huge gut. I write “Bale” because that’s not yet Irving; that’s Batman! Virtually every review of the film mentions the forty pounds that Bale had to put on to play this part. His efforts to transform, from The Machinist (2004) to the Batman series (2005-2012) to American Hustle, are documented to such extent that the body of the actor has become a sort of paratext, impossible to separate from our reality, that of the spectator.1 That belly takes us, the audience, right out of the diegesis, and that is important because the entire film lives in a state of limbo. The camera pulls away from the stomach, and then follows Irving’s careful process of creating an elaborate comb-over – another con. The camera moves between the mirror in front of the character and the actual character a few times as if it cannot decide which reality, which reflection to follow. Because there is no reality! As Irving continues to work on his hair, the song “A Horse with No Name” by America comes on, presumably from the radio we just heard. At first the volume is low, but it soon picks up, and as Irving walks out of the room and into the hallways of the hotel, the song moves entirely to the soundtrack. Is it playing in the character’s head, was it ever on the radio, is it purely non-diegetic?
Sound can be crudely divided between diegetic (its source is known, seen, or can be logically inferred) and non-diegetic (unknown source, normally what we construe as soundtrack). Often, the lines between the two can be crossed, blurred, and sound/music that initially appeared non-diegetic becomes (intra)-diegetic.2 Robynn Stillwell coined the term “the fantastical gap” to define the space between these two types of sound and music, a “place of destabilization and ambiguity” (2007: 186). This fantastical gap (replicated visually by Amy Adams’ plunging cleavage) is also “a transformative space, a superimposition, a transition between stable states” (2007: 200). Jeff Smith has challenged these categories of sound and considered the possibility that all sound is diegetic, and that the aural variations have to do simply with (cinematic) space. So when the same song occurs in two separate places, as it does in the first scene, that is a perfect approximation of what Smith calls “spatially displaced sound” (2009: 14-16). Regardless, David O. Russell’s choices in this film point to a willingness to create confusion, to challenge the expectations of the spectators. In addition to the music, the intertwining of two voice-overs, Irving’s and Sydney’s, also contributes to the creation of a magical aural space; in fact, when the two characters listen to Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues,” which plays a large role in connecting them emotionally, they whisper to each other that “it’s magic.” They mean the music, but by extrapolation they can certainly mean the film, their voices, their roles. Indeed, Irving also quips, “These were the roles we were meant to play,” meaning their con roles, but his words once again take on a double meaning: the diegetic roles within the film and the extra-diegetic roles in “real” life, Irving and Sydney.
The play between the narrative levels of sound/music returns on several occasions. Irving and Carmine, the mayor of Camden and one of the targets of the FBI, sing along with Tom Jones’s “Delilah” in a bar. This scene, in which the camera wonderfully matches the rhythm of the song as it swivels and twists about the room, precedes the scene that best exemplifies the fantastical gap and the overall spatial imbalance of the film. As Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Richie’s zany wife, cries in a restaurant, the song “Live and Let Die” by McCartney/Wings begins on the soundtrack, accompanying her mood appropriately with empathetic music. Visually, the film switches to Irving, the mayor, and some of the mafia guys in a car, while the same song sound bridges the two scenes. There is no doubt that the song is at a non-diegetic level as it covers up two different spaces. Moreover, the film cuts again to Rosalyn only to find her at home, mouthing the words of the song. Visual space and continuity are obliterated, but “Live and Let Die” somewhat holds everything together; not to mention that it has the same paratextual reach as Bale’s body – most famously, this is the title song to the eighth Bond movie, Live and Let Die (1973). Once again, the audience is pulled out of the diegesis because we make that extra-diegetic connection (just as we did with Scorsese’s films earlier). We begin to hear Rosalyn’s voice, too, and a mixture of her voice and Paul McCartney’s follows, yet the source of the song (a radio, a record player, etc.) is nowhere in sight. The song is in everyone’s consciousness. The film cuts away again to Irving in the car with the mafia guys, then to Rosalyn, who now cleans the house and dances to the music. When she finally speaks, to her son, the song regresses to the background softly, and it is finally let (to) die.
Amid the chaos generated by all the visual and aural scams, one character, Richie’s boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), stands tall. Well, awkward rather: Stoddard appears to be an extension of the Louie character from the eponymous comedy show in yet another extra-diegetic reach. However, what’s important about Stoddard is not really what/who he is (a balancing weight for the craziness of the four main characters), but the story he attempts to tell Richie. The story is split in three parts, and it never concludes. So, fundamentally, Stoddard’s story becomes the narrative version of the MacGuffin – the verbal MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock made the MacGuffin famous, and he defined it as a plot device that moves the story forward (the uranium bottles in Notorious, 1946, for example, or, in popular recent cinema, the briefcase from Pulp Fiction, 1994), but that in Zizekian essence is nothing at all. Every time Stoddard begins telling the story, Richie eagerly finishes it for him, trying to guess the ending or its moral. Inevitably, Richie believes that the Michigan ice-fishing story about Stoddard’s dad and brother is in fact about him, that his boss tries to offer some kind of metaphor, or lesson about his (Richie’s) story. Which happens to be exactly what modern audiences are always guilty of – projection and unadulterated narcissism. Between the first and the second part of the story, Stoddard even tells Richie, “We’ll finish the story another time, young man.” And Richie retorts, “Boring.” Because it is not just this story, but the film itself. No one has time for storytelling anymore. David O. Russell does not care, though.3 The audience may be young and impatient, but he knows better. He is Stoddard.4
Like Richie, we wait to find out the ending of the story, of the film. In the last exchange between Richie and Stoddard, the latter yells that the former got the ending wrong. It does not matter, though. As Irving tells Richie, “people believe what they want to believe.” And that’s why the American hustle – cinema – still works.
Smith, Jeff. (2009), ‘Bridging the Gap: Reconsidering the Border between Diegetic and Nondiegetic Music’, Music and the Moving Image, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 1-25.
Stilwell, J. Robynn. “The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic.” In Beyond the Soundtrack. Representing Music in Cinema, ed. by Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, Richard Leppert. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, pp. 184-202.
- Of course, it was Robert De Niro who started the trend of the extreme body changes in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980); can anyone forget that protruding gut? De Niro plays the role of the mafia overlord in American Hustle, which connects the film with Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), too. [↩]
- The beginning of Blazing Saddles (1974) is a great example: an orchestra is revealed in the middle of the desert and what was non-diegetic music until that moment becomes diegetic. [↩]
- He finally pushes through his philosophical agenda, which he failed to do in the more conventional The Fighter (2010), or Silver Linings Playbook (2012). [↩]
- Stoddard also constantly worries about money – another extra-diegetic appropriation, this time to real-life Hollywood. [↩]