The Synchronist

 

When a man hears his own voice from the mouth of legend, naturally he grows proud.  His chest swells.  He walks with long, slow steps across the plaza, gently slapping the day’s newspaper at his side.   When he finally reaches his favorite café (much like this one), he sits and waits for the server to take his order.  He speaks loudly so the whole café can hear him.  “The Panna Cotta,” he says.  “No, rather, the Torta di Riso.”  He watches how the patrons look up from their papers, as if a strange wind has passed over them.  They stare down the long halls of memory, unable to pinpoint the familiarity.  But then, inevitably, someone will begin to say “are you?,” and then stop themselves, for the thought is ridiculous.  It can’t be.  But then they must inquire.  “You know, you sound remarkably like that actor…the American…Kip…Kip?”

“Kiplinger?”

“Yes!  Exactly. But you can’t be.”

But of course, he is, in Italy, which is by some estimations the center of the world.

For twenty-two years, I was the Italian voice of Donald “Kip” Kiplinger. While it is true that I have synchronized Al Pacino for the trailer of the film known as Serpico and Robert DeNiro in a Lavazza coffee commercial that never aired, it was as Donny Kiplinger that I was most myself.  Giving voice to this actor was my greatest honor and a source of unspeakable pain.  But while we are here at this café, allow me a few minutes to relate this anecdote that will be instructive, if not inspirational, to a young person like yourself.

In the spring of 1979, my agent, Salvatore Lasconna, asked if I might be interested in a curious project.  An American studio asked if Salvatore might have a talent that could capture the spirit of a young actor who had caught the attention of executives in America.

“I don’t know what they mean by spirit,” my agent said.  “But that’s what they want.  Don’t ask me to help you.  I think the kid’s a hack.”

It was most unusual for a studio to have any interest in the synchronist for a particular movie.  Up until that point, it was the international distributor who decided on the talent.  Furthermore, what they sent was not even a movie.  It was merely a screen test.  Salvatore arranged for me to look at the reel and then decide.

I must admit that for me it was clear immediately what the boy lacked. His youthful face came straight out of Boise, Idaho.  His hair was much too light, his body too thin.  Moreover, the way he played that young homosexual boy on his American high school football team, slamming his locker when the quarterback called him a “sissie,” that made me think he had been cast all wrong.  But then, midway through the screen test, he stopped acting.  Someone off camera gave him direction and he became offended.  Suddenly he transformed into a hulking mass yelling at the top of his lungs.  Wisely the camera man kept him in focus as he threw a fit.  One of the actors put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he looked at her with such intensity and disdain. His whole being seemed to say “fuck me” and “fuck you” at once. I thought to myself: Yes, with a little age, a scar perhaps…yes! It was your own William Shakespeare who said “Oh that this too too human flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself in a dew.”  Frankly, I prefer the Italian, (Ah, se questa mia troppo, troppo solida carne, potesse sciogliersi in rugiada!). But the point still pertains; sometimes we are in need of a transformation.  Donny Kiplinger was no different.  So when the young actor was arrested for a bar fight in Acapulco and emerged on the television with a small bandage beneath his lower lip, I agreed to synchronize his voice in perpetuity.

Oh, but listen to me!  I act as if the whole thing were predetermined. Quite the contrary! Stardom is, as anyone can tell you, not the overnight wonder that the media makes it appear.  Oh, no, it is the work of many hands. The first two films Kip made were box office failures.  My agent expected as much.  One night over dinner, he explained to me that the studio was trying to invent talent where it didn’t exist.  He offered  me some other jobs, but I would not hear of it.

“At least let me get you a few commercials,” he said.  “Try out a few opportunities.  There is a Russian cartoon that they are thinking of bringing over here.  Very smart.  They need the voice of a character called “Smoke.”

“No, Salvatore. No, but thank you.”

“Look, Tino, I get paid to find you work.  Most young sychronists take what they can get.  This isn’t an industry for prima donnas.  Who cares if you’re Donny Kiplinger or Dorris Day?  You get paid.”

“This is different.  They’ll watch Donny Kiplinger”

Mannaggia! They’ve watched tits and stagecoaches since Mussolini.  What’s going to change?”

If agents were not pragmatic, there would be no need to hire them.  But then again, if artists were not drawn to their work by something more refined, then there would be no need for agents.  I considered what Salvatore told me.  After all, he had seen me through so many projects, even when my own voice was thin and without character.  Yet, I knew that he was wrong. He was thinking of the past.  I was thinking of the future.  So when I found out Kip’s agent was organizing a conference in order to maximize Kip’s effect on worldwide audiences and that they would fly in all the voices of Kip from the big markets—France, Italy, Russia, Spain, Germany—to help us work on a “uniformity of style and synchronization,” I felt vindicated.

“Why are you making everything so complicated!” screamed Salvatore. “You want to go to California to get laid, fine.  You want to go to California to become an actor, or to get in on the American side of the business.  Fine. I have a few contacts in the area.  But you want to go to meet Donny Kiplinger’s agent?  I don’t get it.  You’re a voice artist.  In America they call it dubbing.  You are a dubber.  Not a movie star!  This is a bad business to get romantic about, Tino.”

I said nothing. I left telling him that I just wanted to swim in the Pacific Ocean, but I stepped into the Beverly Hills hotel awash in the voices of Kip in every language.

The agency spared no expense.  The speakers were linguists, fashion designers, scriptwriters, all of them keyed in on how to communicate the “Essence of Kip” to a foreign market.  No small task mind you!  A lisp in Latin America is not a lisp in Spain or Bahrain for that matter.  An appropriate and subtle speech impediment had to be designed for each of the many voices of Kip. Phrases which had been written into the scripts and for which he had become famous, needed precise equivalents in other languages.  No small feat for a language as rich and wonderful as American English. Workshops were held all morning, with intensive one on one coaching in the afternoon. Never before had I felt such a commitment to my work.

Across the hall in a different conference room were the Nancy Maywood sychronists.  The next series of films would star both Kip and Nancy. Data suggested that the combination of these two actors would produce fine results.  I went in and sat down in the back. It was a seminar entitled “Kip Times: Possible Adjectival uses of Donny Kiplinger.”

There was a woman in front of me.  I introduced myself.  Her name was Valerie and she was to be the Italian voice of Nancy Maywood.   She was wearing polka dot pumps and white stockings.  Like the real Nancy Maywood, she was young and looked beat up and beautiful at the same time.  She smelled like candy.

“It’s wonderful. Isn’t it?” I said.  “This conference?”

“Yes,” she said.  She smiled in a shy way,

“My agent…” I began.

“Oh, don’t even tell me.  He says he’s never heard of a conference for voice over artists.”

“I think it is brilliant myself.  Why shouldn’t we do such a thing?  After all, we all have a stake in the success of our artists.  This is a global economy as everyone tells us.  You know, gone are the days when films are made for local audiences.  I’ve heard they are thinking of paying us differently for synchronizing these two.”

“Well, right now, I’m Diane Keaton, Sally Field, and Mayella Winthrop.  But who would care.  It doesn’t pay differently to voice a star instead of a hack.  But this…”

A short film of Kip and Nancy with flashing images and words played.  The music was hypnotic.

“Who could say no?” I whispered in her ear.

“Exactly.”

As a child I was teased for being too shy with women.  But now, I had no problem to look at her, baldly, exposed. It was as if the road of action were paved before me.  No gesture, no matter how forward, could offend.  I surged with a new found confidence, surrounded as I was by a bubble of Kip.  The speaker began the seminar.  Valerie crossed her legs and took notes.  I whispered in her ear a line from “The Marshall” Kip’s first film, the line he said before he leaves with a woman.  She smiled and took a sip of her water.  She fiddled with her small handbag, pulled out a pair of keys, and stood up.  She singularly drew the attention of all the synchronists in the room. Even the speaker had a momentary spell and stumbled over his words.  For a moment, I thought I had gone too far.  “Let’s go” she said.

The next few days we spent making love, watching the movies of Kip, and laughing at the sound of our own voices.  We swam in the Pacific Ocean.  I rested my head on her soft brown stomach and the sound of her body filled one ear, California the other.

“Marry me,” I said.

“What?”

“We’ll live half way between Rome and Paris. In a small village perhaps.”

“How Kip of you not to suggest Monaco!” she said, employing her new vocabulary. She didn’t answer, just then.  But I was not discouraged.  That evening, while we were getting dressed, I had the feeling that we had been working together for a long time, despite only knowing each other a few days.  It felt, if I may say, like a movie.

On the last night of the conference, Kip was scheduled to be the keynote speaker of the evening. Of course, he did not show up.  One of the conference organizers stammered that Mr. Kiplinger accidentally flew to Miami.  The conference then concluded, with only the sounds of dinner to bring it to a proper close.

Many of the other sychronists were visibly angered.  Such foolishness!  I, for one, understood completely.  One ought not bite the hand that feeds them, I argued.  If Kip were not Kip then we would all be out of a job. It was, I said at the time, a sure sign that our project would fail if we could not come to a more subtle understanding about the movement.  The German Kip turned to me and said,

“Did you say ‘movement’?”

Yes, yes I did.  And, let me tell you, that was exactly what it was.  Never had I worked so hard in my life: “Scrap Metal”; “The Shadow Clan”; “Sound”;  “Passion, She Said”;  “The Capricorn”; “Take It Away From Me”;  “Final Countdown”; and “Groper.”  Of all these films, “The Capricorn” is my favorite, for it was the time when Valerie and I married.  Oddly enough, it is also the time when Kip married Nancy Maywood.  It was a small ceremony (for both) and there was little coverage in the media (for both). Valerie and I had our ceremony in English in Corsica. They had theirs in Waikiki in Hebrew.  The sex tape that emerged from that Polynesian event was perhaps the only film I chose not to synchronize.  Yet, it was watched and watched often.  Every move I made, no matter how subtle, how inane, delighted Valerie.  I played the fool on the balcony.  I did a handstand and tumbled and by accident nicked the floor lamp cutting myself below my lip.  She came to my rescue, daubing my wound with her negligee.

“You’re a little spectacular,” she said.

Donny and Nancy had become stars of a magnitude few had imagined.  There were the rebroadcasts of The Phil Donahue Show which became popular in Italy at the time as well as a few cameo appearances on television dramas and game shows.  Occasionally, Kip would come to France to give interviews at Caan.  It was suggested that the synchronists provide the voice of the translation for authenticity.  I did not speak French so all my overtures to that effect were brushed away. That ass, Marcel, the French voice of Kip made an absurd spectacle of himself.  But I could see he was trying.

But when Kip was to shoot a film in Rome, I persisted in securing my place beside him.  That is, until Salvatore rang me up on the telephone and told me to come to his office.  It felt like a hundred years since I’d been there last.  Salvatore did not even greet me.  He just slammed his hand on his desk.

“Do you know that you’re making my life impossible,” he yelled.

“Salvatore?  What do I do except give you a quarter of everything I make?”

Mannaggia! you son of a bitch.  You cause problems is what you do. Did you tell Canal Plus that you spoke perfect English?”

“What? I speak English.  Is there such a thing as perfect English? In California they have kids that work at movie studios making up new words everyday.  It doesn’t matter.  I could use a few Italian words to spice it up a bit.”

“Spice up Donny Kiplinger?”

“That’s what I do.”

He shook his head.  He swallowed back his words.

“Tino, I love you like a son.  But you’re getting in my way.  Do you understand me?  Voices.  That’s all they are, voices!”

“Yeah, in my head…” I was about to say, jokingly. But, Salvatore said:

“I’m sending you new work.  You will take it or you will be let go.”

I did my best to satisfy Salvatore.  I read the scripts. But the movie Kip was in was a war film.  America was back to their World War II stories again.  And I did what I could.  I hung around the set and passed along a few notes to Donny’s assistants.  I really believed we needed to have a meeting, Donny and I.  But again, our schedules were in constant conflict.  Each time he was in one place and I was in another, giving him a voice no less!   Sometimes, I felt as if I were being pulled by two different Kips, one lived in the darkness of a synchronization studio, the other, just around the corner in a luxury hotel.  But that was the magic of film, no?  It fools the heart.

 

Now, of all the films I mentioned, “Casual Inference” is the one project I do not speak of.  In fact, I spit each time I think of it for I had devoted myself so totally to preparing for the role.  As the title might suggest was a complete flop.  Mid-way through synchronization, the producer dropped the film.  Another producer picked it up, but he was not interested in the quality of synchronization.  He was only interested in money.  Donny was now included in films just to boost sales. The film’s plot was never clear to me except that it had something to do with a fairytale prince in a modern setting who has lost his confidence.  I had tried to develop a deeper vocal intonation to communicate a sense of terrible loss; the loss that can only come from having too much of what one wants.  Really, it was not a stretch.

Valerie and I were constantly travelling for work.  We hardly saw each other except when Nancy and Kip saw each other, on those rare vacations when the both of them weren’t working.  I remember one vacation coming out of the sea and walking toward Valerie who was lying in the sun.  I said to her, “Let’s quit our jobs and go live in Spain.”

“I’d like that. I’m tired of all these films.  One after the other.  They never stop coming.  Does everyone want to spend their life in front of a screen?”

“Then lets quit.”

“All of them?”

“Well keep one.  Retire on one,” I said.

“Who? Nancy Maywood?”

“For example.”

“Bad bet,” said Valerie.  “Her days are numbered, love.  Can’t you see that?  She lost twenty pounds for her last film.  Twenty pounds!  People say it’s remarkable.  I say it is cocaine.”

“Poor girl.”

“Blame her husband,” she said.

I kissed Valerie at that very moment, but I did not feel it as I had in the past.  And that evening we went to dinner and I was not myself.  My suit felt too tight on my skin.  The food was by degrees less than satisfactory.  We walked along the beach in an unromantic silence. Later, we tried to make love, but failed.  I cannot tell you exactly when we became separated. As artists we knew that we were subject to forces greater than ourselves and the bonds of marriage can sometimes shackle the heart.

In the months that followed, rumors emerged that Kip was not doing well. Nancy and he were hardly seen together, and when they were occasionally photographed, it looked as if they had been picked up off the street.  One sychronist told me that he had seen Kip at a club in California, a ring of lascivious girls dancing around him.  His face was buried in his hands. He was crying.  That autumn, Nancy Maywood left him. He was hospitalized for depression.  There were no other films after that.

Things for me also turned.  I lost my voice for two months. When I got well, I suddenly could not stop sleeping.  I would lay in bed for fifteen hours a day. I stopped eating..  My agent offered me a number of interesting pieces.  Hence the Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro work.  But it didn’t seem to fit.  I decided a return to California was what I needed.  He came to my apartment while I was packing.

“Where’s Valerie?” asked my agent.

“Gone.”

“How come?   I thought you two were happy.”

“It’s just the business,” I said.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“How do you feel?”

“Fine, why?”

“Because I just want to remind you that you are full of shit.”

“Salvatore, please.”

“No, you shut up and listen to me. No one cares if Tino Marroni stays married or don’t stay married.  You know that, right?  I mean you could die tomorrow and besides me and a few family members you still speak to, no one would know.  Donny Kiplinger, that prick, he sure the hell wouldn’t know.”

“Get out” I yelled.

“The hell I will.”

“Go!”

He walked over to my door.

“You asshole.  You’re a mess.  And we want to help you.  We’ve been watching you throw away your career for too long.  I don’t even know what it is.  Is it Valerie?  Is it the money?  You want more money?

“I’m a somebody without a somebody,” I said.

“Don’t fuck with me.  That line’s from “Take it Away From Me.”

“Is it?” I asked.  I could hardly remember that line.

Salvatore stared at me a long time in the grey afternoon.  Before he left he said that he would help me in any way he could.  He told me to get some rest.  But I could not see that his kindness rested on other decisions. The following week I got a letter from his secretary.  I was dropped from his roster of talent.

First I was bitter.  Then I was ashamed. Twice another agent called to offer me some radio work, but I said no out of pride.  Radio by all estimations is inferior to film.  Then I called him and demanded an insane amount of money.  I told him I would revitalize radio.  Bring it back to its rightful place.

“Look, Tino, it’s just a public service announcement,” said the agent.  “To be honest I was just doing Salvatore a favor.”

“Don’t you have a young star for me?” I asked.

“Have you heard yourself lately?  You sound like you’re a hundred fucking years old.”

When the money ran out, I sold my apartment and returned to my village and my  family’s home.  I watched television with my great aunt and kept her company. One evening quite late at night, I was flipping through the television and saw Kip on a local channel here whose core audience is the lonely men who cannot find the warmth of a real human being.  What caught my eye and kept me on the repulsive channel was Kip, simulating intercourse with a woman dressed as Snow White while a chorus of little people dressed as elves contributed to the scenario in several unspeakable ways.  He had aged, and I could see that. Yet, his Italian voice sounded young and potent that I became overwhelmed with passion. It was the first time I had heard more than a few grunts or moans from him.  I watched for maybe three or four of these scenarios, each taking place in a different fairytale location, until the very end when he confronted the evil queen and overpowered her with his manhood. He declared his victory over her body.  It was then that I realized the voice which I found so attractive was my own.  This was “Casual Inferences.”

That winter, Donny Kiplinger was found hanging from hotel light fixture.  There were allegations that it was sexual in nature. It was in all the headlines.  For a whole month, Donny Kiplinger filled the gossip columns.  It seemed like it could be a prosperous time for me, perhaps a chance to get back in the game.  But nothing was mentioned of all those who dedicated their careers to this actor.  And after all, it has become so common place to develop talent in this way, Donny Kiplinger was the least among such stars.  I do not mind saying that there were times when every knot looked like a noose to me.

Years passed. Valerie and I were eventually divorced.  I believe she remarried, but I am not certain.  I found it very hard to go back to work, but we do as we must.  The local mega-theater, this one here across the street, needed someone to help sell tickets.  I felt I had spent so much of my time in dark synchronization rooms, it mattered little what dark room I would spend my final days.  And after all, even the ticket salesman is one of the many hands of movie magic.  As for Kip, few people know of him at all.  He is nothing but trivia question, a ringer, the kind that makes you lose the game.

 

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