Reading the feedback from thoughtful correspondent BEC [responding to my October 31 post UP AT CARNEGIE HALL, a short review of LOST BOHEMIA] recalls me to days on the UCLA campus, listening to a tape, a recorded interview — no doubt from an early assemblage of what would become today’s splendid UCLA Film and Television Archive. I heard a tape of Lillian Gish reflecting on the difference between silent and sound film. As I remember, Miss Gish said at the time — sorry, no interview date — that she thought of talking pictures as walking pictures. Accustomed to beginning a scene with interaction between or among characters, she was surprised to see a scene introduced by one of the participants walking toward a house, then going to the door, then being admitted, then finally beginning the scene’s conversation.
BEC’s response set me thinking on the accuracy and inaccuracy of Lillian Gish’s observation and speculating on whether she would alter those remarks today. If we were thinking this way along with her we would have to think in terms of driving pictures rather than walking pictures. Today this is true even in films from those far-flung lands where autos used to be rare.
How often do we learn anything about a character from the vehicle he or she is driving? Is the shot good shorthand or an empty filler? There are, of course, numerous other filler shots beyond walking and driving including, in the past, a lot of such shots designed to do what was called “opening up” the play being made into a movie. The artificiality of this was usually evident but is of little importance today in an America where there are almost no plays.
Actually, while Gish’s point is well taken in regard to talking and walking, it is neither fully accurate nor entirely fair. In the days of silents, action was frequently interrupted by over-long intoductions of characters and players and just-as-long moralizing or humorous titles involving much word play rather than visual jokes.
What would Lillian Gish make of so many of today’s films in which important exposition is given by talking characters who are running up and down steps or running along the sidwewalk beside a screaming emergency vehicle? British critic Halliwell, describing BLUE THUNDER (1983) wrote: “…too often it is fashionably inaudible.” There is the other extreme in which crucial plot information or character revelation is given in bed in whispers. Try an experiment: The next ten new films you see, notice how much whispering there is.
Meanwhile, back with BEC where all this started, her obsevations pull together several phenomena: the illustrated lecture (my name for the typical American documentary); the standard art museum tape (listening to pictures) which BEC links in form and intent to the commentary feature so common to the extras on the usual DVD; and film music which certainly belongs here but is different in kind from LET’S LISTEN TO PAINTINGS AND FILMS INSTEAD OF WATCHING THEM. Music as film sound is too large a subject to be addressed as a coda here. As Marlene was wont to say, “We do that one later.”
But we will do that, BEC, with your invited participation. For thinking about: Films with elaborate scores programmed to characters and settings. Films with scores which advance the plot and deepen character. Films in which music competes with dialogue and/or submerges it (Have you seen SARATOGA TRUNK?). Films with no music. Films in which music contributes humor. Silent films and the importance of music for them.
I am interested in hearing from you out there as to whether the current hit THE ARTIST addresses any of these questions about sound and music. How important is music in THE ARTIST besides the great finale in which this love letter to old Hollywood reminds us that Fred and Ginger helped Americans dance away the Great Depression? How did you react to the dream scene and its sudden sound effects?
There have been plays within plays for centuries. THE ARTIST rests firmly in this tradition with its opening in which we the audience watch an audience watching a film and, in a variation of “meanwhile backstage,” we watch an actor on the other side of the screen watching himself on that screen. Throughout THE ARTIST we also frequently watch audiences applauding, probably more than they applauded historically in movie theaters then.
I was amused to read and hear repeatedly during the days before the recent Academy Awards presentation that THE ARTIST was the first silent film nominated since the first year of the awards. You would have thought there have been dozens of ignored silents — sorry, SNUBBED silents. (In today’s critical parlance, any film or peformer not nominated is snubbed.) There have not been any silents during all those years, of course. There have been a few films without dialogue. Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES. THE GOOD EARTH featuring Luise Rainer’s almost totally silent role. An American film called THE THIEF directed by Russell Rouse in 1952. There is the Bresson canon in which, though sound is crucial, actors’ dialogue is minimal. And I was surprised to find this year how much of SHAME is conveyed without dialogue and through long but tense silent segments. Susan Wloszczyna in an article in USA TODAY 2/17/12 makes interesting observations about silence and silents in other 2011 films. I especially like her subhead: “Performances go beyond dialogue.”
THE ARTIST really is silent. But the average filmgoer and typical critic is mistaken in thinking he or she is seeing a movie exactly like the silent movies of the past. It is a mistake to think of those films as just like talkies except for the lack of sound and dialogue. The world of silent film was a world of pantomime, a world of scripts imagined and invented for silent portrayal; scripts with ideas and psychology devised for faces that fit this nonspeaking world. The literary, title-heavy exceptions prove the rule. John Gilbert’s voice, as proven on sound tracks, was fine; but the voice jarred with his silent image, his audience’s image. Ramon Novarro’s voice was not quite as good, but he was a talking success.
THE ARTIST, which I like and admire and which deserves its many accolades, seems at times a contemporary movie with the sound removed. It self-consciously loves its era and medium, somewhat akin to the manner in which GONE WITH THE WIND loves the Hollywood of its time and its own technicolor beauty. I WOULD LIKE HEARING FROM READERS WHETHER OR NOT YOU AGREE WITH THIS TENTATIVE, STILL EXPLORATORY VIEW OF The Artist.
I thought of BEC’s feedback when watching, on Turner Classic Movies, CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF. The only narration in this 90 minute documentary are comments by the subject himself when interviewed. There are clips — and they are long enough to be meaningful — from his celebrated work, including A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the fascinating BAREFOOT CONTESSA, the famous PANDORA and the glorious UNDER CAPRICORN. The film considers Cardiff’s work as director as well, including his finest SONS AND LOVERS. There is so much enlightenment here, so much film history and film fun, without someone chattering every bloody minute on the sound track.
Cameraman: The Life and Work
of Jack Cardiff
NEXT POST March 24