Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reflections: No Small Talk

The next entry in my short series on Silent Movie Misconceptions.

Misconception #2: Nobody talks in a silent film

Oh c’mon, characters in silent films can be positively verbose—you just can’t hear what they’re saying. The key is to recognize the role speech plays in silent films, which is much different than the role it typically plays in a sound film. In fact, a silent actor doesn’t speak to tell you anything—he or she speaks to show you that speaking is happening. Think of speech in a silent film as a visual action, rather than an aural one.

Just as an actor might scrub pots to show his character’s daily chore, or move rapidly to convey anxiety, he can also speak to show that his character is communicating. Yes, you may have little idea what he’s saying, but consider the context. Aggressive gestures might accentuate the actor’s speech, for example; tender touching can do the same. The way characters are seen to speak with one another may display much about their relationship, even if the specifics remain unclear. This is the main reason silent film plots are so simplistic—when you can’t provide details through speech, you must rely on rudimentary plots based on convention and driven by emotion.

This needn’t be a bad thing. A hallmark of early sound films was the tendency of actors to fill every spare moment with dialogue, most of it rapid; glorying in the fact they could be heard at all. This has its charm, but it’s a bit like being machine-gunned with words, and frankly, I prefer the reprieve silent films provide me.

Besides, isn’t it a fact that most of what people say is small talk, or filler? In a silent film, you’re spared verbal minutiae that serves no real purpose beyond breaking the silence—in a silent film, the music does that anyway.

By de-emphasizing the spoken word, silent films also bring physical acting to the fore. Not in the crude sense of choreographed tumbling (though this, too, can be sublime), but through subtle bodily expression. Actors like Conrad Veidt, Mary Pickford and Rudolf Klein-Rogge sent their signals to the viewer quite clearly without uttering one word. Lillian Gish may have done it better than anyone—my recent film essay on The Mothering Heart--

--describes how Gish’s character undergoes a profound emotional and spiritual realignment, presented to us through the contortions Gish makes with her face and hands.

So, what do we do if a piece of information is crucial to the plot? What if we need to know that the baby is sick, or the father has squandered the family’s fortune? Well, then we’ll need a title card, a.k.a. an intertitle. Intertitles are quick screens that interrupt the action long enough to display printed dialogue the actor has said (or will say). I’ll discuss intertitles more next week; for now, let’s just say they’re less common than people think.

Watch enough silent films and you may even long for their brevity. How many modern films have you seen that could have run 30 minutes shorter without all the go-nowhere, expository dialogue? No words mean no cliché’s (verbal ones, at least). Real life is no different—would you want to spend an extra half-hour listening to someone who has nothing to say? Better to get to the point, then get going.

The absence of sound is not a failure of early technology, even though silent-era filmmakers were always looking for ways to get around it. Observing speech, rather than listening to it, provides us an opportunity to gauge how much we require to truly care about the tale we’re being told.

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