Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dialogue in film is so 2009

Is Under The Skin looking into the rear-view mirror of film history and aesthetics?

You've probably learned at some point that once The Jazz Singer debuted in the autumn of 1926, with Al Jolson not only singing, but ad-libbing dialogue, every studio rushed to get into the talking picture game and that the silent film died almost immediately.  That is almost completely untrue.  (If you are interested in the much more complex true story of this relatively rapid technological changeover, a precursor of a process we live through a couple of times per year nowadays, I highly recommend Talkies:  America's Transition to Sound by Donald Crafton, part of the University of California film history series, possibly the best series there is.)

A few weeks before The Jazz Singer opened, Warner Bros. opened another film for which they had high hopes, which represented a format they believed would be more enduring and popular than the novelty of synchronized speech and song.  The film was Don Juan starring John Barrymore, and it had a synchronized sound track, but only of score music and selected sound effects.  The dialogue was still delivered in title cards.  (Jazz Singer has title cards for most of its length, BTW.)  Here is a sample.  The Spanish subtitles on the title cards are not original, but I wanted to use this excerpt because of the swordfighting sequence.

From the filmmaker's point of view, this format offers the best aspects of silent and sound film.  It preserves the universality of film, since characters are not only not tied to any language, as title cards are replaced in each territory with those in the local language, but not burdened with a voice which does not match either the character nor the actor's appearance.  Undercranking and other silent film devices are still possible.  Yet the filmmakers can ensure that the audience is given the proper emotional cues with either a specifically-composed or a hand-selected underscore, rather than being dependent on the whims (and often limited skills) of the local musicians in each theater.  And key sound effects can be included as may be advisable to inform the audience, and reducing the need for close-ups on noise-making objects, often needed in silent film to call attention to unheard sounds (as if the audience had to be reminded that things CAN actually make sounds, even in the strange dream world of silent film).

This, the moguls of 1926-7 believed, was the technological future of movies, mixed with a program of short subjects with synchronized sound featuring singers, dancers and novelty acts; plus occasional synch sound features to show off singing stars of Broadway and popular music.  But a film was to have a truly dramatic story, it needed to be shot silent with music and effects added in post-production.

History went another way, and by 1928, it was important for films to be All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Run-Around-And-Bop-You-On-The-Head-With-Our-Synch-Sound.  But perhaps, at least aesthetically, those moguls of the late 1920s were right about the technology.  We've put up with too much jabber over the last almost 90 years of film, and it's time to put things back.

Scarlett Johansson might have felt that way herself, having to yak non-stop in three Woody Allen movies, and (after Under The Skin was produced) being heard but not seen in the super-creepy Her (2013).  Under The Skin (2013) is Ms. Johansson's boldest and most significant project choice since her breakout role, Lost In Translation, and the first since that earlier film to employ her somewhat unreal aura, after so many projects which attempted to root her in everyday reality.

As you can read in a thousand other places, Johansson plays a visitor from another planet who wears the body of a young woman provided by its handler.  The alien uses that woman's allure to draw in young men who are consumed or transformed in some way that looks like this.

What is more interesting, and what makes the film worth seeing, is the alien point-of-view of our world the film presents so successfully, employing some documentary techniques to place the glamorous Ms. Johansson in the least glamorous environment in the world, the city of Glasgow, a working-class city, the largest in Scotland.

In fact, although I lived in Glasgow for a year, the accents were so thick that I had to switch the titles on for the scenes Johansson improvised with non-actor Glaswegians, shot by hidden cameras.  Nonetheless, those scenes are the ones I found the most valuable, though their aesthetics might cause Abbas Kiorastami to weep in recognition.  (That's a small joke.)  Her reticence, the use of the fewest words possible and the blankness, the "silence" of her facial expression is what makes this part of Under The Skin so effective.  This clip also features the main theme of the brilliant score by first-time film composer Mica Levi.

Tellingly, director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer has revealed that the original version of the script contained lengthy preliminary explanations of the aliens, their plans, their methods, all of which were deleted and replaced with a few stunning and mysterious images which, on re-examination, are visually packed with hints and clues about the story.

Curiously, strange and disorienting as they may be, the sci-fi special effects come off as more conventional than the "van" footage; nonetheless, Under The Skin would be almost meaningless if it had unpacked its heart with words like a very drab.  Its very opacity makes it not unclear (except to the willfully obtuse) but clears the deck to let the pictures convey the meaning instead of the text.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, silent pictures may be coming back.  No, not silent pictures -- the music and sound are too important to the title effect.  Pictures with sounds, instead of the years of illustrated radio which is so easy and comforting for film financiers but so limiting for film artists.

Paradoxically, this may have been enabled by the shift to digital imaging.  The new cameras handle low light extremely well, encouraging filmmakers to move cameras into environments that require less artificial preparation.  Moreover, long takes are easier (no worry about how much film remains int he magazine) and breakdowns within a take are less of a problem, since editors can digitally stitch together two different takes into a single seamless entity.  Whereas long takes are looked at as being theatrical in the work of Welles, Wyler and Renoir, these new long takes constitute a new definition of cinematic, as cameras weave together multiple events and multiple environments into a unified physical and emotional environment.  First digital tools and non-linear editing sped editing up, encouraging the rapid cutting that vapid and lazy journalists called "MTV editing"; now digital filmmaking has not only resuscitated the long take, but made it the norm, liberating actors and cinematographers into more complex and revelatory work.

We just might be entering a silver age for pictures that move.

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