Film has become one of the more popular modes of mass communication. It never ceases to entertain, to touch and to influence its audience in its representation of various aspects of life. Film theory also includes with it external studies like that of linguistics and all its forms. A filmmaker’s “inner speech” is shared with his audience not through verbal dialogue but more of through the theatrical and technical elements of film production. There are filmmakers who prefer to present reality as it is, and there are some that present reality the way they see and interpret it. How effective the relationship that is established between the film and it audience is dependent on the filmmaker’s skill of bringing a story to life on the silver screen.
The Language of Cinema
A lot of people like going to the movies. People would head to the cinemas whiling away a couple of hours or more in rapt attention as they gazed at the wide screen while gorging on popcorn and soda. It may be a love story, a comedy, perhaps an action flick…or maybe even one of those new independent or indie films that have become rather the fad in today’s more “activist” minded society. It is amazing the way cinema appeals to something in everyone. How people can remember favorite scenes from movies down to a memory of the word for word dialogue. To hear lovers quoting the now famous line “You complete me” delivered by Tom Cruise to Renee Zellweger in Cameron Crowe’s film “Jerry Maguire” (1996) is not unheard of.
In so many ways, film touches its audience. As a medium it has always been hailed as
one of the most effective modes of mass communication. So effective in fact that even Hitler was known to have used it in fostering “patriotism” and “education” among the Germans during the time of the Third Reich.
How does film manage to do any of these things? Is it in the story? The dialogue? The star power of the cast? Within each film, there is said to be a message. Be it something so obvious as those films with a specific advocacy such as Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s Emmy award winning “An Inconvenient Truth”(2006) or something more subliminal like David Fincher’s “Fight Club,”(1999) each story carries with it a message meant for its audience.
The word “language” at first blush is synonymous with oral communication. If one thinks of it however, there are so many other aspects and kinds of language. It could be something non-verbal such as skepticism marked by a subtly raised eyebrow, it could be the fast gestures of sign language done by the deaf-mutes. It could also refer to the many kinds of “national languages’ spoken in countries the world over, or maybe even the often incomprehensible jargon used by specific professions such as doctors, lawyers and scientists. Language in its many forms are also used for many purposes.
The Russian thinker and linguist Roman Jakobson categorized language into six functional types: language as reference, language as expression of feelings of the speaker, conative in seeking to get a response from the listener, phatic which seeks to build relationships through the use of conversation, and the poetic function which are words used outside of actual real-life events. (Jakobson ; Halle, 1956, p. 7)
In reference to film, Jakobson identifies the importance of establishing a relationship with the spectator in terms of looking into their preference for films and background. He felt that knowing these and integrating them into the filmmaking process would make a film’s communication more effective in terms of evoking the desired response from the audience (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson, 1988, p. 10).
Film too makes rather extensive use of language with the above stated functions. (Burke & Cavallari, 2000, p. 83) From the obvious verbal dialogue and messages sent by subtle non-verbal nuances, it is easy for the audience to see what exactly the story is saying. The film expresses a form of reality, it expresses feelings, it gets a response from the audience, the connection between the story and audience reaction is a relationship, the story is carried through conversation and lastly, the nuances and non-verbal cues carry “words” that are left unsaid.
One would be given to wonder how in the olden days of vaudeville and silent films, did they manage to effectively convey the feelings and developments of the story when there were no verbal dialogue on screen? When it comes down to it, where do the messages or scenes as envisioned by the filmmaker come from anyway?
It is said that people have an “inner speech” (Ihde, 1976, p. 139)
This perhaps is the most honest kind of speech as it the type that occurs within an individual. With inner speech, a person “talks” with himself. It is the same with artists and painters who convey their thoughts, feelings and ideas of how the world and life looks like onto canvass. The only difference is the medium.
In the olden days, commerce and Hollywood dictated that film adapt a more narrative or diegetic style (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson, 1988, p. 3).
Tell a straightforward story with the use of dialogue and acting without the need for the audience to make extra efforts in interpreting the scene and that was it. The Russian filmmaker and artiste Sergei Eisenstein dissented with this. (“Eisenstein, Sergei Mikhailovich,” 2004)
To Eisenstein, there were other forms of more effective and artistic expression other than the current trend of narratives and formulaic commercial methods of film production. He sought to break from the traditional and formal film production that was too reality based and incorporate new techniques and methods such as his “montage” technique, which put together scenes, meant to shock and evoke a reaction within and from the audience. In developing his montage way of editing, Eisenstein decided to forego dialogue as a means to communicate his ideas, but rather decided to communicate his message through visual and theatrical means.
In his movie “Battleship Potemkin”(1925), Eisenstein used this method to great effect in the Odessa steps sequence. The most famous scene in the film, this sequence showed a fictional account of a massacre of civilians by the Tsar’s Cossacks. In the sequence Eisenstein showed the Cossack’s march down a flight of steps while shooting at the crowd, interspersed with footage of the carnage like the death of a young boy or of a mother who was shot to death while pushing her baby to safety. Such a sequence of shots was meant to draw the greatest amount of emotion and empathy of the audience towards the victims. The Odessa steps sequence has since become a classic and has been adopted by many contemporary directors in their films. (Christie & Taylor, 1993, p. 1)
Eisenstein believed that a certain degree of theatrics was what was needed to make a story more “real” and effective than following the traditional approach of narrative and simply giving an unfocused picture of reality as it is.
As words in spoken language are put together in syntax to convey ideas, Eisenstein used scenes and pictures in place of words while the story and mood of the film itself represented syntax. Because the effect of his sewn together scenes aroused a more powerful reaction and sense of poignancy from his viewers, Eisenstein made film become more pragmatic than ordinary spoken language.
The filmmaker takes on the role of an artist in this sense. While the concept of auteurism did not develop until later in the time of the filmmaker Andre Bazin, Eisenstein was every bit of an auteur filmmaker who went against the norm and created his own approach to film (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson, 1988, p. 10).
There is a noteworthy irony in the conception of auteurism in Bazin’s time. Bazin was a filmmaker who believed that films should find its essence in reproducing reality in its unmodified self. Bazin said that film should represent reality as it is without any manipulation or affectation (Cardullo, 2000, p. 40).
Eisenstein and later filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut (Bordwell, Staiger ; Thompson, 1988, p. 360) treated film as an art form. Film was their canvas and they were the painters. Their finished picture was their message and the techniques they employed in creating the picture, their own personal “stamp” of how pictures or in their case, film, should be done.
When a person says “I feel tired and hopeless with my marriage” it is not hard to understand what a person means. In the style of montage as used by Eisenstein, the depiction of a depressed person can appear like this:
The setting of the scene is on a balcony bathed in half-light. Man is sitting smoking in a solitary chair. Camera zooms in a little closer. Shadows are playing across man’s face. Man takes a slow drag from the cigarette, closes eyes while tilting head back on chair, and exhales deeply. Camera abruptly cuts to an extreme close up of man’s closed eyes, cut scene of fight with wide, cut to close up of hand dangling over seat arm holding the cigarette, cut to a shot of a falling vase that breaks on the floor, cut back to extreme close up of one of man’s closed eyes. Teardrop starts to fall. Camera zooms in, focuses on solitary teardrop, follows teardrop’s path to man’s chin. Cut to full shot of man suddenly burying his face in hands weeping violently.
All the time the scene is being played, there is silence. No other sound than the man’s racking sobs. The feelings of depression, hopelessness and weariness are transmitted perhaps even more forcefully as the oral statement “I feel tired and hopeless.” Montage is not a simple and haphazard putting together of pictures or scenes. Its effectiveness is measured by the impact it generates from the audience. While at times some montages may be made up of unrelated objects, it takes on a developmental form of storytelling and message sending when the objects are connected to make up or support a solitary concept.
Who speaks the language of film, the audience or the filmmaker?
In a sense both, but it is the filmmaker or director who sets the rules and “language” so to speak and if they have done their job well, the audience will surely listen and understand their message.
The concept of artistry or authorship applied to filmmakers is not new. While there is a
story about which the film is being made, what the audience sees on the big screen is the filmmaker’s interpretation of the story. It shows what the story means to him. It has been mentioned that everybody has an “inner voice” that is basically human personal reactions and how they process situations and feelings through internal communication within themselves.
Love stories reflect what love and romance means to the filmmaker. Comedy carry scenes that the filmmaker finds and believes is funny. Indie films have messages about issues that the filmmaker feels strongly about and believe that the viewing public should be able to see too. Whatever the genre, the film viewers cannot fail to be touched one way or another.
As people use sounds, phonetics and syntax in natural language, so does the filmmaker in the use of lights, sound, camera angles and movement, acting, and dialogue in the presentation of a film’s message.
Bliokh,J.(Producer) ; Eisenstein, S.(Director), (1925) Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets
Bordwell, D., Staiger, J., ; Thompson, K. (1988). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style ; Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge.
Burke, K., ; Cavallari, H. M. (2000). Integrating Theories of Cinema and Communication. International Journal of Instructional Media, 27(1), 83.
Cardullo, B. (2000). Andre Bazin on Film Technique: Two Seminal Essays. Film Criticism, 25(2), 40.
Christie, I. ; Taylor, R. (Eds.). (1993). Eisenstein Rediscovered. New York: Routledge.
David, L. (Producer) ; Guggenheim, D. (Director)(2006) An Inconvenient Truth. Paramount
Eisenstein, Sergei Mikhailovich. (2004). In The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Ihde, D. (1976). Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Jakobson, R., ; Halle, M. (1956). Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton.
Milchan,A.(Producer) ; Fincher, D.(Director).(1999). Fight Club.Art Linson productions.
Pustin, B.,Schofield, J.(Producers);Cameron, C.(Director) (1997). Jerry Maguire. Sony