Today I sat down and watched a favorite movie of mine: M (1931, dir. Fritz Lang). It reminded me of an issue prevalent in today’s cinema: the oversimplification of photography and image. That sounds weird since movies are by definition moving images, but they are so often not even that. What I mean by that is this: movies frequently fall short of their purpose. That purpose, of course, is simply to tell a story via the visual language of the camera. Movies do have a language, by the way, and for the most part the “grammar” of the “cinematic language” must be respected and followed. But there is a problem. Movies are so often visually boring.
Think about it. When was the last time you sat down and watched a movie only for it to end up being a tennis match of talking heads? And what I mean by a “tennis match” is
that the camera just cuts back and forth between close-ups of talking faces. It’s super uncinematic and just boring in general, and yet we’ve become so accustomed to it that we hardly even notice anymore. I think this issue stems from two places. One of those issues is that I think the creators and “artists” making movies are just getting a bit lazy, but that’s a topic for another time. The other issue, and the one I want to talk about, is sound.
I think a strong case can be made that sound has been one of the biggest detriments to cinematic language. This brings me back around to the topic of M, which I think I can safely say is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. This movie has such a strong visual presence that the story could be told without sound and the insertion of only a few inter-titles. For the most part Lang replaces the explanatory inter-title passages he frequently used in his silent films with dialogue, and yet the dialogue is entirely separate of the image. Lang’s film meets this quote head on:
“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
Lang’s use of sound is never something he relies on. That is to say that the sound is never a crutch for a weak image, but instead always strengthens and gives focus to an already powerful image. His use of sound never tells the story, but rather supplements it. This
stands in stark contrast to most films made today which are mainly heads talking to each other. By the way, “talking heads” is another Hitchcock term, and is something to which he was adamantly opposed.
Akira Kurosawa, whom I believe is one of the greatest visual directors to ever live, frequently shot dialogue scenes in wide shot. This choice essentially forces the viewer to look around the frame as the scene plays out, meanwhile Kurosawa would save close-ups for very impactful moments in which he needed the actor’s eyes to really sell an emotion. Actually, I find that if you look at old movies in general you will tend to see people sharing the frame while they talk. This was particularly present in Golden Era Hollywood pictures which stressed star appeal.Each actor would frequently be given about
half of the frame. They would be photographed in a “mid-shot” (from the thighs or waist up to the top of the head), and they would each be turned at an angle to give the camera the best view of each person speaking. In these films, one-shots (featuring only one person) were typically used to introduce a new and important character (this helped single them out in our mind). Close ups were mostly used to take full advantage of the Academy Ratio film (an almost square image format) which so beautifully framed up the faces of those stars which were worth so much money.
But, back to the topic at hand, sound sort of removes all of this. It’s so easy to let a character explain away details that we just sort of expect it. Christopher Nolan, whom is
one of my favorite filmmakers, is very guilty of this. Ellen Page’s character in Inception (2010, dir. Christopher Nolan) serves zero purpose other than not knowing what’s going on so Leonardo DiCaprio’s character can explain things to the audience. In Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan), which exposition aside is a terrific film I might add, Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway fill this role. They just tend to look at the camera and talk endlessly about things that I’m not really sure we even need to know. But Nolan at least knows that we want to see things, which is in large part why he has embraced the IMAX format. Yet still with the talking heads.
It’s a trap that we just seem to be sort of stuck in.
Now, by no means am I claiming to be beyond this: my work is very guilty of this. In large part that’s why I decided to try and make a silent film. It was a success in some regards and a failure in others, but I feel better equipped going forward. There’s a lot of room for growth, obviously, and yet this experiment in trying to tell a story with only visuals was a massive learning experience. I feel better prepared to tell stories with dialogue now, but sound is still a crutch I need to stop leaning on so much.
In M, which is sort of my case-study here, Lang oftentimes uses the sound to subvert the image. In one scene a character will begin speaking, the camera cuts, and another character in an entirely different location seems to finish their sentence. Sometimes he even uses sound in such a way as it seems to contradict the image and leaves us to find the solution. This was his first sound picture, and I’ll wager that no one ever made the leap with quite as much grace as Lang did. The film gains much from its use of sound, and
removing the sound would remove much of the film’s impact, but the film would still function without the sound. I can’t think of very many movies of which that can be said.
Last year I saw The Big Short (2015, dir. Adam McKay) and it was nothing but talking heads. Had you turned the sound off it would have just been a movie of a bunch of middle-aged white guys shouting at each other. Sure, the movie was entertaining, but I don’t know if I can say it was extremely effective. I think it would have made a much better play than it did a film, but that’s beside the point. It was just a talking heads movie. Side note: I just hopped over to DVDBeaver.com and nearly every single screenshot they have from The Big Short is a close-up of a talking head.
I truly just do not understand. Has sound made us that lazy as storytellers? Is it enough that someone just stares into or by a camera while talking? Is that cinema? Cinema, and its sister word cinematic, comes from the same greek word which gave us “kinetic.” The word literally means MOTION. Cinematography means “writing with motion” much as photography means “writing with light.” A static image can be a powerful tool of course, but cinema should be so much more. Silent filmmakers rarely moved their cameras and yet their films were far more visual than the films of today. Where did we lose our way? Why did we become so blatantly boring and uninspired?
Filmmakers need to put the “kinetic” back in “cinematic.”