Dialogue can get in the way of good storytelling in cinema
PUBLISHED: 14:12 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 14:12 02 March 2017
There is no totally universal language. There will always be a group left out that cannot participate and cultures will always form dialects of their own.
Sign Language itself has had plenty of dialects, more so than just differing between countries, regions or counties, it often varies within cities. For instance I could sign the same sentence to a person in the east and another in the west of Norwich and it’s not unlikely that one of them would tell me that I used an alien sign to them.
This however would likely not affect our conversing much at all, as it is a form of visual communication that in its most pure and contemporary form does not adhere to the structure of spoken and written word (apart from for spelling names), instead functioning in a pictorial manner that passes information as efficiently and effectively as possible.
A drawback of having Sign Language as a primary language means that there are many people in the deaf community that do not have strong reading and writing skills simply because English isn’t their first language. This means that when the vast majority of mainstream film and entertainment is so dialogue-dependent, even with subtitles, a lot of people are getting left out.
To say that dialogue is a key part of modern day storytelling seems all too obvious to point out, but it is a relatively modern aspect in terms of the very long and ancestral history of storytelling. Creating a narrative through sequential conversations was a tool that was kept solely in literature until 1927, when the first feature-length “talking picture” came out. Before that the silver screen was dominated by the bombastic and lively performances of the silent stars with spoken word being saved for those times when it was absolutely necessary for the story. The narrative came through by the visual events and the emotion was far from absent for a lack of conversation. It would be beaming across the screen from the actor’s actions and expressions. It was a form of entertainment that, when well executed, was almost universally enjoyable without any hindrance of language.
Without wanting to sound like I am against the marvels accomplished from having sound in films, it seems a derogative step for narratives to become so consolidated to a singular aspect of film-making once talking films became possible. Admittedly it wasn’t long before the scope of performances broadened back to visual awes, though never quite to the extent that was necessary and wonderful in it’s own right during the era of silent films, and any films that have little-to-no speaking nowadays are generally categorised as arthouse or simply don’t make it into popular view.
There hasn’t been anyone to match the likes of Buster Keaton, jumping through cinema screens in Sherlock Jr. or being catapulted around an enormous prop of a house in One Week, and truly that is a shame. Visuals have only become more outstanding with the development of technology and are sometimes the most wonderful thing about a film thanks to many very talented cinematographers. There is plenty of room for more fantastic storytelling in mainstream cinema that doesn’t rest on dialogue.
Visual language is a part of cinema that has been glorified in so many ways and yet it is so often kept back from being a frontline communicator. When cultures are becoming so globally mixed, it seems sensible that there should be more unifying and shared experiences on offer. This is just my small suggestion to a very large industry.
Come and see Buster Keaton’s The General at Cinema City, Sunday 5th March at 5pm.
Christian is an illustration graduate with a keen interest in language. He works at Cinema City and is currently learning braille and level 2 British Sign Language.