It’s been said that sound dealt cinema a blow from which it has yet to recover—that between 1927, when The Jazz Singer was released, and the early ‘30s, an art form that that had evolved an increasingly sophisticated, supple visual language was slapped back into the hieroglyphic phase. The camera, which had grown ever more fluid and restless, was suddenly bolted to the floor and encased in bulky sound-proofing armor, and forced to gaze impassively while newly verbal actors chirped fancy-pants dialogue into tiny mikes hidden in flower arrangements.
This is received wisdom, but just because certain early sound-era directors refused to be cowed by the aesthetic constraints of sound (Fritz Lang, Walt Disney and John Ford spring to mind) doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Cinema was always influenced by theater, opera and the novel; but because early films derived so much of their power from nonverbal components (shots and cuts), they were empowered, more than any preceding art form, to mimic thoughts and dreams, and embrace the visceral, the emotional, the spectacular.
Has cinema recovered from The Jazz Singer? It depends on the director, the movie, the genre and the country. One thing’s for sure: the re-evaluation of cinema’s purpose in the wake of sound burdened filmmakers, viewers and audiences with expectations that must still be met nearly a century later. Critics’ predisposition to talk about virtually all narrative films as if they were plays or novels (I do it, too) is an indicator of how far we haven’t come. Of course one could counter that, because moviegoers have been conditioned to expect certain literary qualities, considering a film solely on the basis of its musical-visual traits is, in some sense, grading on a curve. I’ve sometimes been accused of doing precisely that—inconsistently, too. I’ve knocked movies that were almost unanimously praised for their kinetic or atmospheric properties (Children of Men and Batman Begins, for instance) while praising The Black Dahlia, The Road to Perdition, parts of the Star Wars prequels, and other films that are generally regarded as, at best, eye candy. Why prize The Road to Perdition over Far from Heaven, or Blade Runner over Sky Captain and World of Tomorrow? Probably for the same reason I like my coffee with milk but no sugar.
But to invoke the phrase that should be inscribed on my tombstone, I digress. The art and science of motion pictures has changed quite a bit in the past century-plus, but its core mechanism has proved indestructible: information-packed images, cut together to convey arguments or emotions. And if you want to get back in touch with that primordial aesthetic core, the miracle of home video makes it easy: turn the sound off. And I do mean off. Don’t even turn on closed-captioning. It’s amazing how much more compelling almost all films become—and how much more coherent, even elegant, they seem—without the distractions of dialogue, music or sound effects.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ve pulled an assortment of screenshots from five films that cover a spectrum of personal reaction, from “Adored it” to “Pretty good in parts” to “Disappointing.” With the sound off, they’re all beautiful.
1. Time Bandits (1981). Terry Gilliam’s breakthrough cements themes he’d tease throughout his career, including a belief that humanity has lost touch with the sources of enchantment: fairy tales, dreams and an awareness of history. Its hero is a boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock), an inquisitive suburban child with vacuous parents numbed by TV and consumer culture. (“Moderna Designs present the latest in kitchen luxury,” chirps an ad, while Kevin asks his folks, “Dad, did you know that the ancient Greek warriors had to learn 44 different ways of unarmed combat?”)
The plot, which finds Kevin joining a band of thieving dwarfs as they trip through time using a map stolen from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), would seem to present Gilliam and cowriter Michael Palin with a perfect opportunity to make their case. But the heroes’ journey, while certainly amusing, is ultimately trivial and jokey—a fact that’s easy to forget thanks to the savagely bleak final scene. Despite Kevin’s knowledge of history, which saves his colleagues’ bacon on numerous occasions, Gilliam treats the various setpieces mainly as an excuse to riff on popular perceptions of historical figures without enriching or even challenging them. (The most tiresome is the Napoleon interlude, which seems to have gleaned everything it knows about the French leader from that Warner Bros. cartoon “Napoleon Bunny-Part.” It’s ten minutes of short jokes.) Even the all-stops-out final action sequence, in which the various historical personages encountered by the heroes join forces in a climactic battle against Satan (David Warner), is more amusing as a plot construction than for anything that it says about the various characters. Throughout, the humor rarely rises above the level of an OK Monty Python sketch, and it’s made more tiresome by Mike Moran’s “Aren’t we all having a fabulous time?” score, which puts exclamation points after everything when periods (no pun intended) might have been more effective. (If my reaction to the movie seems overly harsh, it might be because I recently screened it on DVD for my daughter following a couple of weeks’ worth of buildup; a fan of Persopolis, Back to the Future and other modestly demanding family films grew increasingly restless as the film unfolded, finally asking, “Dad, why did you like this?” I didn’t know what to say.)
Slightly more compelling is Gilliam and Palin’s suggestion that Good and Evil need each other—that they’re locked in a mutually resentful symbiotic relationship that has more to do with ego satisfaction than with any particular attitude toward humans, whom they regard as as flies to be killed for sport. The Dark One (billed in the credits as Evil Genius), a Wicked Witch-type peering into time’s cauldron and clicking his Nosferatu-length nails, is descended from Satan in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”—a disgruntled invention of God plotting against his creator. The Supreme Being, who’s portrayed throughout much of the film as a disembodied Oz-like head, is ultimately revealed as a smug boss who never obsessed over Satan the way Satan obsessed over him.
That’s amusingly nihilistic in the abstract, but it’s puzzling and self-defeating in a film which (like all of Gilliam’s work) laments modern man’s inability to believe in anything, or care about anyone but himself. For all the dark one’s bellowing and zapping, he ultimately seems more comical than frightening (at least to a child older than seven or eight); that coupled with the Supreme Being’s lofty disdain makes the whole central metaphysical conflict seem beside the point, and makes the final incident seem little more than an artist’s hateful prank, a twist that strains after dramatic power that the movie has done little to earn. Throughout, one gets the sense that Gilliam (who would reveal depths of fury and sadness in Brazil and 12 Monkeys) is a symptom of the spiritual malaise he decries—that he doesn’t really care about any person, situation or idea in the film beyond its potential to justify a dazzling bit of direction.
But what direction! With the sound off—and with Gilliam and Palin’s cute dialogue muted, and Moran’s boldface score disabled—the film’s grating self-regard vanishes. The comedy seems more purely physical, like something out of a Charlie Chaplin film (particularly the bit in the Napoleon section where the dwarfs don giant paper-mache masks and pose as stage performers); the relationship between Kevin and his pals acquires more genuine feeling; both God and Satan seem more intimidating, more invested in the outcome of events, and in some intangible but palpable way, more human. Best of all, Gilliam’s sense of dream logic—always his strong suit—takes over and makes the entire film seem more majestic and terrifying. The ominously torchlit Napoleon sequences, the shattered mirror/shield that hides Satan’s fortress, the cages in which the heroes are imprisoned, suspended in darkness—they’re as splendid as anything that Lang or Orson Welles could dream up.
2. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Is Princess Amadala’s “Hold me like you did at the lake on Naboo” a worse line than Casablanca hero Rick Blaine’s “The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? On paper, no. But as fond as I am of the Star Wars prequels—particularly the second half of II and most of III—I admit that the performances and dialogue are steep obstacles to enjoyment. Strong acting can turn even the rankest babble into poetry. Unfortunately, Star Wars mastermind George Lucas leaves performers to their own devices, and some are more resourceful than others. Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine is a malignant Prospero; Natalie Portman sounds like a POW reading confessions under duress.
Awkward lines and bum performances vanish in silent mode, and Lucas’ pictorial gifts loom large—particularly in Clones. The most geographically and texturally diverse Star Wars film, Episode II unreels like a dream, unveiling one striking, sturdy image after another. The compositions and transitions alone put more respected, “serious” epics to shame: the slow dollies into panoramic wide shots of the Metropolis-influenced galactic capital, Corscuant, a city covering an entire planet, its skies clogged with hovercraft moving in meticulous traffic patterns; the Stanley Kubrick-style, rectilinear master shots of vast interiors; the deliberately John Fordian shots of Anakin’s return to the desert planet Tattooine to rescue his kidnapped mother—a sequence capped with one of the great wipe transitions in recent movies, the enraged hero swinging his lightsaber at a Tusken Raider, his blade slashing diagonally across the screen; the slowly-building final action sequence, from the heroes’ battle against John Carter of Mars-type creatures in a Colosseum lorded over by humanoid insects, through Yoda’s duel with Christopher Lee’s Lord Dooku. (Lee’s performance, which was formidable already, gains extra stature when you don’t have to hear other characters pronounce his ridiculous name.)
My colleague Steven Boone once remarked that the Star Wars films’ allure resides in the world Lucas creates rather than the drama he stages within it. Although I was moved by Anakin’s fall into evil and thought the prequels retroactively added depth to the original trilogy, I can see his point, and a silent viewing of any of the movies, particularly Clones, makes it plain. Each frame is packed with more information than can be absorbed in one viewing. But it’s not just a matter of flooding the screen with people, creatures and objects: Lucas and his army of collaborators give every planet and society a distinct sense of light and space, and its own architectural peculiarities (like the cities of Geonosis, which suggest urban life as imagined by mud-dauber wasps).
The silent Clones’ most striking improvement is the straightforward effectiveness of its love story. Minus problematic lines, uneven performances and John Williams’ inventive but sometimes too-intrusive score, one can take Anakin and Padme’s affection and anxiety at (literal) face value. Silent, Portman and costar Hayden Christensen are as innocently sincere as one could wish—a couple of kids in way over their heads, yet ennobled by their foolish desire. Two images of the couple attain swoony grandeur: the silhouetted medium shot of Padme and Anakin kissing as they’re led into the arena, and the closeup of Anakin alongside Padme at their secret wedding, tenderly grasping his bride’s small hand with his cyborg claw.
3. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002). A textbook example of potentially great pop art undone by Hollywood cowardice, this widescreen DreamWorks cartoon could have been, and should have been, a silent movie with sound—a wordless account of the title stallion’s progress across the American west.
Spirit, a wild mustang who struggles to keep his freedom, is a multi-purpose metaphor for everything from the natural frontier that would eventually be subjugated by white settlers to the Native Americans that would lose their own freedom to Manifest Destiny. The latter comparison is made explicit when supporting character, the Lakota brave Little Creek, is brought in chains to the cavalry fort where our equine hero is likewise imprisoned; both Little Creek and Spirit try to resist being broken—domesticated—by forces whose implacable power they can only hope to escape, not defeat. Screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns) and codirectors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook indulge in figurative and literal flights of imagination (most notably in the astounding three-minute opening sequence, which introduces Spirit’s wild herd via an airborne tracking shot following a hawk through a canyon). But they also acknowledge the classical western tradition, often framing their characters in wide shots that evoke John Ford’s cavalry pictures and Anthony Mann’s more brutal but no less visually sumptuous frontier adventures.
Unfortunately, the movie either never had faith in its ability to carry this story from a horse’s point of view, or else someone involved with the production suffered a catatrophic failure of nerve. Spirit, which could summoned powerful emotions solely through physical action, deft reaction shots, sound design and Hans Zimmer’s simplistic but rousing orchestral score, is saddled with not one, but two storytelling shortcuts: a bland internal monologue (voiced by Matt Damon) and a batch of songs by Bryan Adams that are even more insufferably trite than his usual. When Spirit is born, Adams sings, “Here I am, this is me”; when the horse gets homesick, he sings, “Wherever I wander, here I will always return.” Theater owners should have handed out airsickness bags in the lobby. With sound, the film is a maddening botch; silent, it’s a minor classic.
4. Boogie Nights (1997). I’ve grappled with Paul Thomas Anderson twice in recent months, in a review of There Will Be Blood and an article on the Museum of the Moving Image retrospective of the director’s work. Suffice to say that despite major misgivings, I’m in awe of his talent. I’ve revisited Boogie Nights more often than almost any significant recent American movie that I didn’t like the first time—partly because it has so many persistent, vocal fans, but also because whenever I stumble across an early scene on cable, I get pulled into it, thinking, “Why didn’t I like this the first time? It’s amazing,” then realizing—usually during the hyper-accelerated montage of Dirk Diggler’s rise (ahem) to adult film stardom—that it’s because Boogie Nights feels like a trailer for itself.
Like Goodfellas—the film from which Boogie Nights draws its propulsive dark-comic energy, its use of pop music, a fair number of its shots and sequences and even certain graphic elements (like the white-on-black title card, “80s”, that follows the William H. Macy character’s bloody suicide)—it’s a tour-de-force anthropological drama that packs a miniseries’s worth of plot and characterization in two hours and 40 minutes. But unlike Goodfellas, which varied its rhythm and was willing to turn off the juice, lock the camera down and let its characters have an honest-to-God conversation, in Boogie Nights nearly every dramatic disclosure, transition and montage is designed as a high point. The movie seems as coked-up as the characters. It lacks contemplative moments and connective tissue. To quote Sars, it’s all icing, no cake. Larry Aydlette articulated many of my problems with the movie in his recent article “Random Thoughts on Boogie Nights”: “What exactly is the story of Boogie Nights? Young kid becomes a star, a great big shining porn star in the ‘70s. Change comes to the porn business in the ‘80s as it switches from film to videotape. Young kid gets hooked on drugs and blows his ‘career.’ Hits bottom, straightens up, and returns back to porn. Whips it out. Fade to credits…What does Anderson really think about porn, or these characters, or does he think about them at all? Are we supposed to just observe their lives and be satisfied, or observe Anderson’s directorial precociousness and be wowed, like Dirk Diggler’s dream of his name exploding in neon?”
With the mute button on, I won’t say that the movie is more satisfying, exactly; Anderson’s images are so wedded to particular songs that in silent mode, his films become a radically different, somehow un-PTA experience. At the same time, though, muting the sound highlights the director’s video store generation sensibility so emphatically that the film seems less a wannabe-Scorsese or Altman picture than a formal experiment—a rather icy, quasi-academic art-house object, like Todd Haynes I’m Not There or Far from Heaven, or Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Killing the sound reduces Boogie Nights to the sum total of its rhinestone splendor: the acrobatic camerawork, the dynamic transitions, the haiku-like series of extreme close-ups that introduce major characters, the clever structural devices (for instance the whip-pans that connect conversations in different locales at the movie’s two-thirds mark), and most of all, that astounding art direction—a virtual Smithsonian tour of late ‘70s-early ‘80s crap.
Anderson’s inclination to show the audience his notes—a tendency that nearly always drives me to distraction—becomes the entire show. But it’s a dazzling show. Sans sound, Boogie Nights ceases to be an epic comedy-drama and becomes a straight-up pop fetishist’s wet dream, a guided tour of every bit of kitsch Americana that ever obsessed the filmmaker: a pimpy bedspread; a ceiling mirror; a shiny new sports car; a silver lamp with multiple drooping bulb-mounts that my mom once owned. Visuals, same deal: homage city. The newly-rich Dirk showing Amber his loot is a virtual replay of a similar scene in Goodfellas, complete with a revolving wall element; the high speed dolly-zooms into coke-snorting nostrils are so blatantly Scorsesean that you half-expect Thomas Jane to pass the blow to Ray Liotta.
A sound-ectomy robs the movie of any pretense of gravitas. But it also liberates Anderson’s images from literary expectations. The sequences become sequences, no more, no less, and that glorious stuff is revealed as, well, stuff, attached to characters that seem—rather like Wes Anderson’s people—extensions of social and familial roles, their jobs, their possessions. The pool party sequence, in particular, takes on a free-floating dreaminess; the sunlight is so hot and the colors so bright (the blue pool, the green foliage dotted with cottony white blossoms) that the sheer extravagance of Anderson’s vision seems the entire point. The wide shot of Reed Rothchild doing a flip off Jack Horner’s diving board is a Robert Evans coke party as painted by George Seurat.
Anderson’s characters seem even more clueless, and somehow more touching, when there’s no jaunty music to italicize their predicaments and they can’t explain themselves or ask favors of others. Minus sound, they’re figurines in dated outfits shopping, dancing, fucking, firing off guns and sobbing in each other’s arms. The final image—an homage to the final scene in Raging Bull, which itself was an homage to the most famous scene in On the Waterfront; a tribute to a tribute!—played as unsettling and eerie upon first and second viewings; it was one of those moments you weren’t quite sure how to take (an Anderson specialty, and just one of the reasons I rush to see everything he does even though I’ve found just one of his films, Punch-Drunk Love, completely satisfying). Without sound, it’s hilarious and brilliantly appropriate—the perfect punchline to a guided tour of one director’s imagination.
5. Superman Returns (2006). I said most of what I wanted to say about this movie here. It’s far from perfect, but it has greatness in it; it’s stirring, melancholy, gorgeous, mature, and in places, devastating. It’s the first movie Bryan Singer has ever directed that I thought displayed the sensibility of an artist, rather than an entertainer with a lot on his mind. Silent, its flaws recede, more so than any movie on this list, so I’ll close with a series of images.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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