Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Noisy New World of Silent Movies

Were he alive today he'd be playing Captain Jack Sparrow
We're living in the second golden age of silent movies. The first golden age had stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, and name directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Our current age of silent films features stars such as Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp, and directors like Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski.

The silent movie was the first art form to become instantly popular in virtually all cultures and countries. Silent films told simple stories in bold, broad visual strokes, with a minimal amount of dialogue and plot information provided through title cards. And to cue and hype the audience's emotional reactions, the films had a musical soundtrack provided by an in-house pianist or even a symphony in larger theatres. Language was no barrier to the enjoyment of silent films; the stories were classic and familiar tales of love lost and gained; heroes on quests and adventures; and lots and lots of slapstick. Special effects took the form of dangerous stunts, elaborate sets, and herds of extras. Whether you lived in America or Armenia, silent films were a common denominator of enjoyment and fascination.

And now we're in the second age of silent movies. Today's silent films, represented by titles like Pacific Rim, Elysium, and franchises like Transformers, the Die Hard films and James Bond, qualify as silents in my book because, like the films of Fairbanks and Keaton, dialogue and complex storytelling is kept to an absolute minimum in order to tell stories easily and quickly, and thus reach a wider global audience. Films like The Last Stand or White House Down might just as well have title cards to handle the dialogue and plot, because the real point of these films is to throw up a wall of noise, SFX, and hyper-fast action.

Thoughtful, complex, more well-crafted films are still being made, but more and more they appeal only to specific national audiences and the international arthouse crowd. Thanks to burgeoning middle-classes in China, India, Brazil and a variety of other countries, the foreign box office has never been more important to Hollywood. In order to reach that audience efficiently, Hollywood has dumbed down its blockbusters so that nothing's lost in translation when a film is shown in Shanghai or Warsaw or Bangalore. All audiences understand and enjoy slapstick, violence, eye-popping CGI effects, and the simple storylines that propel these big budget films from one climactic moment to the next. And in case people don't know how to react, film composers like Hans Zimmer, John Williams and James Horner are on hand to lay on the symphonic bombast or syrup.

A good example of this new style of filmmaking comes from director Neil Blomkamp. His District 9 (2009) had a clever SF concept, told its story from multiple points of view, and featured subtle characterization and social commentary. It was modestly budgeted at $30m. Blomkamp's recently released Elysium cost $100m and is as direct and subtle as a four-panel Dick Tracy comic strip. Everything that made Blomkamp's first film different and original has been tossed aside in favour of generic action elements, a pounding score, and a plot so basic three title cards would probably be sufficient to describe it. This makes it perfect for the international market.

In what may or may not be an unrelated development, a lot of these films are being directed by people whose first language isn't English. The Last Stand, Pacific Rim, and  White House Down were directed by, respectively, a Korean, a Mexican and a German. None of these films started out with good scripts, but it's clear that all three directors have a tin ear for dialogue: line readings in these films are odd or bad, and attempts at humor inevitably fall flat. This isn't really the fault of the directors. If you're not familiar with a language how can you gauge whether dialogue has been delivered well or not? And another culture's humor is extraordinarily difficult to figure out. I wouldn't expect Martin Scorsese to do a good job of directing a Bollywood comedy, so why would a Korean or German be likely to succeed with an English language film? Just this week I heard an interview with Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) in which he said that the reason there's so little dialogue in his films is that he's not comfortable writing in English. He also said that actor Ryan Reynolds had to write all the dialogue in Only God Forgives that involved swearing. Refn felt completely lost when it came to cursing in English. Swearing, like humor, is unique to each culture and difficult for outsiders to acquire fluency in. I think a lot of other foreign directors, if they were being honest, would admit that, like Refn, they aren't comfortable working in English. But who's going to turn down a Hollywood paycheque?

There's nothing wrong with purely visual storytelling if the visuals are used to describe character, advance the plot, or create a mood or emotion that dialogue simply can't describe. Badlands by Terence Malick is a perfect example of this kind of film, and a more extreme example would be the brilliant Italian film Le Quattro Volte. There may be signs that the English-speaking world is growing dissatisfied with these noisy, shooty, blow-everything-up blockbusters. Epics like Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger have underperformed in North America. Many critics have said it's because audiences are getting tired of the same kind of movie always being offered up, but I'm thinking it's because filmgoers are beginning to realize that these blockbusters are just too simple-minded and primitive. Why not stay home and watch something smart on HBO or AMC? In 1929 the "talkies" replaced the silents, and in the last decade or so it looks like the talkies are being superseded by what I'm going to call the "shouties."

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