An Analysis – Things Better Left Unsaid

What is in a look, a stare, or a knowing glance? What is an emotion? Ideally in film, emotions should be expressed in actions, since it’s a medium of moving pictures and all. However, over the decades directors have struggled to define the actor’s interior sense without words to do some of the heavy lifting. A long time ago, in the 1920s and before, sound and words were not taken for granted. The silent film era is still considered one of the most important, not only because they were the ones who were still making all the rules, but because they had to work within their limitations. Besides the obvious technological disadvantages, the actors had to come up with ways of showing emotion and moving a scene along with just their actions and expressions. Some of these now-silly acting techniques were acquired by overly melodramatic theater and have since been seen as a dated way to build a character. But perhaps there is something to be said for being able to get a scene from point A to point B without ever saying a word.

This fall we had what seems to be a resurgence in the interest for the silent era. Still in theaters we have two such throwbacks: The Artist (2011), a French-made black and white silent film, and Hugo (2011), an American movie about French-made black and white silent films. Both of these films have been critical favorites, and are now awards contenders. Though the demographics for these films may be very different, they do aim towards the same nostalgia for a time when things were simpler, less jaded, and perhaps a bit more pure in their naïvety.

The Artist

The Artist in particular is a bold attempt at reintroducing the silent film style to a new audience—the music, the costumes, the title cards and all. It’s a self-aware earnest love story and it wears its conceit with a big dopey smile. Of course, because of the eccentric nature of this concept, its box office objectives are modest, mostly catering to the art house and niche audiences. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, however, is a film that wants to share its director’s love of silent film with a modern generation, but not the pseudo-intellectual cinefiles—rather, kids and their families. Not surprisingly, a 3D family film made by director of Goodfellas (1990) and Taxi Driver (1976), in which the main theme deals the importance of film preservation, did not take middle America by storm, despite it winning the hearts of the above-mentioned film geeks and critics.

But maybe this trend towards the evocation of actual silent films isn’t the only noticeable use of showing and not telling. In the last few years, creative directors have been approaching dialogue with a more reductive awareness. Back in 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood opened with a ten-minute prologue where not a single word is spoken by Daniel Day-Lewis as you watch him discover the black combustible MacGuffin under the desolate desert ground. This of course set the tone over the whole piece, showcasing a career-defining performance, and in my opinion stands as a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, even outside of the context of the equally amazing feature. Shortly thereafter, we began to see many of these kinds of quiet movies with many wordless scenes pepper throughout the fringes of the mainstream, where the actors do more intrinsic performances and the loudest people on screen are the directors and cinematographers.

The American

Some directors have recently seemed to start looking back, not necessarily into the silent era, but into the Italian and French works of the sixties and seventies. Though more than a few decades after the silent era, influential directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Pierre Melville, and Sergio Leone also had an appreciation for quietude, despite having the technology affording a concern for the full use of sound design. In 2010, ex-music video director Anton Corbijn released The American, an arty euro-thriller starring a nearly mute George Clooney. Drawing his stylistic influence from Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), The American was thriller about the internal pathology of a criminal, with hardly any set pieces or dialogue. Like Clooney’s understated performance in The American, Ryan Gosling gives a comparable characterization as the nameless hero of the neo-noir thriller Drive (2011). It could be well argued that both of these actors were riffing or building their characters from the French assassin in Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) or Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name,” featured in Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy. In Somewere (2010), Sofia Coppola seems to share Corbijn’s  love for the filmmaking tones of Antonioni, as we are introduced to the main character, played by Stephen Dorff, by following his speechless actions for nearly fifteen minutes before a word of dialogue is uttered.


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Raised in South-East Idaho and currently working in Los Angeles, Cassidy is a freelance film journalist and an experienced geek.

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