An Analysis – Things Better Left Unsaid

Though less Euro-influenced than the above mentioned films, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), while containing a great deal of whispered narration, tells the story of a small Texas family in the fifties and sixties within the context of the creation of the universe. And it does so with very long stretches with little dialogue or any human beings to be found on screen. With the mosaic of pictures and images flashing, juxtaposing and tying the various coded themes of the movie together, the almost indecipherable narration becomes superfluous as you become entranced (or, for some people, bored) by Malick’s vision. But I have noticed a few instances of this silent trend within major studio films as well. Weirdly enough, chunks of the blockbuster prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) showcase a silent motion capture performance from the great Andy Sirkis. The scenes involving his character Caesar trying to rally the other apes to their freedom are successfully riveting, even as the leading chimp Caesar has only the physicality that Sirkis grants to convey his motivations.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Lastly I would like to draw attention to Pixar studios, another group of filmmakers who know how to build a scene without a hyper-verbose relentlessness. Yes, Pixar spends lots of money buying celebrity voices for their digital characters and has many memorable lines and quips within the whole of their catalogue, but they are also the same studio who releases a wordless short film before every single one their features. With their use of music, emotively expressive character animation, and careful construction of their set pieces, these shorts may have more in common with the silent era than any of the recent live action films whose nods are more obvious. This tendency towards moving pictures and tender music started to work its way into their full length movies as well, specifically with the film Wall*E (2008), in which we follow a speechless robot  for nearly two hours as he uncovers the story behind our broken planet. In the Oscar-winning film Up (2009), we experience the lives of a married couple as they go through young love, disappointment, loss, and finally death in a deeply emotional prologue in which very little is needed to be said. However, neither Wall*E, the heartbreaking opening to Up, or their shorts draw any attention to their lack of dialogue. Instead, this effect is invisible and created in a way in which all audiences, including impatient children, are invited to share in the pure magic of their animation.

So why all this linguistic brevity? In the nineties when writer/directors like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino made dialogue important again, we began to see more talky comedies and genre films. At that point, a movie like The American would have seemed old hat. Hell, even one of my more favorite recent movies, The Social Network (2010), puts an extreme emphasis on the words between the characters. But this movement towards subtly and filmic purity has been refreshing in the days of loud, frenetic, explosion-filled summer movies, and banal chatty rom-coms starring Katharine Heigl. Films like the exposition-heavy fantasy The Last Airbender (2010), and last year’s The Green Hornet (2011), a desperately wordy action comedy, show that visual storytelling should be the priority.

The Social Network

With the equally nostalgic and anachronistic releases of the Hugo and The Artist, it seems like the actual production of a period silent film has probably been bubbling underneath the surface of Hollywood for a while. Will neo-silent films like The Artist become the new hot thing? Probably not; but as the big studio action movies seem to be getting faster, louder and dumber, there is now a noticeable fight against this, and a conscientious attempt by some in the business to remind those in filmmaking that some things are better left unsaid.

Pages: 1 2


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

Follow him on Twitter or email him.

View all posts by this author