Back in January, I did my one and only "Best of" for 2009:
"The Best Little Piece of Film Making I Saw"
Consistently, I have heard Pixar praised for being able to tell a story without dialogue-- which they do here, and, perhaps more notably, in the first 30 minutes of Wall-E.
The admiration attached to these very well crafted segments got me thinking about sound and storytelling. Are these pieces of film successful and especially emotionally evocative because they are operating exclusively on a visual level? I'd say no-- because by no means is Pixar making silent pieces of film. Music and sound effects play a hugely important role in your experience of the story. What then, makes the absense of dialogue notable?
Being the huge dork that I am, I went back to my massive, massive film theory book from college and looked up a few essays on sound.
(It's all beat up and pretty, isn't it?)
Anyway, one particular explanation caught my eye:
"If a man is heard speaking, his gestures and facial expression only appear as an accompaniment to underline the sense of what is said. But if one does not hear what it said, the meaning becomes indirectly clear and is artistically interpreted by muscles of the face, of the limbs, of the body. The emotional quality of the conversation is made obvious with a clarity and definiteness which are hardly possible in the medium of actual speech. ... The absence of the spoken word concentrates the spectator's attention more closely on the visible aspect of behavior, and thus the whole event draws particular interest to itself. ... If the words are omitted, the spectator surrenders entirely to the expressive power of the gestures."
-- Rudolf Arnheim, "The Making of a Film," Film as Art, 1933.
Pixar is doing exactly this-- but they are also using the sound to bolster the image. The sounds are pure in a way that dialogue is not. Sound effects and music are manifestation of direct emotion. Where-- dialogue....
One thing that I think we tend to disregard about the importance of speech is our ability to use words to hide what we are feeling instead of actually expressing ourselves. Which is one reason why, by removing dialogue, the gestures become expressive. The characters have nothing to hide behind.
However, the camera can change this-- adding a level of artistic expression that is even more rich than the 'definite' and 'clear' presentation in the absence of dialogue.
For example-- one of my favorite scenes of all time:
(You need only watch until around 6:00)
We look at the beginning of Up and are able to recognize the story for what it is in it's purest sense-- an expression of bare emotion-- because there is no dialogue to either muddle our perception or to distract us from the gesture. But-- The Age of Innocence-- forces us to reconcile what is being spoken with the character's true meaning in their body language and the way it is revealed to the audience by the camera. It uses form to express meaning.
So, yes-- Up is lovely filmmaking-- economical and emotionally stirring. But, The Age of Innocence reaches an entirely different level. It is...impressionistic.
[Disclaimer-- this post was mainly written to help me figure through some writers block. You may enjoy it for whatever you so choose.]