Film has a language. I’m not talking about the words that come out of the actors’s mouths. Obviously, that’s a language and if it’s a guy in a rubber suit stomping on a city, the people screaming and running away are probably doing so in Japanese; meanwhile, if Olivia Newton John is flirting with John Travolta, they are probably using whatever form of English old people think teenagers used in the 1950s.
No, I’m talking about something far more fundamental than that, because there was a time (in the grand scheme of things not so long ago) when the actors in movies couldn’t even speak. Well, of course they could speak, because even back then most everybody could, but no one could hear them. Well, most people could, but—wait. Let me start again.
Film has a language, above and beyond whatever you hear on the soundtrack. For those who study such things, the sum total of the technical aspects of filmmaking constitutes a type of grammar, which can be combined in near infinite ways — but also in proper and improper ways. For the most part, it is expected that this language well remain more or less invisible to the average theater goer, taking no more time to parse than would be used in decoding the words of a person talking to you.
But, it want always so. When film was in its infancy and still little more than a novelty, people had a very hard time with it. While modern audiences are aware that when Mary, Queen of Scotts loses her head no one in the screen has actually died, earlier audiences weren’t so savvy. There are tales of people fainting, of running in fear at the sight of a train pulling into a station or diving for cover when the bad guy in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery fired his gun directly into the camera.
And, honestly, who could blame them? This was genuinely something new, different from any other at form which preceded it. Unlike a painting, which still exists as a painting whether anyone is looking at it or not, a motion picture relies on a trick of the mind to be perceived. Without a human sitting down to contemplate it, or even just use it as an excuse to eat popcorn for a couple of hours, a motion picture is simply a collection of still photographs on a strip. As such, film is unique as a form of artistic expression, explicitly requiring audiences participation whether they realize it or not. Today, it is so familiar a child can do it. But one hundred years ago, our entire species was in the process of learning a new trick.
Even so, it took quite some time before anyone really bothered to talk about this new language, much less codify it. Although the industry as a whole abandoned the technique of simply placing a camera in front of something and filming it rather quickly, the pace of improving the art further wasn’t as swift as one might think.
It wasn’t really until the 1930s, when (for some reason or another) the entirety of Europe decided to hide in a dark room for the better part of twenty years and take a really good look at it, that the language of film began to be understood. This is one of the reasons why so many of the film terms you see bandied about are French, and almost certainly why none of them are in English. America didn’t care about the art. She was always far more concerned about how housewives in the Midwest would react to these new-fangled close up things than whether or not the close ups in question were in any way artful.
Don’t get me wrong: filmmakers in America were very responsible for many of the artistic achievements and improvements in film, and had been from the very beginning. But, for all of their innovation, it took the French to notice what was happening. Concepts like mise en scene, which held that the position of objects within the frame on screen was just as important as the cinematography itself were revolutionary when they were first described. The idea that American films from the war era constituted a unique form, film noir, likely came as a surprise to filmmakers who had honestly been doing the best they could during a blackout.
But these theorists weren’t just having pretentious conversations about how extensive that Expressionism thing the Germans experimented with really was. They were putting their ideas into practice with films of their own. Things like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette, and Jean Renoir’s (son of that Renoir) The Rules of the Game, which some have called the greatest motion picture ever made. Personally, I tend to shy away from such pronouncements for the simple reason that the best of anything is constantly changing and more than a little subjective. It is certain, though, that the The Rules of the Game is an excellent example of how one goes about properly putting a movie together in much the same way as Moby Dick is an excellent example of how to bind a bunch of words together in sequence. To modern audiences, it might all seem like so much over blown malarkey, but it is hard to deny the effort and the artistry that went into making it.
There is a reason why discussions of film rely on toity sounding technical terms, and it isn’t (just) because the people using them want to sound smart. The language of film may have largely been developed in the states, but the words used to describe that language were mostly coined elsewhere.
So, the next time you see an article pontificating about a movie’s light motif, remember that you are so much smarter than that author. And, also, that you are a part of a long tradition in an art that honestly couldn’t exist without you. Just because it has become more familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be better understood and, personally, I’ve found that pursuit to have made the whole affair just that much more irresistible.