The Human Condition:

Silent Movie – January 7, 2018

Scene from Tol’able David

Scene from Tol’able David

In early December, I saw the movie Tol’able David from 1921 at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The screening was presented with bravura accompaniment—think of playing nonstop, with expression, and mindful of what’s happening on the screen, for one hour and thirty-nine minutes—by local ragtime and concert pianist Frederick Hodges. I’m not really a fan of silent movies, but the experience made me think about developments in my own art, which is fiction writing.

In the early silent pictures, you can see the transition in pictorial storytelling from stage plays to modern moviemaking. For one thing, the actors are heavily made up: eye shadow, eyeliner, exaggerated brows, and darkened lips in otherwise pale faces. This recalls stage makeup, where the actor’s facial features are emphasized so as to be distinguishable in the tenth row back and not fade into a white blur from the vantage point of the balcony. A friend explained that the heavy makeup in the silent screen was also required by the film stock of the time. The film’s emulsion was “orthochromatic” and was good at capturing the blue wavelengths of reflected light. Red wavelengths, such as those coming from ruddy faces and the thinner, blood-tinted skin of lips and eyelids, would tend to disappear; so the makeup heightened and emphasized these areas. It is also no coincidence that the mouth and the eyes are the keys to a person’s facial expression.

Today’s movie makeup works harder to create a realistic scene. Yes, a woman’s lips and eyes get special treatment as elements of modern female beauty—just as a fashion-conscious woman spends time smoothing her skin and highlighting her eyes and lips with cosmetics. But more often the makeup department attached to a set is creating realistic beards for beardless actors, applying mud, blood, and bruises for a fight scene, visualizing alien or zombie features, or making sure that a laborer’s beaded sweat stays in place and shows up well on camera.

Just as silent-film makeup emphasized delicate facial features, the actors also exaggerated their face and body language, relying heavily on pantomime. And again, this was an adaptation from the stage, where a slight lift of the eyebrow or a millimeter dip of the lips in a frown would go unnoticed by the general audience. And so actors of the silent screen squinted when they looked into the distance, struck their foreheads when expressing surprise, put a fist to their chins when deep in thought, and held their bellies when they laughed. These gestures became a visual code or language. An audience sitting at some distance from the stage, or on the other side of the silver screen, understood them and received the right message.

Silent-film actors would also mouth words of intended dialogue to fit the situation, because you can’t carry the whole story with subtitles. For example, in Tol’able David the heroine runs down the street in distress, and you can see her throw back her head and scream “Help me!” If you are paying attention to the action, you don’t need a dialogue card to tell you what she’s saying.

In today’s films, the actor is cautioned to minimize facial expression and gestures. I once saw a wonderful clip in which Oliver Reed gives acting advice to a beginner. He tells a young broadcaster to control his inflections, minimize his accents, and hold his eyes still instead of winking and blinking. The point is, when your face is shot in close-up and rendered forty-feet wide on the big screen, and when your voice is amplified throughout the theater with modern electronics, you don’t need histrionics to get your point across.1

Another artifact of the theater stage that carried over to early movies was the point of view through the proscenium arch. The audience of a stage play is out of the action, looking through this arch—sometimes called the “fourth wall” of an interior set—which frames the view. Even with theater-in-the-round, an audience member sees the action only from his or her side of the stage, not from within the action. Early movies adopted this more distant point of view, framing most shots to encompass the middle distance and all of the action, then letting the audience member look here and there on the screen to decide where the most important bit of stage business was taking place. Only occasionally would the movie focus on an actor’s face in reaction to what was going on, or pick out a specific object, like the gun under the bureau in Tol’able David, to make a point to the viewer.

Modern movie directors and cinematographers use the camera like a roving eye, focusing on details that are important to the story, fixing one actor’s face and then another’s, or isolating a bit of action to give it special meaning. Only occasionally—unless the director is Stanley Kubrick—will the camera pull back and show the whole scene as if viewed through the proscenium arch.

And finally, the silent movies only dabbled in special effects. In the black-and-white Tol’able David, for example, most of the action takes place during the day, and here the film is untinted and rather stark. For a scene at night outside a building, the film is sepia-toned. And for a dance in the moonlight, the film takes on a blue-green tint. Similarly, when a character is running across a field, the speed of the film in the camera is noticeably reduced, which speeds up the action and makes the character appear to run faster than normal.2

Today’s movies, of course, use special effects to portray many places and things that used to be shown with actual scenery and stage props. Why go to Rome or build a fantastically expensive set when you can shoot on a sound stage with a green screen and let matte painting or computer-generated imagery (CGI) fill in the imaginative blanks? In the most recent movies, the same digital effects have been applied to people, as when Andy Serkis played Gollum and Benedict Cumberbatch played Smaug in the Tolkien-based movies. The Star Wars franchise has even used CGI on unnamed actors to recreate the late Peter Cushing as the Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia without changing the role.

By comparing the silent movie era with today’s productions, you can see how the art form moved from stage to screen and then reestablished, or more often invented, its own conventions as cues to guide the audience’s experience.

Similarly, in studying English at college, I had the opportunity to read and examine early novels and compare them with other forms of storytelling. My coursework traced the art of contemporary fiction from the epic poems of the Greek Homer and the Roman Virgil, from the plays of the Athenian stage, and from the Celtic legends and the Norse sagas to medieval “mystery” plays and the Elizabethan theater, and then on to the first books that were actually published to tell a new—or “novel”—fictional story as opposed to one based on biblical stories, myths, and legends.

The first of those, as any English major will tell you, is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, from 1740. The story was told through a series of letters which Pamela sends home from her job working on a wealthy man’s estate. This novel was followed by Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, from 1749. Both books were keen on exploiting lust and sex, thereby establishing a convention—and a reputation—for the full-length book form of storytelling.

Like the earliest stage plays, the poetry of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid adopted a global, omniscient viewpoint. The reader is carried along by a voice that portrays all of the action equally, from outside the character’s heads. The text might say that Achilles is sulking or that Odysseus is scheming, but the action only describes what each man does and is supposed to be feeling while he is doing it.

The novel Pamela, being told in letters written in the character’s own voice, introduces the first-person viewpoint. Here a young girl tells only what she herself saw, felt, and did. To introduce the thoughts and motivations of the other people in the story, the author must write of them as speculations and assumptions—or fragments recalled from earlier conversations—in the heroine’s letters. This is a confining way of telling a story, but it has the positive effect of taking us inside the viewpoint character’s head in the way that a third-person narrator cannot convincingly do.

When I started out writing fiction, the third-person, omniscient, godlike narrator was the voice of most novels. In some cases, the narrative voice would affect an accent and a personality, make jokes and observations about the story’s situations or the human condition, and act like a human being telling a story around a campfire or in your parlor. But then, after years of stripping away the narrator’s affectations—mostly under the influence of the journalistic style and of Ernest Hemingway, who wrote simple, direct, unadorned sentences—popular fiction spoke with the voice of an invisible, uncharacterized narrator. The words came out of the air and into the reader’s head.

One problem with this omniscient approach is that the story loses all effective viewpoint. Like an audience viewing the described action and the characters’ reactions through a proscenium arch, the narrator’s viewpoint danced into and out of the heads of various characters during the course of a single scene or dialogue exchange. One character would see something and reflect on it, then another character would view the first character’s reaction and think about it. The invisible narrator would offer physical descriptions of all the characters at once, without any distinguishing flavor or the discernment and judgment particular to one point of view. The observations and revelations of the characters would flow back and forth with no control. The viewpoint was both omniscient and omnipresent.

This approach is fine for telling a story fast and completely in one movement. The action takes place once, is over and done, and everything is revealed by the end of the scene. And this can be satisfying for the reader. But it is difficult for such a narrator to conceal anything from the reader except by willful misdirection: the narrator must play tricks to keep the reader in suspense. If that narrative voice chooses to conceal one character’s assumptions or understandings for the moment and only reveal them later, there is no good explanation for why the narration didn’t dip into that head, too, at the appropriate time during the action.

Out of dissatisfaction with this omniscient narrator, I have developed a personal style that some call “indirect discourse” but it is more a form of tight viewpoint control.3 I believe it more accurately reflects the way people think, act, and speak. So, during a scene, my narration is from a single viewpoint and examines the thoughts and feelings of only one character at a time. Other characters may act and speak inside the scene, but then they are viewed as objects, as things outside, by my viewpoint character. It is much like writing in first person—“I did, I said, I thought”—but using the third-person voice.

If I want to show how another character felt or what he or she thought about the action, I must move to another scene told from within that person’s head. For critical action sequences, I break the story down into multiple short scenes passing from one character to another. Or, more rarely, I pause the timeline of the story and go back through the action, telling what was going on from another person’s point of view. Or, if I want to keep the story moving forward, I incorporate in a later scene the viewpoint character’s recalling and reflecting on the earlier action while he or she now attends to something else.

Tight viewpoint control can work through a single main character, who is followed throughout the book as if it were a first-person story. But then every other character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations must remain outside, as speculations and assumptions by this viewpoint character. And anything that is unknown to the main character—like who is really on the other side of the door, or how his lover is about to betray him—must come as a surprise to both the character and the reader.

It’s more fun—and better storytelling—to reveal stories through various fixed viewpoints from multiple characters. Then I can play one person off against the others. I can also pick one person or group to represent the detached, expectant viewpoint that parallels the reader’s, serving the same function as the Greek chorus on the Athenian stage. The chorus invokes for the audience the justice of the gods, the mores of current society, or simply the common sense of the average person. And I can have one character plotting an action or pursuing a motivation about which a second character has no notion—but I can let the reader can see, anticipate, and wonder how the second character will fare when the trap springs.

Modern storytelling—like the creative focus of the camera lens in modern moviemaking—allows the writer to direct the reader’s attention and understanding in ways both subtle and overt without being obviously or inexplicably manipulative. Like a modern screen actor’s ability to convey emotion through a look in the eye, without pantomime and facial histrionics, it’s just a better, more realistic, more satisfying way of proceeding.

1. When I first met her, my wife had a tendency to raise her voice an octave or more when she became stressed or angry. But this made her sound shrill and nervous, and so she became less convincing when she confronted men in a professional or commercial setting. I suggested—from something I had heard elsewhere—that instead, when she became angry, she should drop her voice and speak very calmly. My wife perfected this technique and could sound downright scary in an argument.

2. The last time I saw this speed-up effect in modern movies—outside of those portraying comic-book superheroes—was in the early James Bond movie From Russia With Love, where the fight scenes were accelerated in an attempt to show the supposedly eerily fast moves of judo and karate.

3. Of course, I am not alone in this. Most modern novels are told with some form of indirect discourse.