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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Root of Mutism

Silent protagonists in CCC

Why nobody talks? Is it because they can't (natural causes, mental illness, language barrier, vow of silence...) or because they won't (alienation, asociability, incommunicability...)?
I thought there was more actual mute people but only a few use this excuse to justify the absence of dialogue (A Scene At The Sea, Oasis, The Arc...). Or maybe there is nobody around to talk to. After a quick survey there seems to be equal numbers of "can't" (mainly mental disorder or language barrier) and "won't" (mainly physical isolation and social shyness).

Often the auteurs manage a very Spartan environment for their protagonists, in such a way that isolates them in desertic areas or keep them apart from the rest of the community. There are many reasons to this mutism, sometimes an abstracted, "conceited" setting that render dialogue superfluous, but other times the silence is more uncomfortable because the interpersonal relation with other present characters doesn't take place as it normally should. CCC protagonists refuse to talk on purpose. They seem to exclude the world, or feel excluded by it.

Could we say that CCC auteurs are no longer interested in the role of words? They might be through with the constant babbling of classic (theatre-inherited) narration. Or is it our current society that had enough with the long overstated discourses, while mainstream cinema keeps feeding us with an ideal form of reality where every character gets a finely scripted punchlines to deliver at key moments. TV definitely has a passion for excessive verbalisation and a phobia for dead silences... for a contemplative pause. (This consideration is especially interesting vis-a-vis the ongoing writer's strike that brings Hollywood to its knees).

Reygadas sets his latest film in a remote rural region of Mexico, and to accentuate the alienation, they are a non-Spanish-speaking community (Mennonites) who count every word they speak, essentially devoted to spiritual meditation. The protagonists in his previous films were also exceptionally mutic, even within a less drastic environment.
Sokurov and Tsai opt for a foreign country too, a place where the language barrier comes in the way of basic exchanges with their neighbors and friends.

What is this strange discrepancy between a certain minimalistic trend in contemporary art-cinema, and the world of intense communication we live in? Even when the film takes place in dense urban areas, they seem to be awkwardly depopulated, or inhabited by people who lost any communication skills.

Continue reading : Fiant on contemporary mutic cinema


Michael Kerpan said...

Aoi Miyazaki in Aoyama's "Eureka" didn't speak due to a post-traumatic stress disorder (or something of the sort)m thoiugh it is never made clear whether she can't speak or chooses not to do so. In Shiota's "Gaichu" (Harmful Insect) she is not mute -- but laconic in the extreme (she may well do more writing than speaking). She has continued to specialize in roles that depend far more on her gaze than on her speech (with some exceptions).

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the complement of information, Michael. I still didn't see Eureka to this day! And I don't know the other film you mention.
You raise an interesting issue there about "contemplative typecasting"... which could become detrimental to an actor's range of performance, or at least could be perceived that way. That would be nice to develop this further.

Michael Kerpan said...

Eureka is an interesting case of a film that is long and laconic and generally slow-moving -- but punctuated by a few very extreme events. Gaichu is not quite so long, but is otherwise similar. While Eureka got a very good subbed Japanese release (and some cheaper, but not as good releases elsewhere), apparently the only way to find a subbed version of Gaichu is from file sharing sites (no clue how to do this).

Aoi Miyazaki has gotten the chance to try out some other sorts of roles -- and has done well. I am keeping my fingers crossed that she will turn out to be the Setsuko Hara of her generation.

weepingsam said...

This has me curious - how speechlessness is used in films (CCC and not). I'm not sure I have any conclusions yet, but it's interesting to explore - I was thinking of doing a similar post, but my thoughts are pretty unorganized, so I'll try it here first...

It does seem to be a noticeably device in recent films - this past year there has been: There Will Be Blood (much of it without dialogue, some of it motivated by a deaf character); No Country for Old Men (motivated mostly by the story, much of it devoted to men traveling alone); Diving Bell and the Butterfly (motivated - though also mitigated by the speechless character's voiceover - a trick you see in Wong Kar-wei's films quite a bit, including Takashi Kinoshiro's mute character in Fallen Angels); I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (which is half physical - the paralysed guy, and half cultural, the confusion of tongues for the homeless guy); Flandres (just a bunch of untalkative characters); Rescue Dawn (men alone in the jungle); Brand Upon the Brain (all of it "silent", with narration instead of speech); Red Road (long stretches with characters alone); Honor de Cavellaria (characters who don't talk)... maybe I should count the chipmunk in Enchanted, who can't talk because he's a chipmunk (is that physical or a confusion of tongues? given the ties between this film and the tradition of immigrants in NY stories, it's probably not as facetious a comment as it might seem...)

That's kind of a cross section of the ways speechlessness can appear - which matches up pretty well to what I've seen in CCC: characters unable to speak (physically or psychologically) - who may or may not be able to speak in voiceover (lots of examples - besides the ones you and Michael mentioned, I can think of City of Sadness, Bad Guy, Fallen Angels, anyway); characters who are literally alone (the second half of Tropical Malady, etc.); characters who can't talk to each other because of language barriers (Clara Law's Autumn Moon, I think; Happy Together, What Time is it There, Last Life in the Universe, I think, etc.); characters who do not speak (much) (too many films to name, I think); and characters who may or may not speak in the story world, but are not shown speaking in the film - either the filmmaker does not show them when they are speaking (as in Honor de Cavellaria) or does not put their dialogue in the film (Branded on the Brain). (The former being pretty common - Wong Kar-wei again; there have been a fair number of "silent" films made in the last 10 years or so - Juha, the 1911 part of Three Times, etc...)

As for what it means: the confusion of tongues motif is a common one - explicitly in Wong Kar-wei's films, and Hou's City of Sadness... which is an interesting case study - if I have my stories straight, it was one of the first Taiwanese films shot with synch sound - Tony Leung didn't speak the Taiwanese dialect his character's family spoke, so the character was made mute. Which means that the device (the deaf mute) is a result of the theme it serves to emphasize (the confusion of tongues).

I think the other big theme that turns up a lot is the idea of the impossibility of communication. The desire to connect, to communicate, etc, and its impossibility. Which I think is also exhibited in a lot of films that go the other way - by including lots of talk, but talk that is not in the service of the story. In classical films, the dialog tells the story, establishes characters and so on - but I think there's a tendency in art films, going back quite a ways, for dialog to break with the story - to be either banal or impersonal somehow (like all the quoting that goes on in Godard.) Or, for dialog to disappear completely - but either approach is breaking the usual pattern of speech.... I think this tendency turns up in films that are very different from CCC - like Death Proof. There's talk talk talk, but none of it is communication - the dialog doesn't really tell the story, it's not really establishing characters: it's split from the narrative and meaning of the film, the way the speechlessness in CCC resists characterization, or dramatizes the impossibility of communication... I think the two are related - non-speech and non-communicative speech have similar functions sometimes....

There's another issue that comes to mind - films that are split between talkative parts and silent parts. Films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Fallen Angels - with mute characters who are given extensive voiceovers might fall in this category... or something like Vanda's Room - which was split between a good deal of (fairly banal) chatter, especially in Vanda's room, and the lack of talk among the men... all of these devices seem aimed at breaking speech from the story, making speech into a problem...

Oggs Cruz said...

In Lav Diaz's Heremias, the titular character opts to travel alone with his ox cart due to his inability to communicate, as well as the other ox cart drivers. Most speech in the film is done by people around the character, and the character in turn, becomes the taciturn sponge of several information. When he learns of something dire and decides to speak up, nobody listens. In the film's penultimate scene, he talks to God and makes a deal. We'll really never know if God listened to him or not, or if he even exists in Diaz's 9-hour film but the film does play a lot with this peculiar lack of communication of main characters of contemplative cinema. Here, it doesn't only serve the purpose of characterization but also of more severe thematic consequences.

HarryTuttle said...

weepingsam, there is enough material there to make a new post indeed. I hope you will.
The "mundane chatter" is a whole different issue, though I agree it's still part of the "contemplative" trend. Because it's not plot-driven dialogue (meant to move forward the story, to give clues, to jump to the next scene, to install suspense, to cue other characters). It's like a background noise of dailylife small talks.

Hamaca Paraguaya is a good exemple, as onscreen characters are walled in total silence, and it's a voiceover inner monologue or banal conversation we overhear.
Though the voicerover device is essentialy a classical convention, and its role and nature in storytelling goes against the CCC non-verbal atmosphere.

The language barrier especially strikes me in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's movies (Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves) or in Zhang Lu's (Grain in Ear and Desert Dream).

Nice comment Oggs Cruz, I hope I get to see Heremias in March. ;)

Carlos Ferrão said...

Samuel Beckett (a favourite of our man Bela)
Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.