Art of the Talkie

14 Jan

Early on in the movie Dr No, James Bond kneels down, plucks a hair from his head, moistens it and affixes it carefully across the closet door in his hotel room. The idea being, if anyone decides to go through his possessions while he’s out, this barely visible seal will break, and our secret agent will know that someone’s been up to no good.

In later movies in the series, 007 will employ more high-tech gadgets (and actor Sean Connery wear a bigger toupee) but this improvised security device is about as primitive a tool as you can make. It’s also perhaps the most basic form of sign-making, using one’s own body to mark the environment in a private code. Once such behaviour has been observed, however, it’s open to wider interpretation. Depends how packed the cinema is.

It’s a little moment of spy craft that would have worked just as well in a silent movie. But as soon as Bond goes round asking difficult questions, we run into all sorts of problems.

How can you tell a more involved story, and convey a few less than immediate ideas, purely visually?

Well, constraints on a form are just a challenge to art, of course; indeed, it’s only a couple of years since a silent film, The Artist, won the Oscar for Best Picture. The trouble is, the last time that happened was at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1929.

The art of moving pictures had advanced rapidly since the turn of the previous century, benefiting from technological innovations in celluloid photographic film and cine cameras, but in one respect it had remained uncomfortably static.

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While it’s easy now to make fun of the awkward title cards that were inserted to spell out the dialogue and plot, it wasn’t so easy to do away with them; although some films, like Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) did try to avoid them as much as possible and rely instead on a more fluid and expressive use of imagery.

I was reminded of all this recently after following a link from https://twitter.com/ruthmalan to http://www.shauntan.net/books/the-arrival.html. You will find it a beguiling page revealing how an illustrator came to produce a book of wordless images and turn his self-imposed constraints into art.

Back at the movies, the demands of sound imposed a new set of problems.

How I wish those wordless images up on the silver screen had had just a few more years to perfect their art before the competition took over! But technology is no respecter of progress, and sound-on-film rewound some of what had already been achieved in order to usher in the Art of the Talkies. I can’t complain as it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?

It’s undeniable that, over the years, the relationship between what’s on screen at any moment and the sounds being made off screen at the same time has become subtle and many-layered (not least because the recording equipment has improved), but there are still concepts that project less well than others. The interior lives of composers, for instance, or the wiles of computer hackers often end up roughly the same way, as someone being propped in front of a keyboard, hollow-eyed, waiting for that magic to arrive.

Is there a better way to organize a limited flow of information, suggesting a more complex experience by creating a succession of overlapping impressions in our minds?

If a single word can carry all sorts of associations, in a novel these can be woven together in an almost infinite number of ways.

A novel is like an evolved dictionary. Dictionaries on their own, of course, are impenetrable. Without any prior knowledge of the language, the meaning of any word is only in relation to other words in the same dictionary, endlessly turning back on itself, unresolved. We need to have experienced enough of those words in real life first to trust that they will help to make sense of the rest. When we come across an unfamiliar word in a dictionary, we can restate it in more familiar terms but, through its fresh pattern of associations, we may uncover in the definition some feeling we could never put a name to before, and of which we were previously perhaps not entirely conscious. So it is much more with a novel, where the unique arrangement of words also happens largely in time rather than space, temporarily redefining the words a little as they make relationships with each other in the story, evoking in us an ever-changing stream of feelings.

And yet, however much in control the author is of these effects in the arrangement of words, and regardless of what we know of the author’s intentions, there can never be a definitive reading of a novel. Each time, even for the same reader, a novel will conjure up from each episode, from each phrase, a slightly different set of associations.

Words in themselves can never claim to possess any final meaning. They are as used, as collectively agreed, or as disputed. This is why the arguments of philosophers founder, not just on contrasting definitions, but on the contrasting individual experiences of life that are their ultimate references for those definitions. There is only so far you can get with a logic that can never entirely escape the uncertainty that started with the language it was expressed in. Even mathematics is less than pure (unless you try to apply a different argument, which I think is cheating).

We should not presume that abstractions obtained by language can be universal: if such concepts even exist, they do not belong to words. In this light, good, evil and what you will are not higher truths, rather incomplete generalizations taken from countless experiences. Half close your eyes and a simpler pattern emerges for a moment from the jumble in front of you; squint any further and it becomes a blur.

If we’re not to lose sight of the meaning, an abstract concept must retain links to its concrete origins. It’s only of use so long as it can still return to earth. If you add enough rocket fuel, you may boost it out of the atmosphere, and drift and drift and drift in space, but there’s no getting away from it, being lost is far from being universal. If it drifts too far from where it started, it will turn into a neutral symbol which can stand for anything you like and has no value in itself; the letter X. Beyond abstraction lies indeterminacy. Sometimes, though, something quite meaningless can be just what is required.

Whereas abstractions always belong to the particular, beginning and ending in everyday experience – however remotely – symbols are devoid of essential meaning; empty, merely placeholders, but waiting to be filled.

The sound, or the look (or the touch) of a word is a symbol for an abstraction, a container for something derived from life.

Language is a technology for capturing experiences. Words are tools, while syntax involves putting it all together to make a more advanced machinery. However perfectly formed, a tool is is never an end in itself; it is a way of transferring an effect through our control of an intervening medium, whether this is the passage of a stone-age spear or an inarticulate cry through the air.

Humans are not unique in this respect among the animals; we’re just sufficiently advanced to combine materials into composite tools, single sounds into compositions, to use tools to make new tools, and words to make new words, for complex connected structures to enable even greater complexity.

Neither language nor tools can survive long without being shared.

Communication occurs when we deliberately mark our environment to share information that is not to be found in the physical properties of the mark.

If you recall James Bond and his cunning placement of a strand of hair, so far he would still only be talking to himself.

Perhaps the use of tools began selfishly, along with the making of marks. I could be using a stick or a stone to help me get at some food. When I’d finished for the while, I’d let it drop to the ground, somewhere to hand. Later, I would rediscover the same location by recognizing the tool I’d left lying around at the scene. I would have by accident created a private marker to my secret supply. Now if I was smart enough to put one and one together, but as it happens no smarter than some of my fellow creatures, then these little acts of marking a location would start to get noticed and shared around. Cut forward a few months (or millennia) and they could be using any old thing to mark a food source, an inferior stick or stone, rather than the more effective (and more precious) tool actually needed.

I was there at the time so this is all true! Well, I’m sure you could argue for starting from another, quite different, area of proto-human activity, but it seems to me that so long as it’s basic ape-type behaviour, and you create a minimal change in “intelligence” enough to get to whatever your stage one is (via a modicum of introspection, I guess), then you can always get to stage two, which is the beginning of abstraction and symbolic language and so on.

Thinking about it, as much as I’ve used words to describe a visual source for language, I’ve got physical details to represent the process of abstraction. Is all you really need some silent action involving a few objects and a bit of social interplay? Maybe film director Stanley Kubrick already did it better with the ape fight at the waterhole in 2001 A Space Odyssey, with a bone spinning through the air and the famous match cut to a space station, but we’ve both used the form of the idea to express the idea, finding the concept in the specific. (I’m beginning to wonder if it wasn’t this very movie that influenced me to think about human evolution in this way, rather than a more scientific story.)

Actually, other animals such as birds and squirrels can find their way back to food hoards relying on existing landmarks and their memories, without putting down any markers, but if you can use a bigger brain to remember more, you can use it to make more connections with what’s around us in our environment, and memory is less predictably successful over time.

Our ancestors must have started observing each other’s behaviour enough to become conscious of how to make use of it. Before I get too carried away in making up an overconvenient explanatory fiction, though, in reality gradual variations in ability and behaviour could have happened over thousands and thousands of years and it would have been impossible to notice an identifiable point before and after, or to say which step preceded which. Now, on with the fiction!

Abstraction can be achieved starting from a simple substitution. You can throw a stick, you can throw a stone; you can throw a thing that can be thrown, call it a projectile. In the silent era, Charlie Chaplin was well known for his transposition gags. In The Gold Rush, he finds himself snowed in, in a log cabin in the wilds of Alaska with no food left. Chaplin lovingly cooks one of his hobnail boots, carves it like a roast, twirls the laces like spaghetti and picks delicately at the boot nails as if they were the ribs.

Analogy involves recognising something of value in only a partial likeness. Now, other animals must of necessity be able to recognise a whole from only incomplete information, it could be a glimpse of a predator or their own prey, but seemingly few make anything more of it. We have the ability to keep hold of both correct and failed matches, see the ambiguity, get the joke, reconcile opposing ideas, become double agents dealing in lies and hypocrisy. Animals are probably adapted to be afraid of shadows, too, but maybe to reject and not retain as much of those secondary patterns that turned out to be illusory?

To make tools, or words, work, you need to understand the similarities and differences between one thing and another. That starts with recognising that some found objects work for you better than others, then learning what it is that distinguishes them that makes them appropriate, and confirming this by producing new things that repeat the same effects. (Science still does it like that – although in writing here I’m trying to stick to introspection and imagination and leave the scientific method to the scientists.)

If we see two mushrooms that look pretty similar but recognise one as edible and one not, we’re relating the visual information to experience, not just going on the look of the thing itself. It could look differently and we would still treat it the same.

If we recognise a cry of fear from another person as preceding danger nearby, even though the danger lies out of sight (or any of our other senses), then we’re adding to the scene by prior association, and in a limited way interpreting the example of behaviour in front of us.

It was a great advance to be able not just to recognise but copy successful behaviour (and eventually even understand it). Obviously, it would help in achieving difficult rewards or avoiding pain. With deliberate copying, rather than coincidental repetition, any innovation is far less likely to die out. And if we can copy tool use, then we can copy tool making.

If you can copy another’s actions, logically you ought to be able to try to copy your own, and by this you should begin to recognise the difference between yourself and others. Copying your own actions is actually doing what you were already doing and therefore will feel noticeably different. Through this feedback you would get to know yourself better.

Yet another intellectual step is taking advantage of that recognition that there is a you and then there are others.

We must have become quick enough on the uptake to recognise the difference in behaviour that preceded, for instance, a cry of fear, because that would give you a little more warning than the others. Or being able to copy running towards food, or away from danger, a littler earlier. So the start of an action cues the rest of it. Which then makes deliberately performing a familiar action incompletely, in the expectation that it will be recognised by your fellows as standing in for the full action, one way of beginning to attempt a public communication, developing a language.

We are discerning creatures. A little difference goes a long way.

Language is a skill made possible by detached observation, a wedge separating cause and effect, an understanding of the distance that separates things and of how that distance can be overcome.

You can see that for me, this is very close to what we have achieved with tools. Not the same, but there is a large overlap between these types of intellectual activities.

I’m suspicious of too much importance being attached to the idea of an “innate grammar”, although I realise that animals do seem to come into the world already wired up and mechanically suited to do certain things – horses can stand soon after birth for instance – http://phys.org/news180340234.html. But what counts in our wiring might not so much be any special feature of language as more general things like a superior ability to hold onto a certain number of patterns within a changing scene – representing parts of the scene in handy chunks – and still make ordered use of them.

Personally, I can’t retain very elaborate patterns unless I can write them down, as I’ve been trying to do here. So I find listening to a three-minute pop song a lot easier than trying to follow a symphony.

John Lennon once described the Blues like this http://imaginepeace.com/archives/4385: “It’s not a concept, it is a chair … You sit on that music”, and the Beatles as “building our own chairs, that’s all”. I guess a symphony would not just furnish but decorate the whole room.

You can’t sit on the concept of a chair. They need to be solid, afford us somewhere to sit. Language is not built out of concepts, but out of stuff more solid than that.

Which comes first, the chair or the chisel? Do they both make each other? If you start to use a hammer with a chisel, they become a unit. The aboriginal Australians rather elegantly had the woomera, a stick to throw another stick. Combustion engines may have many more parts, and appear almost unrelated in achievement placed side by side, but they derive from the same understanding, combining things through appreciation of their properties to achieve a larger effect. As do novels.

In the end, the Talkies did find more to say for themselves than silent movies, but not that much more. They ought to be as eloquent as novels, but with more intense colours and better music. Perhaps the problem is they offer almost too many possibilities now to bring them all under control, unless you have an endless budget. But as cost increases, the need to return a profit at the box office may limit what opportunities are open to explore. So what if modern movies look a little shinier than they used to: have they really become better containers for ideas?

TheEnd

Words will always be a problem so long as there are pictures.

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3 Responses to “Art of the Talkie”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. As You Like It (Or What You Will) | pabloredux - October 9, 2014

    […] talk about James Bond again. Last time round, he had Sean Connery’s face. When Roger Moore took over, James Bond suddenly became expert at raising a single eyebrow, […]

  2. There’s No Such Thing As Artificial Intelligence | pabloredux - January 12, 2015

    […] world with it or, if its reach is not great enough, throwing it at the object of our attention. The intelligence spans us and the stick and is what we can achieve […]

  3. Are You Experienced? | pabloredux - March 15, 2016

    […] even, for a couple of hours, value the absence of colour in an old black-and-white movie – or the absence of dialogue in a silent movie! – but, given the choice, most of us would soon ask for it […]

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