The relation of cinema and language is uneasy and complex. Film history, with its pendulum swings between an emphasis on language and on purely visual stimuli, suggests a combination of antagonism and interdependence

Words and meaning in the age of images

David Sterritt

Love/hate. Attraction/repulsion. Admiration/scorn.

Those terms are uneasy partners, but collectively they convey much about cinema's relationship with the written word. Filmmakers agree that words are necessary, praiseworthy, even indispensable. But motion pictures are . . . well, motion pictures. The image comes first, or so logic would appear to dictate.

In reality, the situation has been considerably more complicated. Critics who blame visual media for producing "postliterate" or even "postverbal" generations overlook a long history of popular film that has consistently placed language in the foreground, from the prolix intertitles of D.W. Griffith's silent epics to the script-centered entertainment directed by George Cukor and other giants of the studio system. Avant-gardists like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton have gone further still, blurring the boundaries between language and image by filling the screen with written words.

True, a parallel tradition has pushed language into a subsidiarystatus, raising the danger that visually saturated culture-consumers might let their verbal abilities atrophy. But this very audience could point the way to a more word-savvy future, since a thirst for novelty fuels developments in aesthetics and communications. If visual media are as hungry for new image-ingredients as many observers claim, might a new explosion of word-consciousness now await us, merging the capacities of language with new forms of presentation that enhance rather than dilute its energy?

Cinema's ambivalence toward language has roots in the medium's earliest days, when the difficulties of synchronizing image and sound led the film industry to proclaim silence a virtue rather than a liability. Adding dialogue would turn movies into imitation stage plays, silent-film advocates like Sergei Eisenstein and Charles Chaplin argued. Better to nurture cinema as a unique art form--the only one capable of stirring spectators through moving images alone.

This bias met a setback when talkies took over in the late 1920s, turning many movies into "photographs of people talking," in Alfred Hitchcock's withering phrase. Some directors insisted that montage and mise-en-scène must take precedence over less cinematic components. But others learned to treasure well-written dialogue as much as imaginatively placed cameras and crisply timed cuts. The pendulum swung again in the '60s and '70s, when maverick filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman joined the spirit of that era by privileging visual stylistics over verbal niceties. The debut of music video carried this to extremes, convincing some observers that meaningful uses of language might vanish from the motion-picture scene.

Reactions to this prospect have ranged from celebration to alarm, but both responses are premature, since language has shown a knack for reasserting its relevance in the domain of moving images. Just when visually aggressive artists were challenging the primacy of word-based culture in the 1960s, for instance, French theorist Christian Metz turned the tools of semiology--the science of signs and symbols--to the study of film, arguing that cinematic significance can be understood via principles derived from modern linguistics. More recently, Hollywood studios have rediscovered the merits of classic literary works by Jane Austen, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf. Clues to the future of film and language are provided by a less lofty but currently inescapable figure, Quentin Tarantino. Like him or loathe him, he is indisputably a natural-born writer who compensates for shortages of experience with a facility for blending offbeat camera-choreography with vital dialogue. His models are not the great wordsmiths of old-the title "Pulp Fiction" sums up his aesthetic as well as his appeal-- but like them, he has a healthy respect for the verbal dimensions of cinema. He and other young innovators (Todd Haynes, Whit Stillman, Richard Linklater) still recognize the value of carefully crafted words. So does the theater-trained David Mamet, whose filmography includes such verbally adept works as the 1991 drama "Homicide" and this year's "The Spanish Prisoner," a foray into labyrinthine wordplay.

Perhaps the most imposing sign of language's ability to renew itself in the Age of Images is the attention being paid to the work of Jean-Luc Godard, a founding member of France's revolutionary Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement in the 1950s. Godard's exploration of the relationships among word, image, and sociopolitical meaning range from the improvisatory poetics of "Breathless" and the scorched-earth provocations of "Weekend" to the metaphysical musings of "Hail Mary" and the poststructuralist historiography of his "Histoire(s) du cinéma" video series.

Godard's fascination with language has taken various forms, which I have explored through research for two books on his work, a collection of interviews and a book of my own analytical readings. In his early films he disrupted the flow of words in order to expose their complicity with sociopolitical forces; during his most radical periods he foregrounded words in order to undermine the tyranny of commercially seductive images; he has recently woven language, picture, and music into dense collages that crack through conventional modes of signification. Linking his works, critics have noted, is a determination to make language out of images, by merging them into unprecedented combinations with undreamed-of meanings, and to make images out of language, by subjecting written and spoken words to cinematic transformations (novel graphics, superimpositions, and the like) that tease out the physical and metaphysical substructures of verbality itself.

Given such ambitious goals, it is not surprising that Godard has slipped from public attention as audiences show decreasing interest in what used to be called the art of cinema. Yet the past year has seen international distribution of his most recent feature ("For Ever Mozart") and a critically lauded reissue of his 1963 masterpiece "Contempt," a profoundly language-conscious drama with roots in storytelling traditions as diverse as the Homeric epic and the 20th century novel. The massive "Histoire(s) du cinéma" is expected to bring another wave of attention when completed in the near future.

Godard has a growing corps of admirers within the filmmaking world, moreover, from postmodern video-art collagists to experimental storytellers like Jon Jost in the United States and Takeshi Kitano in Japan, who put Godardian techniques to a wide variety of uses. Among these apostles is Hal Hartley, whose new comedy-drama "Henry Fool"--about a self-taught author with an incendiary manuscript--takes a Godardian view of the written word as a soul-shaking interface between the material depths and spiritual heights of the human condition.

"Language is the house man lives in," said a character in Godard's seminal 1966 feature "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," invoking one of Wittgenstein's key concepts; two years later "Le Gai savoir" more somberly analyzed "the prison-house of language," in Nietzsche's phrase. Recognizing language as both a comforting home and a confining jail, Godard and his followers see cinema as an ideal tool for celebrating its expressive riches and subverting its ability to limit us by perpetuating ingrained habits of thought and perception. The most invigorating works of these filmmakers remind us that words and images are intricately linked, as inseparable from each other as from the exhilarating possibilities of cinema itself.

Related links:

  • The Internet Movie Database

  • SCREENsite Reference Shelf

  • Iris: A Journal of Theory on Image and Sound

  • Millennium Film Journal, School of Visual Arts

  • Cinema History: Films from the Silent Era

  • The Film 100 (100 most influential people in film history)

  • Jean-Luc Godard

  • Film Feature Forum (English-language bibliography of European film journals)

  • Anthology Film Archives

  • National Film Preservation Board

  • DAVID STERRITT, Ph.D., teaches film studies in Columbia's School of the Arts; he is also film critic of the Christian Science Monitor and a film professor at Long Island University. He recently finished editing Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews, due later this year from University Press of Mississippi, and is now completing The Films of Jean-Luc Godard for the Cambridge Film Classics series of Cambridge University Press. His other books include Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the '50s, and Film, coming this fall from Southern Illinois University Press.