We've spent the last few nights watching episodes of Les Vampires, the 1915 silent serial by Louis Feuillade, and enjoying it immensely. One of the things that stuck me upon watching this madcap thriller was how little "language" communication there needs to be in good visual story-telling.
Because it's silent, of course, at times a dialogue card is displayed telling us what the speaking character has just said. But most of the time, when characters are speaking no such card is displayed at all. Great swathes of dialogue take place without us getting any words at all.
And it makes no difference whatsoever.
The story is easy to follow (to put it mildly), and you never feel like you're missing anything, and in fact, it's actually interesting to watch people talking when you can't hear what they're saying.
IF, of course, the story is moving during the conversation.
There's an important lesson there for screenwriters (he said, having never sold a screenplay in his life): it's not dialogue, it's action. That's deceiving, because dialogue is what people mostly notice and think about when they talk about the writing of a movie, but that's because it's the most noticeable and recognizable feature, not necessarily the most important.
Steven Brust makes this point in, I think it was, Teckla, when Vlad is trying to move stealthily through a crowd and says that the key to not being noticed isn't to LOOK non-descript, it's to not attract attention to yourself. That is, just because you remember that some guy had a big nose doesn't mean you noticed him BECAUSE he had a big nose, but that after you noticed him, you remembered his big nose. But what it was that actually drew attention to the guy was probably something else entirely, something less easy to remember.
Um, not sure where that's going.
Oh yeah. You see, it's the same with screenplays. Once you've noticed that it's not working, you'll remember bits of lame dialogue, because that's what's easiest to remember. And that can lead you to thinking that it was the dialogue that was failing, and THAT leads to the idea that in writing screenplays, it's the dialogue that matters.
But being engrossed in Les Vampires proves pretty easily that dialogue is just about the LEAST important part of cinematic storytelling. You don't even miss it, and that's because there's so much going on at all times. Whether it's Moreno's stressed-out-looking maid hiding behind the door, Satanas demonstrating his hide-a-cannon, or just Mazamette clowning for the camera (oh, and anyone who wants to get squiffy about "breaking the fourth wall" as an innovative technique ought to watch this -- 1915, folks. Enough, already), there's always story happening in the frame. It doesn't really matter what exactly the characters are saying to each other -- we want to know if Guerande (or more accurately, HOW Guerande) will foil Les Vampires this time. Or if Mazamette will be able to escape Moreno's trap. Or if Irma Vep will regain her senses in time to avoid murdering Baron Kerlor.
Cinema needs to SHOW this. We've often commented that part of what makes a great film is the ability to watch it with the sound off. That tells you if the story is being told visually or not. Casablanca passes this test for sure, as does King Kong and Star Wars. And, uh, obviously, so does Les Vampires.
That's not to say that dialogue is without value. Of course for sound pictures it adds a new dimension, and now we have films depend on their dialogue and would be nonsensical without it. But Les Vampires is a salutary reminder of cinematic storytelling, and what REALLY drives it.