Language And Cinema: Film Language In Sabotage

4570 words - 19 pages

Language and Cinema: Film Language in Sabotage
Sylvia Hardy
This paper comes out of my longstanding interest in the process of adapting literary texts
to film, and I have been particularly intrigued in the question posed by the film theorist
Dudley Andrew: “how is it possible to transform the signifiers of one material (verbal) to
signifiers of another material (images and sounds)?”1 There have been a number of
attempts to answer this question throughout the short history of cinema, most of them
starting from the assumption that film has its own language, which can be defined and
analysed in the same ways as spoken and written language.

The first systematic attempt to define the ...view middle of the document...

Shots of a body of soldiers marching down the steps at
Odessa harbour are intercut with shots of the crowd which has been assisting the
mutineers. One young woman falls and the pram which she has been holding rolls down
the steps. Repeated shots of the pram are intercut with close-ups of the faces of the crowd
and the feet of the descending soldiers. From the collision between these images,


Eisenstein claims, the audience derives a new concept: an awareness of power and

For Eisenstein, then, it was montage that converted mere animated photography into a
great new art form. What is more, because shot and montage are for Eisenstein the basic
elements of cinematic language he sees them as analysable in linguistic terms - he talks
about “film diction” which as yet lacks “its classic models” (115), refers to the syntax o f
montage and the orthography of film and so on.3 But montage of the kind the Russians
advocated did not adapt well to the coming of synchronized sound. Although it is now
generally agreed that silent films were never really silent, the various commentaries,
sound effects or music accompanying them had been asynchronous. Montage depended
on creating its own rhythms, on establishing what Eisenstein called “verbal counterpoint”
- and he sees the Odessa steps sequence in Potemkin as an example of this. In 1928,
Eisenstein together with other Russian filmmakers issued a Statement declaring that
synchronized sound was a two-edged invention because although it provided a new
resource, it would not only destroy the language of cinema - visual montage - it would
also deprive the world of an international language. This was a fear expressed by a
number of writers across the world in the late twenties and thirties. In 1929, for instance,
the film critic Cedric Belfrage wrote:
After seeing “The Jazz Singer”, I went home feeling very sad, really. And I
made my contribution by predicting that the talkies wouldn’t last very long.
The thing that made me so sad was that the international language was over.
This was really a thing which nobody seemed to notice very much, but after
all, the human species had lived on the face of the globe for thousands of
years and there had never before been a language in which they could all
speak to each other. It had been one of the great causes of all the wars and all
the division that had taken place - and here we finally come to a language
which could be shown , everywhere, and which everyone could understand,
and we still feel sad about it. The advent of the talkies introduced another
dimension to film language.4
In Andre Bazin’ s What is Cinema? , one of the most important contributions to film
theory in the 1950s and ‘60s, there is an attempt to reconcile Eisenstein’s approach with
the sound film. Bazin acknowledges that montage as it was used in the silent film is
incompatible with synchronized sound, but challenges Eisenstein’s contention that...

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