“No. Don’t Speak”

Movie buffs will recognize the title as a line spoken by actress Dianne Wiest, who played Helen Sinclair in the 1994 Woody Allen movie Bullets over Broadway. (Another character also echoed the line.) It perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on a movie I saw recently.

I decided to watch The Artist, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012. Normally, you couldn’t pay me to watch a silent movie, no matter how award-winning or iconic. And I’m a huge fan of Samurai Jack, the award-winning 2002—2005 animated series created by Genndy Tartakovsky, and famous for having very little dialogue.

You see, I love dialogue. Give me a movie like The Front Page, Born Yesterday, or It Happened One Night any day. But I decided to break out of my comfort zone and give this one a try. The premise on the Netflix envelope seemed familiar in that Star Is Born sense: one star descends while another ascends during the transition from silent movies to the era of the talkies.

George, the reigning king of silent films does the “meet cute” thing with Peppy, a fledgling actress. In one scene, the director even used a staircase showing the ascent of one and the descent of the other as a foreshadowing of what was to come’

I admit I had extremely low expectations as I began my viewing, even though the film won five Oscars, including Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin). I told myself I’d give it 20 minutes. If I wasn’t engaged in 20 minutes, back into the envelope it would go.

Perhaps it was Jean Dujardin’s gorgeous, engaging smile in the role of George Valentin, the pathos of Bérénice Bejo whenever she crosses paths with George (Peppy Miller), or Uggie the Jack Russell terrier’s incredible performance (love that dog), but I absolutely loved this movie. I couldn’t stop watching it. To employ a cliché, it kept me on the edge of my seat. In one viewing it broke through the walls of my prejudice toward silent movies.

As in other silent films (and SPOILERS this film is silent 99% of the time), Dujardin, Bejo and the other actors couldn’t rely on scintillating dialogue to help them keep viewers engaged. Their faces and gestures had to tell the whole story. Even props like newspaper headlines, marquee signs, and intertitles were used sparingly. So Dujardin and Bejo showed the story, rather than told it (spoke it).

I won’t go TOO spoilery by talking about the ending (though I sat through it three times). But I came away from my viewing of this film with a desire to write something equally as memorable and wall-busting as this film was for me. But as a writer, however, words must be my tool. Yet many times in the writing of my young adult fantasy work in progress, I struggle with those words. How do I help readers see the world and keep them engaged?

Many writers follow the adage “show, don’t tell.” We use words to show the story, rather than explain it. Like the directors and producers of silent films, we help our viewers (in our case, readers) gain a full experience: the tastes, smells, etc. of the worlds within the pages of our books through the use of well-chosen imagery. We’re artists (heh heh, had to sneak in that film title), painting a picture in our reader’s minds, one we hope is a vivid, lasting image.

Well, that’s my hope for my manuscript: choosing the right words to help a reader “see” that smile of my character; to experience the agony of another. So, I’ll keep plugging away at it. But at the back of my mind is the artistry of The Artist, a film that won me over and made me a believer in the power of story in any form. Even silence.

10 thoughts on ““No. Don’t Speak”

  1. Yay! I loved that movie and, like you, was totally riveted. I think the fact that it managed to impress you even when you were really turned off by it being a silent film is a testament to how great it is 🙂 And I never even thought to compare it to writing! That’s really interesting. I took a film class in college that talked about how silent films were so much easier to export to other countries. Because you didn’t have to understand the words. The images themselves were universal. I think it’s a reminder of how much more powerful than language an image can be sometimes…

  2. I recently watched my first silent film and I made myself the same promise..just 20 minutes. lol. I was delighted to find that I actually really enjoyed it. It opened up a new world of possibililties in terms of what movies I’d actually go and see.

  3. Pingback: Two Years, One Post, and One Ring to Rule Them All | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

  4. This is a great post. 🙂 I love silent movies, but it never occurred to me to use them as research tools for writing. I use other movies to do it, why not the silent ones? Woohoo! thanks for that. I may need to pull out a few, because that is just brilliant thinking on your part. 🙂

    • Thanks, but I owe it all to the artists who worked on the TV show, Samurai Jack. They’re the ones who first challenged my thinking about storytelling. I’m a dialogue person. The more the merrier, I always say. But the episodes of Samurai Jack have very little dialogue; yet they tell an effective story. I’m also reminded of the book Tuesday by David Wiesner (http://www.amazon.com/Tuesday-David-Wiesner/dp/0395870828), which has next to no text.

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