What would film be without dialogue? Without those “wonderful lines” that Debbie Reynolds’s character in “Singing in the Rain” considered the sine qua non of true acting? Well, it would still be film; indeed, it might even be better film.
The silent era had caption cards at best, no true dialogue, which sounds strange to modern audiences, but the pure-cinema aesthetic of silent film is stealthily present in many of the most loved movies of all time, most prominently the six films of the Star Wars saga.
What? Star Wars? Silent movies? George Lucas himself has said so multiple times, including these gems from a 2015 interview:
So as you go through [time], when you get to film, at that point … even American Graffiti and [THX 1138] are … based on the art of movement. When you get to Star Wars, it’s really a silent movie. And it really lies in the world of movement. […]
[Star Wars is] like a silent movie, you could be two years old and not understand anything that’s being said, but you understand the movie. […]
I believe half a movie is the sound. The sound is extremely important, but the dialogue is not. That’s not where the issue is. I’m notorious for wooden dialogue, but at the same time … It’s like [points ahead and above himself] ‘Here comes another one!’ You’ve got to say that. But what it does is … it’s part of the sound track. It’s like singing. Obviously you can do it a capella, you can, it’s beautiful, but ultimately when you have a big symphony orchestra, you have a lot of stuff. And the singing is in there, the choir and everything. It’s all one big sound track.
John Williams, the composer of the films’ music, had this to say in 1999:
And so, when he says “silent film”, I think he is referring to a kind of rhythmic and visual energy – so that you could almost remove the text and it would still hurtle forward. It is the kind of rhythmic and kinetic expression that speaks – and that is what music is about really – events in time and events in a certain speed, or lack of speed. So I don’t think that George means “silent movie” in terms of the fact that the movie doesn’t have sound, but more in terms of the spirit of the action movies of the silent period that didn’t depend on a literary text, but action, visual effects and timing, and probably music.
Often it is bemoaned that substantial numbers of people don’t read books for fiction anymore, but it’s a safe bet that very few of these people aren’t watching films, videos, and television shows. The reason? Film is much closer to how people would experience a story if they were actually in it than reading words on a page or listening to the speech of another person is.
The stuff of dreams, the purest way we receive stories in the wild, is not speech or text, but rather visuals, impressions, feelings, and sounds, all of which is effectively conveyed by visuals, ambient sounds, and music. Indeed, to the extent dialogue needs to be conveyed vocal singing would be a much more natural way to incorporate the information than caption cards, which turns a film into a musical or (better yet) an opera.
It would be more artsy and out-there than what we actually got, but the Star Wars saga itself would work excellently as such a literal space opera on film. Indeed, its operatic aspects are obvious enough that “The Empire Strikes Back” was called “Wagnerian pop” by one critic.
Why not a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in Cinema?
Indeed, considering the thread of the silent-film aesthetic running from “Metropolis” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Star Wars”, among others, it’s a wonder telling stories with visuals, costumes, poses, expressions, composition, colors, music, and ambient sounds isn’t the standard in cinema and indeed storytelling in general.
But it seems to be difficult for modern filmmakers to do. Maybe it’s harder than it looks. George Lucas is indeed a filmmaking genius that is enormously underappreciated; not only did he tell a great and rather complex story primarily through visuals and music, he also successfully told a ring story over both two trilogies and one hexalogy, an accomplishment that as far as I know is unique in the history of cinema.
But while operating at Lucas’s level is undoubtedly difficult, it’s worth noting that silent-era filmmakers told stories visually almost effortlessly it seems, and many of the modern people who have pulled it off successfully haven’t exactly been cinematic geniuses. No, I suspect it’s a problem with the philosophies that suffuse modern storytelling.
Plagues of modern Storytelling
In particular, our age accords prestige to abandoning romantic realism for a bleak and gritty naturalist form of “storytelling” dominated by a dullened grey aesthetic where nothing matters and nobody can make any meaningful choices that affect themselves or the world around them. In that case stripping down the story to its visual and musical essence reveals it has nothing to say, so dialogue has to be injected into the work to numb the viewer to the soullessness of the whole enterprise.
This is the reason so much dialogue in such works feels hollow and pointless, because it is. Another technique often employed to numb the viewer, to the point it’s become one of the plagues of corporate fiction, is the “mystery box”, where in order to understand what’s going on viewers are forced to keep a sharp ear out for very particular blink-and-you’ll-miss-them lines of dialogue, which are often cryptic. This keeps the viewer distracted from the lack of a good story.
Visual effects are often employed to stoke a superficial “wow” feeling in the viewer, but this technique doesn’t work as well as it used to now that CGI can bring to life whatever the filmmaker wants assuming there’s a blockbuster-level budget to work with. Thus now we more often see rapid cuts to confuse the viewers so they can’t see or mentally keep track of all of what’s going on.
All these things are abuses of fundamentally good storytelling methods. Dialogue can work well in a visual medium even if it’s not really native to it, as it has in that other space opera franchise “Star Trek”, where many of the best stories could be done as stage plays with simple props and sets (as indeed actually was done in-universe in the “Star Trek: Voyager” episode “Muse”!).
Mysteries where the story is the characters solving the puzzle instead of just the viewer can be compelling. Open-ended conclusions and stories that are deliberately ambiguous and promote multiple interpretations make for some of the best fiction. Visual effects that make you go “wow” are a real pleasure to watch and can be critical for creating the visuals that tell the story and establish the world, such as in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
If you want something done right, do it yourself?
So there’s really no particular reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy entertainment dominated by music, ambient sound, and visuals that all by themselves tell the story in pictures, costumes, poses, expressions, composition, colors, and more.
If there ever is an Adamas Nemesis movie studio that’s the kind of cinema I would produce. Indeed, that’s the kind of books I already write; I really enjoy conveying character development through poses, expressions, and costume changes, scenes through the visual apprehensions of the characters, rather than dialogue. Creating a primarily visual impression on the viewer is what I seek in my stories.
For a while now my mind has wandered to the idea of telling my stories in a much more visual format, illustrations and impressions rather than words. Writing is the medium most accessible to me at this time, but that’s not really where my heart and soul is. Like many creatives I find it frustrating to not be able to bring the visions in my head to life in a visual format, but someday, perhaps as a fruit of my now daily digital painting efforts, I hope that will change, and the true greatness of Adamas Nemesis stories will blossom.