After The Artist winning the Oscar in 2012 we may have a glimpse about the beginnings of film-making. That they were silent. Verbal content was kept to a minimum if it wasn’t missing at all. Ninety minutes without speaking, without a text—nonetheless people were entertained, recovered themselves, were animated to reflect. How the heck was, and still is, that possible?!
An early and daring answer to this question was given by Hungarian film critic, aesthete and writer Béla Balázs in his The Visible Man (1924). He claims that after printing was invented, it has been lifted as the main bridge for human communication. In consequence the human body now appeared soulless and empty. It is because people did believe they could do just with words, but without means of expression. However, the human spirit isn’t only impersonal rational thinking but consists also of inner, non-rational experiences that are principally not accessible by words and notions, but only expressible in forms, pictures, facial expressions and movements. (Which is to say, that we are not dealing here with sign language: e.g. facial expression replacing verbal content.)Even more crucial is that human language inadvertently arose out of gesture—the proto-mother-tongue. This mother tongue, gesture (to which Balázs counts the movement of tongue, lips, facial muscles and hands), initially was spontaneous and a reflex movement. That way a spirit appeared on the visage and facial expression of man, that directly takes shape and becomes visible—this spirit is the inner man. But this expressiveness withered and the human soul lost a lot—because the soul that reveals itself in words is another kind of soul that reveals itself in gesture and expression.
Balázs’ vision is that now this proto-mother-tongue returns to our minds thanks to silent movies. In watching them we live through destinies, characters, feelings, moods and thoughts. – Just seeing. – – – So we are able to learn the abundant language of facial expression, movements and gestures. This is possible since, e.g., gesture isn’t just the product of affects, but also awakens them. Thus we can expect some human experiences that are clear and unambiguous, though they cannot be rationally formulated. We can expect none other than the inner man becoming visible, the human body inhabited by some soul.
But will this, i.e. my or your, inner man be understandable to others? Though there are accustomed forms of facial expression, movement or gesture whose readings are defined, still they aren’t following a strict grammar. There are no mistakes, because they are directly born out of affects.
1. So first, what we need are dictionaries on facial expressions, movements and gestures. To this project silent film will serve as a basic source.
2. Second, international adjustment of facial expression, movement and gesture is imperatively requisite. The reason for this is simple. A movie could gain international popularity only if its gestures and facial expressions are internationally readable. But the internationality of film depends upon economic reasons, that are always the most coercive. Now it is just a few countries that can afford producing films. Which is to say, the film market only tolerates universally understandable facial expressions. In other respects the producer loses his money. Thus folkloristic peculiarity may only be shown for exotic peculiarities and if it doesn’t decide flow and meaning of action.
That way silent movies not only make human beings get accustomed to each other on a corporal level, but also works on the creation of an international type of human being in a classless society.
Well, what do you think? Are these convincing thoughts? I will try to answer to Béla Balazs’ reflections in posts to come…