The Secret Language of Film
Most people have probably never heard of Jean-Claude Carriere, but he is the man behind over seventy-five ingenious screenplays and a long time collaborator with Luis Bunuel (they worked together on Luis’s late work from Belle de Jour to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Carriere says it himself, “If you want fame, don’t be a screenwriter.” Despite writing numerous great screenplays and stage-plays, he has also written a few novels and books on film. I want to bring attention to his book The Secret Language of Film. It is a fruitful read, rich in allegorical poetry (he is indeed a Frenchman) and insight into the language of cinema and its audience. Carriere begins by telling us to keep our “eyes open” to cinema and what he has to say in his book.
Carriere raises all the key questions of film theory (ontology, aesthetics, critique etc.) yet he doesn’t dwell on them and offers invaluable insights passing most of his attention onto us, as the ever-important audience of this medium. He moves from our perceptions of the real into how we dissect time through the medium and finally how it cheats us and may end up cheating (or obscuring) history, as we know it. This may sound like a lot to take in at once, but Carriere is vigilant in his approach, giving visions into his own case studies and experiences as an avid cinemagoer and writer for the medium.
Carriere wrote the book in 1994, before the on-slaughter of digital cinema and proliferation of online media. But, he has his senses about him and talks a great deal about the attention span of audiences and audiences becoming desensitized to images, at which time television was the main culprit. Leading on from this, Carriere is clearly concerned with the over emphasis of the technical and technique; he points out that story is always more important. Of course, today this is a big debate, with stunning visuals at the forefront of cinema. For an independent filmmaker, the big question is commonly should I put more of my budget into camera so we can shoot with an Arri Alexa instead of a Canon C300? Or, should we put that extra expense into validity for the story, for example locations, cast or costume? Or, should I just not worry about this at all and focus on the script!
Another big question this raises though is whether modern audiences are actually more concerned with the visual aesthetic than anything else. Put them in front of a grainy, 3 by 4 black and white movie and you will probably find your answer. Or, look to the recent Gravity that swept up awards this year for its visual beauty (of space), but which fooled many critics into thinking it had a script worth its weight.
On a more positive note, Carriere, the screenwriter that he is, fits in some top tips on the craft amidst his discussion about the language of film. After all, a film is initially the written word, a completely different language – say hello to the screenplay. Or, as Carriere duly discloses, swiftly say goodbye! A screenwriter should be aware that “what he is writing is fated to disappear, a necessary metamorphis awaits it.” This metamorphis is principal photography of course. “A screenplay is always the dream of a film,” in this case, producing the film is simply about making the best compromises one can make. In other words, choose the compromises wisely, as there will be plenty, and you should have a good film. I like to think of this in terms of the pure nature of filmmaking, that of copying what is real. You can’t expect reality to lend itself lightly to being contrived of its origin, thus, expect some ramifications.
One of my favourite lines in the book comes again, from this notion of bleaching the real. “Writing a story, or a screenplay means injecting order into disorder.” In other words, a screenplay is clearly structured whereas life is not; in most cases life is wondrously unpredictable. However, of course there needs to be some unforeseen drama in a screenplay, to cite Hitchcock, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” It isn’t often that in a film you will find long sequences of someone on the toilet, brushing their teeth, hanging up the washing, or going out for their groceries (unless you are watching Michael Haneke; he adores the “dull” bits – this is not a disservice however, Haneke turns the meaning of “dull” on its head).
To gather this drama, Carriere suggests that the screenwriter be completely open to letting their imagination wonder, we are talking of the following extremes: “Imagine everything; he must kill his father, rape his mother, sell his sister…” and the list goes on. As screenwriters, we must welcome everything. Carriere talks of him and Luis Bunuel telling each other their dreams first thing in the morning, this session would be followed by a read of the daily papers for stories. At the end of the writing day they would split, Bunuel would go off for his cocktail and Carriere would meet him there half an hour later, in which time they would both have to come up with a story and pitch it to one another. No wonder the two came up with some charming ideas, the lesson here is don’t seclude yourself, interact with others (and the media) and certainly don’t visit the Overlook Hotel, at least not in the winter season.
Finally, I want to comment once more on the perception of the audience, in this case, the audience’s eye. Carriere raises an easily overlooked question, “is the eye truly supreme?” Cinema and its contingency of the real are wholly based on the fact that it is a visual medium, one that mechanically represents reality. It is placed there before our very own eyes, up on the big screen, but what is so special about it that the written word can’t convey? Is the written word more real? On this notion of seeing, we must not forget the power of what is not seen, a key device at the disposal of any director. This doesn’t necessarily have to be ambiguous signals (an example of the ambiguous would be in Casablanca when Rick and Isla may or may not have had sex during a three second dissolve to a shot of the airport tower at night and then back to Rick’s room), but it can, on the contrary, be very obvious and even barbaric. An example of the barbaric would be if I, as the director, just showed the face of my victim as the murderer slowly goes about sawing through her legs. I could hold this shot for as long I wanted, maybe five minutes or so to really show the extent of misery and trauma that my character is going through. But, then I really would be Michael Haneke!
I have only touched on some of the theoretical offerings in this book. Though rather speculative, Carriere is certain to provide ample example and experience. You may also have a laugh or two.
You can find the book on Amazon here.
And, just for fun, below is the trailer for one of my all-time favourite films (written by Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere): Belle de Jour.