Spoken or written language is a system of conventions that allows us to communicate. Communication is most direct and effective when simple facts are being transmitted and grows progressively more complex with the addition of connotation, irony, and metaphor. Comparison among languages suggests, moreover, that even factual content is culture-bound rather than “objective.” Semiotics has taught us that the association between a sound and the object or idea it denotes is arbitrary; comparative linguistics has shown that the cognitive map of each culture divides up reality in somewhat arbitrary chunks as well. Finally, historical experience has provided the lesson that societies can mean very different things by the same word.
The persistent habit of filmmakers of adapting novels and short stories to the screen tacitly asserts some equivalence between the languages of literature and cinema. Such adaptation must, however, always be a “translation”: the modes of constructing time and space, encouraging identification, and organizing point of view in cinema require specific material supports that are not always shared by literature.
Narrative films resemble novels because of the way they are perceived: from visual and auditory information presented in successive moments of screen time, the perceiver constructs the diegetic space and time of the narrative. In addition, the mode of presentation resembles that of the novel: information about the time, place, and characters of a story is mediated by a narrator or narrators. The relationship among the above elements (where concepts such as omniscience, point of view, and reliability come into play) can be every bit as nuanced as in literature. The important sources in this area are Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, Mieke Bal’s Narratology, and Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse.
Unlike literature, film conveys information to the spectator on multiple channels: image, dialogue, music, sound effects. I use the term “arranger” for the controlling consciousness that must ultimately be held responsible for the selection and combination of the sounds and images of the film. The arranger should be distinguished from the film narrator, who is bound up with the point of view and can therefore usually be identified with the camera. I don’t mean to suggest that the arranger of film is similar to the arranger, say, of music (someone who takes an original piece and modifies it); rather, I am borrowing this term from David Hayman, who first proposed it (in Ulysses: The Mechanics of Meaning) to account for the unifying narrative consciousness of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel whose chapters are written in many different styles. Similarly, a film composes many different elements into its message. If, as often happens, its sound track and image track function equally as sources of new information, the concept of narrator is simply not nuanced enough to account for this complexity.
Like literature, film has the ability to distinguish between levels of narration. Some information may clearly be external to the story, in the sense that the characters living the represented fiction could not be aware of it. This information is called “extradiegetic.” Examples would include extradiegetic music (sometimes called “mood” music); comments on the sound track in “voice-over” made by someone standing outside the story; or images inserted by the arranger that have no relation to the diegetic space. All of these are included solely for the purpose of influencing the perceptions of the film spectator.
Information known to only one character in the story is called “metadiegetic.” The terms “extradiegetic” and “metadiegetic” are taken from Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Metadiegetic information might include voiced thoughts (another kind of “voice-over”) that the other characters cannot hear, images that clearly come from the mind of a character and which other characters cannot see, or sounds imagined by a character that other characters cannot hear. Metadiegetic devices are used to give the film spectator privileged information about a character. Although technically the narrator of a film story can be positioned inside the diegesis, in practice it would be very difficult to limit the details of the narration to the information that one person could know. Even when a story is told as the memory (in “flashback”) of a character, the manner of telling almost always conforms to the conventions of the arranger.
Another set of conventions in film language has to do with space. While we are watching a film, we build up a three-dimensional mental model of the space in which the action is happening—the so-called diegetic space. Usually the spatial information is conveyed by the narrating camera which follows an identifiable style; for instance, David Bordwell’s categories of film narration in Narration in the Fiction Film specifically differentiate the ways in which film space is constructed in each type.
When we speak of the film language of narrative films, we mean not only these conventions of storytelling, but also the conventions of shot to shot transition and the treatment of diegetic time and space, plot structure, and the like. Not all films follow the same conventions, however. Bordwell’s typology distinguishes between the Hollywood film and the art cinema film. In discussing how any given film departs from convention, one has to be aware of the norm that defines the parameters of its type.
The literature of the postwar period has been characterized by a suspicion of language. From Samuel Beckett to Raymond Queneau and the French nouveau roman, there has been a tendency to make language itself the subject of literary works. This self-questioning of the artistic medium of expression finds its echo in film. In my first chapter I have attempted to show how Louis Malle, in his adaptation of Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro, tries to do for film language what Queneau has done for literature: to purify it and liberate it from the strictures of convention. Malle’s violation of norms is seen as a display of various types of frame-breaking.
In a second chapter I have chosen for discussion four films of the 1970s that echo the “poetics of silence” that Beckett practices as a defense against the false rationality of Western civilization. I argue that the ancient Greeks, who are credited with the creation of that rationality, realized from the beginning that it was a system that bore within itself the germ of its own destruction. I take the Oedipus Rex by Sophocles as evidence of the Greeks’ own awareness of this tragic contradiction. The play expresses a lack of confidence in language as a method for finding the truth—a philosophical stance visually brought home in the films discussed. This discussion shows that the film medium is capable of dealing effectively with the challenge to language and expressiveness that is characteristic of some of the major literary works of our era.