Is there a language to film?
Someone on the Linkedin site recently posted this question. For a film maker it’a a thought-provolking question, if only because we filmmakers simply assume that there is a language to film.
If you look at the dictionary.com deffinitions of “language” one definition is: “communication of meaning in any way; medium that is expressive, significant, etc.” By that definition, film is a language. But that seems self-evident, really. (And I suppose if you consider film a language, then genres like “film noir” or “action” or “horror” could be considered dialects.)
Of more importance to understanding film is that films have a “voice” in the same sense that authors have a voice in their writing. Voice is a complex mix of the visual (cinematography and art direction), the aural (sound design and music), the editorial style, and of course dialog, or sometimes the lack of dialog. It works very much same way an author’s narrative voice does in a novel. For a novel to be successful, the narative voice has to transport you into its world. The same is true of a film’s voice.
For examples, look at The Godfather and Star Wars.
In The Godfather, Gordon Willis‘ dark cinematography and deliberate camera movement, and the rich, dark sets create a visual tone that combine with a quite deliberate editorial style to communicate the patience and relentless determination that give the Corleone’s their power. This visual style completely supports the performances in the film and helps us to understand the terrible inevitability of the film’s story. Nico Rotta’s score connects the events to the old world traditions that motivate the film’s characters, and creates a kind of nervous tension that helps us feel what they feel.
In Star Wars, Gilbert Taylor’s very active camera style and stark lighting combines with a fast-paced editorial style take us into a world under attack, where seconds matter, and quick reactions make the difference between living to fight another day or becoming a bit of space rubble. John Williams’ score creates a very different kind of tension than Rotta’s does: an all-or-nothing gamble with soaring highs when, ultimately, the rebels are successful.
In both films, the combination of the visual style and the aural environment gives the film a distinct voice, and that makes believable the world in which the characters act.