Reviewed by Dr Kath Huxley
Words on Screen is a fascinating and scholarly oeuvre by Michel Chion that has been admirably translated into English by Claudia Gorbman. It concentrates entirely on a little thought of, but highly appreciated aspect of cinema and film, the written word. Chion, well known for his originality of thought and investigations into sound in cinema as well as being a composer, writer, filmmaker and professor at the University of Paris III now gives us an exhaustive investigation of both the obvious and less obvious forms and meaning of writing on screen. His explorations for this book have encompassed the viewing and scrutiny of 900 films with ‘words’ from 256 films used as illustrations for his assertions. The inclusion of the images of words, from this vast array of films, is an extremely helpful tool for the amateur film buff reading this book. The multitude of reasons and ways of using the written word on screen are presented alongside examples encompassing a wide array of film genres of all eras in what the author describes as ‘everything the movie has offered us to read since the seventh art was born’.
The book is conveniently divided into three parts each dealing with different aspects of Chion’s analysis. Part 1 “An infinite Inventory” comprises three chapters and is a comprehensive inventory of lists and categories, which we are told, are the formulation of a field for further study. Fortunately for the reader there is a glossary at the back of the book to introduce us to the meaning of particular words employed in the text such as ‘diegetic’, ‘nondiegetic’ and ‘arthorybos’ all of which I had no knowledge of before reading this book! Interestingly, Chion’s definition of arthorybos (derived from the Greek ‘without noise’) describes any object or movement in a film image that – either in reality or in the imagination – produces sound or that could be imagined to produce sound but remains silent. A few examples of this include question marks, exclamation marks, real or false misspelling or a t-shirt that mimics a tattoo such as the Stanford t-shirt worn by Sigourney Weaver in James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar that is too small for her very tall body and is a reminder to us that she is human.
Part II comprises the next four chapters of the book and is entitled “Writing, Reading” and it ‘aims to problematize cinema’s representation of these two activities’. In this part, we learn about implements used to write with such as fingers and machines, the significance of books in film, the process of half reading (when the character reads but the viewer does not), hearing one language and reading another. In the latter we discover that this ‘turns up in cinema in two symmetrical ways …subtitling and dubbing’ and we are probably familiar with both of these but have not maybe thought about the idea that ‘language in the literal sense is nonsoluble in cinema’. We are given an example of translation compromises that are made between characters’ language and film’s language using the 2011 David Cronenberg movie A Dangerous Method when although Freud is played in English by Viggo Mortensen, German is what we see on the screen when Freud reads or writes.
“Writing in Film Space” is Part III of the book and it confronts ‘words on screen with issues of space in cinema: the tension between 2-D and 3-D since its origins …the tension between surface and window in films and on screens’. It takes us into the realms of reversed writing, reversed text, the shadow and writing, anagrams and dancing letters and excription. Here we are informed about the most famous word in cinema that is expressed in two forms in the film that made it famous. The word is Rosebud from the film Citizen Kane and illustration 249 shows us the written form of this word. Importantly, at the beginning of the film it is spoken from the mouth of a dying man ‘to who knows whose ears’ and at the end it is written so linking the final scene to the opening of the film.
Reading this book has been an extremely interesting and insightful journey of discovery into an area of cinema that is not often thought about by the average filmgoer. When viewing a movie we are often oblivious to the written word we are seeing on screen whether it be the titles, the subtitles, a character reading words, text messages, signs, computer screen text or a plethora of different mediums containing words which convey meaning to the involved spectator. The extensive use of examples gives us a meaningful understanding of a filmmaker’s reasons and techniques for employing written or spoken words on screen. A pleasurable and informative book that as Chion acknowledges is not the first attempt to take on the subject but an innovative and comprehensive approach to this fascinating subject. One lesson I took is that the function of language is communication; the function of language is to tie us together.
By Michel Chion
Columbia University Press