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The title for this post is the movie line of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which is notable for being the first feature-length film to have synchronised dialogue sequences. Sound, of course, didn’t crash into being from nothing: Crosland’s earlier film Don Juan (1926) was the first feature-length picture to contain a synchronised Vitaphone soundtrack and recorded sound-effects; an edition of D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street (1921) contains a singing scene and background street noise, both recorded using a (more rudimentary) Photokinema. Equally, The Jazz Singer is not all noise: title cards are still used throughout the film for speech and (what would be) voice over. Even if the use of sound wasn’t governed just by aesthetic design (were there, for example, practical limitations in the early recording equipment?), it seems that the distribution of audible and written text is used as another way of conveying meaning.

The narrative is centred in a number of ways around the dichotomy of (out with the) old and (in with the) new: for example, the divergent wishes of a father and a son, the jostle of religion and secularity, the relationship between traditional and contemporary musical styles and, in a sense, the formation of film conventions before and after recorded sound. Singing especially, which makes up most of the audible track, is used as an indicator of how these various pairs blend.

While the contrast between the spoken words of the father and the son is predominantly represented as a split between title cards and recordings, both their wider social roles (Jewish cantor and stage performer) are allowed singing voices. Simply by being audible, the religious melody and the dance hall tune are raised together above the silence of individual speech. This suggested unity undercuts the complaints of Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland): “For five generations there has been a Rabinowitz as cantor — I have taught you to be one — […] And you — you want to be a common actor — in a lowlife theayter [sic].” We hear the traditional notes of the Kol Nidre and we hear the tune Dirty Hands, Dirty Face: by the end of the picture, the viewer believes these two institutions (religion and the “theayter”) are beginning to overlap and that Jack takes up his rightful place, as cantor in his secular temple, when he sings on stage.

Mary (Mary McAvoy) tries to pull him in one direction, claiming “this [the stage] is your life”, while his mother (Eugenie Besserer) wishes him home: “Jackie, this ain’t you…” Lee seems confused, as he listens to Jack sing the Kol Nidre in his father’s place. He turns to Mary in a puzzled manner and says: “You are listening to the stage’s greatest blackface comedian singing to his God.” I read his tone as bathetic: he believes the situation is an almost laughable step down from a full house on Broadway to a small religious ceremony. But the viewer understands that he has always been singing to this God: a God who he finds in the bright lights of the stage, just as his father does in the synagogue. His tins of face paint and smart suit are his religious robes. He sings for the New York Ghetto, “the daily life of which throbs to the rhythm of music that is as old as civilization.” He sings with the same “tear” that haunts his father’s voice and sounded in him as a young boy. The viewer is allowed to hear the continuity for herself and to understand that the rest, the tit-tat of bickering and daily speech, is silence.

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In an earlier post, I touched on, without mentioning explicitly, the concept of cinematic language. I suggested that Woody Allen creates a tension between his dialogue and his shots in Manhattan, between his literary and cinematic methods of storytelling. He reveals that words often hover on the surface while the actions of the characters, the movements of the camera and the composition of the frame all reveal a different story. 

For a pair of very shaky definitions: literary storytelling is what is said; cinematic storytelling is what is shown. The components of the former are dialogue, voice-over and (especially pre-1926, pre-sound) title cards; camera placement and movement, editing, lighting and composition within the frame are some of the factors that help to tell the story cinematically. 

Alfred Hitchcock believed that, “with the arrival of sound, the motion picture, overnight, assumed a theatrical form.” He continues: “In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema”. Films may seem “theatrical” when there is a lack of cinematic storytelling, when the director develops the narrative through words alone. These devices – words – are borrowed from literature: they are not internal and essential to the cinematic image or the cinematic process. Cinema, for Hitchcock, seems to be equated with an emphasis on cinematic storytelling.

Cinematic language – the various visual codes used in cinematic storytelling – is an extremely potent and subtle way of conveying meaning because the origins of its power often lie in broader conventions of society and of life. The layout of the image within the frame serves as example enough to illustrate this point. Consider various movements from the centre of the screen towards the edge of the picture. To move from left to right is easy for Western eyes because this is how we read. The reverse seems uncomfortable. Equally, to move downwards is inevitable because we all suffer from gravity. The ascent towards the top of the screen is more arduous. Diagonals are composites of these rules: descending from left to right is easiest; ascending from right to left is hardest. This language, of which these movements are just one part, affects the viewer almost always subconsciously. 

In Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train, for example, the viewer understands who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist before a word is uttered. The opening scene is a shot, from the knees down, of a man exiting a taxi cab outside a train station. The film cuts to another taxi cab from which a second man exits. One pair of shoes are two-tone and flamboyant; the other pair are plain dark coloured brogues. The two-tone shoes walk from right to left, the more difficult direction, while the plain shoes move from left to right. Implicit in the choice of shoes – the wardrobe – and their respective movements is the suggestion that the man wearing the two-tones is the bad guy and the man in the dark coloured brogues is the good one. 

Putting aside the question of the role of sound in cinema for now, even Hitchcock accepts that words are here to stay. An admission that literary storytelling is needed in some form is implicit when he admits that: “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialog only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Sometimes, it says between the lines, it is impossible not to use words.

But, when converting a film from one language to another, is translating these words enough to carry out the process fully? Imagine, for a hypothetical example, Strangers on a Train being shown to an audience that only spoke Hebrew. The language is written from right to left. Hitchcock’s cinematic storytelling could convey the opposite message to such an audience, then, as the man in the two-tones moves from right to left, the more comfortable horizontal movement for such a group. How much is left unsaid, we can ask ourselves, when watching foreign films, before the first words begin?

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