Cunning linguists of cinema: Three great films that use language and words creatively.

basterds language

Not long ago I ran a series on this blog of the history of Warner Brothers film studio in 12 carefully selected movies. One of the segments, by contributor Robert Horvat, featured the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which was the first talking movie. Audiences were amazed by hearing Al Jolson sing onscreen and it totally revolutionized the motion picture industry. Groundbreaking as The Jazz Singer was, as a piece of art–the melding of pictures and sound–it wasn’t really that innovative. Instead of merely seeing Jolson sing and talk we also heard him. This has been the blueprint for movies since the 1920s. Dialogue is pretty straightforward. We hear conversations in real time instead of reading them on title cards as in silent films. If it’s a movie not in our language, we’re reading subtitles. This is convention, and we’re used to it. The power of movies is primarily visual, not auditory.

But there are some filmmakers, and movies, that attempt to go beyond this convention. Movies may be primarily visual, but there’s still a great deal that a creative filmmaker can do with sounds, especially language and words. After thinking about this I decided to put together a profile of three unusual films that do exactly this. They’re movies that utilize language and words to a greater extent than most films do, by making words and languages a key part of the story rather than just an adjunct to it. Exactly what the criteria or threshold for this is I’m not sure, but here are my choices.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Language(s): English

Warning: this section contains spoilers. Francis Ford Coppola’s quiet and thoughtful 1974 film about surveillance and the long reach of the state is justifiably a classic, even more well-regarded, ironically, than his other 1974 film, The Godfather, Part II. The plot of The Conversation focuses on a rather paranoid audio surveillance expert, Harry Call (Gene Hackman), who is hired for a routine job to record the conversation of two people (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) walking in San Francisco’s Union Square, discussing…something. It’s not Harry’s job to pay attention to their words, only to record them. But on this case he does pay attention, because the words sound like they’re talking about their fear that they may be murdered by some shadowy official superior known as “the Director” (who turns out to be Robert Duvall). Call obviously wants to prevent the murder, but this requires him to transcend the boundaries of his profession.

The interesting thing is that The Conversation‘s plot–and indeed the whole film–hinges on a single phrase of language. The Frederic Forrest character says the words, “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” which is why Call believes the couple is in danger of being murdered. There is a murder at the end of the film, but it’s not the couple–in fact it is the Director who gets killed. Call goes back and listens to the Union Square recording again. Instead of hearing “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” now he hears, “He’d kill us if he had the chance”–thus realizing that the couple had planned the murder of the Director all along, and voiced what may have been a nonexistent fear to rationalize it as self-defense.

Few movies have the guts to hinge their entire meaning on the inflection of a single word in a single phrase. You could easily hear a Hollywood producer saying, “That’s crazy. The audience won’t get it. It’s too cerebral.” But The Conversation, going beyond the simple dumbed-down mentality that many filmmakers assume audiences share, demonstrates how important language is, and how imprecision in it can change everything.

The Red Violin (1998)

Director: Francois Girard; Languages: English, German, Italian, French, Chinese, Romani

I’m not going to say as much about this film as the other two, because I recently did an article dedicated to it. This astounding 1998 Canadian film by Francois Girard spans the globe and more than 300 years to tell the story of a priceless violin that seemingly enchants its owners throughout history, thus ensuring its continued survival. This highly underrated film has scenes set in Italy in the 1680s, Austria in the 1790s, London in Victorian times, the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai, China in the 1960s, and Montreal in the late 1990s. The film weaves an incredible tapestry of cultures and languages with English not even predominating the narrative until the film’s final quarter. In the background of all these languages there’s music, a series of haunting solos that are meant as the “theme” of the violin, but like the languages themselves, the tune keeps changing.

The Red Violin is audacious in its use of language because it switches so effortlessly among them, often in the same scene. In the scenes taking place in Austria, where a music teacher (Jean-Luc Bideau) is teaching his child protege (Christoph Koncz) to play the violin, you almost don’t notice as they keep switching between German, the native language of Austria, and French, the language of music instruction. Later in the film a tempestuous VIctorian novelist (Gretta Scacchi) spins elaborate tapestries of poetic words in English, mirroring her anguished romance with a self-centered violinist (Jason Flemyng). All of these scenes use language as a paintbrush for the ear. It’s just stunning.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino; Languages: French, German, English, Italian

An incredible, blazingly violent madcap romp through World War II, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is an homage to the gritty, over-the-top war movies of the late 1960s like The Dirty Dozen which have more in common with Spaghetti westerns (Tarantino’s favorite genre) than classic war movies. A series of interlocking stories set in occupied Europe, the film shows us a suave but ruthless SS officer hunting Jews (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar), a team of bloodthirsty American commandos who like to scalp Nazis, led by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a British agent named Hicox (Michael Fassbender) who’s impersonating a Nazi officer, and a French cinema owner (Melanie Laurent) who gets an unusual chance for revenge against the Nazi high command.

Tarantino is known for his Peckinpah-like depiction of violence, but words and languages fly in Inglourious Basterds with the same cheerful abandon as do bullets and bombs. The multilingual villain played by Waltz speaks no less than four languages onscreen, and most of the other characters speak at least two, with the notable exception of the Americans–their monolingual troglodyte tendencies are a source of comedy for much of the picture. The real centerpiece of the film is an incredibly long scene set in a cellar bar somewhere in France, which is Hicox’s rendezvous spot with his German contact, actress Brigid von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). When confronted by a savvy Gestapo officer (August Diehl), language, regional accents especially in German and even the typical custom of ordering beers all become nail-biting, life-in-the-balance tests as the British Hicox struggles not to give himself away. This is a riveting scene that you just know is going to end in a blaze of gunfire, which of course it does, but the battle is merely a punctuation mark to the linguistic warfare that’s gone on until then.

Language is as fascinating as it is versatile. Not only is it a part of our daily lives, you could say that our entire civilization is built on it. Why, then, is language often so invisible in movies? In these three great films it’s not: it’s front and center, and it’s part of what makes these three so unique and enjoyable.

The poster for Inglourious Basterds is copyright (C) 2009 by the Weinstein Company and A Band Apart productions. I believe my “mashup” use of it here, for purposes of a review and analysis, is appropriate fair use under copyright laws.
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