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August 7, 2019

Movies and Plays as Audiovisual, Temporal Storytelling

Movies and plays are worth your while, and are a unique form of storytelling (Yes, that is almost exactly how I opened my last post; this is a series, after all!). Now, theoretically, I should talk about these two mediums separately, as they have some major differences. I could even do another post about TV shows as a sequential form of movies, but I think "serial storytelling" will have to be a topic for the far future. I believe, however, that these two mediums have much more in common than they have different.

Movies and playsincluding musicals and TV shows as welluse semi-verbal, visual, temporal, and auditory storytelling.


Lights, Camera Angles, Action!

You'll recall that books are totally verbal, relying entirely on language to tell their stories. Movies and plays are semi-verbal. Most of them include dialogue, and some even have narration in the form of voice-over or a chorus. Though dialogueoften of the snappy varietyis an important part of many movies and plays, it is not a necessity. Silent short films can still tell stories, as can theatrical forms like ballet.

Movies and plays can get away with going light on dialogue because they rely heavily on visuals for their props, setting, costumes, and character actions. Just as an author chooses which words to use to convey a particular scene or feeling, moviemakers, playwrights, and directorsfrom henceforth grouped under the term "creators"choose what objects will and won't be on stage or in frame. They can make the effects and set pieces realistic or stylized, and can choose to use colors, shapes, lighting, and other visual cues to convey messages to the audience without stating them verbally.

Blocking and camera work are particular visual aspects of movies that books can't convey. Wether an actor is standing up or down-stage, in or out of focus, shot from a laow or high angle, or facing the audience or not can all be important parts of the story. Movies can also use reaction shotsthat is, showing us a character's facial expression rather than what they are seeingto build tension or evoke emotion. Technically, books can do something similar to this, by saying or showing how a character is feeling before telling/showing us what they're reacting to, but it's a bit different, largely because movie creators can hold on a shot for some time without needing to add new information in the form of words or description.

And this brings us to the next point: temporal storytelling. Plays and movies take a certain time to tell their story, whereas books take a specific number of words to tell theirs. These both pace the stories, but in different ways. A book might take a paragraph to tell all the important details of a room, while a movie can do this in a single shot. Creators can still choose to linger on objects, characters' movements, and so forth in order to slow a scene down and give the audience time to process what's happening or, conversely, to build a sense of unease.  While books, movies, and playsall stories, reallyare told in time (though not necessarily chronologically, as flashbacks and side stories exist), movies and plays can use time itself as a part of their storytelling process.


Music Speaks Louder Than Words

Finally, there is the audio aspect of movies and plays. Along with spoken dialogue, these mediums incorporate sound effects and music. Even silent films used music to evoke a mood for different scenarios, and many non-verbal cartoons utilize Mickey Mousing, or having the music match the movements of the charactersto play up the comedy of their stories. Foley artists, those behind-the-scenes folk who create sound effects for movies, are an important part of making movies seem real, or more-than-real, depending on the genre. Much like choosing what props to have on stage, creators choose what sounds should be included and what should be left out or muted.

Music (or the deliberate lack thereof, in some scenes) is my favorite part of movies, and is a big part of what makes them unique from books and comics. Obviously, music can set a tone, but in clever hands, it can do so much more. Characters or scenarios might be given a special theme, so that, even before they appear on screen, the audience knows to expect them. Themes can be used in call-backs, as when a certain song is played early in a movie and then brought back towards the ending. I especially love when the theme is changed in some way throughout the story.

The finest example of this, I think, are the songs in Les Miserables, particularly those of Javert and Valjean. "Valjean's Soliloquy", at the start of the play, and "Javert's Suicide", at the end, are the same tune and have similar lyrics, and are both a reaction to the character receiving an act of mercy. Both discuss how the character can no longer face the world as they once have. Valjean, however, uses this opportunity to turn his life around and become a better person; Javert rejects this mercy and throws his life away, refusing to live in a reality that doesn't fit with what he thought he knew. It's marvelous!

Promised Neverland does something interesting by taking a non-diegetic song (ie, mood music that is a part of the soundtrack) and showing us that it has diegetic origins (a character in the show wrote it, and other characters hum it). Once we realize where it came from, in the final episode of the show, it forces us to rethink why it's being used as the main theme of escape and hope, while other characters hum it during sorrowful circumstances. It evokes something beyond words that can't be described, but felt.

Even non-musical plays can use music like this. In Steel Magnolias, various songs play from a radio throughout the show, creating a mood but otherwise unimportant. It's also mentioned, off-handedly, that one of the characters likes the Hawaii 5-0 theme. In the final scene, where it's revealed that that character has died, there is no more music playing. The group of characters eventually come to terms with her death, realizing that life goes on but that they still want to keep her memory alive, and as the final moment of the play draws near, one of the characters hits the radio, and it comes back to life, playing the Hawaii 5-0 theme. As an audience member, I totally lost it at that point. I didn't even like that play that much, but when that song started playing, I burst out crying. Music is a powerful thing.


Humans and Emotions

You've probably noticed that I keep using the words "feel", "evoke", and other emotional phrases. Perhaps this is one reason why bookworms look down on movies, seeing them as long on feelings and short on substance. I think they are, in fact, long on both, but use their ability to elicit emotionthrough visuals, timing, and audio cuesto underline their message and story. Just as books are the descendants of ancient songs and poems, movies and plays harken back to ancient forms of theater. The Greeks used tragedies specifically to give the audience a sense of catharsis as a way of dealing with and understanding emotion. Other theatrical formspuppetry, kabuki and noh, ballet, and even rituals involving costumes and masksare stylized in order to remove everything but the elemental aspects of the story they are telling. They are basic, but in a way that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human. Humans are verbal creatures, but we are also emotional in a way different from any other animal. We have archetypes, and symbols, and psychology, some of which can't quite be described in words and require us to see and hear and feel. And that is why movies and plays are unique and worthwhile.

And those, dear readersand cinephiles, theater kids, and film buffsare my thoughts on movies and plays.

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