Text and Sound, Silence and Understanding

Mike Brent wrote a post a couple days ago about how difficult it is to tune out human voices, and the effects this has within the context of a film.   I’d never thought of this before, thinking of film as a medium that fills in the visuals for you where other mediums don’t.  But film dialogue and — especially — voiceovers can sometimes give too much away, filling in the silences that draw the viewer in, allowing them to be co-creators of the film.

This got me thinking about my own film.  Translating between different languages of voiceover, text, and image is central to what I’m attempting to work with.  I wrote before about how the poem on which the film is based is written in Galician, and how the poem’s author uses language as different dimensions of mind…  each language concerting its own thought patterns, and each non-English language providing escape to the drone of the Big Voices (commercial media, political speeches).

What happens when the voice in a film is speaking another language?  If there is silence, or another language, or if the voice is too quiet, then the viewer’s mind tends to either ignore it completely, or it becomes occupied in trying to understand.  The mysterious sound of a foreign tongue becomes a puzzle for the mind to focus on, trying to interpret or make sense of what it hears, like trying to find an image inside an ink blot.  We can’t just let things be.

I used to practice something which may seem kind of odd…  I don’t have the advantage anymore of being able to enter the dimensions of other languages (I used to speak fluent French, but have almost completely lost it.)  So my breathing space away from the Big Voices of English involved pretending I was a fish.  (!).  Walking down a city street, which is flush with signs and posters, sandwich boards and stickers, I would pretend that I was a fish, crawling along the bottom of the ocean.  All living beings were other fish and fauna, swimming along; all sandwich boards, signs, and posters were simply flora and rocks of the ocean.  They became shapes and colours, with no meaning beyond these visual properties.  Suddenly text becomes unreadable; text is no longer text.  It’s just a bunch of colourful symbols, no different from any other image on a flat plane.

This way of seeing takes practice.  But I found it incredibly soothing.  I stopped trying to understand or problem-solve the images of my own language.  There is a difference in my mood when I’m walking along a busy downtown street, bombarded by visual imagery and text all vying for my attention, vs. walking along a busy downtown street and not absorbing any information.  Of course, I am aware of my surroundings, and not about to walk into traffic or anything… but it takes a different kind of awareness to disorganize visual language and see it from the perspective of an illiterate being — illiterate in the sense of not being able to read text OR flat visual imagery.

Often on public transit I hear people speaking languages I don’t understand.  Lots of them.  In this case, I enjoy listening but trying not to create stories in my head of their dialogue.  I allow myself to be content not understanding, but just enjoying the sounds of language, of people’s voices.

This breathing space becomes essential to me.  Even when it seems impossible to do suddenly unlearn a language, like when walking down a busy(ish) street such as this:

I’d like to turn down the loudness and simply walk down the street, a quiet and neutral observer.

I did an oil painting a while ago that was partially about this practice of non-understanding, or seeing only solid values of shades and tones, concrete things, without joining them with meaning; or wanting silence.  I went to a subway station in the city that was under construction, and took some pictures of the open ceiling.  (A subway cop actually approached & casually questioned me while doing this… I think it was 2002 or so, so too close to 9/11.)

I then flipped the scene and disguised the text into something unreadable…

Make what you will of a figure fallen on an unreadable sign, with the world upsidedown…  Not my happiest image…

But back to the film.  There will be moments in there where I’ve planned to let the v/o run on its own, without the crutch of the written text to translate, for a brief period.  Just to have that space (for non-Galician-speakers) where the mind tries to understand, but isn’t able to.  And perhaps the viewer gives up, just seeing the image and the sounds of a voice, but not taking in meaning, for a moment.  Or rather, perhaps, she provides her own meaning to the voice, for that moment.