May 2017, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – The Voice, Language and Speaking in Film

L'ENFANT SAUVAGE, 1970

In May, we are dedicating the Magical History Tour to the subject of voice, language and speech in cinema. The powerful role played by the voice in film does not just become apparent due to acoustic characteristics, the timbre of the actors’ voices, and their seeming harmony with the film image, but also makes itself particularly felt when both voice and language stand in contrast to such images or diverge from them. It is this type of formal tension that represents the underlying idea and starting point for the plots of many of the films we are presenting in May. Yet we also want to demonstrate linguistic playfulness, the sheer desire to speak, excessive use of the voice, particular stylization techniques, and the conflict between different registers and styles of speech using a range of different film examples. By deliberating moving away from standardized patterns of speech and by creating new linguistic and vocal landscapes, these films do not just reveal new opportunities for identification and create new axes of meaning, but also mark verbalism as an independent means of artistic impression, which goes far beyond its function as the vehicle for a particular text.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder, USA 1950, 1. & 7.5.) "Psss!" – "I pass!" This sound, hissed almost tonelessly by great silent-movie comedian Buster Keaton, encapsulates the entire theme of the film: the ultimate failure of silent-movie actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who ensnares penniless screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) and makes him entirely dependent on her. A study on the blurred boundaries between dream and reality, recapitulated and commented on by Gillis speaking in voiceover from the other side. Like Norma, from whom the interplay of film image and voice remains forever out of reach, Gillis ultimately also only exists as a disembodied voice.

HAMBURGER LEKTIONEN (Romuald Karmakar, Germany 2006, 2. & 11.5.) In January 2000, a series of moderated question and answer sessions took place in the Al-Quds mosque in Hamburg headed by Mohammed Fazazi, the Salafist Iman there, and were recorded on video. The complete, word-for-word content of two of Fazazi’s “lessons” in German translation forms the basis of Karmakar's HAMBURGER LEKTIONEN: sitting in a setting of neutral decor, actor Manfred Zapatka delivers the Iman’s deliberations – concentrated, precise, and controlled. The pared-down arrangement of the filmed reading offers the possibility to analyze what’s being said without distraction and gives insight into the hermetic inner logic of an extremist movement ready to commit violence.

Films with Karl Valentin (and of course Liesl Karlstadt, 3. & 18.5.). He growls, purrs, grunts, squawks, grumbles. There is no vocal modulation, pitch or tone that is a stranger to the legendary comic, no linguistic acrobatics too complicated for the divinely gifted author, no narrative vignette too absurd. The numerous short films with Karl Valentin and his no less unique theater and film partner Liesl Karlstadt are precise, perfectly timed, furiously paced, and delightfully funny in the process. We are showing a small selection of them: ORCHESTERPROBE (Carl Lamač, script: Karl Valentin, Germany 1933), DER FIRMLING (Karl Valentin, Liesl Karlstadt, Germany 1934), DER THEATERBESUCH (Joe Stöckel, original scene by Karl Valentin, Germany 1934), IM SCHALLPLATTENLADEN (Hans H. Zerlett, based on a stage play by Karlstadt/Valentin, Germany 1934), and DER VERHEXTE SCHEINWERFER (Carl Lamač, based on a work by Karl Valentin, Germany 1934).

LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, France 1973, 3. & 5.5.) Although Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young man without a fixed profession, lives with Marie (Bernadette Lafont), he is unable to forget his previous lover and tries to win her back by proposing marriage. Shortly afterwards, Alexandre meets Véronika and gets involved in a ménage à trois, which ends in Marie attempting to commit suicide. Jean Eustache's study of these three people, the microcosm of Paris-St.-Germain-des-Prés, and the whole of French society following the trauma of May 68 is a film with a lot of speaking, where things are often talked to death in punishing fashion. Yet the use of language doesn’t just come to the fore in terms of quantity, but also forms an important subject of conversation for the protagonists themselves.

KATZELMACHER (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany 1969, 4. & 9.5.) Dialogue delivered laconically or even without expression, speech bubbles, and fragments of speech form the underpinnings of Fassbinder’s early adaptation of one of his own plays. A complex web of romantic couplings is at the heart of the film: "Marie (Schygulla) belongs to Erich (Hirschmüller), Paul (Brem) is sleeping with Helga (Ungerer), Peter (Moland) is a kept man thanks to Elisabeth (Hermann), Rosy (Sorbas) has sex with Franz (Baer) for money". (RWF). Stylized in exemplary fashion and highly concentrated, KATZELMACHER is akin to a study of group of young people marked by speechlessness and boredom, whose apathy is interrupted by the appearance of Greek Gastarbeiter Jorgos (RWF). The lack of camera movement and depth of field reflects the static nature of communication, forever trapped in the same formulations. 

ANTIGONE (Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub, France/Germany 1991, 10. & 19.5.) The ruins of an ancient open-air theatre, flooded in light and wind: this is where Straub/Huillet set their staging of Sophocles' ancient tragedy of Antigone, who defies the ban set out by the ruler of Thebes to bury her brother killed in the war and is therefore executed. Crystal-clear visual compositions carry the force of the story and the power of language and speech. "The rhythmic stalling, verse by verse, stems from the restrained excitement in the sense of Goethe's 'For I expressed what had been stirred up in me and not what I had read'; and especially the speakers, when describing or narrating an event, always have the images of it in their breast, preserving them while speaking, which follows them in both an excited and objective manner, and thus sounds like an invocation, of course, in verse." (Peter Handke)

POTO AND CABENGO (Jean-Pierre Gorin, USA/West Germany 1980, 17. & 23.5.) is about girls Gracie and Ginny Kennedy, twin sisters from San Diego who caused a public sensation in the 70s after developing their own language. The closed language community they formed in isolation from the outside world generated unease in both experts and the public at large, which was then counteracted by means of a large-scale therapeutic intervention whose only possible outcome was the linguistic and thus social reintegration of the girls. Jean-Pierre Gorin focuses on the social and political dimensions of language and communication in his film by examining the media hype around the girls as well as the conditions in which they grew up.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (George Cukor, USA 1940, 19. & 21.5.) Mastering the screwball comedy and its rapid-fire dialogue, fast rhythm, and eccentric characters is regarded as a test, and, once it's been passed, an accolade for every screenwriter, director, and actor. Cukor's "comedy of remarriage" is also a perfect example of polished verbal duels and exemplary timing, which revolves around the unapproachable Miss "Goddess" Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), daughter of a wealthy home, who has to decide between three men (including James Stewart and Cary Grant) on the eve of her second wedding. The time before the nuptials ends up as an enjoyably sarcastic exploration of different blueprints for life in the process. Tracy Lord: "A man expects his wife to behave herself. Naturally." C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), her ex-husband: "To behave herself naturally."

NACHMITTAG (Afternoon, Angela Schanelec, Germany 2007, 20. & 22.5.) Summer days and nights at a lakeside villa – despite the blazing sunshine, the glittering lake, and the promise of leisure, family bonds and relationships soon begin to dissolve in the shimmering summer afternoons and warm nights. Accompanied by her friend Max, Irene visits her depressive brother Alex, with whom her son Konstantin lives, who is wrestling both with his ambition of becoming a writer as well as his relationship with his girlfriend Agnes. Freely adapted from Chekhov’s play “The Seagull”, accusations pile up alongside disappointments, hurt alongside distance. Talking things over together is not able to counter the centrifugal force pulling them all apart: the dialogue scenes often lack the counter shot that would link them together, conversational partners remain off-screen and speak for minutes at a time in voiceover, until the camera hesitantly trains its gaze on the interlocutor.

ACCATTONE (Pier Paolo Pasolini, I 1961, 24. & 28.5.) Poems in the Friulian dialect influenced by farmers, novels shaped by the rough dialect of the Roman "sotto-proletario" – it is said that Pasolini’s interest in marginal forms of speech was what brought him to film. Just like his two first novels, his debut feature is an homage to the inhabitants of the Roman "borgate", the dreary suburbs of the Italian capital, and their language. It's here where Vittorio (Franco Citti) lives, who calls himself "accattone" (scrounger, beggar) and can barely keep himself afloat with petty thefts, swindles, and pimping. His wife has left him and his girlfriend who sold her body for him is behind bars. When he falls in love with the young Stella, he tries to change his life – without success. Pursued by the police, he has an accident and dies. With non-professional actors and before the backdrop of barren, neorealism-evoking suburban desolation, Pasolini creates a piercing passion story.

BEESWAX (Andrew Bujalski, USA 2009, 25. & 27.5.) Jeannie and Lauren are twin sisters who live together. Jeannie runs a thrift store and is afraid that her partner might try to sue her. She therefore asks her ex-boyfriend for advice, who is just finishing off his law degree. Lauren is looking for both a job and a steady boyfriend. Andrew Bujalski's third film depicts a group of young people saying farewell to a lack of commitment. Bujalski is one of the leading lights in the mumblecore movement, a group of American independent productions characterized by improvisation, non-professional actors, a heavy emphasis on dialogue, and undramatic portrayals of everyday life.

L'ENFANT SAUVAGE (The Wild Child, François Truffaut, F 1970, 26. & 29.5.) depicts the historic case of a boy around twelve years of age who was picked up near Aveyron in 1797. The boy had clearly lived in the forest for years and was only able to produce inarticulate sounds. Truffaut’s script sticks faithfully to the report published in 1806 by the young Doctor Itard who took on the boy. Unlike his professional colleagues, Itard was of the opinion that the boy had only developed abnormally due to a lack of social contact and restricted communicative abilities. Truffaut, who took on a leading role as an actor here for the first time, shows the painstaking, sometimes painful steps undertaken by Itard in teaching the boy how to speak.

The introduction of sound film brought the relatively international nature of film at the end of the 20s to an abrupt end. Producing different language versions (German, French, English) of one and the same film was an attempt to overcome the newly created linguistic barriers. Until the early 1930s, a series of films was thus produced with nearly identical plots, the same decor and technicians, and often even the same actors, albeit working in different languages. To illustrate this then-standard practice, we are showing Josef von Sternberg's famous adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s "Professor Unrat" DER BLAUE ENGEL (Germany 1930, 30.5.) in the German and the English-German version entitled THE BLUE ANGEL (31.5.). Different to other productions, many of the actors appeared in both versions, including Marlene Dietrich und Emil Jannings, with the latter's English exhibiting quite peculiar traits in certain phrases, unlike that of his aspiring actress colleague. (mg)

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DigiBeta 90 min

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