Doing without language

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As you know, I undertake the arduous task of covering the vast universe of movies for Language Log. (This at least is the way I write up the paperwork that gets all my cinematic entertainment charged to the Language Log corporate expense account on a fully IRS-defensible basis.) The film I saw today, one of the best political dramas in ten or twenty years, has a humbling lesson for linguists, in a sort of zen way.

The lesson is that sometimes language doesn't cut it and isn't needed. Absence of language can have a far greater impact. The film is The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney. A beautiful job of movie-making.

Toward the end of the film (and don't worry, I'm not giving away any crucial plot surprises here) a central character has to be told something, and it is probable (we can't be quite sure) that what he is going to be told will be devastating to him. And here's how the film handles it.

We see the character invited to get into the back of an SUV, parked with its motor running and people in it. From the front, twenty or thirty feet away, we see him get in and shut the door. We cannot see the people inside through the tinted windshield. The camera simply looks at the SUV. No sound can be heard from it except the quiet sound of its motor running. We wait. Nothing happens. Some conversation must be taking place in there. We can only imagine. Still nothing happens.

We wait, looking at the SUV and its drifting exhaust plume in the cold morning air, for what seems like an unimaginable, cinematically impossible length of time. How can the director leave us out here in the cold, not letting us be privy to the conversation, hearing nothing, no words to inform us, hardly anything even to look at? Has he forgotten we're out here? Is he deliberately excluding us? Maybe it's only a minute or so. But it feels like five.

Finally the SUV's door opens and the man steps out. He stands motionless with his back to the SUV, not even looking at it as it drives away.

It's a brilliant piece of film-making. And a triumph of the scriptwriter's art (Clooney co-wrote the screenplay as well as directing and starring) to leave the dialog out entirely. Language Log is all about language, but sometimes you don't need it, and it wouldn't improve things at all. Language isn't by any means the same as communication. What has happened is certainly communicated to us in that scene; it just isn't communicated linguistically. See this movie.

[Comments are closed. I know there are things you want to say, but trust me, sometimes things are just better and more effective if left unsaid.

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