Cinema’s true ancestor: the bard

April 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

An old debate: which established art is cinema closest to ? It’s been long argued (often with fear) that cinema was related to theater: drama takes place on screen just as it does on stage, the audience must see and hear and construct the story based on dialogues. This strikes me as describing somewhat sound cinema (of the Hollywood kind, at least: more visually-audacious modes of story-telling make this comparison largely irrelevant, as does any consideration about editing), but as totally failing to address what silent Hollywood cinema was about — a heavily narrated mode of visually telling a story with characters, plots, incidents, and interaction between characters, in other words drama (as on stage) + narration (as in the novel). There was an art form that used to function quite like this long before cinema came along, if one just switches to an oral mode of story-telling, just as heavily narrated, yet just like theater with characters interacting: pre-Gutenberg oral story-telling by bards. The point is made by Aubert (2004) that cinema audiences before VHS look remarkably like audiences of oral story-telling before the advent of the book as described by Vandendorpe (1999), to whit:

  • a) the audience does not determine the moment of communication
  • b) the audience does not determine the flow of the communication, it is prisonner of the rhythm chosen by the story-teller;
  • c) in terms of accessing content, the audience cannot go back to select a sequence of particular interest in a story already known: it must follow the plot in an unequivocally linear way because of the telling of the plot which inscribes it in time.

Yes, the vocabulary here is again tempted to see progress (in this oral story-telling the audience is “prisoner” — but books will set it free), whereas I would argue there is mostly difference. Based on my study of silent film reception, there’s plenty of freedom in that narrated, time-dependent and non-time-shifting story-telling.

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