Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Talkies

Some of you may have seen the recent silent movie The Artist about a silent movie actor who resists the move to the talkies.  It's a very good movie,and if you have not seen it, you should.  One of the interesting aspects (aside from ironic dialogue bills in which, e.g., the wife tells the actor, "We need to talk" or the actor declares "I will be heard!") is how very different the acting protocols were for silent films.  They were, in essence, recorded pantomimes, and whatever the actor had to convey was conveyed through posture and facial expression.  Usually, these were exaggerated compared to what we are used to and seem now to be hamming and mugging.  (Something similar, though opposite, can be said regarding radio acting protocols, in which everything had to be conveyed by voice or sound effects.)

But there was another group affected by the transition to the talkies: the live musicians who played in the movie theaters.  While they realized they could not resist the recorded dialog and sound effects, they objected strenuously to "robot music."  Real music, you see, needed soul and emotion, which canned music could not provide.

There is something at once charmingly naive and feckless about the musicians' union campaign against canned music in theaters. Like locomotive firemen fighting to stay on the job in the diesel engines, the motive is clearly to keep their jobs; but the insistence that the movie-going public needed (and wanted) culture in the form of live music may have been just as sincere.  Consider the text in the following ad to enroll people in the "Music Defense League" in which the stereotyped Moneybags is foisting robot music to drive out the orchestra.
A novel set in the world
of live radio drama
There is something eerily modern to the whole effort: the resistance of conservative sentiment to the juggernaut of advancing technology.  But however inevitable the tide of history may be, whenever there is something gained there is also something lost.  Entire professions, arts, and ways of life are discarded on "the ash-heap of history," and we ought not pretend that there was never anything to them.  Except for novelties like The Artist, no one is going to be making silent movies any more, and certainly not with live musicians in the theater.  Radio drama is pretty much gone for good, too.  No is the novel.
“The indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that.  If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead.  Nobody will read it.  I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are.  Their intentions, their brains are different.  The bite/byte-sized culture in which we operate today makes our attention spans struggle to hold beyond 140 characters, much less 140 pages."
-- Cormac McCarthy, interview in the Wall Street Journal


  1. I think there will always be a place for the great novel. It is more personal, more intimate and immanent to our persons. It will be a sadder world without new great works of literature.

  2. And libraries, they are going the way of the dodo. Hard to say what life will be like with few paper books.

  3. The problem with McCarthy's statement is that if you accept it, not only will no great epic novels be written in the future, but no great novel from the past will be read either.

  4. McCarthy is wrong. Much as I admire him as a writer, there is more than one strand to the culture. People whose attention span won't go beyond a tweet won't read long (indulgent??!) novels, no. They never did. But people do still read LOTR, for example, in large numbers and with great pleasure. Perhaps because of its example (misunderstood, admittedly - LOTR was not a trilogy but a single work published in multiple volumes) most major works these days take the form of trilogies of other multi-volume formats. And people buy them in large numbers. As for our "brains" being different, sheesh! I'll leave that for Mr. Flynn to play with.

    1. Just finished 'Kristen Lavransdatter' in the new translation (it's less "forsoothly", a wonderful job), and thought about how popular trilogies (or even longer series) are.
      'They never did". Exactly.

  5. Radio drama is pretty much gone for good, too.

    What about "graphic audio" releases? Radio dramas certainly aren't the big thing right now, but entirely audio storytelling still seems to have a market niche. Then again, maybe you mean the whole public consciousness has shifted, and what was once taken for granted is now gone?

    I agree with you that there really is something that is lost due to this change, and it's not just a 'And suddenly everything improved' situation.

  6. “The indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that.

    *snort* Yeah, tell that to the stack of brick-novels taller than I am in our library. Has he ever heard of the Wheel of Time? How about Harry Potter? Just ran to check, both of the Jim Butcher novels I grabbed as being fairly small were over 500 pages. Maybe walk into a Games Workshop and notice the WALL covered with thousand-page-plus novels that weigh more than small children? (My husband likes Dan Abnett, who writes lots [dozens] of "shorter" ones-- 250-300 pages each.)

    Oh, wait, that's genre, it's not factual like... um... Moby-Dick.

    How about the free fan novel I'm reading, Embers? It's gone sixty interesting chapters in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe just to take the space of roughly one season.

    People are just as able to focus as ever, he just wasn't around to decry penny dreadfuls and it's a lot cheaper for folks to put out stuff.

    That means there are a lot of really, REALLY bad novels for him to see not selling. Heck, he might even enjoy some of them, for all I know.

  7. I have to disagree with the final statement as well.

    What I see is technology making it possible for short fiction (which had been going down in popularity for some time) to have a massive revival. But this doesn't necessitate that long fiction will disappear. There's plenty of space for short and long and plenty of readers who like both.

  8. The prognosis of people like McCarthy, Chaput, Carr ("Is Google Making Us Stupid"), Ulin ("The Lost Art of Reading"), and others is not that there is no one at the present time capable of reading in the old manner. It is that such skills are withering. We read books differently than we read manuscripts, back when manuscripts were the medium. (For one thing, manuscript-readers had to "wrangle" with the text -- there were always copyist errors, and they differed from copy to copy. One infamous error in (IIRC) Jordanus, resulted in a ratio being expressed inversely, delaying the science of statics for most of a generation.)

    Similarly, surfing, browsing, multitasking and the like are not conducive to the sort of close reading of complex texts typical of the Age of the Book. Let's not forget that there is a difference between a novel and a really long story.

    Nor would it surprise me if SF and fantasy readers might be the last Old Guard conservatives of the old reading protocol, even while games, graphic "novels," simulations and such are the vanguard of the new.

    Consider as one example the fact that the Late Modern "novel" no longer puts much effort into the sort of sensory descriptions that were practically definitional of the novel form of story-telling. (It was called "novel" for a reason. The rich descriptions not only of sight, but of sound, smell, texture, etc., were coterminous with the rise of materialism and the triumph of materialist science. As these fade, the novel has faded with them. Virtually all description these days is what might be called "TV camera description.")


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