The Sticking Place

A Streetcar Named Desire

In his student handout “The Pre-Verbal Language of the Silent Cinema,” Mackendrick outlines his ideas about how cinematic narrative is rooted in action, not words. The ultimate aim, he suggests, is to be able to tell an entire story without any dialogue whatsoever. As Mackendrick explains, while most silent films contain at least a handful of title cards that elaborate on the action, the genius of the best cinema of that period was that it used those cards “as an addition to the visuals which were often fully self-explanatory without any words. The verbal component was an extension of the visible behaviour, not a substitute for it. Hence our slogan: ‘Movies SHOW and then TELL.’” In the handout, Mackendrick uses two examples. The first is the final sequence from Chaplin’s City Lights, which contains three title cards, about which he writes: “if you study them, you will see that they are not really essential to the meaning of the scene. The action-and-reaction of the close-ups and close shots very clearly spells out the sense of the scene.” In other words, the visuals are absolutely comprehensible without the cards. Rather, “the words are an adjunct to the visible action, an extra emphasis or an added embellishment of the meaning.”

With Mackendrick’s second example, a scene from Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, the task given to students is how to make a silent film out of a stage play. To demonstrate, Mackendrick adapts several pages of Williams’ dialogue and turns it into a silent version using six title cards of eighty words in total. Is Mackendrick’s version as effective as the original play? “Obviously not,” he writes. “The intention of this exercise was not to prove that dialogue is unnecessary. Indeed, the reverse. By exploring how film grammar, without dialogue, can communicate most of the bare essentials of the narrative, we can isolate how much extra is added by the quality of the dialogue and then by the performance.”

Here for the handout.