Sign and Cinema
Whether it’s in French (Le Pays des sourds) or in English (In the Land of the Deaf), the title of Nicolas Philibert’s 1992 documentary faintly suggests something
ethnographic and exotic, like the 1914 In the Land of Head-Hunters (subsequently and more tactfully re-edited to yield the 1973 In the Land of the War Canoes). Given the dominant discourse that it’s coming from, this also implies something colonialist—-a view from a ruling and dominant power of a contained underclass. But it is part of the film’s special achievement and the world it opens up to make us feel by the end that Dorothy in the Land of Oz might be a more appropriate cross-reference, with Philibert and the spectator jointly taking on the role of Dorothy. The difference is that the land he’s showing is real as well as magical and other-worldly.
The film implicitly reflects on three different kinds of language--the different languages spoken in movies, the so-called language of cinema, and Sign, specifically the language of the deaf. Different languages are suggested by the use of subtitles in the film to translate Sign as well as vocal speech. But then Jean-Claude Poulain--the most expressive purveyor of Sign in the film, who also teaches that language—-explains that Sign is less of a universal language than we suppose, because it is articulated somewhat differently in each country. He adds, however, that it takes him only a few days to pick up Sign in another country, which finally suggests that it’s still more universal than spoken languages.
What's usually meant by "the language of film" is the set of visual and aural conventions involving editing, framing, mise en scène, and sound to which all moviegoers respond, though few commentators have bothered to spell them out. Whether these conventions and the messages they send constitute a language is debatable, though there was an entire cottage industry of film theory during the 70s predicated on that assumption. The intricate rules of conventional editing are a good example of what I mean: very few viewers are capable of defining them but nearly everyone responds to them, just as native speakers of a language follow the rules of grammar even if they don't consciously know what they are.
It seems that the usual response of someone who hears a foreign language is to assume, often unconsciously, that it's a failed attempt at the language one already knows--an assumption subtitling helps to encourage by supposedly providing the "real" meaning. Similarly, when most of us first encounter Sign, our likely first response is to "read" it as if it were a form of pantomime. But according to Oliver Sacks in his book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989), this reflects a misconception: "We see...in Sign, at every level--lexical, grammatical, syntactic--a linguistic use of space: a use that is amazingly complex, for much of what occurs linearly, sequentially, temporally in speech, becomes simultaneous, concurrent, multileveled in Sign. The "surface' of Sign may appear simple to the eye, like that of gesture or mime, but one soon finds that this is an illusion, and what looks so simple is extraordinarily complex and consists of innumerable spatial patterns nested, three-dimensionally, in each other."
This observation can be adapted to the so-called language of cinema: young viewers often maintain that silent films are unwatchable today, that they're crude, primitive approximations of what sound movies do much better. But this rejection is of course partially a learned response rather than an innate reaction: the same audience never seems to mind the visual corruptions and limitations of TV and video. One might come closer to the truth by reversing the paradigm: isolating certain silent masterpieces and assuming that current popular sound movies are crude attempts to approximate their expressiveness. Compare Tom Hanks or Woody Allen with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Harry Langdon, or Harold Lloyd and the difference is like that between an able conservatory pupil playing an exercise and a virtuoso musician performing in concert.
Better yet, compare the expressiveness of a Bruce Willis or a Jean-Claude Van Damme or an Arnold Schwarzenegger (especially in his pre-political mode) with that of any of the people speaking Sign in Philibert's documentary, children or adults, male or female, and the differences become astronomical. Despite the benefit of spoken language, these action heroes’ palettes are so limited that the only "emotions" they register are actually parodies of emotions. By contrast the people signing in Philibert's film--and these are almost the only people we see--use their faces and bodies like agile paintbrushes, speaking to us and to each other with all the colors imaginable, vibrantly and directly. (As Jean Gremion writes in his book The Planet of the Deaf  "In sign language, the smallest bat of an eyelash can become an element of syntax.")
One might also regard the subtitles in Philibert's film the way one regards librettos, as texts without the benefit of either music or performance, which is what the deaf people are supplying. One suspects that Philibert has this analogy in mind, because he begins the film with the camera pulling back from two women and two men performing Sign together to sheet music on music stands, and the musical effect of their individual and collective gestures --their passages in unison and their interactive duets--is immediately obvious.
Even more remarkable, the fact that most of us in the audience understand English but not Sign plays a secondary role. English subtitles translate for us, but one discovers early on that, like subtitles translating spoken languages, the translation is only a partial, reductive version of what's being expressed. Even if one ignores the subtitles, the range of emotions--from grief to joy, from anger to affection, from enthusiasm to indifference--is so great, and the power behind each of them so immediate, that we often feel blown away by the sheer force of the subjects' personalities. The particulars conveyed in the subtitles are helpful and important, but as the film progresses they begin to seem more and more like footnotes to large-scale texts that only Sign can convey.
The relationships between Sign and cinema are obviously deep and complex; significantly, the film's first Sign monologue reveals a mute subject's lifelong fascination with movies and his early desire to become a film actor, until a director neighbour informed him that this was impossible. But this doesn't mean that Sign and cinema are automatically interchangeable. The aim and achievement of Philibert's film is to plunge us as completely as possible into the world of communication between deaf people, and in order to do this he's had to rethink, to some extent, the language of cinema--the conventions of framing, editing, and even sound recording. In a fascinating article for the French film magazine Trafic (no. 8, automne 1993), Philibert has described in detail how conventional documentary filming methods proved inadequate for capturing the subtle interactions between deaf people. (For example, "Although sound operates in 360 degrees, in the realm of the deaf the voice-off does not exist: out of sight, communication is not possible; outside the frame, not even a hello.") In the same article he explains why making a purely silent film would not have accurately represented the world of the deaf--which, "contrary to what is believed, is not pure silence. Confused, faraway murmurs, diffuse noises: even for the so-called "stone' deaf, it is not nothingness." Philibert manipulates his own sound track at times in order to suggest some of that subjective experience—-a technique that becomes especially apparent towards the end of the film--and some of the Sign monologues deal with certain aspects of the experience as well. (A mute born into a nearly all-deaf family describes the initial experience of using a hearing aid as extremely unpleasant: "The sound of chairs--it was awful.")
But the principal bounty of this film is the relatively unmediated and magnificent spectacle of Sign itself, performed by numerous individuals for whom "acting" and "being" appear to be indistinguishable. These extraordinary people include some of the best French child "performers" encountered and seen since the films of Truffaut, as well as the aforementioned Poulain, whose everyday utterances and expressive gestures automatically place him in the pantheon of character actors occupied by such figures as Walter Brennan, Marcel Dalio, William Demarest, and Michel Simon.
I'm tempted to say that I haven't seen such emotional, multifaceted physical expressiveness in so many people since the golden age of silent cinema; but alas, among contemporary moviegoers that no longer serves as much of a recommendation. So let me put it differently: if you want to see and hear people who will make you feel more alive, the likes of whom you won't come close to finding in many current commercial releases, check out Nicolas Philibert’s In the Land of the Deaf.
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum