As Oscars night approached, I began my annual rush: “better get to the movies and see the nominees.” At the same time, I’d been enjoying TCM’s "31 Days to the Oscars," their 24/7 showing of Academy Award nominees and winners over the decades. I’ll state the obvious: movies have changed over the nearly 90 years that the Academy has given awards: sound, color, acting technique, subject matter.
This year, I’ve realized another difference: today’s films often rely much more on the empathy and emotional investment of the audience. Today’s films frequently require the audience to interpret and create a character and the character’s inside story. The audience has to perceive and understand the story rather than hear it told.
I watched the classic, All About Eve (1950), on TV. It is beautifully acted and it opens with a tight, narrated sequence, which shifts back in time to start the story. The story is driven completely on dialogue and some strong soliloquys; the script is rich in language with theatrical and movie references…the monologues and dialogues elevate the story and reveal the characters. Margo’s (Bette Davis) lines comingle sarcasm, anger, and resignation; Addison (George Sanders) is cutting, highly theatrical, and eloquent—a pompousness that drives his character. The audience has to tune into the language, or lose its way into and through the story. Watch the caustic party scene of Davis, Sanders, Anne Baxter, and Marilyn Monroe and hear the sophisticated banter; watch the intense moment when Addison blackmails Eve (Anne Baxter) by exposing her web of lies…and listen to his eloquent self-reproach before he walks out. The acting is excellent, but the language is rich, sophisticated, eloquent.
Moonlight (2016), on the other hand, moves forward almost without language. Key to the characters is their inability to understand or describe their state in life. The actors show us what they feel, invite us to understand their frustration, their inability to explain, their inability to communicate. The lines are few and very pointed…and often carry two or three times as much meaning as words. When the drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) demands money from Chiron (Ashton Sanders), the audience wants him to scream, to refuse, to revolt…but the words don’t come. The characters and the drama are driven by a lack of words, an intense inability of the characters to articulate in words…but the film articulates eloquently through situation, editing, and acting.
Once I’d made this realization—where words once served, now technique communicates—I found it over and over again. The romance of Casablanca (1942) unfolds in language that the characters speak—Rick (Humphrey Bogart) explains his pain to a glass of liquor and to Sam in the shadows of the late-night bar; the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941) is 15 minutes of excellent banter and quips and explanation…if the audience doesn’t listen, the story confuses them; Norman (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960) is revealed largely though his conversation with Marion (Janet Leigh) among his taxidermy or through the psychiatrist’s (Simon Oakland) prolonged explanation at the end of the film.
Among the other Academy Award nominees that I saw for this year, Lion and Manchester by the Sea both featured characters and stories that develop and communicate through situation, editing, and acting. Lion’s main character, Saroo—whether young (Sunny Pawar) or old (Dev Patel)—was often mute in witnessing his own life: the boy’s silently joining the other children in the underground or the man’s searching the internet and his spiderweb of maps on the wall. Manchester’s characters suffer and support in near silence. Lee (Ben Affleck) bears the weight of an unbearable tragedy, but never really articulates it in words; even when his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) reaches out to him from her own pain, his answer is, “You don’t understand.”
Audiences should acknowledge this difference—just as obviously as they distinguish between black-and-white or color films. Typically, older films will tell you what they want you to know; newer films, more and more, will show the story and the audience has to watch closely to discover it.