To be told in the preface of any book that the author took a ‘comprehensive approach’ to the topic at hand, is to pique one’s sense of foreboding, and expect that the well-intentioned but naïve project will inevitably come up short, especially if the topic is as vast as ‘words on screen’ – which covers, in the author’s own words, ‘everything written and printed in film’, or, ‘everything the movie screen has offered us to read since the seventh art was born’. But with Words on Screen, such concerns are unfounded. First, the author is composer and film critic Michel Chion, who, as a prolific writer on film, film sound and music, is uniquely adept at tackling broad subject areas (see Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen and Film, a Sound Art). Second, Chion is all too aware of the project’s scale. In fact, that is kind of the point. Whilst other writers such as Béla Balázs, Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, Tom Conley, Joachim Paech, Wolfgang Beilenhoff, Christian Metz and Michel Marie have written variously, and well, about words on screen, Chion has taken a step back and attempted to layout the full range of textual effects – from the conspicuous painted streets of Dogville (2003), embroidered initials in Solaris (1972) and a porcelain manufacturer in The Usual suspects (1995) to an oblique shadow in Frantic (1988), a haunting phrase in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1988) and an incriminating t in Jagged Edge (1985). ‘This book was not conceived to prove a thesis’, Chion says.
Chion began, simply, with an inventory. With the time afforded him by a grant from the Internationales College für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM), he watched around 900 films and captured thousands of frame stills (256 of which appear in greyscale in satin stock in the centre of the paperback). He looked at:
titles, of course, and intertitles and other subtitles … letters written and read by characters, telegrams, text messages, words scrawled on windows or printed on visiting cards and hotel signs, banners, posters, traffic and street signs; words on computer screens, and all that is traced in air, on snow and in sand, on metal or wood, not to mention paper, as well as across the sky and on human skin.
This list of examples – starting on ‘the place name and photography’ and ending with ‘restoring weight to space’ – forms Part I. Chion gives a brief explanation of each example and uses a few films (and stills) to illustrate his points. It’s an attempt to layout, in plain terms, a nomenclature that can be used as a basis for further study. But there is nuance and complexity here, too. Once read, you will certainly be more perceptive to the full range of on-screen text.
Further into the book, we see the results, problems and discussions born of the ‘inventory’. Part II is more provocation than theory, and is the most inchoate section of the book. That being said, it can be read in stand-alone sections and one can still find plenty of intrigue. A section on the return of index fingers (over thumbs), mirroring the development of larger phones, tablets and so on, brought to mind the Paris to London to Paris train scenes in Personal Shopper (2016), where we see just enough of the diegetic text messages to and from Kristen Stewart to be able to decipher the conversation (possibly with her recently deceased brother) without the phone (and the writing on the phone) seeming conspicuous or awkward.
In another section that deals with the dissatisfaction audiences might feel when written works (such as poems) are alluded to but never displayed on screen (diegetically or otherwise), I was reminded of a converse example: the writing that appears in a handwritten style in Paterson (2016) in sync with Adam Driver’s non-diegetic performance of his character’s poetry (penned by Ron Padgett) and its deliberate rhythmic quality, surfacing every so often as if to check that the pace of the film is keeping to the metre of Paterson’s quiet observations. I do not think I would have made these observations without Chion’s book – and that’s exciting. Chion has cleaved a space in film criticism and sewn the seeds of future discourse on the topic.
Though Chion aims to consider mainly global questions regarding writing and print in film – that is, features that can be identified across many years, genres, directors, styles, and so on – there are areas of the book where the writing acts a jumping off point for a larger discussion unrelated to words on screen. This happens throughout the book, but mostly in Part III, where Chion has attempted to address, amongst other tensions, the play between 2D and 3D representations. For example, Chion talks about 3D representations of writing on surfaces, which, especially when transparent and/or curved (see Avatar, Minority Report, Prometheus, Iron Man 2 et al.), only serve to highlight the two-dimensional flatness. But this assessment still holds when the writing is removed and all we are left with is surface; ‘There is nothing like 3D to render what we perceive or conceive in two dimensions … its full and perfect reality as a flat surface’ Chion says. Chion intentionally avoids singling out auteurs, unlike much film criticism. Although many directors are cited, he tries to use examples from a wide-range of fiction films with disparate styles – on the topic of anagrams you will find David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) immediately followed by Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915).
Like Chion’s works on sound, Words on Screen, with its deceptively simple conceit, provides a new way of reading films (or at least makes us aware of an extra, often overlooked, dimension). In setting out a general set of first principles, Chion has provided a scaffold upon which I can imagine other scholars hanging an infinite number of analyses. There is enough fodder here to keep a slew of film theorists busy for decades.