Exploring no dialogue introductions as a story telling and cinematic technique

Today I want to explore something I have been a fan of for as long as I can remember. Directors who have the ability to tell stories without the use of dialogue, create very engaging films and in many cases more effective. I believe this for me stems from two things a quote I heard a long time ago that I can not find the source of that described film as nothing more than complex theatrical plays and how film holds the potential to be so much more.  This combined with the way Kubrick talked about the “form” of film for example “The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated.” This helps in the creation of far deeper and meaningful story telling. A key example of this is the film Blade Runner. Many of you probably already know this so I will keep it brief, but Blade Runner theatrical release featured a heavy handed voice over added by the studio as the felt the story was too complex. However Ridley Scott was against this idea and felt it ruined the film so it was subsequently removed from the director and final cut that critics and audiences a like consider better than the theatrical release. With these ideas in mind the films we are going to explore are Eraserhead (1977 David Lynch), There Will Be Blood (2007 Paul Thomas Anderson) and 2001: A space Odyssey (1968 Stanley Kubrick).

Eraserhead

We shall begin with the shortest duration on no dialogue intros and work towards the longest. So we shall start with Eraserhead which has 10 minutes and 46 seconds before the first piece of dialogue in the film. Lynch does some very interesting things with this time that causes the audience to create there own interpretation of what is happening. Lynch is a surrealist who has a fascination with dreams that is intrinsically to his work, his films have a sense of the mystical and the uncanny with Eraserhead being a prime example of this. This means more than most; his films have a sense of ambiguity that leaves the audience mystified.  Due to this it means I can not objectively explore these first 10 minutes as about 6 of them are a dream-like sequence. This is what is so great about this technique that every person and every time you watch it you might see something different.  The opening shot shows an odd looking man who we will later find out is Henry almost floating through space with a single plant that goes through his head. We zoom in slowly towards the planet until we are traveling along the surface which appears very rocky and foreign to anything we have seen in our own world. The closest representation would probably be mars; however it does look very different. Shortly after this we see as house with hole in the roof, zooming into the hole we see man with weird growths sitting looking out the window with levers in front of him.  We cut back to see a sperm like creator floating inside Henry. The man in the house pulls some of the levers and the sperm shoots up and into a white puddle. Many including my self see this sequence as a representation of Henry impregnating Mary. However this leads to a lot of questions, what is the planet? Who is the man? Is this a dream and if so whose is it? I have my own answers to these questions however I will leave these open for now as I am looking to do an Eraserhead Analysis at some point in the future. The lack of dialogue causes a focus on the music which here adds to the weird tone. I wish I could find a video of the intro to put here but unfortunately I can not find one. If you have not seen the film I highly recommend it and if you have I recommend going back and watching the intro just to listen to the music. The sound design throughout the whole film is fantastic it is just most noticeable here due to the lack of dialogue.

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As this sequence ends we head down a dark tunnel towards the light into the present day of the film, to a shot of a confused looking Henry. In this first shot he walks away from the camera towards a gap in the large concrete wall in front of him. The wall has a whitish grey colour to it but the section Henry walks towards is dark. Darkness is a common theme in Lynch’s work and I feel this is portraying Henry’s beginning of his journey into darkness. The next shot shows mounds of dirt pilled up in front of an industrial landscape. Henry walks over two of theses in a very obscure way when he could have quite easily have avoided them. This adds to the tone of the film and builds the uncanny feeling around Henry, that something is just not right. Next we see Henry walk into a puddle which is plain sight and with a clear path behind it. However this creates no sound we continue listening to this mix of white noise which has been building up throughout the film creating an unsettling feeling. We continue to follow Henry through his world which seems uncanny to our own. It feels like a 1970’s industrial era setting however everything just feels quite off, it is hard to point to exactly what is off as it’s a mix of the cinematography and sound design causing this. Finally we see Henry go to his flat, check for mail; which he has none and get in the elevator. What is important here is pacing and set design both of these elements adding to the overall tone of the world. Inside the elevator the light flickers reinforcing this idea of light and dark as Henry looks very worried. He walks out of the elevator and begins opening his front door. We hear a women’s voice say “Are you Henry?” It is his neighbour asking as there was a miss call for him. If I had to use one word to describe what the no dialogue intro does for Eraserhead it would be atmosphere. The mix of the audio design and setting create this great atmosphere that continues throughout the film.

There Will be Blood

Now we shall move onto the next longest no dialogue intro with Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There will be Blood. The first piece of dialogue come at 14:33 which is very impress as Anderson does a lot with this time, some of the most important points of the film happen in this time. This leads to a film that one must be very engaged with when watching with finer details that can be missed on a first viewing. We shall now explore what Anderson does with this time and how it affects the overall film. If the word to describe what Eraserhead does is atmosphere then There will be Blood would be character. Through much of the film Daniel Day-Lewis’s character Daniel Plainview is seen as a silver tongued liar who will say what people want to hear for his own benefit whether it be financial or personal. However much of the introduction contrasts this as we see more of what I consider to be the real Plainview.  The film opens to a dusty mountain range with music that is reminiscent of The Shining (1980). Before very shortly fading as we see Plainview working alone in a mine. At this point we hear the sounds he does, the cracking of the axe against stone. He climbs out and there is a reinforcement of the idea of loneliness as he crouches drinking while the windy dark landscape extends behind him.  At this point we are informed it is 1898 something that will be important soon. After a few crashes of thunder we see him working in the mine again, after finding a small piece of ore he lights a stick of dynamite and climbs out. Before he can pull his tools out the dynamite explodes, he begins climbing back into the mine, however as he is doing so the ladder snaps. He has a broken leg at the bottom of the mine and is in immense pain. At this point he does mutter the word no twice however I do not count this a conventional dialogue as it spoke under his grunts of pain. He gets a sample of the ore and uses the rope for his tools to pull him self out. We see him pull himself along the rocky landscape and as the camera pans up we get a repeat of the opening shot with the screeching music that before remind me of The Shining.  The implication here is what he is going to have to go through to get back to civilisation. He will have to drag himself miles with a broken leg with insane levels of pain with the hope that the ore is worth something. Us the audience do not get to see the struggle and can barely imagine trying to go through what he did.  He gets to an assay office to record his claim, as his ore is being processed a sense of relief can be seen on his face as he lies on the floor. Although he is still clearly in pain he slowly roles over to check on what they are doing. We see a “silver and gold – scorification assay” which is signed Daniel Plainview all while the chilling score continues.

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After this we jump forward in time to 1902, four years after Plainview broke his leg and got the ore. He how owns and runs a small oil drilling company, once again this give the audience a change to use there own imagination as to what he did with his wealth from the ore to get to this position. We already know that he has gone through a lot of struggle and pain to get this business so it’s clear that his heart is in this pursuit. We see a man holding a baby which will become important in a moment but shortly after this the site strikes oil. Once again this chilling score continues although even louder than before. The music appears to coincide with Plainview accumulating wealth; but the score reminds us of horror films such as The Shining. This gives of the idea that as Plainview accumulates wealth we have great horrors ahead of us as the music seems to imply the idea that he is evil. The man who was holding the baby previously now christens the baby with the oil some interesting semiotics here as he will go onto to be a child of oil. Again bring up the premise of good and evil that we see through out There will be blood. Briefly after this the father of the child is in the mine filling buckets to be pulled out by a wood apparatus. However the wood snaps and falls into the mine killing the father. Plainview is seen covered in black oil staring at the baby who is clean and white. This leads us to think about the corruption of innocence that is going to take place and reinforces the concept of good and evil.  The baby begins to cry; Plainview takes a slip of what we presume to be whiskey and pours some on the baby’s bottle. However this does not stop the baby and it continues to cry so he tries to comfort him buy rocking his crib on his lap. The shot fades into the two of them on a train together; they make eye contact and the baby reaches for Plainview’s moustache. It creates this sense of connection between the two of them and in this moment Plainview looks the happier than any other point in the film. Shortly after this we again fade into Plainview talking in front of a small town about being an oil man. What is interesting about this moment on the train is it begs the question that continues throughout the whole film; does he take this child on for personal and capital gains or does he truly see something in the boy or even love him? It is a very powerful opening to a very powerful film that simply could not be achieved with dialogue.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Okay finally we get to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which lasts an enormous 25 mins and 44 seconds before the first piece of spoken dialogue. The pervious two films can be summarised with one word; atmosphere and Character. What 2001 does is far more impressive, it tells a whole story without the use of dialogue. It sets up many thematic elements that are used later in the film. Before we get into the analysis there is a small piece of information regarding the production of this film that we must discuss. Kubrick like me was not a fan of the three act structure that many films conform to. This is the idea that many fictional narratives follow where the first act creates a setup and a source of conflict for the main character or characters. The second act will see them confronting the conflict and then as a climax in the third act we will see the resolution. Kubrick’s work rarely followed this structure and 2001 is the best example of this. With this idea set out we can now begin our final analysis. 2001 opens with a black screen, “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” begins playing. This goes on for about three minutes, some audience members would ask why and I believe it is quite simple. This is the music used throughout the film when the monolith appears. It is considered by many that the monolith appears three times however I believe it appears four times as this is one of them. We are staring directly at the monolith as it fills the whole screen. If this interpretation is correct it brings up an interesting idea. The monolith in the film appears to represent the progress of the relation between humans and technology. I am oversimplifying here but otherwise this tangent would go on for far too long. The first allows for the discovery of weapons, the second as a sort of map that allows humans to push further into the universe and the final monolith well that’s a whole another analysis in itself. So by showing us the audience the monolith Kubrick is suggesting that the film is pushing forward the relationship between humans and technology. Well it did, any research into the production of the film will show that the special effects where revolutionary. Without this film we would not have seen many of the science fiction films that came after it as the technology in 2001 paved the way.

Okay that’s enough talking about a black screen; next we see the MGM logo and the title sequence begins [see above]. We see the moon, earth and the sun a line as “Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss)” plays which is a very powerful piece of music. It evokes a feeling that an epic journey is about to begin and fits perfectly with the theme of space. Then after getting the smallest taste of a science fiction film we are shot back to “The Dawn of Man” sequence. The establishing shots have this sense of a western too them; baron dusky landscapes with only the sound of the wind to be heard. The skeletons we see after these sequences of establishing shots almost reinforce this. Seeing the skeletons before we see any form of life is an interesting choice; suggesting that without death there would be no life. Then shortly after this we see our first source of life early hominids or ape-man as I shall refer to them. They are herbivores and are seen living more or less in peace with the tapirs. Two sources of conflict occur for the tribe of ape men we follow. The Dawn of Man sequence can be viewed as a satire of the three act film structure however that is not something I will be discussing here. They are attacked by a leopard who kills one of there members. Then another tribe of ape-man drive them away from a water hole. Kubrick had a career and life long obsession with human conflict which can be seen in a lot of his work. Even as herbivorous man has a need for conflict, rather than sharing as there is clearly enough for both tribes. Kubrick is suggesting a tribe like nature that is inside every man from the dawn of our creation.

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As the tribe attempt to sleep at night in a small opening they are clearly in fear    of what is out there, they are prey but this is going to change very shortly. As they awake to the monolith, the tribe all shriek, jump and stomp there feet while backing away. Slowly and cautiously one begins to touch the surface of the monolith. More of the tribe begin to crowd around and touch the monolith all while “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” plays once again. While this is happening the audience is expecting something big to happen. However an abrupt cut to establishing shots similar to those at the start of the sequence, once again just the sound of the wind to be heard. Then once again like at the start of the sequence we see the ape-men and the skeletons. One of the ape-men appears to get an idea; a short cut the monolith and back. “Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss)” begins playing as the ape-man picks up the bone. Slowly and cautiously similar to the treatment of the monolith he begins fashioning the bone as weapon. Causing the tribe to make a transition from prey to predator. With the discovery of weapons man destroys the concept of survival of the fittest. This is the “Dawn of Man” the discovery of weapons. Causing the tribe to become meat eaters from there new found skills by killing the tapirs they had once lived in peace with. This also causes them to retake the water hole from the other tribe which proves very easy. Beating the other tribe’s leader causing the rest of the tribe to retreat. In victory the bone is thrown into the air and a match cut is performed with a space ship. Here Kubrick has shown a whole story without dialogue; what is most interesting about this is the way in which different audience members while interpret this sequence and its relevance or lack there of to the rest of the film.

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There is not much I want to discuss after the dawn of man sequence as it is by far the most interesting part without dialogue; however I will briefly go over what happens up to the first piece of dialogue. Classical music begins playing as we see the planets and space ships perform a sort of dance. The spinning space station and ship as they load for docking is a prime example of this. Much of what we see up to the first piece of dialogue is a form of spectacle that shows of the impressive special effects.  The crew life appears quite mundane, this seems to be internal to make the flight appear routine and like any other day for them. This idea is reinforced by Dr. Floyd sleeping on the ship. As we see the ship down with the space station we cut to a spinning elevator before hearing the first piece of dialogue “Here you are, Sir, main level please.”

That concludes the exploration of the no dialogue introduction as a cinematic and storytelling technique. I feel the three films use it very well and to very different effect. If you would like to discuss any of this with me or have any comments please leave them on reddit and I will reply shortly. For now that is all and thanks for reading.

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4 thoughts on “Exploring no dialogue introductions as a story telling and cinematic technique

  1. Hi Stephen,

    Nice article. I’m interested in re-publishing this as a guest article on my blog nodialogue.com celebrating filmmaking without dialogue. Let me know if this is something you’d be happy to discuss.

    Cheers
    Eifion

    Like

    1. Hey Eifion,

      Yh that would be no problem at all mate as long as you can put a link back to my blog somewhere it would be a honour, also once you have posted it can you send me a link please that would be great.

      Thanks again,

      All The Best
      Stephen

      Like

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