As if the prospect of Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen for the screen wasn’t enough to tickle my fancy, a glimpse at Peter Bradshaw’s five-star review for Love and Friendship in the Guardian made it a must-see. Yes, he liked the film, a lot, and called it “hilariously self-aware”. More specifically, he mentioned “arch intertitles”, saying that Stillman uses them “as a kind of visual archaism, almost like a literary silent movie”. This had me scanning the room for the nearest couch to swoon on. I confess I first misread that as “visual anarchism”, which didn’t surprise me at all in relation to intertitles, but “visual archaism” is another concept that intrigues me. Likewise, a “literary silent movie”, which may have been intended as an oxymoron or a joke, is perfectly plausible, although it is a form that has confounded many a critic.
The question I want to raise is this: are intertitles archaic? They were introduced in early film and widely understood as a way to circumnavigate the “problem” of having no audible dialogue, so surely they must be. But I would argue that they didn’t die out with the coming of sound. In the silent era, intertitles provided exposition, character introduction, geographical and chronological markers – and ready laughs. They still do. First, the quick, compact wit found in intertitles transformed into the quickfire comic dialogue of comedies from the screwball era to the finest romcoms by Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, et al. There’s many a modern film that begins with a title card, too, the most famous and best-loved being the scrolling scene-setters in the Stars Wars films. And you’ll see practical intertitles of many kinds popping up in modern films, from captions to introduce characters in a freeze-frame (think Trainspotting and its many imitators) to a kind of punctuation, used either for a gag or to mark a shift in time and space (“New York, ten years later”, that sort of thing). Despite the expository potential of dialogue, modern films still rely on cards of sorts to impart all kinds of information. An excellent recent example is The Big Short.
More intriguingly, modern technology means that intertitles, or the intertitle tradition, are having a renaissance. Honestly. It’s all to do with mobile phones, really. Many of us spend increasingly large portions of the day engrossed in long-running, silent conversations: from text messages and Whatsapp, to chat forums and Facebook threads. Text alerts interrupt our browsing to tell us about breaking news, or a “like” on Instagram or interaction on Twitter. I love all this, it means we live in a world of words and conversation. It doesn’t appear very cinematic, though. We look down, at a small gadget, instead of outward, and upright, facing the world. We’re a little like Love and Friendship‘s Frederica, constantly hunched over a book, with the firelight reflected on her face recalling the glow of a phone or tablet. Cleverly, film and TV makers have incorporated this trend and made it work on screen, from the floating text messages in BBC’s Sherlock to the grainy screen close-ups of Catfish. We now expect to see text on screen at the cinema again. And I hear there is a particularly spooky use of SMS in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, which debuted recently to excellent reviews at Cannes.
Mobiles have another part to play in the return of captions and intertitles. Video, us digital journos often repeat, is on the rise, from viral clips, to gifs to live-streams to video news reports. And many of us stream video on our phones, either on public transport or at home in rooms with other people, so naturally, we’re watching with the sound off. Digiday recently reported that 85% of Facebook videos were watched with the sound off. They illustrated the article with a picture of Charlie Chaplin. Check out this quote:
“Sound is still an option [on Facebook], but it’s not required,” said Rye Clifton, director of experience at GSD&M. “If you can make something compelling without needing people to turn the audio on, you’re ahead of people who are not thinking that way.”
Making a film compelling “without needing people to turn the audio on” is an awful lot like Hitchcock’s theory that movies should tell their stories without the soundtrack. We may not be talking about a return to the most sophisticated silent arts though, just the clever, punchy use of captions that enlivens social-friendly news videos such as these.
Our visual culture merges text and live action seamlessly. And that’s why the floating quotations from letters in Stillman’s Love and Friendship don’t jar, or look the least bit archaic, despite the antiquated font. They reflect our world and that of the film too. Austen’s characters, being bereft of not just the cinema, but also the TV and the smartphone, are big book readers. Letter-writers too. Lady Susan, the novella Love and Friendship is based on, is written in the epistolary form, which partly explains its text-heavy style. In epistolary novels, characters save their best lines, and their truest confessions, for the written word. There is no live dialogue, just reported speech. Austen herself wrote vast amounts of letters, especially to her sister, so it’s clear why this form initially appealed to her. Even more famously, she sat in the corner of a family room scribbling her novels (which included pithy, biting jokes that are eminently suited to the short-form of intertitles), on “a little bit of ivory (two inches wide)”.
The use of floating on-screen text, complete with punctuation gags (especially amusing if you have ever studied Austen’s drafts) in Love and Friendship, means that watching the film recalls the pleasures of reading the book too. There are other intertitles in the film, though, and after the screening of Love and Friendship I attended at the BFI last night, Stillman explained how they came about. The film introduces its lead characters in short posed, but not still, shots, near the beginning of the film. Beneath each face, which is surrounded by a delicate iris effect, there is a character name, and short description. Sir James Martin for example, is “a bit of a rattle”. (That’s a more elegant, Austenesque way to say “thicko”.) Using intertitles to introduce and describe characters is a classic silent film technique, even if they are here merged briefly with performance. Stillman explained, rather prosaically, that these appear because having time left over after setting up a long-shot, he had the assembled cast stand on the steps, and pose for “portraits”. In the editing room he “thought of silent film” and added first the captions, which were lifted from a copy of the script that had been touted round to investors, and then the irises. Why the irises? Two actors were not on set that day, so he used out-takes from their interior scenes and added the irises to disguise the mismatch in the backgrounds.
Although that is a less-than-inspiring explanation, something else Stillman said about his shooting-and-editing procedure intrigued me. When you watch the film, you’ll notice that although the written text is in almost every case superimposed on the live action, elsewhere there are pauses, resting beats in the film between the snappy, verbose dialogue scenes. Waiting for the lead actors to emerge from hair and makeup (the costumes and sets are really gorgeous) he would pass the time shooting the extras playing the servants and the interiors – and almost every shot was used in the final edit. So these passing shots of a coach wobbling over a gravelled drive, or a butler lighting candles, give the audience a chance to catch their breath, and relax the tempo just a touch. Intertitles do this too, especially the art titles used in prestigious silent films or those that revel in old-fashioned language to reinforce the historical setting. That’s “visual archaism”, perhaps, and it’s also luxuriant period film-making.
Love and Friendship is certainly not silent; its dialogue is a constant, hilarious joy. The delights of Austen’s prose, Stillman’s script, and Kate Beckinsale’s delicious elocution, are enough to tempt you into the pictures this weekend to watch it. And you’ll leave the cinema replaying Tom Bennett’s hoot of a performance as Sir James Martin the “rattle” in your mind too. But in addition to its many qualities, it is also the perfect illustration of why intertitles are anything but archaic.