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.