Words on Screen by Michel Chion review

Words on Screen by Michel Chion (edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman)

Published by Columbia University Press (March, 2017)

Review by Peter Larkin

Note: I would like to thank Columbia University Press for sending me a copy of Words on Screen to review.

“I do not read so many fictions. But rather books on the theory of cinema. My favorite author is Michel Chion: as soon as one of his books is translated, I buy it. He does not write from an abstract point of view like most critics, who speak more of aesthetics than of the act of seeing a film. Chion is interested in all the ways of perceiving a film. He wrote a book about the history of the early years of sound in cinema. He takes tiny subjects and he really talks about it from the perspective of someone watching a movie and the effect it does. That’s what I like about him: it’s very smart and it’s never abstract.” Jim O’Rourke on Michel Chion (interview with Les Inrocks, 29th November 2001)

I think that Jim O’Rourke’s statement about Michel Chion sums him up perfectly as a critic and theoretician of cinema, ‘it’s very smart and it’s never abstract’. Mr. Chion began writing and teaching about film sound in 1978, a subject of which little attention was being paid at the time. From 1981-1988 he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, during that time he wrote his first book on cinema, The Voice in Cinema (1982), an exploration on screenwriting Writing a Scenario (1985, revised and updated 2007) and a monograph on Jacques Tati (1987). Cahiers continued to publish some of his books after he left the magazine including monographs on Lynch (1992) Kubrick (2005) and Tarkovski (2008). Mr. Chion has written for Cahiers left wing rival Positif since 1996. His most famous book is Audio Vision (1990) about the relationship between image and sound. Mr. Chion’s latest book is Words on Screen (2017) expertly edited and translated by his friend and fellow film scholar Claudia Gorbman from the French original text L’Ècrit au Cinema (2013). Gorbman describes Chion as ‘a poet in theoretician’s clothes’. Mr. Chion’s writing invites the reader to access areas of cinema such as image, sound, speech and text which I for one knew very little about before reading.

Where to begin with Words on Screen? Chion illustrates many uses of text on screen through ten chapters featuring use of opening credits in many creative forms such as a hand on the screen writing out the credits in the Astaire-Rogers musical Carefree (Sandrich, 1938)  and Barbarella’s (Vadim, 1968)  use of jumbling text around Jane Fonda’s body. Also the act of hearing a foreign language and reading subtitles, the visuals of letters, books and signs on screen. Chion examines the psychological effects of these visuals for the films and their audiences. As often Chion invites you to take the journey of the book with him with his clear and concise prose. The best moments in the book are Chion’s fascination with newspapers (Eyes Wide Shut) signs (The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)) computers (The Thing, Stand by Me) and how Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) is written on screen in the credits as “Casablanca” a word to be spoken over and over again throughout the film rather than simply read.

Chion got a research grant to write the book from The Internationales Kolleg fur Kultur-technikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) in Weimar, Germany. Chion states that he watched over 900 films in preparation and uses 256 stills to illustrate examples of text in cinema. Chion insists that the cinema continues to re-invent itself in modern times and sees a positive side to 3-D for Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). The book is useful for film scholars looking to learn about this unique subject, Chion’s devoted readers will continue to feel the warm invitation of his writing.

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