Review of Words On Screen

Words On Screen
by Michel Chion; Claudia Gorbman, Translator

Columbia University Press, NY, NY, 2017
272 pp. Paper, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0231174992

Reviewed by
Will Luers
November 2017

The word Rosebud disappears in flames. A book of matches with identifying initials lands near Eve, a signal that Roger is nearby. Jack’s stack of typewritten pages, repeating the same phrase over and over again, terrifies his wife Wendy. These and many other moments of textuality in cinema history are collected in Michel Chion’s Words on Screen. The center of the book contains 256 black and white images of evidence: words floating, dissolving, hiding, standing up straight and otherwise battling for presence in the physical world of light and shadow. One of Chion’s stated aims is to “shower the reader with examples” as if the sheer quantity and plurality makes the argument that cinema can’t escape written language. As Chion points out in the last chapter, reviewing these illustrations for his book, cinema asserts itself as a writing surface or “immaterial paper” where language appears and disappears over the continuous image. Compared to the contingent world captured on film, words on a screen seem flat, two-dimensional and even “child-like.”

The book is divided into three sections. In part 1, The Infinite Inventory, the author presents general types of cinema textuality: “overlays” such as credit sequences or subtitles, “inserts” such intertitles with narration or dialogue and “inclusions” of writing such as handwritten notes, posters, signs, typed pages or computer screens. But in these many examples, Chion chooses to complicate rather than simplify his system. Text within cinema space sometimes requires the invention of terms. “Athorybos,” for example, is an aspect of an image that should or might produce a sound but does not. Diegetic writing in a sound film that is not accompanied by a voice or utterance is an athorybal message, a “mute call that asks us to lend it our own voice.”

Part 2, Writing, Reading, “aims to problematize cinema’s representation of these two activities.” Here Chion examines the affect and materiality of writing/reading on the screen: the sensuality of ink and paper, the mechanical clacking of a typewriter, the darkened screen space of early computers. Cinema’s ability to jump scales, from long shot to close-up, integrates the intimate spaces of reading or writing – the flatness, abstraction and linearity of a page, for example – with the multidimensionality and simultaneity of the larger world captured by the camera. The challenge of depicting text-messaging in contemporary movies is in the integration of these two visual orders. In some successful experiments text exchanges between characters hover over the cinema space like overlays, but they are also point-of-view shots of what the characters are reading and writing, silently, as they stare at their devices and type with their thumbs.

The final part, Writing in Film Space, gets to the heart of Chion’s project: How do two-dimensional text spaces integrate into three-dimensional cinema spaces? Writing usually exists in a controlled environment with conventions and rules for navigation. The directionality of reading, for example, is in contrast to the multi-directionality of cinema space where a pan in any direction can be understood. The camera may faithfully track the reader’s eyes gliding along the reading surface, but at any moment it can also break free from the restrictions of writing space and re-enter the three-dimensional flux of cinema space. The Chion asks why there are so many instances of writing’s destruction in cinema history? He uses the term “excription” for an “inscription that does not ‘hang on to’ the world, doesn’t incorporate into it.” The typed words of an author dissolve into the scene being depicted. Important messages are erased, rubbed out, deleted. Teardrops and rain dissolve ink on love notes. Letters are torn and tossed to the wind or sea. Books (and inscribed sleds) turn black in the furnace. Chion’s intuition is that cinema wants to escape the flatness of writing and yet needs writing to enact its disappearance into image, again and again. Words are erased in cinema “not to make room for more writing but for the writing that has disappeared from the screen to be inscribed, or rather excribed, in us.”

Words on Screen is not about finding tidy answers but about uncovering new riddles in the relationship between text and image. Chion’s research into these questions feels new, and is of immense value to scholars and artists working through the entanglements of words on screens in the post-digital age, where all surfaces have the potential of being cinematic interfaces.