Wordless novels and motionless movies

Novels have words and films move. But some creators have resisted even these conventions, creating novels without writing and films without motion.

Orly Airport, one of the settings of La Jetée
Orly Airport, one of the settings of La Jetée
HZ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long been an admirer of Oulipo, the form of (mainly French) avant-garde writing under mathematical or structural constraints. One of the first posts in this blog was on A Void, the book written without the letter “e” in it. This approach’s premise is that creativity flourishes under constraints… so we introduce artificial constraints to the writing process to release that creativity.

But, what is more constraining than the premise of the medium itself? If you write a book you have to write; if you film a movie you would expect there to be motion. But some novels and some movies step outside this convention. These are the wordless novels and the un-moving movies.

About a hundred years ago, German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu used techniques like weird and sharp angles, high contrast, and dramatic lighting to create an oppressive and haunting tone and mood. About the same time, a Flemish artist named Frans Masereel began releasing books made of woodcut prints that captured a very similar feeling. Masereel’s works, beginning with 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, feel raw and stark – and they are entirely without words.

In 25 Images, for example, Masereel tells the story of a (failed) workers’ revolt through evocative images only. The Sun tells the story of a little man in a modern city who seeks out the sun but, like Icarus, falls in his quest. They enjoyed wide popularity – especially in Germany – and inspired an American novelist named Lynd Ward to create his own wordless novels. Today both Masereel and Ward’s works are seen as significant precursors to the graphic novel.

(I would add images of these books here but they are still under copyright in some jurisdictions. You can see some pictures in the links below.)

In the 1960s, some experimental films came out that similarly eschewed the defining characteristic of their medium. Instead of showing motion, they added narration over a series of still images. The most famous of these is Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a 1962 sci-fi film about time travel and tragic time loops:

La Jetée

Terry Gilliam later remade La Jetée into the (regular, moving) film 12 Monkeys. A year before La Jetée was released, a Canadian filmmaker named Arthur Lipsett created a similar photomontage film called Very Nice, Very Nice:

Very Nice, Very Nice

Stanley Kubrick was such a fan that he asked Lipsett to direct the trailer for Dr. Strangelove. (Lipsett declined.) George Lucas was also inspired by Lipsett; Lucas’ very first film – Look at Life, made while he was a student at USC Film School – was a photomontage film in the Lipsett style.

Both Masereel’s 1920s novels and Marker and Lipsett’s 1960s films tried something different. In doing so, they opened up new pathways and possibilities in books and film.

[End note: apologies for the gap between posts – the longest in nearly three years. I’ve been working through some family health issues, and will return to a more regular schedule in the future.]

One Reply to “Wordless novels and motionless movies”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s