Visual Medium, Visual Language: American Sign Language in Film
Its hard to imagine an audience who didn’t scream even once during a horror movie. Even at the tiniest jump scare, there is always one or two gasps and screeches as audience responses. However, there’s almost a public consciousness telling the viewers of A Quiet Place to not even make a sound. The antagonists of the film, who are massive spider-like creatures, can only attack when there is sound. In this film, silence is a way of protection. The family in the film needs to communicate with one another, and their knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL) allows them to communicate while surviving in this silent universe. Their knowledge of ASL protects them. Jon Krazinski’s film is not the only film that focuses on a character who uses sign language. Guilleirmo del Toro’s The Shape of Water focuses on a mute woman who makes a relationship with an amphibian-like man. With the successes of both of these films, one being the winner of the past Oscar’s best picture, does this show a public interest in nonverbal language in film?
The Creation of the “Talkies”: A Sound Revolution in Film
The first film with sound, or “talkie” as they were called, came out and surprised audiences with verbal speech in place of text screens. After the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, audio was soon becoming the industry standard. Instead of simply seeing a character with music playing above their performance, they could now attach a voice to the characters. Despite The Jazz Singer’s use of offensive stereotyping at the expense of African American people (which has deteriorated its reputation today), it did help lead to what was called a “sound revolution” in the film industry. For years to come, films would all feature spoken word and written dialogue. However, with some small independent films here and there, representation of the Deaf community would be lowered at the cost of the advancement. Despite sound being viewed as a technological advancement in film, movies such as A Quite Place and The Shape of Water, become major financial and critical successes. The Shape of Water had 13 Oscar nominations, and had won the prestigious Best Picture Award, as well as three other awards at the 90th Oscar Award Ceremony. The film’s star, Sally Hawkins even was nominated for best actress. A Quiet Place made $50.2 million dollars at its box office debut. The only films of the year 2018 that have higher box office debuts are blockbusters from Marvel Studios, such as Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War.
There was an influx of immigrants coming into the United States around the time of The Jazz Singer‘s release in 1927. American nationalism and ethnocentrism (or the belief that one’s country is superior to all others) lead to a massive language assimilation. This included public outcries for people speaking their native languages at the workplace. This included an outcry against American Sign Language being used publicly. It was not until the beginning of World War II, when there was a boom of employment of deaf men. Deaf men were entered into the draft at the time, so many were hired, alongside women, to have the jobs of the men drafted into the army. In Germany, deaf and mute citizens were prejudiced alongside Jewish citizens, leaving 1,600 deaf and mute individuals killed by Nazi soldiers. Henceforth, the time period in which del Toro chose for his film The Shape of Water, is significant to the treatment of the protagonist. Elisa is constantly scolded for her use of ASL, so she relates herself to other characters in the story who are mistreated, especially the amphibian man. She longs to free the creature, just as much as she longs to let her “voice” be heard and not feared.
“Deaf” vs. “deaf”
In today’s more culturally inclusive world, there are schools dedicated to helping students with deafness and muteness. There has also been an increase in public schools and universities having ASL classes. Now, the question is does the success of these two films show a newfound respect for nonverbal language? Will there be more films starring silent characters? It is fair to note that people who use ASL do not see their muteness and/or deafness as being a disability. According to the National Association of the Deaf, “deaf” refers to the physical condition of not being able to hear, while “Deaf” refers to a community of people who use ASL. To many of the individuals in this community, being “deaf” is not a disability, just another way of life. In the film A Quiet Place, the main reason why the family is still alive in their vacant dystopia is due to their use of ASL. They also come up with other ways to live their lives while avoiding making sound, such as using leaves instead of plates at dinner or placing sand over the leaf covered grass as they walk. The world of the previously mentioned “sound revolution” has fallen apart, its inhabitants all devoured. The lone survivors are the family of a Deaf child, and no one else.
Learning from the Community
To make the film as authentic as possible, Jon Krazinski, the film’s director, writer, and main actor, hired a Deaf child to play as his daughter. Krazinski stated in an interview that Millicent Simmonds, was one of the best actors he worked with. He also hired Douglas Ridloff, an ASL interpreter, to teach the rest of the cast members the language. Not only is the use of silence in language important to Krazinski and his film team, but also silence of any sound. There is only one scene where music is used, when the mother and father characters (played by Krazinski and wife, Emily Blunt, respectively) are listening to music through headphones. When filming, the crew strictly avoided making any sounds as to make diegetic synchronized sounds become more audible. Diegetic sounds are minuscule audio caused from actions such as stepping on leaves or rolling dice. The film makers go out of their way to engulf the audience into the world of silence, or in other words, to the world the characters are subjected.
Much like the characters in the story, ASL is not a choice, but a requirement of their daily lives. This mirrors the situation of people within the Deaf community, as they do not have a choice in the language they speak. Speaking in ASL for Deaf people is the only way they can express themselves and communicate. They do not have the luxury of verbalizing, but can only use writing to communicate in languages such as English. In The Shape of Water, Elisa is mute and is faced with discrimination based on her inability to speak verbally. This is why she forms a relationship with the sea creature. While the creature is contained in a small tank, Elisa feels suffocated by not being allowed to express her true feelings verbally. Both are feared by others for their differences, yet what makes them unique, makes them attractive.
Is there a Public Interest in Sign Language Today?
Both films show awareness and respect for the Deaf community and American Sign Language as a legitimate language. However, does this show a new respect and public interest into ASL in film? Only the following years will tell, if there is ever an increase in signing characters featured in popular movies. Yet, the film industry, and society as a whole, are increasingly inclusive. This can be viewed in the success of films such as A Quiet Place and The Shape of Water. Needless to say, silence is becoming another type of sound.
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