When Bodies Speak

It happens at moments too complex for words.
August 8, 2016

We didn't need dialogue,” exclaims Norma Desmond. “We had faces!” She’s halfway to lunacy at that moment in Sunset Boulevard, remembering a glorious past before movies added soundtracks, but she has a point.

We’re so used to hearing actors spout lines that we forget some things can be said only by the body. I’m not thinking of mimes or clowns, who simply ask us to follow a narrative that excludes speech. I’m thinking of moments that are too complex, elemental, or profound to be expressed in words, moments that convey emotions or ideas that stay with you decades later—as these three have done for me.

Lillian Gish in The Wind. Talkies were a year-old craze by late 1928, when MGM released one of the last classic silent films: Victor Sjöström’s harrowing drama about a woman who moves to Texas in the 1880s to live with her cousin and his jealous wife. She rebuffs a predatory cattle buyer’s advances; he later finds her alone in the cabin during a windstorm and rapes her after she faints. She shoots him the next morning and buries the body, but the wind uncovers it.

Gish shows us an amazing range of responses in the final scenes, using only expressions and gestures: weariness, longing for human company, fear of solitude, loathing for her attacker, terror that the storm will tear the cabin apart, hints of madness caused by the endless howling of the demonic wind. These feelings flow ceaselessly across her face at the climax of the film, sometimes changing within seconds. Her reactions say more than words could, and articulating them aloud would distract us from the horror of her situation.

Peter Sellars’ Ajax. In 1986, he directed Sophocles’ play at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, moving it from ancient Greece to a Latin American country embroiled in war. The title character, who had gone mad after the late Achilles’ weapons were given to Odysseus instead of him, tried to slay the Greek generals. But the goddess Athena muddied his mind, sending him to slaughter farm animals instead. She related this to Odysseus while standing next to a covered box about eight-feet high. Then she whipped the cloth off that box.

There, deaf actor Howie Seago stood thigh-deep in blood, grunting incoherently. He smashed his huge hands against the glass walls and reached into the gore to snatch up the severed heads of beasts. Eventually, Ajax—always depicted here as a prisoner of his senseless desires—left that box, and an actress spoke his lines as he physicalized them. I’ve never seen anything in a theater so striking as Seago’s first appearance.

The apotheosis in “Swan Lake,” as the lovers ascend to heaven. Dance usually conveys emotions through wordless movement, and the final moments of Tchaikovsky’s ballet do so magnificently. Prince Siegfried and Queen Odette give their lives to break a sorcerer’s spell over her and her attendants, and the soaring music would draw tears from a statue.

Richard Wagner pulls off a similar effect at the end of Der Fliegende Holländer, another tale in which a curse can be broken only by a vow of love from someone who never loved before. Yet despite the beauty of his score, words get in the way. “Praise your angel and his edict/ Here I stand, true to you unto death,” Senta informs the redeemed Dutchman (in German) as she leaps from a crag. That sentiment, however noble, sounds formal and faintly silly when sung aloud. Better to let the outstretched arms of Siegfried and the fluttering hands of Odette tell us all we need to know about the ultimate sacrifice.

Toppman ’75 is an arts writer with The Charlotte Observer.