The language of story

Our local art house/foreign film theatre used to run a trailer that had a line narrated voice-over in several languages, concluding with a woman with a fake British accent: “The language of fil-um is universal.”

(A fil-um is something quite distinct from and far superior to a mere movie.)

Whenever we went to this theatre I always made fun of the trailer, the logo line, saying it in my awful Indian accent, my terrible Irish accent, my appalling English accent, and sometimes, if I timed it right, catching her a little by surprise, getting a derisive laugh, or at least a smile, from my wife.

And then this morning I realized, all kidding aside, that’s it’s actually true. More than true. Yes, the language of film is universal. But it’s not the language of film that’s universal, it’s the language of storytelling.

The language of storytelling works below the level of spoken or written language. At its most fundamental, it only requires a few gestures and a surprisingly simple music track. And the music track is probably optional.

You can see for yourself how it works if you happen to have the right laboratory available for the experiment. My test subject is a chubby female age eleven months named Avery. Experimental conditions often take place during her noon meal, when she is sitting in her high chair with the tray before her waiting impatiently for lunch. The story begins when the narrator taps the fingernails of two fingers on the tray in front of her, and the two fingers begin marching this way and that, just a few small steps, accompanied by a little “toot toot toot” marching music. The musical quality of the tune doesn’t seem to matter. But I do like my stories to have what we professionals call production values, so I softly breathe a little cheerful tune that provides a mood and a rhythm for the marching fingers.

Avery’s attention immediately fastens on those two fingers. Throughout the rest of the story, her attention stays fixed; never once does she look up at me “breaking the fourth wall” as they say. This gives additional depth to Henry James’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Clearly the suspension of disbelief is not merely willing. It is abject surrender. Even that, I think, doesn’t go far enough. It seems to be simply lapsed into, it is attention given in a relaxed state. After all, seeing a movie, reading a book, these are forms of relaxation, aren’t they?

The marching fingers seem to bring the immediate appeal of entertainment. Or certainly that far end of the entertainment spectrum that starts with diversion; something at least barely more than nothing.

The fingers march for a moment then approach one of Avery’s hands resting on her tray. With a little hop they are on her hand and marching up her arm. She doesn’t move as this happens, yet somehow I can feel her excitement grow, the dramatic tension heightens, she almost seems to vibrate. This is it! And suddenly the fingers borrow beneath her arm and she wiggles and laughs. The fingers withdraw and Avery looks up at the writer-producer-director and bestows her version of a bouquet of roses. Her look clearly says please, shall we do it again?

And so it goes, the same basic play with a variation here or there, again and again.

And now comes the boring part, the theory.

I think the little playlet works because it recreates in a safe way the fundamental fear that even an eleven-month-old child has of the near approach of an unusual creature of some kind. The immediate situation has an element of fear, yet overall it is safe, for certainly Avery can see that the fingers are attached to Grandpa.

I think the basis for “story” is no more complicated than this. I also think at the same time it is just this profound.

It’s fundamental. It’s pre-language, it’s in-born. It’s anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

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