(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)
Intertitles in the Silent Era
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook, considered by many the earliest documentary of significance after the actuality films of the Lumieres, uses intertitles for purposes of establishing facts and situations a viewer will need to understand to comprehend visual sequences in the film.
Throughout the film, with one notable exception, these intertitles are presented title-first and then action, describing the sequence ahead (to some degree) before we see a depiction (and occasionally extension) of the detailed progress of that action. One of the film’s ostensible functions is to explain an “alien” culture in an unfamiliar setting to its domestic audience, so cues that explain the significance of the visuals would have been welcomed. As well, these intertitles seem to be used to provide a pacing element for the film, at times allowing a “breathing space” and controlling the presentation of time in the most dramatic sequences.
The notable exception to this title/action pattern comes at the end of the sequence where Nanook builds an igloo. As Eric Barnouw details in Documentary:
“Now only one thing more is needed,” a subtitle tells us as Nanook, having apparently completed an igloo, starts to cut a block of ice. Audiences do not know, for the moment, the purpose of the “one thing more.” They soon discover: a square of snow is cut from the igloo, and the ice becomes a window. It is even equipped with a snow reflector, to catch the low sun. The sequence has often brought applause. Part of the satisfaction lies in the fact that the audience has been permitted to be, like Flaherty himself, explorer and discoverer.
Here, the reward Flaherty has in mind for the audience is one where Nanook exceeds their expectations in ingenuity in his work, and the subtitle must hold off its description until the appropriate moment.
Next: Evidence and Drama in Early Sound Films