Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Body Language: Part One

This month, let’s try something different.

Let’s start with the assignment.  In March, put your television on “Mute,” and watch movies.  Just sit with a pad and pen and list the physical gestures that actors use.  What do their hands or faces do to undermine or reinforce the words they might be saying?  Doing this, build an inventory or wardrobe of physical gestures. 

Researching Rant I found the results of a study conducted in 1967 at the University of California Los Angeles.  Test subjects were engaged in conversation, then quizzed about what they’d each learned from their talking partners.  It found that approximately 75% of the information was conveyed through body posture and gesture.  Roughly 18% of the information came via voice volume and tone.  And only about seven percent of the communication occurred with actual words.

Nevertheless, beginning writers will depict scene after scene where no one does anything except talk.  Just pages of dialogue.

After a few hours of silent movies you’ll notice that the cheapest, most-boring ones mostly consist of scenes where actors merely look at each other and talk.  However, movies wherein people move, dogs move – even the camera moves, a nice cheat for putting movement into otherwise static dialogue scenes – those movies most full of movement are great.

Consider that movies present no scents, flavors or textures.  Nothing you can smell, taste or touch.  Film tells a story with only sight and sound.  And – in a cheap television movie without gesture or movement – too often a movie seems more like a radio play.

It’s just my private crack-pot theory, but visual movement seems to reach an audience more effectively than language.  As we look around, our eyes move in jerking, jumping, short movements.  This is pure “Physiology of the Senses 301,” for a simpler version, watch the Susan Dey movie, Looker.  However... when we’re watching something move – a bird or car or horse -- our eyes track that movement in one continuous, smooth path.  It’s as if we’re entranced by motion, and it hypnotizes us, lowering our mental defenses or resistance.  Action seems to hold our animal attention paralyzed in the same way we can be mesmerized by hours of sports, dance, pornography, camp fires or ocean waves.  The same way my dogs are captivated by the movement of a cat or squirrel.

In new forms of talk therapy, patients watch the constant, steady back-and-forth movement of a small light, and this seems to allow long-repressed memories to resurface.

Another study from Great Britain suggests television viewing might be linked to developing Alzheimer’s Disease because TV watching is a passive, not-fully-conscious state.

Another study – sent to me by readers, and published in big-time medical journals – seems to demonstrate that when a reader reads a verb it stimulates the part of the reader’s brain involved with that actual action.  When you read “kick” it excites the portion of your brain responsible for kicking.  The more physical action verbs you read – kiss, kick, run, jump -- the more of your brain is engaged.

Now, consider how many ways we have to communicate with gesture:  thumbs up, hitchhiking thumbs, nods, shrugs, sighs, head scratching, nail biting, hair chewing, eye rolling, finger pointing, fist shaking, finger down the throat, knuckle biting, winking, blowing a kiss.  Make a list, and add to it as you recognize common gestures.  Build your vocabulary of gestures and actions.

Years ago, during an interview with a well-known, very successful journalist, I asked why she kept squeezing her elbow with the fingers of her opposite hand.  Her eyes sprang open, and her chin jumped up.  She blinked a couple times, fast, and stopped touching her elbow, dropping her hands to her lap.  As it turns out, she’d been an anorexic for years and still, unconsciously felt the spaces in her elbow joints to determine her current level of body fat.  If her index finger fit into the joint, her body fat was five percent.  If only her pinky fit, she’d ballooned to eight percent body fat.

Gestures.  Nervous tics.  People say more with their hands than they’d ever risk telling you with their mouths.

As you watch films without sound, determine the purpose of the action in each  scene, and look for the following:

How do the gestures and positions and postures of the characters help tell the story?

How does action distract the viewer from clumsy expositional dialogue?

How does the action or gesture help pace the dialogue so that tensions build? 

How does gesture underscore jokes and allow the audience enough time for a joke to “land” and laughter to build?

Now, here’s a story from the Sundance festival.

The man who directed Choke, Clark Gregg, is married to Jennifer Grey.  Her father, Joel Grey, plays a part in the film, and attended the premier in Park City, Utah.  He’s always been an ideal storytelling hero of mine, and the moment we were introduced I launched into a long, nervous theory that the movie Cabaret was so effective because it was directed by the former dancer, Bob Fosse.  That, and the story was set in the era of silent movies when people practiced a very exaggerated, physical form of acting.  All of this jabber rushed out of me like vomit – I was so nervous about meeting Joel Grey.  While I blabbered about Cabaret being the “most kinetic movie of all time,” he smiled politely.

In response, he said how, during the national tour for Cabaret, the theater in Portland, Oregon received a death threat.  Neo Nazis telephoned to say that if Joel Grey performed, a sniper in the audience would shoot him on stage.  Joel insisted on playing that night, but the word had gotten around to the rest of the cast.  Throughout the Portland run, every time Joel crossed the stage, every other actor rushed to the side opposite from him.  If he moved downstage, the cast moved far upstage.  Every evening was this constant dance to stay away from Joel Grey and any possible sniper bullet. 

What I loved about that story – and the reason I remember it – is how it pays off with a series of absurd physical actions.  The fear of death keeps everyone sidestepping and shunning one person.  And the humor of that final payoff doesn’t happen through dialogue.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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