Goldfishing on the silver screen

The Language of Cinema

June 19, 1998

Kevin Jackson's introduction reminds us that Peter Mark Roget, creator of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1824 on the persistence of vision. The title was "Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel seen through vertical apertures". Scientists immediately started testing the theory; more than 170 years later, it is the same deception that causes separate frames of a film strip to coalesce in our eyes into the moving images of Godzilla, John Travolta or redundant Sheffield steelworkers removing their clothes.

Despite Roget's role in cinema history, Jackson's book may well be the first to document comprehensively the deluge of English words and phrases used in the film business.

When the first complete British film script was published in 1934 (Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII), the public needed a glossary to understand basic words: close-up, medium shot, dissolve, fade-in. Jackson casts his net far wider. He pulls in technical terms from anti-halation backing and cukaloris to wet gate printer and zeppelin windscreen. He elucidates key grip, best boy and other words known to bemuse scanners of film credits. Studios, genres, industry institutions, critical terms, in-house slang (goldfishing, phone monkey): all come under his scrutiny. Jackson also invents one term himself: viewzak, the visual equivalent of piped music in lifts.

This is fascinating material. As Jackson notes: "The technical jargon of cinema is a mongrel creature, spawned from the promiscuous intercourse of words from the theatre and the laboratory, the building site and the painter's atelier, the study and the gutter." Etymologies, where known, are provided, with grateful acknowledgment to the Oxford English Dictionary. We can also have fun tracing the history of a term's acceptance: it is odd to find that H. G. Wells in 1929 still felt the need to distance himself from the vulgarity of a movie by plopping the word between inverted commas.

Yet as in any pioneering dictionary, perils await the compiler. Unless definitions are awesomely precise, half-truths, if not outright mistakes, can easily creep in; Jackson's thumbnail sketches of studios and genres are particularly prone to this pitfall.

Under Ealing we read: "As most British and many overseas viewers still know, the phrase 'Ealing film' refers to one of the much-loved productions made at Ealing Studios in West London between 1931 and 1952 (and for a few years after that at Pinewood)." This is not one of Jackson's happiest sentences: production at Ealing actually stopped in 1955, continuing at Borehamwood, while to most viewers the phrase "Ealing film" only means the films produced under Michael Balcon, after 1938.

There is also the problem of keeping pace with a medium that never keeps still.

The entry on censorship brings no hint that the British Board of Film Censors is now the British Board of Film Classification, or that our industry's trade union, ACTT, merged to form Bectu in 1991.

And we can all play the omissions game. It is strange there is no entry for Euro-pudding, that tasteless product of too many cooks; stranger still that there is an entry for sestina, a poetic form that appears to have given rise to one very arcane French short.

But if the history in Jackson's entries is sometimes slippery, readers will still find much fun and enlightenment in many entries. Goldfishing? The art of making documentary participants look like fish by turning down the sound of their voices. Phone monkey? Any Hollywood executive who spends too much time wheedling, shouting or simpering down the phone. I feel better for knowing this.

Geoff Brown is film critic, The Times.

The Language of Cinema

Author - Kevin Jackson
ISBN - 1 85754 232 0
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £12.95
Pages - 304

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