Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The NFR Project #33: 'The Preservation of the Sign Language'

(The) Preservation of (the) Sign Language
Dir: George Veditz
Prod: Unknown
Scr: Unknown
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 1913

This unique eye-only “speech” is part practical demonstration, part political statement – and an aesthetic experience in itself.

A comprehensive and eloquent essay on the film by Christopher Shea is posted at the National Film Registry here. In a nutshell, it represents the attempt by educator and former National School for the Deaf president George W. Veditz to make a case for the preservation of “manual” (gestural), as opposed to “oralized” (verbalized) sign language.

Shea asserts that manual signing, though vastly preferred by the deaf, was shunted aside for a time as a result of the efforts of the “oralized” faction. Veditz’s monologue is transcribed here, and he eloquently espouses his point. Abstract ideas are expressed, far beyond what an uneducated person might think could be communicated in this way.

It’s recorded straight into the camera, with no soundtrack (of course), nor any sub- or intertitles to explain or contextualize anything Veditz was signing. This film is made expressly for a deaf audience, with no concessions to the hearing whatsoever – which must have been a nice change of pace for the non-hearing minority. (This is an era when a routine nickname for a deaf person was “Dummy”.)

Film also finds new use here. As Shea points out, the transcription of this technique using static methods – words and images – would be voluminous, inaccurate, and impractical. Like choreography, signed speech is best documented with the motion picture.

Veditz demonstrates the inherent advantages of manual signing in his presentation. Who wouldn’t be more eloquent with gestures at their disposal? Veditz’s signing is an excellent template – he works from a solid foundational stance, with strong and flowing movements of the arms, hands, and torso accompanied by appropriate facial expressions, and a constantly swiveling head, sweeping out with his gaze to make sure he’s being followed. As performance, it’s akin to a kind of intimate solo ballet, a flight of hands and fingers.

Beyond that, “Preservation” reaches further, at an anthropological level. How do we create meaning? How do we codify it? How do we transmit it? For someone unlearned in manual sign language, Veditz’s message is all but incomprehensible, unspooling beautiful, ghostly gestures along the way.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Traffic in Souls.’

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