' Cinema Romantico: The Spoken Word As It Relates To Movies

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Spoken Word As It Relates To Movies

I have spent the last couple months reflecting on a certain issue in relation to cinema that, as we know, recently reared its ugly head but has, in fact, been rearing its ugly head for probably the better part of a decade. Therefore if you choose to read this I recommend getting something to drink for you will bear the brunt of that reflection. You see, I fancy myself a connoisseur of movie dialogue and I cannot help but ponder where and when the whole obsession with movie characters needing to sound like "real" people showed up. As in, "No one talks like that in real life."

In the earliest days of the motion picture industry, at least from what I have seen, the need for reality-based dialogue was rather non-existent. Listen to William Powell and Myrna Loy's tet-a-tete's in "The Thin Man" and you will stumble upon nothing you've overheard at the office.

Nora: "Pretty girl."
Nick: "Yes. She's a very nice type."
Nora: "You have types?"
Nick: "Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."


"The Thin Man" was released in 1934 so why don't we skip ahead 12 years to Hitchcock's "Notorious" and, for my money, one of the finest screenplays of all time (by Ben Hecht). A sample of the verbal sashaying of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant:

Alicia: "This is a very strange love affair."
Devlin: "Why do you say that?"
Alicia: "Maybe the fact you don't love me."


When was the last time you heard a couple you know talk in that manner? Never, I'm sure. And I doubt couples in 1934 and 1946 were talking like that, either, and I'm sure you agree. Yet if you read the original reviews of these films from the time they were released (which you can do at the New York Times web site) you will find no one whining about the dialogue not sounding like real life. "The Thin Man", in fact, is noted for its "witty repartee". ("Notorious" is quite rightly termed a "melodrama" but then it was understood that's what the movie was and no one turned against it for not being something it did not intend to be and was not.)

Billy Wilder appeared at the tail end of the 1930's and has been termed the "American Film Realist". But is that true? Perhaps in relation to his using real locations and real settings but what of his dialogue? Well, here's an example from his classic "Double Indemnity":

Walter: "You'll be here too?"
Phyllis: "I guess so. I usually am."
Walter: "Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?"
Phyllis: "I wonder if I know what you mean."
Walter: "I wonder if you wonder."


Hmmmm....reality? I think not. Not that I mind. But "Double Indemnity" was released two years before "Notorious". If you move ahead in Wilder's work, however, you can see a bit more reality creeping into his dialogue. Compare his curtain lines in famous films like "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960) with the curtain line from, say, "Gone With the Wind" (1939). "Nobody's perfect" and "Shut up and deal" sound a whole lot less forced than Scarlett O'Hara declaring "Tomorrow is another day." Was this one of the first signals?

1967's "Bonnie and Clyde" is often lauded for its groundbreaking violence and shifting of tones but it was also probably ground zero for introducing progressively realistic dialogue to American film. The movie was a descendant of the French New Wave which, in turn, was a descendant of Italian neo-realism, two cinematic movements based far more on making things feel authentic than had previously been attempted in film. The words themselves were less straight-forward than the American movies that had preceded it but what "Bonnie and Clyde" really did was depart from the Say It Like It's Written style. The actors were given freedom to include mannerisms, tics, and pauses as they spoke.

Such a thing is commonplace now but upon its release lo so many years ago American film critics had no idea what to make of it. Ever read the original NY Times review of this one? You should, and you will see that sometimes it is difficult to grasp precisely what you're seeing that first time around and how quick people are to dismiss the unconventional and unfamiliar. Of course, not everyone was terrified of it and were able to see the ground being broken, particularly the late, legendary critic Pauline Kael who termed it "a turning point in American cinema, particularly the writing." I repeat, "particularly the writing."

Three years later came "Five Easy Pieces" in which the realistic was combined with more fanciful flights of prose. To wit, Jack Nicholson's all-together memorable aria to the waitress regarding chicken salad on wheat toast. In many ways that combination defined dialogue of the 70's, often referred to as the last true golden age of cinema - not that I agree with such an assessment.

The pinnacle of the aforementioned combination, and without question some of the finest dialogue in movie history, came in Woody Allen's 1977 "Annie Hall" when he allows Diane Keaton as the title character to deliver the following monologue regarding her narpoletic uncle:

"George went to the union, see, to get his free turkey because the union always gave George this big turkey at Christmas time because he was shell-shocked, you know what I mean, in the First World War. Anyway, so George is standing in line getting his free turkey, but the thing is, he falls asleep and he never wakes up. So he's dead....he's dead. Yeah. Oh, dear. Well, terrible, huh, wouldn't you say? I mean, that's pretty unfortunate."

Allen's words are extraordinary but it's Keaton's acting as she delivers them which elevates it. She starts out bright, happy, almost as if she's reciting a joke set to end with a humorous punchline and then it turns sharply, and she turns sharply, all while adding the starts and stops of momentum we all have during everyday speech.

The 90's brought another variation on screenwriting in the form of Tarantino's unforgettable and now often imitated "Pulp Fiction", which itself was a drawing-together of both the Say It Like It's Written school AND the authentic, realistic dialogue. Look no further than the Jack Rabbit's Slim sit-down between Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman). The words are heightened and over-the-top, to be sure, but Tarantino does not force his two actors to recite them in a precise, rehearsed tone.

In his orginal review for Tarantino's film the esteemed Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "the inspiration for 'Pulp Fiction' is old movies, not real life." Listen to the dialogue in the recently debated "Juno", the pitter-patter, the back-and-forth, and you will see its inspiration also is not necessarily real life but old movies. It uses heaps of pop culture, yes, and the phrases put forth by our main character are new-fangled, but the style, the delivery is rooted in the 30's and 40's. You can go back to Rian Johnson's 2006 film-noir-set-in-a-high-school "Brick" to find the same thing, except it was darker and even more extreme ("I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up against the lot of you") and so it probably scared off more people.

People have become so used to the dialogue introduced in the 60's and 70's that now they are frightened of returning to the 30's and 40's. I, however, would not mind a wit if the Say It Like It's Written style made a full comeback but then the majority of moviegoers, as indicated earlier, tend to be hesitant of the unfamiliar and many of the black and white classics of the early days are now unfamiliar to most.

Now none of this is to say that I don't appreciate realistic dialogue, because I do. Authentic, free-flowing words and sentences can be found abundantly throughout Linklater's "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" and if you check my blogger profile you will see those are two of my favorite films. Movie dialogue comes in so many shapes and sizes. Check out any modern-day master of the craft and you will see he or she possesses their own distinct trait mixed in with one of the classic forms. David Mamet has people Say It Like It's Written but it's more profane, more urban, more emphatic with its sameness. Charlie Kauffman's dialogue is more natural but is placed in absurd settings. Noah Baumbach's is a fusion like Tarantino's but with more academia and insecurity. Cameron Crowe's mentor was Billy Wilder and thus he is realist without being too real.

Crafting movie dialogue is not easy. It is an artform, end of story, and when executed properly it can be as beautiful as the Rhone winding through the Alps. But proper execution does not simply mean it needs to sound like "real life".

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