In Film, Words Aren’t Everything

Great dialogue has been in decline in Hollywood for a long time, even though a few masters (Sorkin, the Coen brothers) keep the flame of Preston Sturges alive. As the movie-going audience came to comprise a larger share of teenagers and the international market (much of it not fluent in English) became more important, the demand for complex, smart, language usage in film declined.

However, as the Silent Era directors knew well, you don’t need dialogue to create emotionally powerful scenes. I have written here previously about Madeleine Carroll’s fine, extended and wordless scene in The 39 Steps.

More recently, Pixar hit it out of the park with Up’s achingly sweet montage about a marriage. Curl up with your mate and have a good cry.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “In Film, Words Aren’t Everything”

  1. “Up” is a sweet, sappy movie with beautifull imagery. And it does hold up, even when dubbed into an unfamiliar language. That said, Ed Asner is great as the grumpy old man with a heart of gold. Sweet, sappy and great.

  2. I love “Up,” but “Wall-E” I think is even better, and with far fewer words overall. The artistry of Pixar is kind of astounding.

  3. Sorkin’s dialogue has always irritated me. I’ve never been quite able to put my finger on it, and I’m not dextrous enough with my understanding of writing to properly critique it. There are many styles of dialogue, and I suppose you could define a spectrum with realism on one end and – here my ignorance limits me – a sort of heavily laden, poetic, – I’ll just call it the “expository style”, in which the character is as much a sort of avatar for larger expression. I don’t mean to demean it as a reduction to exposition in the classic sense, but rather as a style that is exposing some idea, or emotion, or otherwise narrative that would not be conveyed by mere realism. I’m not opposed to this. In great hands it is sublime, if demanding of the audience. Many of Shakespeare’s character’s I imagine represent the ultimate form of this sort of character-as-vessel style.

    At the other end, realism allows for an intimacy and immediacy that can transcend its limitations and capture as much if not more poetry and truth. As a style it also seems to work so much better on film, as close-ups and environmental realism allow us to develop so much more intimacy and transported experience. A Shakespearean or Sorkin soliloquy isn’t ever going to reach places that the audience can be taken to through the sensory richness and purely subjective experience of something like getting the gesture of a hand just right as it nervously taps out a cigarette, or the protagonist’s solemn commute in the front seat of a deteriorating station wagon. Dialogue in such settings needs to not get in the way of what is being conveyed elsewhere in the film – the set, the light, the costume, the acting, etc.

    In the end, I may just prefer realism more than the “exposition style”. But this may owe more to it being done well less often. And I think when it fails it does so miserably. It comes off as forced and clunky, or, worst of all, clumsily representative of the writer’s own pedantic narcissism, baldly scoring points through the characters’ showy demonstration of wit, audacity, brilliance, or some other superlative skill carefully slaved over line by line, yet flowing from the actor as if the most natural thing in the world. I felt this way about Juno, and about The West Wing. The former in the character’s precocious rebellion, the latter in wonk after wonks’ wankery.

    If ambitious dialogue has been in decline, I wonder why? Have we – our tastes – changed? Has the medium’s change contributed. Plenty out there would have much more interesting to say than I. It’s a fascinating question.

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