March 29, 2015

How Do They Talk in the Movies?

This post is an adaptation of the chapter 'Structural and Stylistic Variables' from Sarah Kozloff's 
book, "Overhearing Film Dialogue". 

WARNING: The post contains certain spoilers about Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Graduate, Cabaret, and Good Will Hunting. So please read at your own discretion.

In a previous post we enumerated the functions of spoken lines in motion picture. But what factors contribute to the distinctness of dialogue from one film to another? Here we will discuss the formal parameters that constitute film dialogue, its structural and stylistic variables:

1. The Number of Participants, depending on which movie dialogue can be divided into:
  • Monologue: A character talking aloud with no one else present is a widely accepted practice in theatre. But the expectations of realism make monologues problematic in film, because talking aloud to oneself is considered strange in real life. Hence special situations are created to allow this. It may involve talking to an animal, to the dead as in several John Ford Westerns or to oneself in a mirror, used famously in Taxi Driver. Monologues may also be reminiscent of muttering by elderly people, and thus have the overtones of isolation, frailty, and even impotence. Also, monologues are moments when the audience knows that the words they are hearing are absolutely true, and it makes them feel privileged to access the character’s innermost feeling.
  • Duologue: Two characters speaking to each other are the most fundamental structure of film speech. Duologues are dramatic necessity and drive film narrative forward.
  • Polylogue: Conversation between more than two characters can be used to portray a group reaching a consensus that turns the plot. Polylogue also creates the atmosphere of a select subculture by showing the mindset of the group. Polylogues can also be used for dramatic confrontations as in the scene from Citizen Kane when Kane, Emily, Boss Jim Getty, and Susan Alexander meet at Susan’s apartment after the expose of Kane’s illicit affair. At times a scene may involve a “pseudo-polylogue” with the conversation between two being carried out in the presence of several people who may be thrown a line or two for the sake of realism or variety, but their role is to stand as spectators or to augment one side or another. In the scene from Casablanca at a stall of an Arab vendor, Rick gets to know from Ilsa that Victor Laszlo is her husband. The Arab vendor’s presence in this film does not make it a polylogue, but it contributes to the duologue between the two leads by continuously “selling” Rick to Ilsa.
2. Characters’ Verbal Competence: The verbal proficiency, intelligence and pretensions of different characters determine the way they speak. Add to it signs of verbal awkwardness, either due to the pressure of the moment or as a character-trait,  as in several Woody Allen films. An observation can be made indicating that articulate, polished speakers are often the villains or anti-heroes (Citizen Kane, Silence of the Lambs) while tentative and nervous speech is often read as a guarantor of sincerity (Ted Kramer’s final speech on the witness stand from Kramer vs. Kramer that I had mentioned in the previous post).

3. The Inter-personal Dynamics between Characters often determine their speech. Most dialogue feature “normal” give-and-take: the characters listen to each other, understand each other, and respond appropriately. However, following are examples of variations to the “normal” talk, thus providing insight into the characters and the situations:
  • Ellipsis: Two characters who share a special closeness may speak to one another in shorthand fashion, understanding each other much easily and quickly than the audience can comprehend.
  • Misunderstandings: Contrary to ellipsis, here the audience has more insight into the moment than the characters who are having difficulties understanding each other. Comedies and melodramas thrive on such conversations where we either laugh or feel helpless at the characters’ inability to communicate clearly.
  • Questions: Courtroom or interrogation sequences rely a lot on a character posing a direct question to another. Questions can also imply tentativeness and a need for reassurance. Who can forget the famous line from The Graduate: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”
  • Toppers: Contrary to questions, where a person invites the other to speak, “toppers” are often used to end a conversation with an air of finality. Often, a topper is topped further by the line that follows. In Cabaret, there is a moment when both Sally and Brian are upset and talk about Maximillian. Brian shouts in anger, “Screw Maximillian!” Sally’s reply “I do” is a topper because she thinks she will devastate Brian with this line. However, Brian tops her with his more surprising “So do I”.
  •  Interruptions: It may range from completing each other’s sentences signifying being on the same wave-length, to plain mockery. Physically silencing someone using ones hand over another’s mouth or with a kiss is an explicit act of dominance. And then there can be situations where several characters speak at the same time, no one listening to anyone else and all emotionally involved with their own agendas.
4. How much of Speech and how much of Silence: Films often have scenes without dialogues. Even in dialogue scenes the amount and manner of words reveal character and determine the pace of the scene. Historically, brevity and paucity has been advocated in film writing, but there have been several great films with long, glorious dialogue that keep challenging this wisdom.
  • Long turns are used for explanations or descriptions. They also contribute greatly to character revelation or help us keep our focus on a star performer. They also signify a character’s dominance over the moment. Often, long turns are terminated using “end position emphasis” – the shock that ends a long speech.
  • Short turns, along with swift delivery, pace up the proceedings. They can also create literary or dramatic impact (“Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy night”) or help in characterization. When Clint Eastwood’s character in Escape from Alcatraz, for example, reveals that he doesn’t know his birth-date, a fellow inmate exclaims: “Jeez, what kind of childhood’d you have?” Eastwood replies: “Short.”
5. Stylistic Variables
  • Repetition in film dialogue may at times exist to mimic normal conversations, as repetition is an integral part of real-life conversations. But primarily, it is used for aesthetic purposes. Remember the recurrent use of “It’s not your fault” by the psychiatrist to comfort Will in Good Will Hunting or “Babuji theek kehte hain Simran” in DDLJ? Or the persistent use of the word “bum” in On the Waterfront? Often, a recurring line acts as a leitmotif, gathering meaning from their recapitulation throughout the text: “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” and “Hum aapke hain koun?” are some famous examples. At times, it is not the repetition of the line per se, but use of parallel phrasing that creates a powerful dramatic effect. Rick’s lines in Casablanca, for example: “Who are you really? And what were you before? What did you do and what did you think?” OR “May be not today, may be not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life…”
  • Rhythm and Musicality: Often, speech in films has a carefully orchestrated rhythm, both inside each turn and in the back and forth between conversational partners. This musicality adds a lot to our movie-pleasure. Watch the first scene from Dev. D for the musical banter (“Kaat loonga” and “Noch loongi”) between the childhood sweethearts. 
  • Surprise: I had mentioned in my last post how the protagonist from North by Northwest uses “getting slightly killed” for humor. The wonderful juxtaposition of “slightly” with the definitive act of dying is used for great effect, as is the unforgettable use of “damn” in that famous line from Gone with the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
6. Other Languages, Dialects and Jargons
  • Whether it is the presence of non-English characters in Hollywood films or British characters in Hindi films, film-makers have always struggled to get this right. At times they resort to the most realistic solution – use of foreign language with subtitles. Otherwise, the writer uses a bilingual character, like Ram Singh in Lagaan to interpret the lines for the native characters and the audience. But the most common tool is to let the characters speak in the primary language of the film by defying logic, like the use of modern languages in historical epics (Hindi in Asoka, English in The Last Temptation of Christ) or a more modern, and particularly disappointing use of British accented English for the slum-dweller from Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire. There are more innovative examples, like recasting the foreign language into English after an audio fade, as in The Hunt for Red October.
  • Dialects are often used to distinguish social class or ethnic groups. They also serve realism – a Hindi film set in Mumbai will sound very different from one set in Benaras. Dialects may also be used to highlight a character’s separation from his fellows, or re-blending. Rohan from Udaan speaks like a North Indian because he has not been home for several years. This separates him from the Bihari dialect that his father uses. But later in the film, once Rohan has spent some time at home, he too starts using “Hum bole humko writer banna hai” instead of “Maine kaha mujhe writer banna hai.” Also, dialects often help to serve the “poetic” function of film-dialogue. “Jo aankhein poori tarah khul jaat hain, unmein saram bhi na aa sakat!” from Lagaan is a glorious example of this.
  • Jargons are terminology particular to certain professions or cultural subgroups which are used to serve realism, especially in genres like Science Fiction, War or Medical or Legal Dramas.

The stylistic and structural variables discussed above can be read by a movie-buff as a greater insight into filmic speech. But I would like to believe that such understanding can also help a film-writer. Often, it happens intuitively, but a conscious mastery of the use and effect of different components of dialogue can definitely help us write better.

March 28, 2015

#6: Lost in the Maze

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“He is a difficult customer, that Rick. One never knows what he’ll do or why.”

Story Covered in Part 6: Next morning, Laszlo and Ilsa reach Renault’s office. Strasser asserts that he will not let Laszlo escape, unless he rats on some of the resistance leaders. Laszlo passionately declines. He is then informed that Ugarte is dead. Desperate to find a way out, Laszlo and Ilsa meet Ferrari, who monopolizes the black market. He is scared to help Laszlo but offers to get a visa for Ilsa. She refuses to leave Laszlo alone despite his insistence. Ferrari then informs them about the letters of transit that Ugarte must have left with Rick. Earlier, Ferrari has offered Rick to partner and benefit from those letters but Rick does not acknowledge possessing those. He meets Ilsa at the bazaar and tries to resume last night’s conversation, but she is very hurt and reveals to him that Laszlo is her husband and even was when Rick and Ilsa had met in Paris. Also, the Bulgarian couple is trying their best to get their visas and it seems accepting Renault’s terms is the only option for them.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 61-66: Laszlo and Ilsa meet Renault and Strasser. The Bulgarian couple’s visa problem comes to Renault.
  • Pg 66: At the black market, a native suggests a Frenchman to visit Ferrari to get his job done.
  • Pg 67-69: At the Blue Parrot, Ferrari persuades the Bulgarian couple to talk to Renault. Rick has come to collect his shipment while his café is being ransacked. Chats with Ferrari.
  • Pg 70-72: At the black market, Rick meets Ilsa.
  • Pg 72-75: Laszlo and Ilsa meet Ferrari.
Structure: After spending close to half of the movie at Rick’s Café, the Second Act has not only thickening of action, but complication of structure. There are as many as four long and important scenes in this part covering the second day of the story. The order of the scenes, characters criss-crossing each other, especially the use of the Bulgarian couple, is unsettling and adds a physical component to the emotion of being trapped and lost that our characters are going through.

The Character arc:
  • Rick: Hugely popular, even among small vendors, Rick is too much of a man to apologize to Ilsa without defending himself or hurting her even further. But when she attacks him with a secret she had always hid, he is left stunned more than ever.
  • Ilsa: She is in no mood give themselves another chance at explaining things and hopes that by avoiding each other she will be able to preserve the beautiful memory of Paris. But when Rick gets increasingly insulting, and repeatedly taunts at her character, she shatters his perception of their romance forever. Perhaps the most shocking revelation of the film: “Victor Laszlo is my husband… and was, even when I knew you in Paris” although true, is not the complete truth. She only wants to hurt him badly. She now feels closer to Laszlo than to Rick. No doubt, she refuses to leave him alone and get visa for herself, showing her loyalty and devotion to him.
  • Victor Laszlo: Our admiration for him keeps growing. He is fearless and loyal to his cause. When proposed with the idea of ratting on his colleagues, he not only refuses, but he challenges and threatens the Nazi Major. He truly loves and cares for Ilsa and wants her to leave him and escape. As Ferrari observes, in this respect Laszlo is “a very fortunate man”. We start to root for their relationship around this time in the film.
  • Major Strasser: He is ruthless and mean. He is the true antagonist, unlike Renault who is funny and corrupt. He talks sharp and threatens out of habit.
  • Captain Renault: His admiration for Rick is getting more and more visible. Also, we get to see how excitedly he volunteers to ‘help’ pretty, young girls. Unapologetically immoral, and very funny – he is one unforgettable character.
  • Ferrari: The “leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca”, he starts drinking early in the day. He is corrupt and openly so. He is also “a fat hypocrite” who lives only to make money. He is influential and pretends that he is “respected”.
  • The Bulgarian couple appears before us twice in these fifteen pages. This clearly suggests that their sub-plot is going to be of some use soon.
  • Ugarte is dead. So his sub-plot is officially over.
Tools Employed:
  • Rising Tension and thickening of action in the Second Act: Plot-wise, so much has been covered in the sixty per cent of the script that we know the delayed set-up did not eventually harm in any way. And this is because everything is getting more and more complicated – the affairs of Laszlo, Rick, Ilsa, the Bulgarian couple, as well as the antagonists because despite their control over the situation they are not getting what they want – the letters of transit and information about Laszlo’s colleagues.
  • Shocking revelation: The revelation that Laszlo is Ilsa’s husband for a very long time is a shock, more so to Rick, but also to us. And since it is timed so well, and comes out of character motivation rather than convenience, it works marvelously.
  • An additional but insignificant character may add more conflict and meanings to a scene: The Arab vendor trying to sell linen to Ilsa has no role in the plot. But his presence makes things more conflicted. In fact, when he starts lowering the price in the presence of Rick, we know he is trying to literally “sell” Rick to her. How hurt she is gets accentuated by this insignificant character supporting Rick. And before the conversation gets more intimate, he goes off to get more linen for Ilsa.
  • Transitions to smoothen out the edges of scenes when, spatially and chronologically, they are not very seamlessly connected: The first scene ends with Renault mentioning the black market and readying himself to meet the Bulgarian couple. We cut to the black market where there is a short transition scene to introduce ‘The Blue Parrot’ before we go there. Once inside, we see the Bulgarian couple in conversation with Ferrari before Rick starts his chat with him. This shows that some time has passed since the 10am scene at Renault’s office.
  • Cover a character or plot hole by voicing it through a character: There can be no explanation to why the greedy and cunning Ferrari shares with Laszlo the information about Rick having the letters of transit. But it is essential for the plot. Hence, instead of leaving the audience to spot this character inconsistency and writer’s convenience, Ferrari wonders aloud – “I am moved to make one more suggestion. Why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me”.
  • MacGuffin: The letters of transit were driving the film even before it began (murder of the German couriers), and they will be driving the film until the very end. So yes, it is that tangible object the film is chasing, but the film is so much more than that. Hence, this is a perfect example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin.
Conventions Broken:
  • Every scene should be vital to the plot or at least for character exploration: The short transition scene of a native talking to a Frenchman about Ferrari is not important plot-wise. But it is very important film-wise. One, it builds Ferrari as the uncrowned king of the black market and hence the scenes that follow can be more powerful dramatically without bothering to share this information. Two, showing more insignificant characters and the world of Casablanca is a visual relief. But most importantly, this short scene is like a breathing space – it is there only to help us relax for a bit, before the story involves us again. This final purpose of this scene is something even good writers fail to consider. In most Hindi films, songs provide that breathing space. At times there is too much of that at the cost of plot. In great scripts, it is just apt.
Themes: The theme of virtues, of value system, against the harsh realities of life is perhaps the most universal and timeless theme of ‘Casablanca’. After mid-point, when we know a lot about the characters and their back-stories, we can look beyond the plot into their value systems. This segment, apart from being vital to the plot, is a great insight into that – from Laszlo’s fearless patriotism, to Ilsa’s devotion to him, from the Bulgarian couple’s vulnerability to Renault’s shameless tendency to exploit them, and from Ferrari’s corrupt, but still inexplicably tender, self to Rick’s influential, powerful but bitter and petty state at the moment. In this segment, in fact, Rick has almost lost Ilsa to Laszlo, thanks to his heartless approach toward healing the wounds of the past. Even we feel like rooting for Ilsa and Laszlo, looking at their selfless love. Virtues against harshness of life – we are participating in this battle.

Standout scene: For reasons mentioned above, the scene between Rick and Ilsa at the Arab vendor’s shop has to be one of the most powerful scenes in cinema.

What is the audience expecting: The film has beautifully made the personal life of Rick the biggest conflict to the political journey of Laszlo and Ilsa. At the end of this part as they get to know about Rick possessing the letters, we know it will boil down to Rick’s willingness to save Laszlo, Rick who “sticks out his neck for nobody.”