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.

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