March 04, 2015

Why Do They Talk in the Movies?

This post is an adaptation of the chapter 'The Functions of Dialogue in Narrative Film' from Sarah Kozloff's book, "Overhearing Film Dialogue". WARNING: The post contains certain spoilers about The Wizard of Oz, E.T., Chinatown, and Kramer vs. Kramer. So please read at your own discretion.

We love good dialogue. It forms an important part of our movie-viewing pleasure. However, what appears effortless and spontaneous on screen is actually constructed and crafted through meticulous and painstaking effort by the writer, verbalized by the actors, and put to shape by the film and sound editors, all under the supervision of the director. Here is a brief overview of all the functions spoken lines perform in a motion picture:

1. Identifying and Re-anchoring Location and Time: It is easy to convey that we are in Paris by showing the Eiffel Tower. Or by using a title: "Paris, France" But a wide highway sans a sign-board can be one of several cities. In such a scenario, dialogue comes handy. When Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) says, "Toto, I don't think that we're in Kansas anymore," we get to know that the flat farmland we had seen was Kansas, and not Oklahoma, Texas, or Nebraska. Similarly, in films with non-linear chronolgy, dialogue helps in re-anchoring time when we go into the flashback or have an ellipsis forward in time. 

2. Introducing the Characters: "Rajaji, pesh karta hoon meri pyaari behen Elizabeth. Kal raat hi aayi hai London se." Captain Russel in Lagaan (2001) thus introduces Elizabeth, one of the most important characters in the film, to not only the king, but also to us, the audience. Of course, even if Elizabeth were staying in that cantonment forever and Rajaji knew her, it would not have affected the narrative in the least. But this little detail gives Elizabeth an introduction her character deserves.

3. Providing Information about the Past: Whether information about the backstory is forced on us through some presumably incidental conversation or more creatively, with humor (e.g. Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959) says: "I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders dependant upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed"), dialogue always helps in exposition of all relevant information that happened either before the film began or between two scenes.

4. Narrative Causality: The ulterior motive of much of film dialogue is to communicate "why?" and "how?" and "what next?" to the viewer. The latter may often be used to create anticipation in the audience of a dramatic or narrative development, for example, announcement of a deadline to bring in urgency. Dialogue may also help us understand some visuals, repeat their information for emphasis, interpret them, or explain what cannot be communicated visually.

5. Verbal Events: From disclosure of a secret or confession of a crime to declaration of love, dialogue often form a plot-point in the narrative, the exchange of words being an important incident in the lives of the characters. Can we ever forget the haunting and heartbreaking relevance of "She's my daughter and my sister!" when Evelyn finally discloses her life's darkest secret to Gittes in Chinatown (1974)?

6. Character Revelation: Dialogue helps distinguish between characters through their verbal mannerisms. But more importantly, dialogue hints at their inner lives. Rachel Crothers believes: "Great dialogue flashes the light on characters as lightening illuminates the dark earth - in flashes."

7. To Highlight Realism: Why do the characters and situations in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) appear so delicious and quirky, but real at the same time? It is because the dialogue in that film appears to be representing ordinary conversational activities, as if the camera and sound recording apparatus had haphazardly caught life in the act. The same is true of a main character casually sharing a line with an extra, of echoed commands in submarine films, of party chatter, of reporters' shouted questions, and of banal conversations between secondary characters.

8. To Represent a Cultural Milieu: In E.T. (1982), Elliot shows the alien his "stuff" that include his plastic toys, a Coke can, an aquarium. The fantastic sci-fi plot has thus been balanced with a careful protrayal of a middle-class Californian family, bringing realism, as mentioned above. But it also it comments on the commercialism in Elliot's culture, values that will be contrasted against the love and loyalty Elliot is going to experience through his extra-terrestrial friend.

9. Controlling Viewer's Emotions: We have had so many rabble-rousing lines where the hero shouts at the villain during the climactic battle something to the effect of "Take that, you bastard!" Spoken lines are also used to enhance the sense of fear, thrill, joy, and affection as well as their sense of pacing.

10. Directing Viewer's Attention: Sometimes dialogue is used to draw our attention to something. "That plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops" from North by Northwest immediately turns our attention to the airplane before the iconic 'crop-duster' sequence.

11. Exploiting the Resources of Language: Through poetry, humor, irony or anecdotes, dialogue often enhance our movie-pleasure by deviating from the plot, especially through the writings of a brilliant writer, like Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen. I have to share this completely extraneous story that the old Bernstein shares with the journalist in Citizen Kane (1941), that despite being so tangential to the plot reverberates through a lifetime as well as thematically connects with the MacGuffin of Rosebud: "You’re pretty young, Mr.—Mr. Thompson. A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in—and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on—and she was carrying a white parasol—and I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all—but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl."

12. Thematic Messages or Authorial Commentary: In my opinion, this is one of the worst misuses of cinematic dialogue. But we have had certain great examples where the writer has used spoken lines to convey his point. Consider Ted Kramer’s response on the witness stand during the custody trial in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): "My wife used to always say to me, “Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man?” (to Johanna) I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve learned that much. But, by the same token, I’d like to know what law is it that says a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what is it that makes somebody a good parent: you know it has to do with constancy; it has to do with—with—with patience; it has to do with listening to ’em; it has to do with pretending to listen to ’em, when you can’t even listen anymore. It has to do with love like—like—like— like she was saying. And I don’t know where it’s written that says that a woman has—has a corner on that market that—that a man has any less of those emotions than—than—than a woman does."

13. To Serve the Star: This requires no explanation. From Bogart to Bachchan, stars have either inspired or forced the writers to create lines that serve their star power and satisfy the audience's hero-worship.

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