In Shakespeare's As You Like It 2.4, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone enter a vacant stage. However, all it takes is Rosalind's assertion, "Well, this is the forest of Arden," for the audience to understand that the travelers have reached their destination; a thicket of noble trees, dappled sun, and birdsong bursts from these seven words.
On the most basic level, dialogue is responsible for "creating" the theatrical diegesis, the fictional world of the narrative. Ericka FisherLichte has pointed out how plays use dialogue to delineate their surroundings:
If the stage is an empty space that the actor states is a forest and subsequently refers to as a palace, a room, or a dungeon, then this empty space becomes the forest, palace, room, or dungeon in the eyes of the audience. If the actor's words refer to nonexistent objects as if these nevertheless existed, then they do in fact exist for the audience. If, in the actor's words, dusk draws in and the sound of the nightingale and the songs of farmers returning from the fields are to be heard, then all of this can still be seen and heard by the audience.2
* For better or ill, these categories are my own, derived from a witches' brew of numerous influences. The principal ingredient is narrative theory, particularly the works of Roland Barthes, David Bordwell, Seymour Chatman, and Gérard Genette. I've also profited from the work of drama theorists such as Manfred Pfister and Ericka Fisher-Lichte.
Because of their ability to photograph the physical world, films rarely need to rely upon dialogue to the same extent; why use "verbal" scenery when the camera can take you to any natural setting, or the Hollywood Dream Factory can sumptuously fabricate any locale? The catch is that although the camera can take us anywhere, identifying the location is trickier. As Roland Barthes argues, all visual images are polysemous; their meaning must be anchored by resort to verbal signs3 (which is why paintings are given titles, photographs, captions, and tourist postcards, geographical labels). One city skyline, one mountain region, one medieval castle looks very much like another unless its specificity is identified by some means. One popular cinematic strategy is to resort to the language of familiar iconography: the Golden Gate Bridge means "San Francisco," the Eiffel Tower, "Paris." Other methods include utilizing superimposed printed captions—"Phoenix, Arizona" in Psycho (1960)—or conveniently placed diegetic signs. (Julie Salamon's record of the filming of Bonfire of the Vanities  reveals Brian De Palma's insistence upon the size of a street sign reading "Alternate Route Manhattan.")4 Yet, in addition to such methods, films use dialogue to identify the diegetic world. That flat farmland could have been anywhere— Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska—but when Dorothy says, "Toto, I don't think that we're in Kansas anymore," it becomes Kansas. Moreover, this process of verbal identification works, not only for major locations, but for all the characters' movements in time and space throughout a film—the dialogue continually reorients the viewer through what David Bordwell calls "dialogue hooks" (e.g., "Shall we go to lunch?" followed by a long shot of a cafe).5 For instance, in Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a reporter calls Elena Harris with the news about Tiger Lily's marriage to Jimmy Harris and the brawl with Judy:
elena: Mr. Harris's marriage has nothing whatever to do with me. reporter: They're in the Night Court now. Don't you want to make a statement?
elena: I'm not interested. I don't care who's where and I'm not making any statements. (Slams down the phone, then picks it up again.) Where in the blazes is the Night Court?
The next shot is a wipe to a courtroom scene, which the viewer "naturally" infers is the Night Court just discussed.
Using dialogue for "re-anchorage" is especially important if a film is departing from linear chronology. In Andrew Davis's The Fugitive (1993), the television reporter outside Kimble's apartment notes: "We do know this: that he and his wife Helen were at a fund-raiser at the Four Seasons Hotel earlier this evening, a fund-raiser for the Children's Research Fund." The screen goes white with the bulb of an exploding flash; cut to a large party scene, now identified for us in both time and space.
Exactly where simple anchorage (identifying of existing, but unspecified, time and space) leaves off and literal verbal fabrication of the diegesis (painting in the viewer's imagination a locale that does not physically exist) begins, is difficult to define in film. Production practices always allow for one location to substitute for another: Canadian cities can double for New York, Morocco can be Kafiristan, the Philippines can be Vietnam, the back lot can be anywhere at any point in history. What is important to me here is how implicated the dialogue always is in defining the fictional space. In a real sense, "naming" constitutes "creation." Or, as Tzvetan Todorov puts it, "One cannot verbalize with impunity; to name things is to change them."6
Narrative films need not only to identify and create their time and space but also to name the most important elements of that diege-sis—the characters. Dialogue, replacing those title cards in silent films that baldly introduced each new person, frequently manages to introduce characters to the viewer via on-screen greetings and meetings. Bordwell has pointed out how often verbal repetition is used to drive home a character's name and identity, so that, for instance, in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), when Captain Renault meets Major Strasser at the airport, Strasser's name is repeated three times.7
As an example of dialogue's ability to anchor a narrative, let us take an exchange from an early scene in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). The stagecoach driver has just directed a well-dressed lady passenger to the hotel for a cup of coffee. As she starts toward the hotel porch, she is addressed by another young woman:
girl: Why, Lucy Mallory!
lucy: Nancy! How are you, Captain Whitney?
captain whitney: Fine, thanks, Mrs. Mallory.
nancy: Why, whatever are you doing in Arizona? lucy: I'm joining Richard in Lordsburg. He's there with his troops.
captain whitney: (off-screen) He's a lot nearer than that, Mrs.
Mallory. He's been ordered to Dry Fork. nancy: Why, that's the next stop for the stagecoach.
You'll be with your husband in a few hours.
This interchange tells us who Lucy is, what state she is in, where she is going, why she is going there, what her husband does, where her husband is, where the stage stops next, and how long it should take until the couple are reunited. A few moments later Nancy again proves her usefulness as narrator-substitute by identifying Hatfield as a "notorious gambler." The Whitneys are not important to the plot (they never appear again), and they are not individualized as rounded characters. They serve to give us this information, and also, by their friendliness and concern, to highlight Lucy's forlorn state.
Bordwell argues that in classical Hollywood film, narrative exposition is concentrated in the beginnings of texts. Certainly, one will find a great deal of identification of characters and anchorage of locations in the opening minutes of a film, when the dialogue is so casually making up for our lack of an omniscient narrator or a detailed dramatic playbill. But it would be a mistake to think that this function is confined to any one section of the text. Witness, from late in Stagecoach:
curly: Well, folks, we're coming into East Ferry now. buck: Lordsburg, next stop.
Movement through space, flashbacks to previous events, ellipses forward in time, and the introduction of new characters will call for dialogue anchorage.
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