Dialogue And Genre

In 1955, Harvey Purvis published a humorous piece in Films in Review entitled "Sure Fire Dialogue." The article consists of a verbal tour through twenty-two film genres:

mysteries: And just where were you when all this was taking place, Jamieson? . . . You mean to seriously suggest that the dead man stabbed himself and then proceeded to wipe the dagger clean of blood stains? No, no, Sergeant Dugan, I'm afraid you'll have to do better than that ... I see. Then that makes you sole heir to this vast estate . .. Whoever he is, our killer is bother clever and cunning . . . You made your first mistake Herr Krundschmidt, alias Dr. Peabody, when you failed to diagnose correctly a simple case of asphidio-calymide poisoning. safaris: What? A white woman in this part of Mogombiland? She must be mad! . .. Yes, B'wana ... I agree to lead this safari on one condition . .. Men say much taboo, B'wana. Men say no go on . . . Here come the black devils now . . . And the old women and young warriors will laugh at the mighty chief who trembled in fear of the white man's bang-bang stick.

musicals: Look, kid, why don't you go back home? Know what your chances are? For every star, two thousand are starving . . . This song seems to have been written just for you . . . Sure, the kid's great, but she isn't a name . . . That's it! That's it! That's the number we need for the second act . . . I'm going back to Smith Falls where folks may not be sophisticated, but at least they're real human beings . . . Why does everything happen to me? Opening night, a full house, and my leading lady walks out. All right, Freddie, get the little Bronson kid . . . You can do it Sally. Now go out there and wow them . . . Do you hear that Mr. Weyburn? They're bringing the house down. And you said she couldn't dance.1

What Purvis has so adroitly demonstrated here is that American film genres evince (clichéd) verbal patterns.

Such conventions are identifiable on the level of subject matter— in mysteries characters talk about the crime committed, in safari films about the safari, in musicals, about the show that is being produced—but also in terms of style. Note Purvis's use of longer, more elaborate phrases in mysteries, the "native" baby talk in safaris, the slangy informality in musicals. It is unthinkable that the presumably aristocratic detective in mysteries would say "wow," "kid" or "white man's bang bang stick." It is equally implausible that the stage manager in musicals would build up to the speech act of "triumphant accusation" that climaxes a Sherlock Holmes film.

Genre theory is a rich vein in American film scholarship, and it has made great strides in delineating the underlying themes of the various major American film genres, their narrative conventions, and their patterns of "iconography," of cinematography, costume, setting, or props. What such theory has mostly avoided, however, is any systematic discussion of dialogue.

One genre that has already attracted significant discussion of its dialogue is science fiction, and the reason for this attention is revealing—dialogue in sci-fi has been judged to be particularly bad. Susan Sontag observes:

The dialogue of most science fiction films, which is of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like "Come quickly, there's a monster in my bathtub," "We must do something about this," "Wait, Professor. There's someone on the telephone," "But that's incredible," and old American stand-by, "I hope it works!" are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust.2

In Screening Space, Vivian Sobchack further explicates this genre's trouble with words, arguing that the heavy reliance on scientific or pseudo-scientific jargon is stultifying, and that language is inadequate to capture the sense of "other-worldness" or the miraculous that is so essential to the genre.31 speculate that the difficulty stems either from prioritizing spectacle and special effects and paying less attention to their scripts or from failing to imagine how characters might react to fantastic events other than in the language of the present day. The sci-fi films that have the most intriguing dialogue—2001 (1968), in which the characters all speak with a flat coldness; A Clockwork Orange (1971), which adopts Anthony Burgess' made-up dialect; and Blade Runner (1982), which uses neologisms, marked silence, and poetic diction—have their characters speak in ways that depart markedly from contemporary usage. Grateful as I am for Son-tag's and Sobchack's lengthy, sensitive discussions of at least one genre's dialogue dynamics, I can't help but regret that this attention was motivated by a desire to understand the dialogue's inadequacy, not its strengths.

In this second half of the book, I survey the patterns of dialogue in four other major American genres: Westerns, screwball comedies, gangster films, and melodramas. I use the categories identified in the first part of this study—the dialogue functions, the variables concerning style and structure, and the strategies of integration with other cinematic elements—to analyze what is characteristic about the use of dialogue in each case. Investigating each genre's approach to "talk" ends up revealing more about its thematic resonances, and more about how each situates viewers in our role as eavesdroppers.

What accounts for these verbal genre conventions? Partially, they are motivated by the subject matter. Screenwriters are always concerned that dialogue be appropriate to characters' social backgrounds, and thus "realistic,"—or in Steve Neale's terms, marked by "cultural verisimilitude."4 Accordingly, cinematic rural cowboys speak differently than cinematic urban gangsters. Partially, films are clearly copying preexisting expectations created by other forms of representation; stories, novels, autobiographies, plays, and even silent films have overlapped with sound film genres and helped to delimit the types of speech that Hollywood employs. And partially, I believe, dialogue patterns are related to the underlying gender dynamics of each genre: whether the genre is primarily addressed to male or female viewers and how each genre treats its male and female characters are crucial factors in its use of language.

Once speech conventions were set by financially and critically successful films in the early sound era, such conventions assumed a life of their own, in that later filmmakers and filmgoers have unconsciously internalized these patterns of speech as most appropriate for these types of stories. Thus these verbal patterns became part of our expectations of "generic verisimilitude." Of course, not every film follows the rules, just as not every film slavishly duplicates its genre's visual conventions. But by taking a broad overview, general proclivities can be identified.

We know that genres change and even mutate through time; as Steve Neale argues, genres may be dominated by repetition, but they are also marked by an interplay of difference, variation, and change.5 Over the course of film history, the verbal proclivities identified here have been stretched or subverted, but I believe that they are still constituent of viewers' unconscious anticipations of genre films, of our "horizons of expectations."

There is a large body of scholarly literature devoted to the problems of genre definition, pointing out the inconsistent and illogical ways in which we often conceive of and talk about film genres, and the fact that the parameters of genres alter, not only with the unrolling of film history, but also with the changing temporal, theoretical, and ideological perspectives of observers.6 Sometimes the critiques are so persuasive and biting that one imagines just giving up on genre theory altogether, but despite its flaws and uncertainties, I find this methodology too productive and too intriguing to abandon. Possibly, the dialogue patterns that I uncover here may be of some help in this vexatious problem of determining which features of a genre are seen as defining, or in illustrating how films become cross-generic hybrids. Again, dialogue, so taken for granted, may turn out to be crucial.

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