Since the late 1970s, when the field of cinema studies "rediscovered" the sound track, numerous productive studies have been published on sound technology, film music, sound effects, and sound theory. With notable exceptions,3 most of this scholarship has only minimally addressed the most important aspect of film sound—namely, the dialogue.
Although what the characters say, exactly how they say it, and how the dialogue is integrated with the rest of the cinematic techniques are crucial to our experience and understanding of every film since the coming of sound, for the most part analysts incorporate the information provided by a film's dialogue and overlook the dialogue as signifier. Canonical textbooks on film aesthetics devote pages and pages to editing and cinematography but barely mention dialogue. Visual analysis requires mastery of a recondite vocabulary and trained attentiveness; dialogue has been perceived as too transparent, too simple to need study.
Recent historical work on screenwriters has not gone very far toward addressing this neglect. "How to" primers on screenwriting discuss dialogue superficially; their treatment is invariably prescriptive rather than analytical. Analyses of individual screenplays focus on the genesis and development of the text (often with the intention of determining who deserves the credit), rather than on dialogue technique. Film reviews fall back on vapid clichés—the dialogue is "witty" or "clumsy"—without specifying the grounds for such evaluations.
The neglect of film dialogue by more recent film scholarship actually reflects the field's long-standing antipathy to speech in film. This bias is blatant in the writings of early film theorists such as Rudolph Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, and Siegfried Kracauer, who are notori-
ous for championing silent film over sound.* Classical theorists offered numerous and sometimes contradictory reasons for their disdain for film sound and speech: sound would restrict montage; sound would restrict camera movement; silent film had its own poetry precisely because it found visual substitutions for sound; dialogue kept films from crossing national boundaries; dialogue was a distraction from the camera's ability to capture the natural world; dialogue encouraged too much attention to character psychology; dialogue turned film into "canned theater."4
Some of the complaints of classical theorists have been assuaged; for instance, improvements in microphones, sound mixing and editing, and the muffling of camera noise swiftly ameliorated the initial difficulties with the transition to sound that had temporarily compromised camera movement and editing. The practical problems with international distribution also have been lessened through workable systems of dubbing and subtitling.
But the fear that incorporating dialogue compromises film as an independent art form by bringing it too close to theater has persisted. "Cinema, at once high art and popular art, is cast as the art of the authentic," explains Susan Sontag. "Theatre, by contrast, means dressing up, pretense, lies. It smacks of aristocratic taste and the class society."5 Moreover, there has been a widespread embrace of what is called "the specificity thesis," the argument that each artistic medium is distinct, and so to be true to itself and to reach its highest potential, each should capitalize upon its unique characteristics. Noël Carroll has argued, however, that "the specificity thesis" is based on illogical, tautological premises and misconstrues the relationship between narrative arts. Carroll notes that the thesis:
[A]ppears to envision each art form on the model of a highly specialized tool with a range of determinate functions. A film, play, poem or painting is thought of, it seems, as analogous to something like a Phillips screwdriver. If you wish to turn a screw with a cross-shaped groove on top, use a Phillips screwdriver. If you wish to explore the
* There were a few early defenders of film speech. Marcel Pagnol, for one, declared: "Any talking film which can be shown silent and remain comprehensible is a very bad talking film" ("The Talking Film," in Rediscovering French Film, ed. Mary Lea Bardy [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1983], 91).
potentials of aesthetically crafted language, use theater. If your topic is animated action, use film. But I think it is incumbent on us to question whether this underlying metaphor has any applicability when it comes to art forms. Are art forms highly specialized tools? I think not. If art forms are like tools at all, then they are more like sticks than like Phillips screwdrivers. That is, they can be used to do many things; they have not been designed to perform a specific task. . . . An artistic medium, including a self-consciously invented one, is such that many of its potentials remain to be discovered.6
Perhaps film is adept at many of the goals classical theorists allotted to it, such as revealing the beauty of the natural world, creating abstract moving images, taking editing to extremes, capturing machines in motion. Yet Carroll helps us see that being talented in certain areas does not equate with being restricted forever to solely those objectives.
Although today everyone graciously allows movies to talk, commonplace attitudes toward dialogue still betray suspicion and a fierce desire to regulate. Anti-dialogue dicta are not confined to the era of the transition to sound or to some benighted past; these prejudices seem to linger like the undead, periodically reappearing to poison our perception. Witness a 1991 statement by David Mamet: "Basically, the perfect movie doesn't have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie."7 Or note the definition of dialogue offered in Ephraim Katz's widely used Film Encyclopedia (originally compiled in 1979, with a third edition in 1998):
dialogue: In a film, all spoken lines. Since the cinema is essentially a visual medium, dialogue is, or should be, used more sparingly than in the theater, supplementing action rather than substituting for it.8
However, the wish to separate cinema from the theater and capitalize on its visual expressivity does not really explain these widespread and prolonged efforts to suppress film dialogue. For one thing, although theater was film's direct competitor in the early years of the twentieth century, by now film has decisively won the competition for mass audiences, and the need to distinguish the new art from its forebear is no longer pressing. For another, in point of fact, discussions of drama and literature also bear witness to the same desire to minimize dialogue. "Good dramatic dialogue reveals but does not explain. The fewer words the character speaks and the more he shows of himself by them, the better the writing," decreed the American playwright Rachel Crothers (1878-1958) in the 1920s.9 Sam Smiley reprised this stance in a playwrighting manual published in the 1970s:
What Ernest Hemingway often said about writing fiction applies to dialogue as well: Good writing means erecting an iceberg of words; only a few words are visible; but many more are there under the surface. So it is with dialogue economy in a play. A writer should avoid superfluous words and delete every one that does not carry a burden of meaning. In plays, actors' physical actions can substitute for many words. Although dialogue has to be continually emotive, it should be absolutely economic.10
And although twentieth-century playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Eugène Ionesco have obviously made wordplay their central strategy, other dramatists—specifically Antonin Artaud, the futurists, and the theatricalists—have sought to annihilate the "the theatre of language," believing that pantomime is the essence of theatre.11 As regards the novel, the so-called "school of virility" in American literature, which enshrined the economic style of Hemingway and demonstrated hostility to expansiveness or eloquence, has been very influential.12
If theatrical and literary discourse also reveals the urge to suppress dialogue, and if the prejudices against film dialogue far outlast the memory of the special artistry of silent films and the technical flaws of early sound recording, larger or stronger cultural forces than lags in technology and the rather esoteric issue of aesthetic specificity must be at work.
I believe that the hostility toward cinematic (and theatrical and literary) speech should be seen as just part of the enduring denigration of all speech. Proverbs advise us that "Silence is golden" and "Talk is cheap." Benjamin Franklin counseled: "Speak little, do much."13 Ambrose Bierce defined "Talk" as: "To commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose."14 S0ren Kierkegaard once commented: "How ironical that it is by means of speech that man can degrade himself below the level of the dumb creation—for a chatterbox is truly of a lower category than a dumb creature."15
In the attacks on speech, certain themes recur:
1. Words can be used to lie, whereas pictures provide more trustworthy evidence. "One picture is worth ten thousand words."*
2. Words are empty, vacuous. "Actions speak louder than words."
3. Words may be hasty, intemperate, leading the speaker into trouble. "Loose lips sink ships."
4. Showing is superior—more informative, more meaningful, more subtle—than telling.
Although these statements seem seductively reasonable, all four can be refuted or at least qualified. Pictures can also "lie"—they can be doctored, staged, or digitally "enhanced." As for the charge of vacuousness, speech-act theory has taught us that words are hardly empty—they are themselves "actions." Elizabeth Traugott notes:
One of the most important things to be learned from approaching language in terms of its use is that the familiar opposition between saying something and doing something—between word and deed— is not at all clear-cut. Saying is doing, and utterances are acts, capable of producing enormous and far reaching consequences. For example, the sentence "You are under arrest ... " can deprive you of your physical freedom.16
Physical actions can be as hasty as intemperate words: buying the too-expensive item or grasping the pan before it has cooled are actions one may regret as much as the rash promise or betrayed confidence.
Finally, the belief in the superiority of "showing" over "telling" stems partly from the efficacy of demonstrating some manual skill over merely describing the same in words—a swim instructor who physically demonstrates the motions will get better results than one who just gives verbal commands. However, "showing over telling" has a specific history in aesthetic theory. It reflects the influential and widely echoed argument advanced by the followers of Henry James, such as Percy Lubbock, Joseph Warren Beach, and Ford Madox Ford, in the 1920s and 1930s. Part of modernism's revolt against Victorian
* William Safire has traced this phrase's history. It was coined in 1921 by an advertising man, Fred Barnard, who wanted to stress that a photograph of appetizing candy would attract more customers than a verbal description ("Worth a Thousand Words," New York Times Magazine, 7 April 1996, 16).
aesthetics, specifically the chatty narrator of Victorian novels, the tenet quickly hardened into an inflexible dogma in literary circles. "Showing," that is, presenting actions without any narrative commentary, is supposed to be more subtle, and to call for more participation by the reader than allowing a narrator to evaluate or summarize. But Wayne Booth has demonstrated in The Rhetoric of Fiction that seemingly objective "showing" is just another form of "telling," just another method by which authors guide their readers' responses.17 Moreover, visuals are not always subtle—note the overly obvious miming of silent film—and words are not necessarily blatant. This argument slights the subtexts of verbal messages, all the subtleties that are common not only in literature and poetry but in everyday social discourse. Engagement is called for whether one is interpreting action or speech, visual images or dialogue.
I suspect that the four charges against words detailed above are to some extent pretexts. The underlying issue stems neither from some essential drawbacks of verbal communication nor from the diverging relationships between words and images/action and the physical world. The fundamental motivation comes from the fact that talkativeness has traditionally been allied with femininity, terse action with masculinity.
Of course, recent scholarship—particularly that linked to the work of Jacques Lacan—has been devoted to pointing out a contrary cultural disposition that identifies the Word, logos, as masculine, as the Word of God or the Law of the Father. In this paradigm, women are clearly linked with visual images, with bodies/beauty/silence— in short, with the lack of speech or logic or power. However, these two apparently opposite conceptions are not actually contradictory; they are two sides of the same coin. Walter Ong distinguishes between two kinds of speech: the common materna lingua (mother tongue) and the educated, "civilized" patrius sermo (father speech).18 Whenever speech is valued as an important act in a public sphere, it is seen as masculine; when it is held to no account in the casual language of ordinary conversation, it is ascribed to women. The reason that women are silenced and objectified is to deny them access to powerful speech; when women do talk, their speech is redefined as inconsequential, nonstop chatter.
I am hardly the first scholar to focus on the association of trivial talkativeness with femininity. In Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender,
Property, Patricia Parker has traced the "tradition that portrays women as unflappable talkers" from ancient literature (she cites the biblical admonition: "Let woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence") to James Joyce's Ulysses.19 In Gossip, Patricia Spacks has painstakingly detailed the customary connection of women with this category of speech.20 Turning from the academic to the popular sphere, maxims also provide abundant evidence of the widespread association of private talk with women:
"Where woman is, silence is not." (France)
"The tongue is the sword of a woman, and she never lets it become rusty." (China)
"The North Sea will sooner be found wanting in water than a woman at a loss for a word." (Jutland)
"Ten measures of speech descended on the world; women took nine and men one." (Babylon)
"Two women and a goose are enough to make as much noise as you would hear at a fair." (Venice)
"Many women, many words; many geese, many turds." (England)
The linkage of talking women with animals is particularly common; in a famous instance in Fritz Lang's Fury (1936), the director cuts from a shot of rumormongering women to a shot of clucking hens; this visual metaphor is repeated during the "Pick-a-Little-Talk-a-Little" number in Morton Da Costa's adaptation of The Music Man (1962).
Another area in which the correlation of women and excess speech is manifest is in the English language. In Language: The Social Mirror, Elaine Chaika writes:
It has already been noted that English vocabulary reflects a disvalu-ing of talk for its own sake. Moreover, it was shown that most words that mean "idle talk" in SE [Standard English] also are marked to mean [+ female], and/or [+ young, + trivial]. A person who is gabby, talkative, and gossipy, a nag, a shrew, or a chatterbox, must be a woman.21
In actuality, contemporary linguistic research does not support the supposition that the female sex talks the most. Dale Spender flatly states: "There has not been one study which provides evidence that women talk more than men, and there have been numerous studies which indicate that men talk more than women." She explains that the myth of the overtalkative woman has arisen because "women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women. ... When silence is the desired state for women ... then any talk in which a woman engages can be too much."22
Films that are "talky" come with the connotations "trivial" and "idle" and, ultimately, "female." Visual images and physical activity, which in the history of the cinema came first (as Adam preceded Eve), are associated with masculinity and "naturally" given precedence.
My argument is that dialogue has been continually discredited and undervalued in film because it is associated with femininity. To some it may appear far-fetched to assert that gender stereotypes have unconsciously affected the evaluation of film aesthetics by filmmakers, scholars, and viewers. But many of the "neutral" or "objective" discussions of film aesthetics betray just such an undercurrent. Listen to Alfred Hitchcock, who viewed every issue of his craft in sexual terms:
Suspense is like a woman. The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement. . . . Movie titles, like women, should be easy to remember without being familiar, intriguing but never obvious. . . . A woman of mystery is one who also has a certain maturity and whose actions speak louder than words. Any woman can be one, if she keeps those two points in mind. She should grow up—and shut up.23
Kaja Silverman in The Acoustic Mirror, Mary Ann Doane in The Desire to Desire, and Amy Lawrence in Echo and Narcissus have all studied women's roles in American films and noticed how often female characters are silenced or punished for talking. My argument here dovetails with theirs but enters on another level: I believe that all dialogue (regardless of the gender of the speaking character) is associated with femininity, that films that speak "too much" are punished (with criticism from reviewers and academic disdain, and sometimes even low box office receipts). How else can one explain the reflexive, omnipresent pronouncements that dialogue must be "kept in its place"?
Just as Heathcliff is led into grievous error by his preconceptions and poor listening, so film history has been deformed by our lack of respect for dialogue. Many Hollywood directors—Cukor, Wilder, Mankiewicz, Sturges, Capra, Huston, Wyler—who chose to work with more literate scripts have historically been underappreciated. (Several of these have also been castigated as "women's" directors.) Secondly, the importance of screenplays and screenwriters to the final film has been obscured. Moreover, certain films that we now value quite highly were initially dismissed out of hand for their "talkiness"; see, for instance, Penelope Huston's misguided review of All about Eve (1950) and Sunset Boulevard (1950): "If, as I believe, the first quality of good screen writing is economy, then they are wasteful films, lavishing all that virtuoso writing on material which, in the last analysis, has not the strength to sustain it."24
Perhaps the most noteworthy consequence of this anti-dialogue bias is that it has led to misconceptions in our model of how films actually work. Many of the ways in which narrative is communicated, empathy elicited, themes conveyed, visuals interpreted come from the interaction of the words with the visual images. Ignoring the role of the words has led to overestimation of what viewers understand from the visuals or the editing alone.
Even our metaphor regarding the viewing experience needs adjustment. We are accustomed to using the analogy that the filmgoer is a voyeur, surreptitiously spying on the actions of the on-screen characters. What we've often overlooked is that viewers are also listeners, in fact, they are eavesdroppers, listening in on conversations purportedly addressed to others, but conversations that—in reality—are designed to communicate certain information to the audience.
Was this article helpful?