The Nature Of Film Dialogue

"Eavesdropping" is a loaded term, implying that the filmgoer is doing something surreptitious, something that gives him or her secret power and/or sexual pleasure. In a paper given at a recent conference, "The Narrative Functions of the Ecouteur," Elisabeth Weis traces the psychoanalytic context of "eavesdropping," noting that Freud placed great stress on the child's overhearing its parents making love, and that he thought such experiences crucial to the child's sexual development. Weis continues,

Psychoanalysts working with patients often hypothesize that the adult eavesdropper recapitulates the primal scene. The listener can identify with either of the people overheard, who represent the aggressive and the submissive parent. Or the listener's identification can be placed with the overhearing child. . . . I would simply suggest here that overhearing is a fundamental experience with profound implications for films. If we consider the film-going experience to be one of watching and overhearing characters who are separated from us, then the entire film-going experience could be defined as eavesdropping as well as voyeurism.25

Weis then proceeds to direct attention to films that include scenes of on-screen characters eavesdropping on one another, films such as Careful, He Might Hear You (1983), Stella Dallas (1937), Addicted to Love (1997), and M*A*S*H (1970). Weis demonstrates how diegetic eavesdropping raises issues concerning invasion of privacy and of social inclusion versus exclusion, and she examines how the act can lead to the on-screen listener finally recognizing a painful truth or having his or her deepest secrets exposed in public. Weis examines how films offer models of eavesdropping behavior that range from sadistic or pathological to sympathetic, and she examines narrative strategies that sanction the behavior of eavesdroppers, thereby sanctioning that behavior in the audience as well.

There may always be an element of illicit eroticism and mastery involved in sitting in the dark listening as characters enact their most intimate scenes. However, on another level of our consciousness, filmgoers always know that we haven't actually caught these people unawares. Herbert Clark and Thomas Carlson append to speech-act theory a systematic overview of the roles of different participants in conversations. One of their categories deals with "overhearers," such as strangers on a bus, or children listening in on their parents:

Speakers also design their utterances with overhearers in mind. .. . [T]hey realize that the overhearers can nevertheless form conjectures or hypotheses about what they mean. ... By designing their utterances just right, speakers can lead overhearers to form correct hypotheses, incorrect hypotheses, or even no coherent hypotheses at all. If they know their overhearers, they can even design what they say to fit them in particular. . . . Overhearers are generally not meant to realize how utterances have been designed for them.26

Film dialogue has been purposely designed for the viewers to overhear, so that we can draw the best hypotheses, but films disguise the extent to which the words are truly meant for the off-screen listener. Part of the film-going suspension of disbelief is to collaborate in this fiction.

Discarding the fear of the contaminating power of the theater allows film analysts to learn from the work of drama theorists. The best description of how film dialogue works can be gleaned from Jean Chothia's Forging a Language: A Study of Plays of Eugene O'Neill:

Stage dialogue is different from real speech. It operates by duplicity: it is not spontaneous but must appear to be so. It is permanent but must appear to be as ephemeral as the speech it imitates. The actor must seem to speak what in reality he recites. In sharing the convention, the audience in the theatre has a share in the duplicity. We simultaneously accept the illusion of spontaneity and know that it is a pretense. . . . For it is not the hearing of the words by the interlocutor that completes the exchange, as it is in everyday speech, but the witnessing and interpreting of both the utterance and the response by the audience. Much of the particular effect of drama derives from the gap between two ways of hearing, that of the interlocutor on stage and that of the audience, and from the audience's consciousness of the gap. The audience sets each utterance beside each previous utterance made within the limited time span of the play and, in doing so, catches implications beyond those immediately relevant to speaker and interlocutor. ... If the dramatist is to create an action of significance . . . his dialogue, however natural it may appear, must be most unnaturally resonant with meaning and implication.27

Film dialogue shares with dramatic dialogue these deformations from everyday conversation, this unnatural resonance, this double-layeredness—in short, this dramatic irony. The filmgoers always know more than any single character (we know that Heathcliff is hiding in the vestibule, we know that Ellen is aware that Heathcliff is eavesdropping; because of the flashback structure of the film, we even know something of the characters' futures), and we put each speech into the context of all the other information we've been receiving. Because we inevitably have a broader "range of knowledge"28 about the characters and events, our interpretation of each line of dialogue differs from that of the on-screen conversationalists.

Chothia's description is extremely useful for understanding film speech. Yet film dialogue is distinguished from stage dialogue in two key ways: by the simultaneous signification of camerawork/mise-en-scene/editing that serves to select, emphasize, undercut, distract, reveal, or deform the filmgoer's interpretation; and by the phe-

nomenological absence of the actors from the filmgoers' space and reality, which allows the spectators' cathexis with the characters more free play.*

Film dialogue is distinguished from dialogue in novels by the absence of the literary narrator who could explicitly summarize or interpret the characters' speeches or even render interior views of the characters' minds and emotions. Instead of a narrator sequentially contextualizing the characters' speech, film offers the simultaneous signification of camerawork/mise-en-scène/editing. Moreover, the difference between reading words printed on a page and hearing them spoken aloud by actors is immeasurable.

To further refine our understanding of cinematic dialogue: the interaction between the visual and verbal tracks is always complicated and depends greatly upon the details of each instance. A major goal of this study is to unravel these connections. In general, however, it is a mistake to think of one track as "supplementing" or "adding to" the other. This is why—although I wholeheartedly agree with Michel Chion's analysis—I quarrel with his term "added value." Chion has coined this term to denote the extent to which verbal text affects the interpretation of an image. His discussion is worth quoting at some length:

An eloquent example that I often draw on in my classes to demonstrate value added by text is a TV broadcast from 1984, a transmission of an air show in England, anchored from a French studio for French audience by our own Léon Zitrone. Visibly thrown by these images coming to him on the wire with no explanation and in no special order, the valiant anchor nevertheless does his job as well as he can. At a certain point, he affirms, "Here are three small airplanes," as we see an image with, yes, three little airplanes against a blue sky, and the outrageous redundancy never fails to provoke laughter.

Zitrone could just as well have said, "The weather is magnificent today," and that's what we would have seen in the image, where there are in fact no clouds. Or: "The first two planes are ahead of the third," and then everyone would have seen that. Or else: "Where did the fourth plane go?"—and the fourth airplane's absence, this plane hopping out of Zitrone's hat by the sheer power of the Word, would

* To forestall any suspicions that my examples in this book were not drawn from "real" films, I have tried to avoid discussing adaptations of plays. If a few have slipped in—such as Casablanca (1942) and His Girl Friday (1940)—it's because neglecting these important films entirely would have been just too perverse.

have jumped to our eyes. In short, the anchor could have made fifty other "redundant" comments; but their redundancy is illusory, since in each case these statements would have guided and structured our vision so that we would have seen them "naturally" in the image.29

As Chion argues, the announcer's words made the number of airplanes in view important. His statements are neither redundant nor some minor, dispensable "addition," but a fundamental component of the viewer's experience of that moment of the broadcast. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" is not some supplemental, optional addition to the image of Clark Gable walking out the door at the end of Gone with the Wind (1939); these words both explain the reason he is leaving and mete out a measure of revenge. The shots and physical pantomime without these words—with their exact mixture of politeness, affection, anger, and resignation—would not be just less effective, but totally different.

The pantomime has a long-standing international tradition—it has been traced to ancient Rome, the Chinese, Persians, Hebrews, and Egyptians. It was useful for silent film (especially for comedy); it lives on in circus clowns and narrative ballet. Wordless strings of pic-tures—in stained-glass windows, comic books, photo essays—can also tell simple stories or stories that are already familiar. But dialogue is a necessity for stories and characterizations of more than rudimentary complexity. To the extent that film chooses to be a narrative art form, as opposed to presenting visual poetry or abstraction, it has been and will continue to be dependent upon dialogue as an integral part of its arsenal.

But we must also bear in mind the ways in which film dialogue differs from spontaneous everyday speech. In narrative films, dialogue may strive mightily to imitate natural conversation, but it is always an imitation. It has been scripted, written and rewritten, censored, polished, rehearsed, and performed. Even when lines are improvised on the set, they have been spoken by impersonators, judged, approved, and allowed to remain. Then all dialogue is recorded, edited, mixed, underscored, and played through stereophonic speakers with Dolby sound. The actual hesitations, repetitions, digressions, grunts, interruptions, and mutterings of everyday speech have either been pruned away, or, if not, deliberately included. Less time is devoted to the actual functions of everyday dis course, such as merely establishing social contact (what Roman Jakobson calls "the phatic function") or confirming that a conversational partner is listening attentively. Although one cardinal rule of real conversation is that speakers should not tell each other what the other already knows,30 film dialogue is often forced to smuggle in information merely for the viewer's benefit. Because the words are in truth directed at the filmgoer, not at the on-screen conversationalists, each word does double duty, works on double layers.

Norman Page has written a valuable study of dialogue in literature. He concludes his analysis of such dialogue's "reality-status" by noting that for various reasons it seems overwhelmingly likely that no dialogue in [a] novel or play will consist merely, or even mainly, of an accurate transcript of spontaneous speech. It is important to insist at this point that there is an inevitable gap—wider or narrower at different times, but never disappearing entirely—between speech .. . and even the most "realistic" dialogue in a world of literature.31

The same applies to film. This is why, although I have found the work of linguists extremely helpful, I conclude that the cross-disciplinary poaching cannot proceed in the opposite direction; linguists who use film dialogue as accurate case studies of everyday conversation are operating on mistaken assumptions.32

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