This study focuses on English-language narrative cinema, primarily American but including a few British films. I suspect that many of my findings are applicable to all narrative features, but I will not make generalizations about other national cinemas without knowing the language as well as a native speaker. Not the least of the deleterious consequences of the traditional disregard of dialogue's importance is that film scholars have cavalierly assumed they could analyze films in languages they don't know.t
Confining my study largely to American films does have the advantage of highlighting the fact that film dialogue is important to American culture. Speech is not some abstract, neutral communicative code: issues of power and dominance, of empathy and intimacy, of class, ethnicity, and gender are automatically engaged every time someone opens his or her mouth. What the characters say, how they say it, and how the filmgoer is influenced are crucial issues.
Much scholarship has been devoted to demonstrating the negative portrayals in American film of women, African-Americans, His-panics, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans. Most of these analyses have concentrated on the level of plot and characterization. What is often overlooked is how much the speech patterns of the stereotyped character contribute to the viewer's conception of his or her worth; the ways in which dialect, mispronunciation, and inarticulateness have been used to ridicule and stigmatize characters has
* The difference between a real-life conversation and those portrayed in films is clearly apparent when one reads linguists' transcriptions of actual talk.
t For a study of dialogue, relying on subtitles would, of course, be intellectually bogus. Subtitles only translate a portion of the spoken text, and only that portion that the subtitler has decided is most important. This filters out emphases that may be unique to the film or to that national cinema. Repetitions, interruptions, slang, curses, antiquated diction, regional accents, of course, are all lost in subtitles. I hope that other scholars will apply my schema to other national cinemas to test its applicability and to discover the unique characteristics of their cinema's dialogue.
often been neglected. Who gets to speak about what? Who is silenced? Who is interrupted? Dialogue is often the first place we should go to understand how film reflects social prejudices. By the same token, if we want to learn more about communities that are different from our own, we might profitably pay attention to the dialogue of films made by minority filmmakers. Mark Winokur argues that the increasing number of films made by African-American filmmakers serve to advance a Bakhtinian polyglossia, allowing into American cinema the voices of audience segments never before heard.48
To some extent, films teach viewers how to talk, and thus how to think. When my sons were toddlers, I found myself unaccountably employing the odd endearment "Dollface," a term I could not remember ever hearing or reading. I later realized I had picked it up from His Girl Friday's Walter Burns.
But my own trivial experience is echoed by common practice; film dialogue has often affected off-screen life in substantial ways. Movies have been a medium for language dispersal; linguists believe, for instance, that Hollywood has been instrumental both in contributing to the worldwide dominance of English, and, here at home, in introducing Yiddish expressions to the American public.49 A more specific instance can be seen in the fact that "[f]or months after The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951, grade school kids drove their teachers crazy chanting 'Klaatu barada nikto!,' the words Patricia Neal uses to call off the tinfoil robot Gort, who's hell-bent on atomizing Washington," as Peter Biskind remarks.50 In the 1960s, rebellious teenagers mocked authority figures by throwing back at them the line of the sadistic prison warden in Cool Hand Luke (1967)—"What we've got here is a failure to communicate." Recently, a fund-raiser at Oberlin College quoted Jerry Maguire's "Show me the money" to the Wall Street Journal.51 And surely it is significant that an American president threatened the Congress with a line— "Go ahead, make my day"—from a Dirty Harry movie.
Of all the components of a film, dialogue is the most portable, the easiest for a viewer to extract and make his own. You can't look like the stars, you can't inhabit their world or imitate their actions, but you can mimic their lines. The Internet Movie Database catalogues favorite lines from films and many collections of movie quotes have been published, including several in the format of a reference book of quotations for easy insertion into public presentations. The wisdom of Ovid, Montaigne, and Churchill is being replaced by new cultural touchstones.
To return to my opening topic, the prejudices against film dialogue, it is important to realize that no other aspect of film has been subjected to so many prescriptive rules. Cinematography is generally expected to meet certain minimum technical standards, such as being in focus, adequately lit, framing the subject appropriately. Beyond such "visibility" criteria, public discussion does not typically legislate the content of the shots. Yet popular discussion of dialogue goes far beyond minimum "audibility" standards. In the course of my perusal of older and even contemporary screenwriting manuals, film criticism, and theoretical analyses, I've constantly come across dicta such as the following:
Dialogue should be kept to a minimum.
Dialogue should always match the characters' sociological/class background.
Dialogue should never convey expositional information. Dialogue should never be repetitious. Dialogue should never be flowery or ostentatious. Dialogue should never give information that can be conveyed visually.
Dialogue should never be obscure. Dialogue should never preach. Dialogue should never be intellectual.
Perhaps these "rules" have been proclaimed so often out of desperation. For my researches have consistently indicated that no matter how loudly they have been shouted, in actuality they have never been followed by American cinema. Some of the greatest films, from Ernst Lubitsch's and Preston Sturges's and Howard Hawks's come dies, to Orson Welles's intricate masterpieces, to the Coen brothers' cold satires, offer dialogue that is repetitious, flowery, obscure, "out of character," expositional, intellectual, abundant, even, sometimes, inaudible. Sometimes a short speech offers a surprising zinger; in other cases a long monologue allows for nuance or builds up a head of steam. Everything depends upon the individual movie and its aims. I offer hundreds of examples in the pages that follow.
Which is not to say that all film dialogue is equally valuable, or that films are not sometimes marred by weak dialogue, on the order of "I am Heathcliff." But so little serious work has been done on the subject that we do not yet have the tools for determining why one instance of dialogue is brilliantly successful and another leaden-footed. This study is meant to help us make aesthetic evaluations based on informed analysis.
Critics who charge that dialogue is a vehicle for developing character psychology and thus the handmaid of a bourgeois humanistic ideology, are, in large part, correct. But whereas some condemn these ideological ramifications, I judge them a virtue. I believe that there is no more important a topic than people talking. Why is the loneliness of losing one's hearing universally feared more than the darkness of losing one's sight? Because talk provides the means for each of us to break out of our singularity and isolation into communion. Talk allows us an imaginative understanding of other worldviews, of other ways of being. Talk is our preeminent means of communicating. As Hannah Arendt has written, "We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human."52
Film dialogue is a particular kind of imitation of people talking. If we hope to understand either this art form or the broader landscape of American culture, unlike Heathcliff, we need to stay and listen attentively all the way through.
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