Dialogue As Sound

A key question related to the narrative goal of a scene is whether the dialogue plays a central role. Numerous directors use dialogue indirectly. Although this is the exception, some directors—like Robert Altman, Richard Lester, and, more recently, Jim Jarmusch and Terry Malick—have used dialogue as a sound effect rather than for the information it imparts.

This question must be asked throughout the sound edit because some dialogue is crucial, and some is not. For the editor, the distinction between the two categories is important. With the exception of Woody Allen (for whom language is central), many directors de-emphasize dialogue, which elevates the visual to greater importance and reduces language to the level of the sound effect.

This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the work of David Lynch. That is not to say that Lynch is not interested in sound. In fact, his work is extremely sophisticated in its deployment of sound. Language, however, is nothing but another sound in Lynch's work. A good example is Lynch's key film of the 1980s, Blue Velvet (1986), the story of a kidnapping in a small town. The main character attempts to help a singer whose husband and son have been kidnapped by the town criminal (Dennis Hopper). The young man and his girlfriend are not so much civic-minded as they are bored with small-town life, and they become voyeurs.

There is much dialogue in this film, but it does not help us understand the narrative or the motivation of the characters. Blue Velvet is an antinarrative story, and Lynch used dialogue to contribute to the story's contradictions. Language, which is traditionally used to bring clarity to issues or situations, is deployed in this film to add to the intentional confusion.

Lynch, trying to create a sensational and sensual experience, attempted to undermine all that is cerebral or rational. The first victim is the dialogue. We can hear it, but it doesn't help us to understand the story. The sound effects are used to underscore the emotional character of a scene (note the primal asthmatic scream of Hopper's character during the rape scene), but the dialogue takes us away from explanation, its usual role, thereby leading us to even greater anxiety as we experience the film. Lynch's unusual use of language is available to the editor. This option is increasingly used by filmmakers.

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