The Tyranny of the Talkie

On a recent Iceland Air flight, I had the pleasure of watching two movies on my neighbor’s personal video screen with no sound. First was “The Life of Pi,” directed by Ang Lee, and second was “Slumdog Millionaire,” directed by Danny Boyle.

Both are well-made films, and both suffer gravely, in my opinion, from far too much voice-over narration on the soundtrack – the story of each film is “framed” as a re-telling of the events in the movie, making it possible for a narrator to verbally tie the events together for the viewer.

And, neither movie needs any voice-over at all, in my humble opinion. Both filmmakers are gifted visual storytellers, who can convey what’s going on dramatically via their cinematic choices and the acting of their talented casts. The first movie in particular is about a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger. What more to we need to know?

Much is made in film school of the idea that cinema is its own language – it has its own grammar and syntax that can be understood nonverbally via the choices of shots, their order and pacing, and the dramatic expressiveness of the characters. At USC, for the first several semesters we weren’t allowed to use dialogue at all, which was an amazing and formative experience for me as a filmmaker.

Then, at the level of “Advanced Projects” the words were allowed back in, and everything went downhill fast.

I think that most cinema, and pretty much all television, is hopelessly choked with verbage, that these dialogue exchanges are tied to dramatic conventions which are lazy at best, and that spoken language almost always undermines cinema’s potential to have a deep emotional and aesthetic impact on an audience. For the most part audiences are complicit in this degradation because they don’t actually want to take the real risks of empathizing and emotionally investing in what’s happening onscreen.

Take a typical argument structure from a television program or movie. It’ll probably unfold a lot like this:

Character 1: Are you mad at me?
Character 2: No!
Character 1: Come on.
Character 2: Okay, yes!
Character 1: Why?
Character 2: Because you did _____, and you didn’t think about how it would affect me!
Character 1: But I needed to do ______, it wasn’t about you. Okay, I made a mistake.
Character 2: I just wish you had told me about it yourself. Honesty is the most important thing.
Character 1: Look, you’re right. I’m sorry.

We’ve all seen that scene, right? Dozens or hundreds of times, with variations. Sometimes it’s that quick and sometimes it plays out over the course of a full episode, or the full 2nd act of a movie. We all know it as a dramatic convention, and we all know how it ends.

And, our real-life conflicts mostly look nothing like that – they’re far more complex and messy and nuanced, with more characters and factors and extenuating circumstances. What’s more, they almost never play out verbally this way – there are either a lot more words, about unrelated things, or a lot fewer – in real life such a conflict may never be spoken of at all, or never resolved.

But, when the writers get together to do draft 9 of the screenplay, or episode 15 of the season, and the notes say “conflict needs to be clearer between Characters 1 and 2 on page 18,” this is what comes out of the process. I have no doubt that this is how we intellectually understand dramatic conflict, and so when we see this scene for the 1000th time, we can read it as “reasonably authentic argument” without needing to feel the emotional discomfort of identifying with a real dramatic conflict between two real people.

There may be a shallow sense of satisfaction there, but it’s fake, and moreover it’s extremely safe – we know exactly what’s going to happen and we don’t have to invest any emotional energy either in figuring it out, or in worrying about the outcome.

And, these conventions are self-reinforcing, because people don’t like to feel uncomfortable – so they reward shows and writers who meet their dramatic needs without challenging them. A show like “Breaking Bad” is praised to the high heavens, without representing, after perhaps the first season or two, anything like a realistic relationship between two human beings in the world.

I don’t think words are the enemy – I love words. But I think that particularly in cinema, they’re used primarily to abet this process of making things safe and simple, and allowing people to glean some satisfaction from going through the motions of drama without any actual emotional investment in either the art of cinema or the art of drama.

This is maybe why we end up with so many sequels, so many superheroes, so many epic action sequences, so many supernatural creatures – because, in the absence of compelling and authentic dramatic interactions, that’s what we have to fall back on. Exposition, lots of events that need to be explained, a bit of backstory, an antagonist who wants to destroy something because he’s upset about something else, and you’ve successfully filled out your hundred-page screenplay without having to resort to delving into the messiness or ambiguity of actual human psychology.

It’s easy to mistake talking for content – to mistake characters talking about feelings and situations for the drama of actual feelings and situations. Talking has its place – occasionally it can be useful and/or necessary – but cinema with much less talking has the potential to be much riskier and more rewarding. Which is why it’s exciting to me.

My artwork has been almost completely dialogue free since I made a documentary in 2007, and I’ve been aware of my aversion to dialogue on some level ever since – but I’m still figuring out how to articulate this aversion. I’m hoping that once I get a firm grasp on my understanding of the (occasional) usefulness of dialogue in film that I’ll be able to use words well, and sparingly, to add to the power of my films rather than unwittingly compromising their power.

And in the meantime, I’ll keep complaining about The Talkies like a crusty old man in the 1940s. Let me know if it gets annoying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *