Words on film (it’s a global conspiracy actually).

There’s an odd disquiet in the air this evening as the sun wanes a grubby orange and London’s throaty roar thunders more angrily than ever; a noxious Last Post for a city slowly eating itself. Maybe I should just shut the window; maybe I should reign-in the hay-fever pills a little or maybe I should load up my fingers with words and tap out the bellicose rhythms of a linguistic war upon my battered keyboard.

Or maybe just get on with it.

I am bothered by the stats page on my WordPress site. I pretend not to be. I feign indifference like a recovering smoker shrugging at the pub on a Friday afternoon as a forgetful friend offers him a fag even though it’s been nearly seven weeks since he’s last smoked. He declines politely. He pretends not to care. He ignores the raging beast of nicotine addiction stomping around the wires and neurones of his brain – yes, he thinks, yes for the love of all that is holy and grand, please just let me smoke. But he says nothing. He smiles. He is fine. Really he is.

My name is James and I’ve given up smoking. This makes me simultaneously very happy indeed (and god, do I feel better for it) but also a tiny bit sad.

Anyway, this analogy began sometime in the late C19th and let me try to bring it some sort of, inevitably disappointing, conclusion. Yes, the stats page. I pretend to be immune to its charms but the last few days have seen the longest period so far during which nobody on the planet has read anything that I’ve published here. This blogging duck (a cricket metaphor, sorry American readers – hi Julia) was broken today by a single view of my (ahem) award-winning post about motivational quotations for writers from a reader in Djibouti. Which is a very hot country on the East coast of Africa. I know this because the internet has just told me. So anyway, time to tap my way back to a few more readers.

There’s a fair bit of Long Arm news on the horizon; something about a finished feature film, a trailer for said film; some exciting developments about our short Ex Libris and a draft of a new feature script that features a man called Spider and a lady who keeps a shotgun in her bra. However, none of these exciting headlines can be supported by much detail just yet although we do hope to expand on these themes in the coming weeks. We should be able to show you something exciting in roughly a fortnight. And I don’t mean Jimmy’s bum. Although clearly for most rational human beings, things just don’t get more exciting than this.

So to continue a theme that I began in my most recent post (which was published a blushingly large number of weeks ago) I thought I’d write a little about something very close to my lungs. Nicotine. No, not nicotine. I am over nicotine. Smoking is SO OVER. No I mean scripted dialogue. As ever I don’t profess to being any sort of expert on the subject but as a writer whose written more of the stuff than I have anything else, I do feel that I have a few observations worth sharing.

There are manifold challenges for the screenwriter as he or she sits down to write some dialogue for a scene. Not least the fact that people are rubbish at talking. Real people in real life spew a never-ending shite-stream of piss-poor construction and half-remembered cliches. To quote them directly would render your script utterly turgid and sound like the average chat on an episode of Masterchef –

“I’m going to give it everything to reach the next level and cook outside my comfort zone and nail these dishes like one hundred and twenty percent and if I go home today I will be just like gutted because this competition is the most important thing that has ever happened to a man or a woman ever”. 

No one wants to hear people talk like that (says the man who gets very upset if he misses even five minutes of an episode of Masterchef) and so writers are forced into playing a game with the audience in which they attempt to fill their characters mouths with words that SOUND as if they could be actual spoken at some point by a real human being but are in actual fact as highly constructed as an oil painting or a giant medieval tapestry. Oh I do love a giant medieval tapestry.

Great dialogue writing is really about how far you can push the characters’ language towards unreality before anyone notices or, more importantly, before anyone gets cross. Some writers are masters, absolute masters at pushing this tolerance threshold to a point so distant that it becomes irrelevant. Take Noel Coward for instance; no one in England has ever spoken with the spontaneous beauty of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Not even when England was black and white and we drank our tea from bone china tea-sets.  But the audience does not give a solitary fig (roll) because the language is extraordinary:

Alec: I wish I could think of something to say.

Laura: It doesn’t matter, not saying anything I mean. 

Alec: I’ll miss my train and wait and see you into yours . . .

Laura: No. Please don’t. I’ll come over with you to your platform, I’d rather. 

Alec: Very well. 

Laura: Do you think we shall ever see each other again?

Alec: I don’t know. Not for years anyway. 

Laura: The children will all be grown-up. I wonder if they’ll ever meet and know each other. 

Alec: Couldn’t I write to you? Just once in a while?

Laura: No Alec please. You know we promised. 

Alec: Oh my dear. I do love you. So very much. I love you with all my heart and soul. 

Laura: I want to die. If only I could die.

Alec: If you died you’d forget me. I want to be remembered. 

brief_encounter

Swoon! Tears! Coward was a genius. And Brief Encounter, for me, represents perfection in film making. There is not one second that is misplaced or anything other than luminously brilliant.

Compare this to one of the more abject examples of dialogue writing that, for some reason, has stayed with me for well over a decade. Remember the X-Files? Of course you do. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Mulder and Scully running around in the 90s with poor quality torches in search of extra-terrestials? It was ace. Remember the X-Files movie? The first one? Er, not so much. But I do. And I remember this speech with dizzying clarity:

Bartender:  So, whaddya do?

Mulder: What do I do?

Bartender: Mmm hmm.

(Mulder takes a sip from his new drink, puts it down and begins his tale.)

Mulder: I’m the key figure in an on‑going government charade, the plot to conceal the truth about the existence of extraterrestrial. It’s a global conspiracy, actually, with key players in the highest levels of power, that reaches down into the lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet. (he laughs) So, of course, no one believes me. I’m an annoyance to my superiors, a joke to my peers. They call me Spooky. Spooky Mulder, whose sister was abducted by aliens when he was just a kid and who now chases after little green men with a badge and a gun, shouting to the heavens or to anyone who will listen that the fix is in, that the sky is falling and when it hits it’s gonna be the shit‑storm of all time.

Oh dear. Oh dear indeed. To be fair a lot of the work required of dialogue in the average film is to get plot across to an popcorn munching, girlfriend snogging audience (not a problem in a Long Arm film of course due to Jimmy’s wholesale rejection of anything remotely resembling a story) but really, credit the audience with a soupçon of narrative literacy please. And poor David Duchovny. He had to sit for a day and repeat this speech countless times without ever being able to rip off his own nipples in disgust. This may have had something to do with the paycheque he was receiving of course.

And then of course there is Aaron Sorkin a man who, as regular readers of this blog will attest, I love more than I ever thought possible. In his West Wing pomp, Sorkin was untouchable as a writer of dialogue; at its zenith I’d suggest that it beats pretty much anything else I’ve seen on television. And I’ve seen Rentaghost. Again it is no more real than an episode of The Simpsons, in some ways far less real, but when the President of the USA chastises God for killing his secretary in a car accident IN LATIN then you either throw a grenade at the television in utter disgust or you just stand to applaud and marvel. And I did just that.

And yes Martin Sheen is a genius. And yes I now do want a cigarette.

But not every writer can be Sorkin. And nor should you even try so to be. I often get my work sent back to me by Jimmy with comments such as NO ONE EVER SPEAKS LIKE THAT. And OH PLEASE. And THIS IS LARGELY PISS. And for this I am grateful. Jimmy is a brilliant man. A man of images. A man of vision. And these little spats between us (and goodness, the making-up is always SO good) are indicative of an inescapable tension between the image and the word. Film is by definition a visual medium and for the first thirty-ish years of its existence got on very well indeed without any words whatsoever. Words bastardised the medium, diluted the purity of the form. And the two have been competing ever since. What are the greatest ever moments in film? The door to Michael Corleone’s office shutting on Kay at the end of the Godfather or “Here’s looking at you kid”? I guess it is a matter of taste.

Do we forgive Star Wars “It’s the ship that made the kessel run in less that twelve parsecs” or “Luke, run away, far away. If he can sense your presence here then just leave this place” just because you know, it is Star Wars? Well millions upon millions do.

But for some of us, despite its inherent friction with the genre in which it exists, there will always be a greater thrill from watching someone on a huge screen say something really, really cool.

“Go and never darken my towels again”.

And from Groucho to a pair of Swedish sisters who make lovely music. And no, there is NO connection whatsoever. But I’ve been listening to this a lot this evening and I think you should do so too:

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6 thoughts on “Words on film (it’s a global conspiracy actually).

  1. If it helps, I did laugh aloud at the “hi Julia.”

    I agree with all of your points about writing dialogue, although mine doesn’t have to be acted out. I never understood why writers of prose or fiction think they should read their words aloud to themselves to see if it “sounds right.” More importantly, does it “read right”? In most cases, the words will only be in people’s heads.

    I’ve been listening to First Aid Kit’s My Silver Lining lately, too – and my latest obsession is with another pair of sisters – Kate and Anna McGarrigle (the late Kate is Rufus Wainwright’s mother!). I highly recommend their 1960s album “Tell My Sister,” especially ‘The Swimming Song’ and ‘Heart Like a Wheel – 1974 version, Amigo Studios’ – be sure to listen to THIS version, as the original earlier version borders on the saccharine, but this spare version is probably one of the top ten saddest songs EVER, which is obviously awesome.)

    Okay, your one American reader is done commenting now. I hope I’ve done my countrymen proud.

    • Good to hear from you Julia. Glad you are in agreement and thank you for another excellent music recommendation. Hope you are all well over there in that America of yours.

  2. That there scene from The West Wing was, I think, the moment that American television stepped up and took the reins from the cinema. It was a fearless declaration of greatness that exploded the potential of the medium. The first time I saw it the world changed, shifted somehow. There were new frames of reference for television, since explored and challenged by The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and others. But that was Sorkin going electric.

  3. Hi James.
    I think you’re just ready to watch this old French film: Le Pari (not the best film ever, but really funny). This is about two friends who want to give up smoking. Here is the scene of the group therapy (sorry for the quality). Allez James, on est tous avec toi “le tabac c’est tabou, on en viendra tous à bout”!

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