Silence Is Silver (at Least)

The backlash against The Artist started well before it won Best Picture (and a slew of other Oscars) on Sunday night. “Feel-good lightweight nostalgic bathos,” is the basic idea. I disagree. I think it’s a fantastic movie for a number of reasons, but the one that relates to this blog and which I will talk about today is the sheer pleasure of its (spoiler alert for those who have been on holiday in Papua New Guinea for the past few months) wordlessness.

It’s a common theme bordering on truism of film criticism that what’s truly special about the medium is the stuff that’s nonspoken—the visuals, the music, the sound effects—and that, to some extent, the artistic high water mark of cinema came in the silent era. The director of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius, was quoted earlier this month as saying:

A movie without dialogue is the purest way to tell a story. The audience gets differently involved in the storytelling process. It’s more participatory because they complete the sound and dialogue in their imaginations.

Don’t get me wrong: I get it that at this late date, an almost completely nontalking film like The Artist is a one-off tour de force. However, I submit that the most memorable, gripping, evocative moments in so many films over the years have had few or no spoken words. The crop duster in North by Northwest (and similar scenes in pretty much all of Hitchock’s greatest hits). Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain. Rocky in the ring. Elaine and Ben in the back of the bus in The Graduate. For that matter, the wordless last scene of The Descendants, winner of Best Adapted Screenplay this year. So many vistas and closeups, so much brilliant editing, so many love scenes and fight scenes and chase scenes.

People will talk, and it would be weird for them not to do so in movies. But the tendency in Hollywood is to have them talk in such a profoundly false and uninteresting manner. Screenwriters (pardon me while I grossly generalize) have a poorly thought-out notion of linguistic realism, toward which they reflexively gesticulate while spending most of their attention on advancing the plot or setting up various kinds of commonly accepted payoffs, aka “money shots.” This has led to a whole list of dull things people mainly or only say in movies. In fact, I can peg a screenplay as inept to the extent to which its characters:

  • Address people by their first name.
  • Say “Oh, my god!” in reaction to something surprising or shocking.
  • Ask questions that start with the word “So”—a blatant ploy for plot-advancement or exposition-insertion. “So how are things with Peter?”; “So how is being in a dream within a dream different from being in a dream within a dream within a dream?”

Of course, the game is immediately lost if characters mouth egregious cliches like “It’s not about the [fill in blank], it’s about the [fill in blank]“; “I’d like that” (in response to being asked out on a date); or “What part of [fill in the blank] don’t you understand?” The Web site has a pretty darned good list of the worst 10 screenwriting cliches. (Don’t forget to read the comments, which are worth the price of admission.)

For real, bad movie writing is fun to mock. I think of the scene in The Last Tycoon where Robert DeNiro, playing the Thalberg-like executive, rips a screenwriter for penning the line (in response to “I love you”) “And I you!” The classic quote on this score is attributed to Harrison Ford, who, after being handed a bit of horrible dialogue for one of George Lucas’s Star Wars epics, said (and I clean up his language), “George, you can write this stuff, but you can’t say it.”

So what makes for good movie talking? I’d say there are two ways to go, which I will label the Emily Dickinson and the Walt Whitman (to name two near-contemporaries who never, unfortunately, took a meeting). The Dickinson is more important and prevalent: less-is-more, highly condensed language, in the manner of, yes, poetry. A few years back, the American Film Institute put together a list of the top 100 all-time movie quotes. Nine of the top 10 are one sentence long (I’ll get to the 10th in a minute) and collectively contain only one three-syllable (anymore, referring to not being in Kansas) and 16 two-syllable words (three of which are Mr., DeMille and Frankly, the first word of the top quote).

The other member of the top 10 is an excerpt from the “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. The word speech is key: The movies are fertile ground for monologues that are as long-winded, riveting, rhetorical and untrue-to-life as anything you find in Whitman, or Shakespeare, for that matter. Jack Nicholson on chicken-salad sandwiches in Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson on “the truth” in A Few Good Men, Alec Baldwin on salesmanship in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Bogie on the problems of three little people in Casablanca, pretty much anything Al Pacino has said on-screen, post-Godfather. You get the idea. Dre Rivas of has a fun list of the top 50 movie monologues, including YouTube clips.

Both the Dickinson and the Whitman are wicked hard to pull off. Attempts at the former often result in try-too-hard wannabe catchphrases, and at the latter in self-important stentorian talkiness. I can think of one scene that contains (if not multitudes) both of these forms. It’s from Cameron Crowe’s 1996 Jerry Maguire, a smart and artful movie that’s underrated, I say without pleasure, because of the way it’s structured as a star vehicle for a limited actor. Anyway, the Tom Cruise character is given to speechifying, sometimes to good effect, sometimes not so much, and in a climactic moment he tries to win Renee Zellweger back with his eloquence. You know where I’m going with this. He serves up a soupy mess that ends with the lachrymose “You complete me.” And she comes back with the line that’s number 52 in the AFI list but for my money should have been higher:

“Shut up, just shut up. You had me at ‘hello.’”

Now that’s why the talkies talk.



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