The form and function of film speech

Rhythm and Speech in The Conversation

In film dialogue on June 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Music tends to receive more attention than other elements of the soundtrack. But, several scholars of film music have also highlighted dialogue’s musical qualities. In her analysis of Zero de Conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933), Claudia Gorbman provides a good example of how the rhythm of dialogue can be combined with other sounds for expressive effect. Characters speech is timed to intersect with that of a stream locomotive; the acoustic exchange suggesting they are bonding with their environment.

Don Fairservice explains how the presentation of images is somewhat determined by the less flexible timing of recorded sounds:

‘The performances that make up a scene contain speech rhythms that are fundamental to the editing process; they are the least changeable element.’

With its mixture of stresses and variations in pitch, speech (like music) contains its own rhythms and cadences. Screenwriter Christina Kallas similarly argues that musical components, particularly rhythm, is crucial to the screenplay. She stresses the importance of ‘beat’, both as a syncopated pause in the dialogue and as the rhythmic variety within a scene. According to her, the dominant character sets the tempo – the beat belongs to them and a change in it is determined by the change in their emotional state.

David Sonnenschein also argues that pauses and delivery of lines can create as much meaning as the words themselves. Throughout The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) a recording of the line, ‘He’d kill us if he got the chance,’ is repeated and implies the couple is in danger. At the end, the reading shifts from an emphasis on the word ”kill” to the word ”us”, changing the context of who is in danger, to reveal the couple are not the victims but the killers.

 Walter Murch was responsible for both editing and sound design on the film, and it is ”regarded by many as much as the sound designer’s film as Coppola’s.” Murch describes how the two elements worked together to develop the film as both character study and murder mystery:

‘[I]t required a knife edge balance between the two, which are almost contradictory. If you have a murder mystery, the characters are normally subservient to the plot, something that Hitchcock was a master of. Ultimately The Conversation had to be both and there was struggle in the sound and the editing to find the edge and perch on it.’  (Quoted in Walter Murch – The Sound Film Man

Crucially, it is Harry Caul’s flawed listening rather than any technical problem with the recording that cause him to come to the wrong conclusions. As J. Stoever Ackerman notes:

 ”Chasing him through fitful dreams and into confessional booths, the haunting phrase causes Caul to doubt his mission. He begins asking uncomfortable questions—who is paying him? To what end?—and goes on the hunt, obsessively rewinding the tape again and again trying to make some sense out of the voices he has captured as if their recorded traces were technological tea leaves. However, the faith he places in the tape recorder and in its ability to isolate, clean up, and amplify the truth is his ultimate undoing, causing him to ignore the human flaws of his own listening ear.” 


Don Fairservice, Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice; 273.

Claudia Gorbman, Unheard melodies: narrative film music (BFI Publishing, 1987)113-140

Christina Kallas, Creative Screenwriting; 146-7

David Sonnenschein, Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema (Michael Wiesse Productions, 2001) 

Play it Again (and Again), Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film (Part Two on Walter Murch)

Kevin Hilton, Walter Murch – The Sound Film Man


Nonsense and Jargon in the Science-Fiction Film

In film dialogue on June 9, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Siegfried Kracauer (1960) requested that the content of film dialogue be secondary to its aural qualities.

‘[S]tripped of all the connotations and meanings [words] appear to us for the first time in a relatively pure state. Words presented this way lie in the same dimension as the visible phenomena which the motion picture camera captures.’

In order to hear the voice’s ”pure acoustical characteristics,” foreign accents, nonsense sounds and technical jargon can be used ”to release the analytic mindset into a more feeling mode.” Sarah Kozloff uses the science-fiction genre to shows that while such techniques can create memorable, aesthetically rich dialogue, they can just as easily fail. First an example of what works:

A Clockwork Orange: ultra-violent and ultra-verbose

Dialogue is a memorable feature of A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) adopts the made-up dialect of Anthony Burgess’s novel and equals (if not exceeds) the visual style in terms of impact. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) doesn’t just have a penchant for ”ultra-violence”, but for reversed synthax, alliteration and all around terseness:  

Welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, well. To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit? 

 Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures! 

What you got back home, little sister, to play your fuzzy warbles on? I bet you got little save pitiful, portable picnic players. Come with uncle and hear all proper! Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited. 

Kubrick also makes a feature of dialogue in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) – characters seldom speak, but when they do it’s with a flat coldness. In Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott also used neologisms and poetic diction, along with the marked silences: 

[I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those … moments will be lost in time, like tears…in rain. Time to die.  – Roy Batty]

But, overall, the speech in sci-fi has attracted negative attention. In Screening SpaceVivian Sobchack argues that heavy reliance on pseudo-scientific jargon is stultifying, while Susan Sontag describes the dialogue’s ”touching banality” as ”wonderfully, unintentionally funny.” The blogosphere comes to the same conclusion with the 10 Greatest Unintentionally Hilarious Lines from Science-Fiction including “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” (Starcrash); ”Inspector Detector suspected foul play” (Speed Racer) and ”But I was going to Toschi Station to pick up some power convertors.” (Star Wars)

References / Image Source: 

All screencaps from bloodybrilliantmoviecaps

Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Dialogue and Sound’ in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality; Princeton University Press, 1997 (originally published 1960): 102-133

Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (New York: Ungar, 1988) 146–222.

Susan Sontag, ‘The Imagination of Disaster,’ in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) 437

”Any idiot could write voice-over to explain the thought of a character.”

In film dialogue on June 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm

So says screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) in the reflexive Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002). In many ways he’s right; by granting the audience direct access to a character’s thoughts, voice-over avoids the need to carefully craft dialogue and performances to convey the same information discreetly. As Mary Ann Doane (1980) notes, it gives the voice ‘the privileged mark of interiority, turning the body ‘inside-out.’ Calls for more subtle dialogue can be seen as a response to the use of voice-over, which as Michel Chion (2006) notes resurged in popularity in the 1990s.

In fact, voice-over is the single aspect of dialogue with a well-developed body of literature. Much has been written about distinctions between the disembodied voice of the documentary voice-over, that of a character-narrator, and a voice-over that only become attached to a visible body at a particular moment. In ‘The Silences of the Voices’, Pascal Bonitzer (1986) associates the embodied voice with subjectivity and a lack of knowledge, while the disembodied voice typically conveys universality and knowledge. In her gendered analysis of the voice, Kaja Silverman (1988) suggests this synchronization is more fully enforced with female characters – that there are ‘very high stakes’ involved in the alignment of the female voice with the female image. Considering the position of the audience, Silverman make a crucial distinction between their relationship with the internal-monologue voice-over, and the voice-over that consciously tells a story. While the latter is ‘undemocratic’, pulling rank on other characters and the viewer, the interior monologue ‘constitutes a form of auditory mastery’ by transforming the private into the public.

VO and Genre

The association of voice-over with particular genres or sub-genres – film noir; horror; adaptation – has encouraged discussion of its stylistic and narrative function. As Bonitzer points out, the marginal anxiety of the disembodied voice can be used for narrative effect. The Scream series cleverly plays on this by having a single, sinister telephone voice attached to the every killer (a voice-altering machine in the first conveniently explains the premise that is used in all four films).

Joan Copjec (1993) is one of many to consider the significance of voice-over to film noir, noting the association between death and speech. The voice-over is frequently attached to a dead narrator; literally in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), metaphorically in Detour (Edger G. Ulmer, 1945), and virtually in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944).

In his exploration of ‘the image/text relationship,’ W.J. Thomas Mitchell notes that Sunset Boulevard‘s explicit theme is this division between speech and visual representation: A young writer (William Holden) and an ageing screen idol (Gloria Swanson) embody, respectively, the ‘talking pictures’ of new Hollywood and the the silent spectacle of the old. The love-hate relationship between Joe and Norma similarly dramatizes cinema’s conflicted relationship to its parts. We’re still guided through narratives by dead narrators to today. In American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), Lester reflects on his life  from beyond in grave in the style of Sunset Boulevard, while Desperate Housewives dead narrator serves as a omniscient guardian angel for Wisteria Lane. 

(image source)

Why does it attract so much critical attention?

While dialogue in general is privileged on the soundtrack, the controlling monologue style of voice-over makes it more privileged still. Singled out from the rest of the dialogue, the voice-over’s relationship to the images can be compared with relative ease. With dialogue and sound effects more fully integrated into the filmic discourse, understanding their role can require more attention be paid to each element with which they interact.

Voice-overs that assert their independence from the visual track present themselves as the point of discursive origin. As Silverman notes, it inverts the normal sound/image hierarchy. Because voice-over can alter the consistency of the of the diegetic world it is used reservedly – often a narrator will introduce a film and leave once the audience is oriented. In challenging the primacy of the image, the voice-over urges scholars not normally concerned by dialogue to respond.

As the most overt verbal technique, voice-over draws too much attention to itself to go unanalysed. But, the general anti-dialogue bias lead to blind-spots in models of how films work. Sarah Kozloff stresses that this is a serious consequence, since often it is the interaction of visuals and words that permits themes to be conveyed, empathy to be elicited, and narrative causality to be communicated – ‘Ignoring the role of the words has led to overestimation of what viewers understand from the visuals or the editing alone.

Pascal Bonitzer, ‘The Silences of the Voice,’ trans. Philip Rosen and Marcia Butzel. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press; 1986)

Michel Chion, Film, A Sound Art (Coumbia University Press, 2006)

Joan Copjec, Shades of Noir: A Reader (Verso, 1993) 183

Andrew Crisell, Understanding Radio (Methuen, 1986) 138

Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Voice in the Cinema’ (Yale French Studies, 1980) 168

Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1983)

Brian Henderson, ‘Tense, Mood, and Voice in Film (Notes after Genette)’, Film Quarterly 36: 4 (summer 1983): 4-16

Kozloff, Sarah; Overhearing film dialogue (University of California Press, 2000) 14

Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Indiana University Press, 1988) 46

W.J. Thomas Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (University of Chicago Press, 1995)