The form and function of film speech

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Hooked – Dialogue and Narrative Connections

In film dialogue on April 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm


(Storyboard source)

A coherent essay requires paragraphs that flow into one another; if you jump around in your argument then the reader gets lost. The same applies for film. On average, a modern feature has between 30 and 50 scenes and David Bordwell uses the term ‘hook’ to describe the mechanism that tends to link them:

”[T]he audiovisual texture links a specific causal element the end of one scene to that at the very start of the next. The second, in a concrete way, completes the element we see or hear at the end of the first scene.”

He maps out four possibilities, with dialogue key to the first two: A sound can hook to another sound – This generally means that a line of dialogue at the end of scene X directly connects to another line at the start of scene Y. He notes that the test for this type of hook is whether the connection would still be clear if made on the radio.  A sound can hook to an image: Again, scene X typically ends on a line of dialogue, with scene Y starting with an image that is clearly related. The image might be a logical next step – such as someone mentioning they’re hungry and cutting to the image of a sandwich.

Bordwell suggests these are the most common type of hooks. Less common are scenes that end with the image posing the question that the next scene answers, either visually or verbally. See his complete analysis here. Once sound technology began to be incorporated in Hollywood, so too did dialogue hooks. Fritz Lang used sound-to-sound hooks in M (1931). For Lang, completing an idea in the next scene ”not only accelerates the tempo of the film but also strengthens the dramaturgically necessary association of thoughts between two successive scenes.”

Kristin Thompson‘s book Storytelling in the New Hollywood makes countless references to the continued dependence of the narrative on dialogue hooks. She explains how often a character will mention what he is going to do and then will immediately be seen doing it early in the next scene. While dialogue hooks can provide ”strong audiovisual cohesion” (Bordwell) they can also be used to disorient the viewer by connecting things in an unexpected way – with art cinema tending to repurpose this device. Hooks can also be used ironically. In Tootsie (1982), Michael is told he looks too old to play one (adult) part, but successfully auditions for the part of a child in the scene that follows.

Thompson expands on some other ways in which dialogue can be used for narrative development. For example, it can underline a character’s achievement of a goal the narrative has previously set out for them. During the closing scene of Jaws (1975), Martin Brody says ”I used to hate the water.” His fear of the ocean is central to his characterization as a New York cop isolated by his relocation to a new place.

Although Jaws left many viewers with a newfound fear of the sea, Brody’s final line signals that he has conquered the fear that previously separated him from the community. In fact, dialogue is crucial to the film in general; as many commentators note, most of the film is spent talking about the shark. ”Only after tremendously sustained teases and reversals does the title character show up and act precisely as advertised.” (Dan Pratezina)

Conveying plot through narrative can be obvious and awkward. Because filmmakers assume viewers will have lapses in concentration (missing visual and verbal cues in the process) they tend to follow ‘‘the rule of three”; similar information is communicated in three separate ways within a relatively small period of time. For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, three characters warn Clarice about how dangerous Hannibal is.

In addition to creating suspense, this gives the viewer time to build up a mental image of him – one that is subverted since Hannibal’s physical presence is not the norm for a movie serial killer.

Thompson notes how in other cases, the reinforcement may involve an event first being mentioned by a character, then ”we may then see it occur, and other characters may then discuss it.” Appointments constitute a subset of dialogue hooks. A character invites someone to ”dinner on Thursday?” so that when the viewer sees them in a new location they know how much time has passed. Since scenes can jump around in time and space, appointments are a neat way to reorient the viewer.

Dialogue therefore plays an important role in linear cause and effect cinema. Just as images appear in a logical order, dialogue is motivated (in advance or retrospectively) so that, as Thompson notes, ”each event, object, character trait, and other narrative component [is] justified, explicitly or implicitly, by other elements in the film.” Even if viewers are unaware of how scenes are linked, they will grow tired of an over-reliance on standard dialogue hooks. However, used cleverly, they can create unexpected relationship between the the sound and image track.

References / Resources: 

David Bordwell, The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema, January 2008.

Fritz Lang, ”M: An Interview,” Criterion DVD booklet for M (1998), trans. from Gero Gandert interview in Fritz Lang: M-Protokoll(Hamburg: Marion von Schroeder, 1963).

Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, Harvard University Press, 1999.

A brief explanation of ‘Rule of Three


He said, She said: Dialogue and Gender

In film dialogue, gender, Uncategorized on April 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm

 In 1985, comic artist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace came up with what’s now known as The Bechdel Test. In order to pass a film must meet the following criteria:

  1. Include at least two women,
  2. who have at least one conversation,
  3. about something other than a man or men.

The test became renowned because, despite sounding simple, the majority of films don’t pass. Although it reveals a fundamental inequity in cinema’s treatment of women, it’s not enough to ask whether female characters talk about men; their speech in general is fundamentally different. Further questions to consider, include:

  • Do most things they say seem rational or emotional?
  • Do they interpret other characters’ speech correctly?
  • Is what they say undermined?
  • How often are they sarcastic or intentionally funny?
  • How often do they say the ‘winning’ line, the one before the scene cuts?

While obviously there aren’t formal rules to which all female film speech must conform, patterns can be discerned. Lakoff and Tannen (1979) were among the first linguists to consider film dialogue. Their analysis of Scenes from a Marriage (1973) includes some points on gendered dialogue that still apply today. Here is a brief excerpt of their discussion of differing communication style – something on which the 3 hour narrative depends:

 ”Marianne’s style reflects a combination of deference and camaraderie… she puts up a smoke screen of nonstop verbiage made up of impressionistic romanticism or a flurry of questions. Johan’s style, on the other hand, is distancing. He uses sarcasm and irony, pontification, generalization and abstraction.”

Perhaps their crucial point is that ”When one of the partners uses devices characteristic of the other,  s/he is summarily corrected.” Each character has their own style of speech and attempts to switch are never sustained. This can also be seen in contemporary film. In 2 Days in Paris (2007), Marion (Julie Delpy) and Jack (Adam Goldberg) are another bickering couple.

During disagreements, Marion tries to protect Jack’s feelings by changing the subject or telling white lies. He points out flaws in her reasoning and makes cynical comments under his breath. Marion draws direct attention to their differing styles: ”Charming as in charming? Or are you being sarcastic? I can’t tell with you.” Towards the end of the film she attempts a clever put-down during an argument. Rather than being hurt by her words, Jack’s knowing response – ”Not bad” – undermines her attempt to channel his speech, and she quickly returns to being apologetic and expressing emotions above all else.

A similar exchange takes place in Rampart (2011). Woody Harrelson’s character Dave Brown is a bad cop, who lies with ease and pleasure when interrogated about corrupt dealings. Forced to move out of his family home when his behaviour gets out of control, his daughter Helen (Brie Larson) eventually visits him at work.

Their previous exchanges were marked by her guardedness, but here she tells him (with passion and eloquence) of the extensive damage he did to the family. How does Dave respond? Does he apologise? Is he moved emotionally, as the viewer may be? No, he asks how she spent practicing her little speech. Dave doesn’t substantiate Helen’s understandable attack. Like Jack and Johan before him, he gets the ‘winning line’ in this scene, as he does throughout. By implying his daughter couldn’t speak with that much power spontaneously, Dave simultaneously puts the female in her place and strengthens his own position as smooth-talking anti-hero.

References / Resources:


The Bechdel Test: What It Is, and Why it Matters

Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test

Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Deborah Tannen, ‘Communication Strategies in Conversation: The Case of Scenes from a Marriage’, Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society (1979), pp. 581-592

Introduction: there’s more to dialogue than meets the ear

In film dialogue, Uncategorized on April 22, 2012 at 1:20 am

On first consideration, these famous lines from Taxi Driver (1976) are memorable not necessarily because of what Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) says, but because he is alone in his apartment addressing an invisible other. Travis rehearses the lines in search of the delivery with the greatest impact. Actors do this do all the time, both on camera and off. Usually the viewer only sees one take; that which the film-makers deem most appropriate. Because despite how it may seem, Travis is not talking to himself; he’s talking to the viewer – who has a second important role as overhearer. Characters say things for the viewer’s benefit that are redundant in the diegetic world. Writers of film dialogue face more obstacles than a speaker would in reality: their words have to be understood by an audience varying in age, nationality, and educational level. Dialogue design therefore requires hypothetical questions to be answered in advance, so the overhearer isn’t unintentionally confused. If the inferential path is too easy then the dialogue can sound forced or obvious. Interesting dialogue often introduces more aesthetic elements of speech or, as in the case of Travis, is undermined by the corresponding visuals.

Through various repetitions, the viewer gets a preview of the violence to come. While Travis is trying to build himself up psychologically, he is simultaneously undermined in the eyes of the viewer. Regardless of whether he ever utters the words in public, the audience will interpret anything he does say during a confrontation in the context of this rehearsal. Travis’s victim may assume the words are spontaneous and find them threatening, but the viewer knows Travis is less confident in his ability to sound and in turn seem dangerous. With a muddle of everyday kitchen items in the centre of the frame, even the domestic environment is jarring with the criminal persona he tries hard to construct.

In an article on language aesthetics in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Coughlin describes another darkly comic scene in Fargo (1996):

”Shortly after discovering that his wife has been abducted, a feat he engineered himself, Jerry [William H. Macy] tries to contact his father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell), on the telephone:

Jerry: Yah, Wade, I – it’s Jerry, I.

(Then, slightly more agitated.)

Jerry: …Wade, it’s, I, I don’t know what to do…it’s Jean.…. I don’t know what to do it’s my wife
… I don’t know what to do it’s Jean.

Jerry: …Yah, Wade, it’s Jerry, Wade it’s Jerry– we gotta talk, it’s something, aww geez, it’s terrible…

The dialogue is presented as an aural accompaniment to a slow survey of the disturbed household that initially hides Jerry’s presence until an edit eventually reveals his position near the telephone, the viewer at last realizing that Jerry is rehearsing his speech, attempting to produce just the right amount of mock-hysteria and panic to allay suspicion.”

Like in Taxi Driver, the norm of dialogue being addressed from one character to another is subverted. Like Travis, Jerry feels the need to practice his new role of distraught husband out for himself (and the audience) before he makes the phonecall. His sombre expression on arriving home to his burgled house may suggest regret for his actions, but the mock call indicates otherwise; he is dedicated fully to his duplicitous plan. 

Both scenes provides a good analogy for film dialogue in general. Regardless of whom a character seems to be addressing, the viewer should equally ask, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ The answer is yes, particularly when the character’s alone; ‘who the hell else are [they] talkin’ to?’

Watch these scenes:

Fargo’s fake phonecall


Paul Coughlin, ‘Language Aesthetics in three films by Joel and Ethan Coen’, The Film Journal, Issue 12