The form and function of film speech

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

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