The form and function of film speech

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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