The form and function of film speech

Posts Tagged ‘film’

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)

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