Realism and Dialogue


“God,” declared a girl I once watched Network (1976) with, “who talks like that?” The only right answer is “no one”: the movie was rightly called out on its preposterously verbose dialogue, which nears parody. It is lucky that the next day I watched a John Ford western, with stiff, wooden but somehow believable stock phrases spoken by John Wayne before he shot some cowboys; if not I might have stopped watching films forever. As the girl said to me in an entirely different context later, “Something about this is entirely wrong.”

Fictional conversations in media seem to have decided to stop resembling actual human conversation in any way. In silent films, dialogue was naturally sparse, expressed in brief simple sentences: the majority of the story, by necessity, was told through visuals. This is in many ways more realistic than modern, rapid-fire film dialogue, because life inevitably involves a great deal of silence. Yet “ever since the movies started to talk,” novelist and essayist Gore Vidal explained, “it’s been a writer’s medium.” And with that, much of the silence disappeared, replaced by a perpetual noise of rapid-fire, verbose dialogue unlike that which any human has ever spoken.

The odd thing is that these deviations from reality are systematic: certain tropes of dialogue inevitably return time after time. Think of the habit characters have of saying the other’s names – after someone explains some tragedy in their lives their name will be softly whispered as reassurance:

Bill:      My mother died when I was 8, and I never knew my father; he ran away.
Lisa:    Bill…

I have heard dozens of tragic tales spoken, horrible, traumatic experiences – but not once have I heard someone’s name whispered in response. Who exactly decided a soft whisper of the person’s name was the uniquely appropriate response? The real catch is, of course, that the horrifying stories I’ve been told are deeply-rooted emotional wounds with no neat resolution, which will never cease to hurt and haunt. In the movies, they are “tragic backstories” neatly placed to invoke sympathy, and so the response is also a just laborious boiling of the pot. Usually the first actual response to such a story is silence: a silence that can mean uneasiness as well as sympathy or shock. But when emotional authenticity is discarded, so is authenticity in the dialogue.

Before we turn to more examples of film dialogue, let’s visit, featuring self-reported stories of encounters with annoying customers, a site which has so degraded into parody that it is now hard to take seriously. While it once featured many plausible stories, it soon became overloaded with obviously fake anecdotes. Usually an entirely saintly and polite person, naturally from a minority group, is being harassed by an evil bigot, until the bigot is put in his place with a “zinger” so extraordinary the entire restaurant applauses.  An example:

Customer: Well, that’s the only reason a woman would need a brace like that, if you were on your knees all the time. Only w****s are on their knees all the time.
Friend: *trying not to lose her temper* You do realize, don’t you, that there are a multitude of injuries that would establish a need for this sort of brace?
Customer: How dare you talk back to me, you fat b****! *tries to slap her*
Me: *sneaking up on him and grabbing his wrist* Not to be clichéd, but you owe her an apology.

If a human being has ever actually spontaneously exclaimed “a multitude of injuries that would established a need for this sort of brace” I will recant and at once convert to proto-Indo-European polytheism, but I stand firmly convinced of the opposite. Naturally a hero saves the day by boldly grabbing the customer (a sure way to lose the job!) and ending with a one-liner worthy of a Hollywood movie written by some wise hack – presumably spoken with a self-righteous smirk on their face. What is most fascinating about all these stories (dubbed shitthatdidn’thappen.txt by the Internet) is how they actually seem like screenplays for Quentin Tarantino-like films: the overly verbose protagonist is a dead give-away. Of course the villains are offensive to as many victim groups as possible: homophobia and xenophobia are the bare requisites. Examine this classic, in which paroled prisoners put down bigoted restaurant customers:

Customer 1: No, we’re from that prison up the street. We’re out on parole. Funny coincidence, we all served seven years for kidnapping and murdering a bunch of noisy brats and a jerk who made minimum-wage waitresses cry.
(At this point the kids become very, very quiet and the other patrons start giggling and staring.)
Father: You’re lying.
Customer 4: Wanna take that chance, buddy?

It would hardly be out of place in a new Hollywood pitch about a group of paroled criminals helping clean up a small town full of scum and meanies. One of them would, naturally, marry the waitress later. While people make fun of these supposedly true stories, we accept dialogue entirely like what we just encountered when it is featured in films – why?

Recent action movies more and more feature contrived dialogue that only sounds smart and funny to people who grossly overestimate their comic book-style wit, and think conversation consists entirely of two people attempting to upstage each other with pop culture references and snarky “zingers”. As many have complained, this appears to be the chief content of The Big Bang Theory, but also the main dialogue in for instance The Avengers:

Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.
Steve Rogers: Always a way out… You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.
Tony Stark: A hero? Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!

Who actually talks like that? Apparently these two have the ability to pause time and formulate a perfect comeback, including extensive references.

Naturally, people frequently retort with a smug “Ha, you’re looking for realism in a movie about superheroes!” Yet it should be obvious that the movies have their own internal logic, a logic in which most of the world functions entirely as we know it. It would be preposterous to have the villains disappear mid-battle because of some unexplained space-time anomaly; that would be betraying both the dramatic principles and the established internal logic of the film. Similarly, the human characters behave mostly as we would expect humans to behave in a world in which superheroes are real: that is what keeps them relatable. It is not at all absurd to complain that their dialogue, in this case, is not.

“But Shakespeare,” says the literature student, “has ‘unrealistic’ dialogue too!” It should be mentioned that George Bernard Shaw criticized Shakespeare for his supposed “senseless and silly abuse” of language which, Shaw believes, we become less appreciative of as “our knowledge and grip of actual life beings to deepen and glow beyond the common.” Similarly, Tolstoy complained all of Shakespeare’s characters “live, think, speak, and act quite unconformably with the given time and place.” “All his characters speak,” continues Tolstoy, “not their own, but always one and the same Shakespearian, pretentious, and unnatural language, in which not only they could not speak, but in which no living man ever has spoken or does speak.” Ultimately we admit that Shakespeare bends circumstances to his own dramatic world – that the world King Lear inhabits has never existed, and that no one speaks or will ever speak as him. But once that is accepted the play still stands and stands strong. Movies like the Avengers fall flat once such admissions have to be made: they work no longer once the suspension of disbelief is finally and entirely broken. They don’t create a rich new world, but rely on our understanding of the existing one.

In any case, there is a great irony in all of the common rapid-fire wit film dialogue: while the audience can fantasize about formulating a zinger against a bigot so outstanding that the mayor will give them a key to the city (“Ha, my quick wit left that stupid haver of sex jock sputtering in indignation!”), they actually speak mostly to entirely reasonable people much like themselves. And there is no fast spoken exchange of wits: only awkward, stunted, stilted and uneasy banter, replete with pauses and misunderstanding. I believe it damages man by removing him from his actual self: and in this case as in every the well of art is poisoned at its spring.

Romantic dialogue from the movies is even worse, so much so that there are numerous infamous examples:

Anakin: You are so… beautiful.
Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.
Padmé: So love has blinded you?
Anakin: [laughs] Well, that’s not exactly what I meant.
Padmé: But it’s probably true.

While this dialogue from Star Wars has been infinitely mocked, it remains no less notable that a movie that earned so much should have dialogue to preposterous, unnatural and false. In fact, romances in otherwise praised movies, infamously shoe-horned in, are full of ludicrous romantic dialogue. Especially the “pick-up scene”, where the characters first meet, often stretches the limits. I suppose that is what you get when older men, who have long settled down and married, write cool, attractive college-aged bachelors of the kind they never even met.

As Jeff Jeackle says in his introduction to the book Film Dialogue, “study of dialogue has … suffered from a persistent devaluing of speech as a trivial mode of communication”; even within serious study of film, dialogue has been continuously neglected. Additionally, “most directors seem to have given up on dialogue,” noted Gore Vidal, “in favor of moving the images very quickly in order to create a spurious sense of motion, which is not the same thing as narrative.” With no support from the scholars, and an increasing emphasis on visual spectacle over simple human drama, it is hard to find natural conversation. Jeackle also noted a strange paradox: while film quotes are shared all over, writing dialogue is a neglected art. He concluded that “snippets of film dialogue are often one-liners that are chosen for their pithy portability, not for their subtle characterisations or narrative import” – the Hollywood one-liner is the epitome of film dialogue, something “cool” for a trailer that has little to do with life as it is actually lived.

Yet this is not to say that the lack of sensible dialogue is something endemic to Hollywood only. Vidal, who worked in Hollywood for a long time and was also involved in Italian film productions, saw ineffective dialogue abroad too:

The Italians make silent movies, then they add a lot of noise they take to be dialogue. As a result, few Italian directors know anything about dialogue or how to tell a story— in Italian, much less in English. This is true even of the master, Fellini. When it comes time to make the English version, he calls in that dreadful au pair girl from Finland who is supposed to know English very well. “Yez,” she says. “I know verry well the Eenglish.” Then ten bad actors in Rome do the dubbing.

Film is a complicated medium, with many elements colliding; dialogue simply suffers often. When dialogue is so consistently undervalued, it ultimately serves little purpose beyond explanation – the famous “expository dialogue”, only there to inform the viewer of some important facts before the action continues. If exposition is not seamlessly integrated into the dialogue, it will ruin the suspension of disbelief. Observe this line from the video game Final Fantasy VIII, pointed out by a friend of mine:

Ward: Hey, aren’t we here to fight a war?
You know, against the almighty Timber army?

This line, spoken in a flashback, was written to explain where the characters actually were in the past. Imagine actual soldiers going “Hey, aren’t we here to fight a war? You know, against the terrorists from ISIS?”

The worst is that it is easy to find fine dialogue in plays – strangely enough movies actually actively subvert the dialogue when those plays are adapted. When David Mamet sold the rights to his successful play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the Hollywood method was demonstrated beautifully. Such a title could, of course, not stand, so the movie adaptation was renamed to About Last Night…. Most importantly, a final act was added: the original play, ending with the failure of a relationship, was far too realistic and did not support the uplift. Instead, in the movie the couple decide they do love each other, and they walk away, happily ever after, with their hands locked. But there is another notable change: the dialogue was substantially rewritten, and not for the better. While usually early romantic conversation is a little awkward (but charming in its own disarming way), in Hollywood couples speak armed with a dictionary:

Bernie: You know something Joan, if you didn’t have a pussy there’d be a bounty on your head.
Joan: And you are a schizophrenic, psychopathic, maladjusted social misfit who is clearly in the middle of a very deep homosexual panic.
Bernie: So you want to dance or what?

Which woman would have such a precisely calibrated list on the tip of her tongue? Certainly nobody has that in David Mamet dialogue, which, while occasionally overstepping the bounds of realism in service of the rhythm, is certainly not half-way as contrived as that. Here is a representative sample from American Buffalo:

Teach: […] A fucking roast-beef sandwhich. (To Bob.) Am I right? (To Don.). Ahh, shit. We’re sitting down, how many times do I pick up the check? But (No!) because I never go and make a big thing out of it – it’s no big thing – and flaunt like ‘This one’s on me’ like some bust-out asshole, but I naturally assume that I’m with friends, and don’t forget who’s who when someone gets behind a half a yard or needs some help with (huh?) some fucking rent, or drops enormous piles of money at the track, or someone’s sick or something …
Don: …  (to Bob) This is what I’m talking about.

The grammar is imperfect, the sentence is unfinished and interrupted by the other speaker, the emphases is unnatural, stop-words are interjected every other line, and it is nothing like writing. It is conversation, and believable conversation. Mamet wrote he was a stupid kid when he sold Sexual Perversity in Chicago; he never made the same mistake again. American Buffalo was faithfully adapted to the screen, as was the widely acclaimed Glengarry, Glenn Ross, which Mamet adapted himself.

What film dialogue often misses is that pausing is one of the most salient features of actual, ordinary conversation. In order to create suspense, tension or simply get the movie rolling along at a comfortable pace, this reality is left out. Annie Baker, the playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize last year, is known for including controversial pauses within the dialogue she writes. Yet she is obsessed with realism in dialogue: as a child she secretly recorded people speaking to get an idea of the way people actually converse. Today such an experiment would be equally helpful to most writers. Her Pulitzer Prize winning play The Flick, about three employees at a rundown movie theatre in downtown Worcester, MA, was in part praised for its simple, authentic conversations:

Sam: Do you find Rose attractive?
Avery: Wait – do I find –
Sam: Yes. Rose.
I feel like you guys have kind of a flirty antagonistic banter thing going on.
Avery: I mean uh – I don’t know. No. Not really.
Sam:    Not really?
Avery: No. I mean no.

Sadly a man of my age often has to answer such a question, and it goes not unlike this: notice the pause, the uncertainty, the uneasiness. If it was rewritten for a screenplay it might have become:

Sam: Tell me big boy, do you have the hots for Rose?
Avery: I have the hots for mid-90s Carmen Electra, Black Widow, and a modern 60 inch 3D television.  For Rose? – lukewarm appreciation, like a niece or a neighbor’s cat.

Cue fistbump and ironic repartee.

Sometimes I am inclined to think like Samuel Lipman, music critic and publisher of the New Criterion, who was once asked by his friend Joseph Epstein why he rarely mentioned movies or television. “’Oh, I consider movies and television,’ he said, rather casually, ‘dog shit.’” Then I think of people who can write good dialogue, or, better yet, do not need it, and am again at ease.

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