Saturday, August 13, 2011

When dialogue reigned supreme?

Recently Dan Bloom posted a piece on The Wrap titled "When Movies Once Mattered- And Dialogue Reigned Supreme," which laments the current state of screenwriting and yearns for the "good old days" of the 30's, 40's and 50's. The movies Bloom waxes nostalgic for were the ones he'd seen while working at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington. I'd like to offer a counterpoint to his opinion, but first a representative sample of Bloom's piece for those who don't feel like clicking the link and reading the whole thing:
Movies aren't just the same anymore. Well, of course not, and we all know that. But one thing that has changed much more than the movie technology or the digitalization wizardry or the special effects is the way movies were written.
Repeat: written.
In the old movies, dialog reigned supreme. Words mattered. Sure, plot was important, and character development and story arc and act three and the denouement, but what stood out in almost every old movie I saw at the AFI in those days was the writing, the dialog.
The conversations always sizzled. Whoever the writers were -- and some were famous novelists, others unknowns that toiled in the early days of Hollywood -- they knew how to create movie dialog.
He finishes his piece in top crotchety-old-man form, something he at least acknowledges self-deprecatingly:
Words winged off the screen! Conversations conversed! Wit reigned! Movies mattered.
I'm almost 100 years old now. It's getting late, and it's getting dark outside.
Sure, I'm kidding, but in a way, I'm not. Movies once mattered, and they still do, sure, but now they have other considerations. It's a different ballgame now, and the writers have
long retired to the clubhouse to gloat and to gripe.
Cinema paradise has been replaced by movie muggles. Am I getting old or did the world just pass me by?
The problem with his logic is that he's comparing the average movies of today (presumably; he actually doesn't offer any examples of the movies today that bother him) with the classics of the 30's, 40's and 50's. If a film was being screened at the AFI, then it was a movie that had already been selected and remembered as a great movie; not because it was necessarily a representative sample of movies from that era. The movies Bloom was watching were the acknowledged cream of the crop. Of course they had great writing.

I would argue that there was just as much poor writing in movies then as now. The old movies that still get watched are the good ones (or the ones that so bad as to develop cult status). In the era of Netflix, with thousands of titles just a click away, its easy to forget that the majority of old films are out of print, have never been released on video and are unavailable. Many of them were even blockbusters in their day, but were mediocre at best and have not stood the test of time (usually; there are of course a few great films that have slipped down the memory hole as well, but I'd be willing to bet they are far outnumbered by more middling to poor quality fare). Most of these movies are long forgotten, and so their loss is rarely mourned. Fifty years from now, I bet no one will remember the existence of Transformers: Dark of the Moon or lament its unavailability. However, the great movies being produced now will stick around.

Even many bonafide classics can still have clunky dialogue. Here's a gem of a scene from the "golden" 30's:

                         Yes. I'm - I'm awfully excited.
                         It's all so strange, and I've never
                         been on a ship before.

                         And I've never been on a ship with
                         a woman before.

                         I guess you don't think much of
                         women on ships, do you?

                         No. They're a nuisance.

                         I'll try not to be.

                         You got in the way already. Better
                         stay below.

                         What! The whole voyage!

                         Say, I didn't apologize very good
                         for hitting you. That was an awful
                         sock in the jaw.

               Driscoll stares at her.

                         Well, we're off.

                         We're off.

Can't you just sense the will-they-or-won't-they chemistry between these two? Because after just a few more scenes (and some more great clunkers, like "Aw, you're swell. Women can't help being a bother. I guess they're made that way."), here's where they've arrived in their relationship:

                         When I think what might have
                         happened today -- if anything
                         happened to you.

                         Why then you wouldn't be bothered
                         with a woman on board.

                             (very staccato)
                         Don't laugh. I'm scared for you.
                         I'm sort of - I'm scared of you,
                         too. Ann, I -- I guess I love you.

               They look at each other, both startled by this conclusion.

                         Jack! You hate women!

                         You aren't -- women. I love you.
                         Ann, I don't suppose -- you don't
                         feel like that about me -- do you?

               Ann looks at him soberly for a moment, then takes a step

The movie in question went on to become the highest grossing film of 1932, was critically acclaimed then and now and was placed on the AFI's list of 100 Greatest Movies.  The film is, of course, King Kong. Its a classic (one of my all-time favorite movies, actually), but that's in spite of its dialogue rather than because of it (the one exception being the great final line, "No, it wasn't the aeroplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.") Without the amazing special effects of Willis O'Brien (and the the humanity he was able to give the animated Kong), King Kong would be just another long-forgotten bad movie.

This is a movie where a giant ape beats up dinosaurs. It doesn't need to be Shakespeare.

My point is not to pick on Kong but to point out that it is unfair to expect movies to be something they're not. There are some films that depend on witty banter and well-written dialogue. And then there are popcorn films. To let Kong stand as representative of 30's dialogue would be absurd. It would be equally absurd to judge the quality of todays' writing by only looking at the glut of superhero CGI-fests. If one wants well-written dialogue and smart characterization, one won't expect to find it in a ridiculous movie about aliens battling the navy that is allegedly based on a plotless board game. But, contrary to Bloom's opinion, there are plenty of well-written movies being made today.

Everything about this makes my head hurt.

Just look at the top two Oscar front-runners last year: The Social Network and The King's Speech. These are two movies that consist of hardly anything but people talking. And in both the dialogue is fantastic. The opening scene of The Social Network, to name just one great scene out of many, is a screenwriting concerto with enough wit to rank alongside anything written in the era "when dialogue reigned supreme."

These two films (both of which were critical and commercial successes) are hardly alone. Of course anything with CGI robots will a make a gazillion dollars, but if you look past the popcorn films to the many critically-acclaimed and award-winning movies released each year, you'll find one common denominater: they're all well-written. In my humble opinion, some of the greatest screenwriters of all time are currently practicing their craft and near the top of their game. Anyone who thinks the age of great movie dialogue is over needs to look long and hard at any of the movies written in the last ten years by screenwriters such as the Coen brothers, Aaron Sorkin, Paul Thomas Anderson, Woody Allen, Michael Arndt, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, Diablo Cody or Charlie Kaufman.

The field of master dialogue craftsmen opens up considerably when you consider television as well. TV, it is often proclaimed, is much more of a writer's medium. A few years ago one could get their great dialogue fix by watching The West Wing, The Office (lets face it, the early seasons were better) Deadwood, or Gilmore Girls; today the torch of excellent writing is being carried by shows like Mad Men, 30 Rock, Community, the BBC'c Sherlock and [insert your favorite dialogue-heavy television show here; I'd be able to name more examples except I hardly watch any current TV shows].

Movies never ceased to matter and dialogue still reigns supreme. Watching old classics, it only seems that something has been lost since time has filtered all but the most memorable movies. For every His Girl Friday or Sweet Smell of Success that came out during dialogue's supposed "golden age," there were dozens of poorly written films, many of which have been long forgotten.

Decades from now, when the AFI screens The Social Network, someone will say, "Boy, they just don't write movies like they used to.

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