Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Necessity of Dialogue

Before I start, lets get something straight:
I think dialogue is very important to films. It explains plot, creates character development, and allows the audience to have form a bond with the characters (which is possibly the most important thing a film can do, but that is a later post). However, what I disagree with is the necessity of dialogue.

Basically, if you can’t create a movie without talking, you shouldn’t be in the business at all.
Now, that sounds harsh, (and it is). But its no less true because of that. I believe that a film should be told through the body language of characters and their actions. Those two things should always be able to tell a story by themselves. Too many films use dialogue as a crutch to simply hold themselves up, when it should be used to as a car, by which the dialogue moves the story along smoothly and quickly. But the point of that metaphor is that dialogue is a luxury, and therefore can be done without.
I am a firm believer that films should be built from the characters up. Characters should find their personality, voice, and then words, in that order. That allows the reactions of the characters to tell the story to the subconscious while the dialogue tells it to the conscious. That might sound ridiculous, but acting is all about feeling the characters, and then hearing them. At least, that’s what I think.
Regardless, dialogue is a luxury that should be taken advantage of. But it should be treated as such, and not as a necessity.


  1. When I think of the idea of a film without dialogue I think of old silent films, but even those had dialogue. They just didn't have the capability of using audio, so instead they had title cards. I understand what you're trying to get at about getting the message across through personality and emotion and what the viewer feels about the characters and situations, but when it comes to a narrative story I disagree that dialogue isn't a necessity.

    Having no dialogue is great for an experimental short or something where it is only the theme or mood of the piece that matters, something with more loose interpretations from the viewer. When it comes to a narrative, however, I think that you cannot always push the story forward like it needs to be without having exposition. Even if we wanted to say that it is technically "possible" to narrate without words I would still say that doing so takes a lot of the entertainment and emotional connection with the story away. If the bad guy doesn't tell me why he wants to destroy the world then I really don't care about why the good guy needs to defeat him.

    Dialogue is a tool, but in the same way you would never say that you can make a film without lighting (because even no light is a type of light) you cannot make a narrative without dialogue in some way.

  2. Most films use dialogue as crutch, allowing poor acting to be tolerable simply because the writer is good. If a person cannot show his emotions through his facial expressions and actions, then he isn't worth much in the realm of acting. A narrative can be done without dialogue, but it requires a lot more work.

  3. I think it all depends on the strengths of a particular filmmaker. Some films have breathtaking cinematography or heavy themes that override talking. The theatrical release of Blade Runner was ruined by the infamous voice over. Dialog has its place, sure. But that place is integral to film making and storytelling in general.

    Characters are defined not just by what they do, but also by what they say and how they say it- from the script their vocabulary, their dialect, their word choice, and from the actor/director their inflection, body language used to accentuate what they say, etc. Blade Runner without the "tears in rain" speech is just as bad as Blade Runner burdened by having a clunky, overblown voice over. It's about balance. It's all important.

    Dialog can be an art in and of itself, too. It can reach you on both a conscious and subconscious level. It's not just talking. A good film is a created universe and a sort of hyper reality where all things are intentional and are selected with a purpose. Dialog isn't somehow exempt from that. It's harder to make a movie without it because of how integral it is to the process and how much love can be put into it.

    Half of the "cool" and memorable nature of Tarantino's best movies comes from the dialog. Half of the fun and subtlety in witty comedies and old noir movies are the references, double entendres, quick jokes, and layers in dialog. Two people in a room talking can be fascinating if it's properly written. I mean, I loved Buried, and the whole movie is one guy in a box.

    There are just so many ways for an artist to communicate an idea, and expressing ideas through the words of characters or just generally being artful and poetic with how characters speak is a part of it. I agree with Hunter Furnish- saying dialog is extraneous is like saying that good lighting is a luxury or that closeups are a crutch. It's all part of a complex whole.

    Obviously, contrived expository dialog that runs on too long or dumb cliched voice overs or just general techniques that tell rather than show are weak. So is relying on flashy, lazy camera movements or quick cuts in editing or overblown special effects to distract from a poor script. It doesn't mean all camera techniques, editing techniques, and sfx are bad.


  4. I think my problem is with the connection between possible and necessary. It's possible to do most anything, especially in the realm of film, but that doesn't make things necessary or unnecessary. It's possible to make a film work without dialogue, but that doesn't mean dialogue is an unnecessary tool. I would argue that even though it's possible it probably wouldn't be very entertaining or logical, and most audiences might not be able to follow.

    It's possible to write a story set in the Star Wars universe, say, without any action scenes, but let's be honest, a Star Wars movie without action would be boring and stupid. Hence, action scenes are "necessary" to a Star Wars tale. Likewise with dialogue. Dialogue is necessary to the form of film, even if choosing to not have very much of it is the best use of it.

  5. What I am saying is that if you cannot make a good film without dialogue, you have no business being the business. Maybe thats a bit arrogant, but that, to me, is building a film from the ground up.

  6. Ah, see, that gets more into the discussion of what skills you should have to be in film. You see film as an art form whereas I see it more as an industry. Combination of the two. That's a different debate, though, that should be left for future blog posts!

  7. Honestly, I do think it's kind of arrogant. How is it different from saying someone is a bad filmmaker if they can't get by without any other element of film making? What's essential varies from movie to movie, but I still think it all has its own value. It doesn't seem very different from saying that you should be able to make an amazing movie without a soundtrack or without controlled lighting or without using more than a single take... it just seems strange to me, especially because human beings express so much in what they say. It's integral to how we communicate, so why isn't it integral to how characters in movies based on us communicate, too?

    Maybe I just value language as an art form/as a big part of film more than you? Taking dialog out of a movie that uses it well is handicapping it- it's gonna cause a deficiency and it's gonna lose so much subtlety and finesse and emotion. That doesn't mean whoever made it uses it as a crutch or is bad at making movies. Disallowing dialog in a movie that needs it is like taking the killer out of a horror movie or the high-strung intensity out of a thriller. Of course it won't be as good :/

    And I don't see industry and art form as mutually exclusive. Big movies are investments for studios, yeah, but there's no denying that a huge number of artists work on and influence each of them. Haha but yeah different debate

  8. I'll post this last comment, then we'll keept it for later.

    I'm not disallowing dialogue. What I am saying is that people should be able to understand what the characters are going through (therefore, the story) through facial expressions and actions.

    I value language. Its not like I'm picketing libraries and burning grammar text books. I'm saying that if a person cannot find a way to express himself without the use of language, that particular person doesn't have a firm grip on how to express certain things. I am by no means an expert, but if you go back to silent films, you see what I am talking about. Charlie Chaplin was hilarious and enjoyable, with no dialogue; only action and facial expressions. Dialogue makes movies much better than they were before. But a story can still be told without it.

  9. What if the story is too complex to be told through body language alone? Is a foreign film in a language you don't speak bad if it's so complex that you don't really get it without subtitles? I firmly believe that some stories could be told without dialogue, but not all of them.

    If I'm going too far with any of this I apologize but I really enjoy debating this sort of thing and could go on for a while lol

  10. Industry and art aren't exclusive, I spoke poorly, but yeah different debate.

    And you're not going too far. Debates like this are exactly what we want to happen on these posts! Just make sure to always keep things fair and respectful and it can go on forever. Tomorrow David will be posting his first blog on a new topic, so we'll have something else to talk about. Not that we can't keep on here!

    It's an interesting idea, I think, to experiment by watching a foreign film without any subtitles so that the dialogue is useless to you, and seeing whether or not you can not only still keep up with what is happening but also still be invested in the story and characters. My big thing in this whole issue is that the ability to tell a story without words is pointless if you cannot tell a story that is meaningful, interesting, entertaining, so on.

  11. A story can be told that is interesting and engaging without dialogue. Not every story, but most of them.

  12. I'll be civil, haha C:.

    I'd watch a foreign film without subtitles, but I'd miss so much finesse no matter what (unless it was incredibly simple) and what if I liked it and could have seen it and understood it but now it's spoiled/ruined and and and...

    Most of them? Really?

    Any of these movies, sans dialog- The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction, Airplane!, Clerks, The Big Sleep, and The Godfather. Maybe some of the core story is there.

    But. BUT. Films aren't all about story. What happens in Clerks (spoilers)? Two friends hang out, drive around, play hockey, an old man dies. Is that what it's about as a film, though?

    The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski have bizarro, convoluted plots. But that's not what they're about, either.

    I don't think I'll be able to convince you. But I love dialogue and see it as integral to film.

    For example, how do you tell a complicated political story sans dialogue without simplifying it outside out of something as cliched and tired as WAR IS BAD.?

  13. Like, in Lebowski, The Dude hates The Eagles and loves CCR. This is a cultural thing that ties into him having protested Vietnam, it ties into what era he's from, his use of drugs, who he is as a person and as an American... and he's tired from his ordeal and is suffering another indignity, so he reacts strongly (in his words), then the cab driver gets so mad and stops and shoves him out. It's a sort of cultural conflict and a funny moment and another misfortune falling upon The Dude.

    How do you play this scene without words, or without the lines in the music in the movie? How could you have the same impact? WHY would you want to take the dialog out of this scene? etc.

  14. At the risk of sounding frustrated, I didn't say that dialogue didn't enrich and turn a movie into a film. The story of a film can be told without it. I didn't say it would be epic or fantastic, just that it can be told.

    The core of a film is to tell a story. A story can be told without dialogue, especially in the medium of film. Would Pulp Fiction be as epic without dialogue? Hell no. But it can be told. I think Bruce Willis pausing in the pawn shop, then looking through weapons to pick which one highlights my point. That scene was fantastic without dialogue.

    Dialogue is integral to making a story beautiful, but a story can be simple by not using dialogue. Functionality is not beauty, however.

  15. Think Marcellus and his medieval line right after. It's just as integral. It would not be the same.

    What's the point of simplistic functionality? Film is art.

  16. Simplistic things can be extraordinarily beautiful. Paul Klee, for example, painted in the Primitive style. Does that not make it art because it is, in a word, simple?

    Simple can be beautiful.

  17. It can be.

    I just don't see complexity as a luxury. Some things need complexity to be properly expressed.

    And I'm unfamiliar with Klee's work, but to me it honestly doesn't seem more "simple" than anything similar or, honestly, certain ~realistic~ pieces I've seen. It looks like he spent a lot of time on them- they're pretty intricate and interesting.

    Painting is kind of different, too, in that it's one frame. You can tell a story if you really want to, but it's more about making an impact with one still image than telling a moving, talking story over two hours. It's harder to be complex, or to express a lot of things at once.

    Don't get me wrong, I love paintings and I've been influenced by a lot of artists who worked in the medium, but it's a different medium. Like, Goya's The Third of May 1808 or Picasso's Guernica- they're amazing, there's so much pain and detail in them about the brutality and indignity of war. But you need context to fully understand them, there are no characters outside of "scared guy" or "crushed person", there's no big theme apart from WAR IS BAD. They're stunning pieces of fine art, but they're limited by their medium. They're beautiful and complex in some ways and simple in others. But they're paintings.

  18. The idea of the painting is simple, but the work is complicated. Same as creating a film with no dialogue. It can be done, and be done beautifully.