Jul 10, 2012

So the Second Fish Says, “Nothing”

“Rectum? Damn near killed ‘em!”

It’s odd, considering the number of times I’ve heard that line in a movie, I’ve never actually heard the full joke that leads up to it. I’m assuming at this point that the joke will never live up to the amusement its mere punch line has evoked in countless repetitions across so many mediums. In fact, that single line of dialogue has made its way into a lot of movies and books, as a sort of catch-all for “we join this amusing conversation, already in progress”, so often that it has come to represent more than just a punch line. It has come to represent the notion that an entire conversation has gone on already, filled with humorous anecdotes and likely some degree of heavy drinking between erstwhile comrades. Plus, you’re left with a feeling that you’ve missed out on something, like some interesting bit of revelatory substance has occurred, and you just missed it.

Strange, that a silly punch line from what I can only assume to be a slightly off-color joke can accomplish so much.

Dialogue is a funny thing like that. It can do so much with so little to evoke copious amounts of reference and inference, fleshing out characters and settings with very little apparent heavy lifting. It is, I have found, the culmination of the old writer’s axiom of “show, don’t tell,” even though, when you think about it, it’s really doing a little bit of both.

One of my favorite pastimes is watching movies, and, for me, there are really only a few things I require of my cinematic experience: good characters (and the actors who play them), good soundtracks, quality cinematography, a decent story that’s good enough to make me ignore any plot holes that might be present, and, if there’s any room left in the budget for it, engaging dialogue. (If you look carefully, you might recognize why I’m a fan of most Steven Soderbergh or Aaron Sorkin projects.) In fact, if you can nail the perfect dialogue in a movie, I could generally care less about what else the movie plans on doing. 

Dialogue. By itself, it’s a pretty fascinating literary device – its history and development as a means for the conveyance of larger concepts is fascinating. Did you know its etymology? It’s from the Greek word “dialogos”, which literally translates to “dual meaning”, or “the two-way flow of meaning”. That adds a nice heft to the word, don’t you think? Back in college, I had the idea of dialogue described to me through an metaphor of painting; that the finished product is as much a result of the eye, arm and hand of the painter as it is the consistency of the paint, the hairs of the brush and the texture of the canvas. In a dialogue, we have the two (or more) persons involved in the conversation, their minds that conceive of the motivating principles that generate the emotions behind the words, the words themselves and the ears of the other(s) involved – lather, rinse, repeat. Essentially, what is being said is only partially literal – a conversation tells you more about the persons saying the words than it does anything else on its own. But, even by itself, that is a Big Truth Worth Reading.

One of the projects I’ve been working on lately is a script, and has resulted in one of the most fascinating studies in the power of conversation I’ve had in a while. With only a small allowance for blocking instructions, the rest of the writing is all conversation. Character A says this. Character B says this. The occasional adjective for emphasis, and that’s it. Can a story be told with only dialogue?

Well, in point of fact, yes. But for this to happen, the words have to mean something. As I said before, I love movies – and at the risk of getting Judgy Face from you, I’ll admit to a certain weakness for “comic book adaptations”. And no, I’m not just saying “superhero movies”, I mean comic book adaptations. While this includes the obvious films like “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight”, it also includes films like “Tank Girl”, “Book of Eli”, “Sin City”, and “The Walking Dead”. Unfortunately, it also includes movies like “The Amazing Spider-man”.

The recent Spider-man movie kind of hurt my brain, much in the way an out-of-tune piano hurts my ears.  I mean, it was so close to being a good movie, but so many little things flicked my inner child in the ear that, eventually, it just failed. Initially, it was difficult for me to point my finger to the place where the film hurt me – the cast was mostly brilliant, the special effects were mostly good, the music wasn’t bad, either. The story was riddled with holes (honestly, I’m just not the sort who’ll look for those in a movie. If I see them, you already lost me. Just for future reference, kay?), and there were a couple moments where I very nearly stood up and left the theater. One of these involves construction cranes, and both involve scenes with C. Thomas Howell.

But what killed it for me was the lack of good conversation. Now, again, for much of it I have to admit it was good, though I’d have to credit the actors for managing to deliver pretty awkward dialogue. But the line that shoved a pencil through my cold, black, heart was the jumbled wreck of line delivered by Uncle Ben to a struggling and confused Peter Parker. I can’t even now remember exactly how the line went, but I know what the line was supposed to be. He was supposed to be telling Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s a wonderful line. It’s meaty and full of promise. It weighs on you, gives you a lot to ponder. For the purposes of the story, it’s the reverberating meaning that gives direction to a fledgling Spider-man, and carries him through tragedy into becoming a fantastic hero, worthy of storytelling. But rather than use that line, the writer and director decided to NOT use the line, and cobbled together a half-hearted cheap red haired stepbrother of a conversation, for no other conceivable reason than to just not use the line from the book.

To me, that’s like doing a production of Hamlet and having the titular character at one crucial moment ponder aloud, “Jeez, should I live or die? Hmm. I don’t really have an answer to that.” It is substantive dialogue, and its absence will be felt; like a gaping pothole directly in your path.

At the same time, cutting out essential matter isn’t the only way to fail. Remaining too true to the source material can also kill a project twice dead.

The thing that some people fail to accept is that comic books are not movies. They have teeny tiny conversational bubbles that, for the purposes of accompanying a panel of art, serve as micro-tweets from the characters. They’re confined to space and the writer has to bear this in mind, trimming away the fat to ensure that the most essential matter gets through.

(Unless you’re Brian Michael Bendis, of course, in which case screw convention and tack on five hundred speech bubbles, because by god this conversation is gonna be played out exactly as conceived and no limitation on space is gonna get in the way!)

This becomes a clearly challenging balancing act, between remaining true to the stories and knowing where to add and subtract to make the stories effective, and, most importantly, knowing how the characters talk to one another.

Joss Whedon understands this, as one recent example has shown. Take his recent adventure, “The Avengers”, and strip away the comic book elements – no superpowers, no gamma radiation, no space gods. Imagine the movie being told as a gang of individuals being brought together to help a large company be saved from a hostile corporate takeover. Think of the tone, the dialogue, the pacing. It all still works, every last bit of it, because even though all these characters hold unimaginably potent forces at their beck and call, they talk like real people.

Well, they talk like really cool people. But you get my meaning.

Whedon also succeeds in the way in which he takes expectations and yoinks them to the side just as you get comfortable. He takes conversational tropes and tweaks them just at the last minute, so every fast ball becomes a curve ball and every slow ball speeds past the plate at the last moment.

Captain America: “Is everything a joke to you?”

Tony Stark: “Funny things are.”

Or, in a larger context, the entire conversation between Loki and Natasha/Black Widow. It stops being just words and turns into a slow-motion Bruce Lee exchange of verbal parries and jabs until…well, I don’t want to give it away, assuming you’re one of the few people alive who hasn’t yet seen the movie.

I almost want to add a counterpoint, here, by mentioning movies that suffered from a pronounced failure of strong dialogue and writing, but there’s just so many. I’ll just cough and mutter under my breath that three good examples of bad writing were prequels, and happened a long, long time ago. Sorry, George, I have to be bold, much as it pains me.

In a perfect world, additional emphasis would be placed on the scripting (specifically the dialogue, but they don’t have to stop there) for future comic book adaptations. But let’s be clear, here. Any movie – any book, any play, any written work involving dialogue of any kind – could take a strong lesson from what makes the movie enjoyable in any lasting manner. Save a million off the top of your special effects budget or your swollen actor pay and invest in a strong script. Seriously. Its dividends will be monumental.

It doesn’t matter how many explosions come bursting out of the screen, if the words coming out of the actors’ mouths isn’t similarly well-written, all you have is eye candy.

Granted, it’s very expensive eye candy.


Leon Davis said...

You state "The thing that some people fail to accept is that comic books are not movies." with the seemingly monthly release of a comic book movies Hollywood would beg to differ!

Ren Cummins said...

No, you're absolutely correct. But I think the part they don't always get is that they can't simply translate effortlessly to the screen. The dialogue, the pacing, the character development - to be performed effectively, they're generally done differently in comic books and in movies. Granted, a lot of contemporary writers and artists in comic books are creating work that is far more cinematic than the Golden Age comics, but unfortunately those aren't the comics that always get used as reference material.

And on a side note, I'm really quite done with all the origin story movies.