July 19, 2011

Who needs dialogue anyway?

In film school, we usually learn to shoot without dialogue.  Historians nostalgically look back to the silent era.  Purists, like Hitchcock, have complained that today’s movies are too talky.

But aren’t we a bit hard on dialogue?  Even Eisenstein, the famous Russian formalist known for his silent “montage”, saw it’s uses.

My interest in dialogue goes back to the old days when I read plays.  Most people think of a screenplay, or a film script, as the story and the dialogue.

I tried showing films in a foreign language, and have found that children over 5 tend to complain.  (Children under five, however, seem satisfied with cartoons in foreign languages.)

When I watch a film in a foreign language, even if it’s a language I know well (like French), subtitles in English will distract me.  I’ll find myself reading the subtitles and perhaps missing some of the action.

With this reliance on dialogue, I start to think that maybe the purists are being a bit eccentric.  Can you understand a film without dialogue?

Murnau and others strived to make such a film.  So did many of us in film school.

The silent filmmaker’s reasoning may have been that cards inserted into a film were annoying, and took away from the story and its pace.  Dialogue in the pre-sound days wasn’t filmmaking, it was subtitling.

A few filmmakers experimented with bringing art to these subtitles, but the text looked wrong.  Others tried to minimize it.

Now that we have sound, a film student’s main reason for dropping sound, or shooting MOS (without sound), is because shooting “sync” (synchronized) sound is expensive.  It’s simpler to shoot films without dialogue.

It’s difficult to shoot sound and a moving subject at once.  The mic (especially a boom microphone) could end up in shot.  You could pick up interference, or off screen sounds.  On camera mics usually aren’t very good.  Seperate microphones either limit movement or require extra crew members.

Yes, I have shot films where I monitored picture and mic at the same time.  It’s kind of like a circus feat.  That is, unless your subject is speaking in monotone or standing still.

Yes, I have used detached mics.  I have some amusing stories to tell you people forgetting they are wearing them.  These, however, pick up background sounds (like shirts ruffling) and do need to be monitored.

Dialogue is unquestioningly expensive, and it can distract us from the other things going on.

So why keep it?

To explore this, I have tried watching films without it.  Even Eisenstein admits that America’s fast paced talk was more gripping than Soviet poetics.  His reasoning for using silent film was partly that they didn’t have money.

If we look at propaganda from another angle, we see unsuccessful attempts by the Italians to send messages to the colonies.

Colonized people in Ethiopia, Italian Somalia, and even a great deal of people in Libya didn’t understand the Italian language and probably didn’t get Italian (or western) mannerisms.  Thus when they were shown Italian films, the propaganda value wore off.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out that the non-Italians brought their own meaning to these films.  Italian filmmakers didn’t realize how much they relied on dialogue (and other assumed understandings) to get their stories across.

As a result, the natives were cheering for “the wrong protagonists.”

Yes, I’ve cheered for the “bad” guy in a poorly made propaganda film, so I get where the “natives” where coming from.  That’s even when I understood the dialogue.

We bring a lot into a film when we watch it.  A big crutch we rely on in language.  That doesn’t mean that clear dialogue can save a bad movie.

I remember watching “An American President.”  Thrown in that film are statistics, seemingly invented on the spot, concerning gun control and other topical issues of the day.  I remember listening to Michael J. Fox spouting out these “facts” and having my cinema experience ruined.

Maybe I laughed, I don’t know.  I sure know that others laugh when a filmmaker shoves ideas down their throat through dialogue.

Take Poison Ivy’s environment speech in Batman and Robin, and Bruce Wayne’s “but what about the old people” counter argument.   What was the point of those lines?

Yes, the film wasn’t storyboarded well either, but the dialogue couldn’t move a bad story forward.

There are cases, however, when dialogue tends to work.  “Luke, I am your father” and “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” both work well with words.

You could have a flashback to Darth Vader with Luke’s mother, and then being there at Luke’s birth, but that just wouldn’t work as well.  You could have Rhet slam the door in Scarlett’s face, or walk away without saying anything, or do any number of things, but I think dialogue works best to show what Rhet really means.

Many great visual moments don’t rely on these dialogue points.

Take High Noon. The symbolic meaning of the Sheriff dropping the star and riding off without saying much really tells you the protagonist’s attitude.  In The Graduate, the opening and closing both show characters who are emotionally lost.  Without saying words, both movies say more than dialogue ever could.

But why does silence speak so well?  I think it’s because so much of the rest of the film relies on dialogue.

The absense of something only has meaning when contrasted with its presense.

If there are hundreds of children playing and talking in a field at the start of a scene, and no children at the same location later, we have change, and that change brings meaning.  If however, there are no children in either scene, and nothing to remind us of the existence of children, the lack of children at the end doesn’t carry as much meaning.

In the case of laughing children in a scene such as this, you can allow your actors to ad lib.  The noise may be more important than what is actually said.

Sometimes, mumbled background noise is unnecessarily subtitled, adding unintentional meaning to a film and distracting from the main storyline.  In a disco or a playground, the presence of sound means more than the mundane details of the dialogue that makes that sound.

In the end, only you will know how much dialogue your story really needs.  Each story is different, and every decision you make could produce a different outcome.

Can you make a film without dialogue?  Of course you can, it has been done.  Should you make a film without dialogue?  That depends on what message you want to bring across, and how you think it will best be conveyed.

If you can’t afford a microphone, but are creative enough to convey meaning without sinc sound, then go for it.  If you have a great sound team, but don’t have time to figure out how to tell a story without words, then there’s nothing immoral about using words.

In either case, remember that film, like language, is a form of communication.  Body language isn’t seen on the phone, but voice tone is heard.  Intonation isn’t heard in an email, but meanings are assumed from context and sentence structure.

The good news is, you don’t need a PhD in communication to communicate with your audience, whether you use dialogue or not.  No, all you need to do is put yourself in your audience’s place.

Who needs dialogue?  Those who can use it well.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller, editors. Italian Colonialism. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.)

Sergei M. Eisenstein. (translated by Alan Y. Upchurch.) On the composition of the short fiction scenario.  (Calcutta : Seagull Books and Eisenstein Cine Club, 1984.)