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Philistines and Parisians: on Dialogue in Film

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Long ago and far away, when Dale and I were not yet married or even living in sin, we rented some movies to watch. Leningrad Cowboys go America and Down by Law. We intended to watch both of them in one night, in that order. Thus began my deep, abiding distrust of Jim Jarmusch. Leningrad Cowboys, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is an amazing film, to be highly recommended, funny as hell, etc. etc., with the small caveat that it has NO dialogue. There are maybe 13 words in the whole damn film. This makes for a rather intense visual experience, if you get my drift. We laughed. We groaned. We wished aloud for Some Freaking Words, Please! and then we settled into Down by Law.

A worse decision was not possible. The first ten minutes of Down by Law has no dialogue, no voice-over, no words. We were wrecked. Couldn’t do it. We could simply not hang in there and watch what we had been assured over and over again was cinematic genius if it meant no dialogue, no sounds. The Leningrad Cowboys had wrecked us. We turned Down by Law off and waited a good thirteen years before we tried it again. When we watched it a month or so ago, it confirmed what we had always heard: Tom Waits is amazing, Roberto Benigni is a hoot, it’s a great film. Go rent it tonight.

This week, we slid another Jarmusch film into our DVD player, Dead Man, starring (throb, throb) Johnny Depp. Jim has this thing for limited dialogue. I can respect that. Dead Man is an excellent film, and Nobody, the maybe-Indian, totally makes it. The lack of dialogue, coupled with Neil Young’s western-y soundtrack, make for a pretty narcotizing experience, but it is pretty. One might even be inclined to get introspective in the wake of this film–to reflect on fate, on the role that others play in our lives, etc–if one doesn’t fall asleep by the end, lulled into unconsciousness by Young’s haunting soundtrack, which is free to worm its way into your cerebrum uninhibited by pesky words you might need to follow.

So last night we took another Important Film off our “to watch” list: Breathless by Godard, starring Jean Seberg. It is probably bad form to mention Godard and Jarmusch in the same blog post. In fact, after last night’s viewing, I’m pretty sure this post will implode when I hit the “publish” button, because there is NO WAY that a filmmaker who parses dialog down to the absolute bare minimum to keep a movie afloat (Jarmsuch) and a director who has his actors do NOTHING but talk past one another and smoke cigarettes (Godard) can inhabit the same linguistic space. The nameless rage and frustration I once felt after ten minutes of Down by Law is nothing, nada, zippo compared to the resentment that sunk in when I realized Breathless was over and nothing much had happened, save a wannabe-renegade American student thought about loving a total dirtbag and then decided it would be a bad idea. Michel getting shot in the back at the end was, I figured, a fair reward for having annoyed the shit out of me with mindless freaking prattle and this weird tic with his thumb and his lips for 90 minutes.

Evidently, I want it both ways. I want characters to speak to one another in movies. I am a word-oriented person, I want to see or hear words that carry meaning. Given that scenario, I need to be in the right mood for a Jarmusch-y type film. But oy weh! was that Godard annoying! Was it that French New Wave image of the smoking, talking, do-nothing European that so attracted a generation of Americans to French films? That if we talked in meaningless/meaningful phrases like that and smoked cigarettes without filters we, too, could be suave and sophisticated?

So, I may well be outing myself as a hopeless philistine, ignorant to the high-culture represented in the work of a celebrated director. Be that as it may: it’s time to watch James Bond.


Written by Jennifer

November 11, 2008 at 2:53 pm