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November 28, 2009


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I imagine Americans will be - or would have been - the only ones to feel any suspense about the end anyway. The rest of the world knows that South Africa won the Rugby World Cup that year.


Me again, just remembered this exchange from Whit Stillman's 'Barcelona':

FRED: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and--

TED: Really?

FRED: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs--they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?

TED: The text.

FRED: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that.


The doofus commenting on subtext and Screenwriting 101 reminds me of the idiot I overheard as I left a film festival screening of Big Lebowski, commenting loudly to his friends that the film was a failure (or possibly "sucked") because it had "no third act". I wonder if he still espouses that position.

Tom Russell

Paul's doofus reminds me of the several doofuses I have met who go on and on about how "Full Metal Jacket" is really two movies, as if the dual structure isn't the cussing point.


God, I can't wait to see this movie.


Thanks for the shout-out, Glenn. After all the complimentary things I've said about your writing, how kind of you to return the favor.

While I'm sputtering, allow me to back up. I haven't seen "Invictus," obviously, but that dialogue snippet definitely reads hamfisted -- out of context, anyway. If you say it plays better in the movie, I'll take your word for it (at least until I see it). But even if it's text, not subtext, was there no way other way to convey this information visually without spelling it out in the dialogue? On top of sounding like a plot device, or worse, a sound bite for the trailer, it doesn't sound remotely natural. Can you imagine Michelle telling Barack over coffee, "You're risking your political capital. You're risking your future as our leader" and him replying, "The day I am afraid to do that is the day I am no longer fit to lead"???? It sounds like tonedeaf, stilted TV dialogue. Of course, a gifted actor can work miracles with any line. Look what Freeman did with "Yass'um."

Furthermore, Screenwriting 101 is useless NOT due to the bogus guidelines, but because it can't help you sell a script. Screenwriting 101 tells you not to describe the plot in the dialogue, only the scene description. But since readers and executives don't read scene description, the plot damn well better be outlined in the dialogue. Otherwise, they'll think nothing happens in your script.

Doesn't make it a good movie, though. The very best movies don't need dialogue at all.

Glenn Kenny

@Arturobandini2: As usual, I feel compelled to step back from my ad hominem characterization of "sputtering..." and yet: No. My point remains. You made a seemingly definitive judgment based on words on paper, not a scene as it's played out in the actual film. I think you are wrong, sorely wrong for doing so.

Back when I was a kid, I lived in Jersey and didn't have access to a lot of the films I thought I wanted to see, so I depended on books of scripts to bring those films to life. I'd buy them at Womrath's, in Hackensack. I got the Grove Press "film books," complete with frame enlargements, of stuff like "The 400 Blows" and "Masculin/Feminine." I got an anthology collecting the scripts of "Simon of the Desert," "The Exterminating Angel," and "Viridiana." I ate up and adored so much of what I read. And then I saw the films. And they were great. But they were nothing like what I imagined when reading the script. I've had discussions with Wells about this. We respectfully disagree. So if my disagreement with you on this matter was less than respectful, and it was, I apologize. By the same token, I stand by what I said. You cannot judge a film by its script. You cannot rightly imagine a film by its script.

The "imagine-Michelle-telling-Barack" analogy is also a false equivalent, because...well, when you see the movie, you will know why. The Mandela of "Invictus" is pretty well estranged from his wife (who doesn't even turn up).

Sorry if I offended you. But I feel pretty strongly about this, and I've seen the movie. Which, call me crazy, I feel gives me at least a bit of an ethical leg up. If you're so inclined, we can discuss this after you have.


No harm done. Anyone who loves "demonlover" as much as you do is a kindred spirit, as far as I can tell.

To be fair, though, you characterize me as condemning "Invictus" sight unseen, and that's not the case. In my post, I merely pointed out (OK, snarled) that the dialogue samples gave me more pause than the indifferent reviews. If we can't speculate about a movie's quality based on the written word, then that negates the whole point of film criticism, wouldn't you say? Yet the fact that you're championing this movie so defensively is a good sign. I'll get back to you after I've seen it.

Fuzzy Bastard

I guess I can imagine those lines playing well on screen when delivered by a great actor like Freeman (who has done magic with worse dialogue). But count me in agreement with Arturo that those sure don't sound like words that have ever come out of a human mouth, even that of a career politician. A good movie can be made from a bad script, sure, but that is some crappy-ass screenwriting right there.

And this is usually one of my biggest problem with Eastwood's movies: this habit of telling the viewer exactly and in no uncertain terms What You Should Think About. Even more than their plot implausibilities, which do indeed bug the hell outta me (I just couldn't buy the surprise reveal of a hitherto unmentioned second child molester who just happened to cross Tim Robbins path on the fateful night in "Mystic River"), I find the spelling out of themes both awkward and a little insulting.

That said---there's no real rule against spelling out subtext, though it does make things (I think) less fun for the viewer. That's really a misunderstanding of the rule that there should be no dialogue without action. The problem with message speeches in most scripts is that they tend to be there to say something to the audience, rather than to drive interaction between characters, and are therefore kind of unplayable by actors.


GODDAMMIT, dialogue is a legit cinematic element! (In the right hands, of course, but that's true of EVERYTHING!) What film schools continue to teach people is insane. What is this, 1926? I hate to tell you, but there's a new thing called "talkies."

Cheers to LondonLee for citing Whit Stillman, who amply illustrates my point.

This post is not intended to address anyone here. It's just a longstanding heartburn for me, the expletive "rules" of making movies.

Glenn Kenny

Well, one could make a hobby, or maybe even a board game, out of great and/or classic movie dialogue that looks stilted in print. "Now they're gonna get the truth in the Inquirer, quickly and simply and entertainingly and no special interests are going to be allowed to interfere with that truth." Oh, DO tell. "If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that wounded your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you." Sure thing, boogity-boogity. And so on. The point sometimes is not whether dialogue is convincing as "words that would come out of a human mouth," but whether or not a given character in a film would say those words. Two different things. There's quite a bit of what one might call verisimilitude in the dialogue of Joe Swanberg's films, but that doesn't make the dialogue NOT inane.

As for written dialogue that can never, ever, be saved, by anyone or anything, see Don Roos' "Bounce," specifically the line "It's not brave if you're not scared." Oh, the humanity.

Back to my central point: you can't judge a film by its script.

Tom Russell

"The point sometimes is not whether dialogue is convincing as 'words that would come out of a human mouth,' but whether or not a given character in a film would say those words."


One of the many, many things I love about Paul Schrader's FOREVER MINE (in addition to the Victorian melodrama of the plot, the huge survived-being-buried-in-cement plothole, and oodles and oodles of Gretchen Mol) is the romantic mush spouted by Fiennes's cabana boy-turned-revenger. It perfectly fits that deliberately anachronistic character and gives pleasure in its own right. There's a great scene where Ray Liotta's character says, "Stop talking like that! Nobody says things like that!"-- or something to that effect.

A lot of Schrader's dialogue fails the "verisimilitude test" but its just that pointed, sometimes stilted quality that I find so compelling.

Fuzzy Bastard

Well, we're now crossing two different standards---one is whether dialogue sounds believably human, and the other is whether dialogue is spelling things out for the audience. Certainly lots of great movies have deliberately stylized dialogue, including Stillman, Hartley, and arguably nearly every movie ever made, though I would certainly argue that even within stylization, there's a difference between a line that sounds clunky and a line that flows. But it's the second aspect that seems to be a problem in the Invictus script---not that the dialogue isn't believable, but that it cuts off interpretive possibilities for the audience. That's not a dealbreaker---Spike Lee does it constantly, but his movies have plenty of cinematic energy and ambiguity to make up for it. But it can be a drag.

Fuzzy Bastard

And I'll note, too, that in both cases cited by Glenn above, what makes those lines work is precisely that what's being said is *not* what the scene is about. When Kane talks about the truthfulness of the Inquirer, the important thing happening is Kane preening for his audience (as Jedidiah later says, Kane never gave a damn about the standards of the Inquirer). When the Godfather lectures the poor little tailor, the moment is about the Don flashing his power to smack down a rube; the specifics of the mobster code are irrelevant to the moment. Again, the dialogue is a vehicle for action, and the moment is rich because the actual verbal content of the dialogue is not at all what's really happening.

Tom Russell

Maybe this is me being a philistine, but I honestly don't see "spelling things out" to be a fault of a given director's cinema, only a 'quality' of it, neither good nor bad per se. I think Eastwood's pictures are more nuanced/multilayered than people give him credit for, but even if he was as ham-fisted as he is accused of being, I don't see a problem: Sam Fuller was ham-fisted as hell, and that was kind of the point of it, what made his films enjoyable-- their vigorous didacticism and the force of his conviction in his ideas.

There's a saying my wife and I bandy about/keep nearby as a maxim when writing our own films-- it's not there if it's not there. Which means, basically, that we'd rather something be obvious (and thus definitely "there") than missed or understated ("not there"). We'd rather have the protagonist of SON OF A SEAHORSE mock-hang himself with a necktie than have people not pick up on the suicide vibe that's more subtle in other parts of the picture.

And while I think, as I said, Eastwood's films often contain more than one meaning, more than one way You Should Think About It, I think even if there was Just That One Way, the actual experience of watching the film-- the music, framing, mis-en-scene, construction, and especially the acting-- give enough inexhaustible pleasure to reward multiple viewings (at least in my opinion). And that's nothing to sneeze at; in trying to hatch out What a Film Means and If The Film Told Me What It Means Too Much people often overlook What a Film Feels Like. There might not be too many deep meanings left to find or discuss in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Singin' In the Rain, but gosh, they're still cinematic gold.

(I hope the above makes as much sense as I think it does, but as it's 2 in the morning, I'm not quite certain.)

Tom Russell

*hash out What a Film Means, I mean.

I think the only time didacticism/spelling it out really bothers me is when a film has been made specifically to make a point that doesn't really require 90-120 minutes of argumentation. But I can't really think of a major director who that applies to since the days of Stanley Kramer.

The Siren

I'm with Jaime. Sometimes, "show don't tell" results in a visual image that bludgeons you harder than any dialogue possibly could. The glorious firecracker pop of good dialogue may not be key to every movie, but it is one of cinema's great pleasures, and shouldn't be treated like a stepchild. Just as one image can serve as long minutes of exposition (the sister-in-law taking John Wayne's coat in The Searchers) so can one line, even in a visually rich movie, tell you everything you need to know (John Wayne, after he finds the body of one of his nieces: "Never ask me about it.")

And I also agree with Glenn that dialogue may read badly and play just fine. Just to cite a movie I recently re-watched, if I said in a review a gangster's dying line was "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" a reader might, had he not seen Walsh's masterpiece, cringe and call it "on the nose."

The Invictus lines sound like heavy freight, but surely if any leader in our lifetime has spoken knowing history is listening in, it's Mandela. And Freeman is something of a specialist in that sort of talk.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

Of course, a great line is a great line, and there's no law that says dialogue can't be expressive. "Show don't tell" doesn't mean pictures > words, it just means that you should make your points through action, whether it's physical action, action in the dialogue, or visual action, rather than announcing to the audience what the point is.

"Never ask me about it" is a great line, precisely because it says so little while conveying so much. Had John Wayne come back and said "They were murdered. Horribly. Makes me want to do the same to an Indian," well, that would be a line thudding enough to fit into Grand Torino.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

Shoot---Gran, Gran Torino.

Honestly, I think what bugs me so much about Eastwood is not so much the dialogue, which isn't really the director's fault anyway, so much as his dogged insistence on making sure that nothing but nothing ever complicates the message. Would it have killed him for the daughter in Gran Torino to have *some* human facet? For the family to express a moment of believable horror at their daughter's state in Million Dollar Baby (or at least to see where their contempt for her comes from)? Maybe that's why the only movie of his I actually like is Bridges of Madison County, where he knows there's nothing much Important in the script and just makes a nice-looking romance, instead of making absolutely positively sure I'm getting his message.

Miguel Marías

Fuzzy, are you so sure Eastwood tries to make "absolutely positively sure" we're "getting his message"? Because I get a very different one, and not only the so-called "message" (which I often wonder whatever may it be, when people complain) but the very "experience" of (most of) his films. I feel some people (and I'm not implying you're one of them) take a) everything (and particularly dialogue) too literally, b) everything that happens/is depicted/is said in a film as the director's own statement (this confusion between characters and authors is more frequent, of course, when the filmmaker is also an actor, like in more than half of Eastwood's output). And I may be wrong, but I fear that in the US there is also a confusion between Eastwood as director (most certainly an author, even if he does not write, or sign, the scripts) and as public/popular/media personality, of which we are freer (if not wholly free) elsewhere.
Miguel Marías

Fuzzy Bastarrd

Miguel: Well, yeah, I think so. Certainly, I understand that not everything a character says is meant as the message---like, I know that Walt Kowalski is supposed to be wrong when he spews invective, even though he's played by Eastwood. But the thing is, I *know* he's supposed to be wrong, and I'm reminded over and over and over that his attitudes are bad and wrong and naughty and I feel like I'm never allowed any room to figure that out on my own.


Miguel: Eastwood's public persona hasn't really been an issue for a while now. Anyone around my age (33) knows him primarily as a director in our lifetimes, and, since his first Oscar, the media have seemed to treat him as a respected eminence rather than a mere actor. My issue with him is that I think he's a terrible director of melodrama, mainly for the reasons that Fuzzy mentions. The manipulation necessary to deliver any type of emotional payoff is too transparent. I'm not sure if the depiction of Swank's mother is mean-spirited, but it is fairly hacky. And it spoiled a pretty good boxing picture. I'm with the people who believe that Eastwood rises to the level of his scripts, so I prefer his three greatest Westerns (Unforgiven, Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter) and A Perfect World.


Fuzzy, you heard Walt's invective and thought of it as "wrong and naughty" and obvious, but I found it hilarious and laughed incessantly throughout the movie at his "meant-to-shock" tirades. They're a smoke-screen, a defense mechanism, a "shot across the bow" and a "screener" for the people he comes into contact (however reluctantly) with.

You DO remember the scene where Kowalski teaches the neighbor kid how to insult properly with co-workers? Does all that cursing and insulting behavior mean that the two older men don't like each other?

A lot of folks (and I have a few in my corner of the film-world) dismiss Eastwood too quickly for not burying his point in obfuscation (and attack him when he does in "Mystic River"), and for his un-subtle film-making style. Personally, I like how Eastwood keeps the camera moves subtle and efficient, a far cry from his early days of wanting to be "noticed" as a director.

But, to get back to the point, to judge a movie by any of its parts, be it script or stills or trailer (that one irks me quite a bit), and not by the film itself is just wrong-headed.


Really looking foward to this movie. Invictus has a really cool facebook fan page too- if you're a fan of the film! http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=invictus&init=quick#/invictus?v=wall&ref=search

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