Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Thought: How a character’s words can really shape a movie

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Denis Villeneuve is quite occupied these days. His new movie, “Dune: Part Two,” just came out in the US, boasting a hefty $190 million budget, a cast of famous actors, and a dedicated fan base. It’s generating a lot of buzz this season and snagged the top spot in its opening weekend with $81.5 million in domestic sales (CNN and the film’s distributor share a parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery).

During one of his interviews to promote the film, the French-Canadian director shared some thoughts on movies. Instead of praising dialogue, he expressed his dislike for it, saying it’s more suited for theater and TV. According to him, memorable movies are about powerful visuals and sound, not necessarily clever lines. He believes that the essence of cinema, which lies in pure image and sound, often goes unnoticed in today’s films, blaming television for corrupting the cinematic experience.

While these comments may be controversial, similar sentiments have been shared in the film industry for a long time. Back in 1984, the renowned Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini remarked that cinema is a language of images and every object and light in a film should have meaning, akin to a dream. Like Villeneuve, Fellini lamented the impact of the small screen, stating that television has harmed the most precious aspect of cinema.

This belief is not exclusive to Villeneuve or Fellini; it’s a widespread notion in the film world and is even taught to aspiring film writers. For instance, Alexander Steele, President of Gotham Writers Workshop, emphasizes that film is a visual medium. He asserts that when crafting a movie, the visual element takes precedence over words, unlike prose, where words dominate. When you think of a movie, Steele says, you should picture an image in your mind.

In a 1931 article in the New York Times, Charlie Chaplin defended his movie “City Lights” and other silent films, saying they were a universal form of expression. He complained that talkies were limited to specific languages and races. Chaplin’s “City Lights” is remembered for the silent acting of Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill, not just the powerful inter-titles. The movie’s closing scene with memorable lines is famous.

Chaplin later transitioned to talkies, and his monologue in “The Great Dictator” (1940) is well-remembered. In the film, he plays a Jewish barber mistaken for a spoof version of Adolf Hitler, delivering a powerful plea for liberty, fraternity, and democracy.

Great films often feature memorable dialogue. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997) wouldn’t be the same without Pam Grier’s punchy lines, and Marlon Brando’s performance in “The Godfather” (1972) relies on the lines written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.

Filmmakers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan weave words into images. In his films, characters engage in dialogue that enhances the storytelling. Even in American independent films like Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017), the combination of imagery and dialogue creates a memorable experience.

Denis Villeneuve’s criticism of TV overlooks the brilliance in shows like “Atlanta” (2016-2022) and “Derry Girls” (2018-2022). Film festivals now include TV show episodes, recognizing the power of writing in visual storytelling.

Martin Scorsese, receiving an honorary Golden Bear, emphasized the importance of cinema in fostering communication and understanding. He encouraged people to talk and listen to each other, highlighting cinema as the best medium for this purpose.

As the film industry seeks broader audiences, it should move away from clichés and embrace the talkative nature of its past. Defining cinema with lofty goals can better serve the medium and its rich history.

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