In the world of creative words, movies could be the ultimate case of show-don’t-tell. Obviously, in film visuals is the main way of communicating the story, but what interests me is the role that words, i.e. dialogue, play in the showing.
Now I know dialogue can expose the plot or characterise the character or develop the subtext. That is all very true and very well, but what I love about dialogue is the way it can, in a few broad brushstrokes, just immediately dump you in a specific place and time. Dialogue can make you feel and see a place within the marrow of your bones.
I realised this the other day when a quite ordinary and commonplace little dialogue hit me with the force of poetry. It made me smile with the intimate knowledge of knowing exactly where I was, in more senses than one. It went something like this:
“How’s it going?”
“Yeah, getting there.”
“Good on ye.”
This may seem like a totally inane and uninteresting exchange, yet it carries the essence of a situation that would need a picture (or a thousand words) to describe – the tradesman looking up from a job to greet a client, the subdued anxiety in the question regarding a complicated project, the assurance that there is progress despite a few difficulties and then the client’s relief and encouragement, all soaked in honest Australian accents.
Dialogue may be the part of movies we remember the best, because we can quote it. Think of these famous lines from movies:
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Gone with the Wind)
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Wizard of Oz)
“Go ahead, make my day.” (Sudden Impact)
“I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Harry Met Sally)
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
Interestingly, more than half of these quotes are from films based on books, but that may be a personal bias. (You can ask Google for the most famous movie quotes to get the bigger picture.) Not all book-based movie quotes stay faithful to their origins, either.
Coming back to dialogue and how they show a story, I did a random search through my book shelves and came across these examples.
“Hannes,” I used to say. “That is a sin. The Lord is looking at you.”
“That’s all right,” Hannes replied. “The Lord knows that this is the Boer War, and in war-time he will always forgive a little foolishness like this, especially as the English are so many.”
From “The Rooinek” by Herman Charles Bosman
“Something like the caves at Elephanta?”
“Oh no, not at all; at Elephanta there are sculptures of Siva and Parvati. There are no sculptures at Marabar.”
“They are immensely holy, no doubt,” said Aziz.
“Oh no, oh no.”
“Still, they are ornamental in some way.”
“Well, why are they so famous? We all talk of the famous Marabar Caves. Perhaps that is our empty brag.”
From A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
“Do you think there is a second key to that little hut not far from John’s Well, where the pheasants are reared?” she said.
“There may be. Why?”
“I happened to find it today – and I’d never seen it before. I think it’s a darling place. I could sit there sometimes, couldn’t I?”
From Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
“My lord, do you mean that you want no harm to come to Mr de Worde, or that you want no harm to come to Mr de Worde?”
“Did you wink at me, Drumknott?”
“Drumknott, I believe it is the right of every citizen of Ankh-Morpork to walk the streets unmolested.”
“Good gods, sir! Is it?”
From The Truth by Terry Pratchett
To me these bites of dialogue are like movie trailers, giving a tiny glimpse of a world just waiting to be explored. Go on then, see the whole story at a bookstore near you!
The line between language and art is blurring. Paradoxically, for someone proclaiming to be both writer and artist, this trend makes me more than a bit uncomfortable.
If I had been solely a writer, I could have been forgiven for balking at the idea of symbols and emoticons taking over what had once been the territory of words. As electronic devices are able to display ever more complicated images, words fall away. No need to even write LOL, if you can choose one smiley image to say: ”Oh, that is very funny; you’ve got me in stitches!”.
On the other hand, letters and words are creeping into fields of design that have previously been the domain of images. Letters on coffee mugs and bracelets, words on tote bags and tablecloths. Language where once was art. If I had been solely an artist, I could have been righteously indignant at this takeover.
But I am a dedicated fan of and a committed trader in both writing and art. So why am I distressed by this new fluidity and intermingling? Shouldn’t I rejoice at the multidisciplinary abilities of the muses?
The University of Leeds in the UK has recently commissioned artist Liliane Lijn to create a new art work for their campus. Called Converse Column, it will be nine metres high, a cylinder of words revolving, changing, representing “communication as a creative symbol”. Lijn is also both writer and artist and her work seems to walk the line (excusing the pun) between “the conceptual and the visual”. So is it art or is it writing?
I must confess to doing some wordy art myself, although admittedly as a teenager some thirty years ago. It was fun. It was pretty. It might even have been art. (Only one work of the whole portfolio has survived - see image above.)
Maybe that is the issue that niggles at me – whether it is art. Whether it is creative writing.
It might not matter. It might not make the smallest bit of difference to anybody that the art of writing personal letters has been superseded by the act of choosing from a plethora of bit(e)-sized cartoons showing your exact emotions, without the need for grammar, style, creativity or any other related brain activity. It probably does not matter that an objet d’art has been replaced by distressed timber letters spelling HOPE or LOVE and that T-shirts feature tradenames, memes and witty repartees just as often as purely aesthetic design.
You may call me a purist, but I feel somehow cheated. I feel superfluous. I feel like a team of painter and seamstress ousted by a fabric designer; a professor and a concert pianist shoved aside by a music teacher. I feel like an old office assembly of typewriter, telephone and fax machine expelled by an uppity smartphone (one with lots of emoticons).
I know that, like Lijn, I should embrace the intermingling of disciplines and rejoice at more people becoming involved, however fleetingly, in both art and writing. Like a health-conscious mother I should be glad that the processed cereals have added vitamins and the muffins are made with carrots. Or should I?
Art. Writing. For now I think I’ll just let each of them be what they are. And I’ll walk that blurry line until it is a line no more.