My greatest cinematic weakness is the movie conversation. A great action scene or shocker can pull me in like anyone else, but it's the words that mesmerize. A good movie conversation tugs at those appealing strings of voyeurism. You watch the intimacy of words, but they, and the scene, are not directed at you. It's amazing how much can really be done with words. With the right dialogue, you don't need a gimmick for the audience. You can vicariously have fun with another's conversation, or you can watch a story play out within the span of hello to goodbye.
The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it hits on many of the big conversational accomplishments of the last 30 years. Each has its own way of relating information through words. Some are backed by the urgency of eyes, some are fueled by unnaturally delightful wordplay and some just allow the conversation to happen, wherever it travels to and whatever it says. These seven films have words that roll off the tongues of the actors, creating a cinematic verbal candy that ties into everything from the artsy fartsy to the fart jokes.
Long before Wallace Shawn was thinking of what was inconceivable, he headed this conversational 80's zeitgeist with Andre Gregory. It's an intellectual niche film, and not for every audience. That being said, there are innumerable subtleties that make it worthy of a first, second and third viewing. What I find most intriguing are the secondary bits that are tacked onto the words, and more importantly, the silence. Shawn is reluctant to go to dinner with Andre, which keeps him silent for a good chunk of the movie. Yet for every word and crazily interesting story that Andre relays, Shawn reacts. He says everything with minute reactions – an eye twitch here, a raised brow and chuckle there.
It would be extremely hard to make a list of conversation movies without putting something from Richard Linklater on the list, especially Before Sunset. What is so stunning about this film is that it isn't a mere conversation. The real-time talk still takes you through the conventions of storytelling, the road of dramatic structure. The movie increases to a climax, and then levels into a satisfying, if not slightly groan-inducing end. Without the comfort and crutch of cutting scenes, each piece of conversation and every word had to flow together. The challenge was to give the past justice, explain how they never re-met and then take them through the process of learning about how they've changed or remained the same. The words feel real, and hold the weight of disillusionment, age and yearning.
You have to give Mark Waters credit. He adapted a play filled with fun and rolling dialog with a cast that pits Parker Posey against Tori Spelling. The film is a mix of delicious, wordy character types who are over the top, but poetic. Perhaps the best conversation of the film centers on a bottle of Liebfraumilch. In this scene, the players bat words around like a pinball darting through a game. The spotlight dashes from person to person, barely a word said before it bounces to the next. It's the sort of exchange that can fall flat unless every angle is hit with the appropriate power. They ricochet from greetings, to wine, to languages, the players walking around weaving the web of a word dance.
Sure, Kevin Smith made this movie with little money after dropping out of film school and being determined to make his career in his own way. But what really impresses and wows me is what he did for talky movies. Clerks is no different than the others when it comes to a very basic character set, challenged with some quirky scenarios, all of which are based on conversation. There's talk of all the staples of cinema -- women, action, violence and everything else, but almost none of it is shown on-screen. Beyond a smidge of hockey, everything is relegated to conversation and dialogue. Some thoughts and discussions are existential and dramatic, but they're done so with self-humility and delivered in a crude, oral sex package. It is low-brow, funny and still very real.
A lot of people disregard this movie for its visual techniques, but to do so is a shame. Sure, Conversations with Other Women employs a continual split screen to share the conversation. However, this technique not only allows for a myriad of ways to view and absorb each scene, but it also allows you to see the reaction and delivery of every word – something that is incredibly helpful to a film that relies on verbal play. The play starts immediately, as two people with a very long and involved past re-meet, but do so pretending they are strangers. As the past inevitably rears its head, their conversation turns from flirting, superficial getting-to-know-you chatter to deep and tugging conversation. The alternative to Before Sunset, it's not a story of hope, but a story where words express the unavoidable desire to dive back into the pearly memories of the past, as well as recognition that a true spark rarely, if ever, ends.
A critical success, Dylan Kidd's debut movie Roger Dodger never really got off the ground commercially, which is a shame. Roger's a slime – he's a know-it-all jerk of a man covering a fragile ego and lingering loneliness. Yet Campbell Scott plays him so perfectly that his pitfalls are engaging and interesting. The entire film rests on his ability to be arrogant and verbose. When his nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to be guided in the ways of man and the ladies, it is too irresistible for a man like Roger, who lives in explanations and verbal success. With Nick balancing the chauvinism with sweet sincerity, they scour the streets of
If there is anyone who relies on their words, it is Whit Stillman. He's only made a handful of films, and all of them are delightfully pretentious dialog fests. It's not about reality, but youthful yuppie play. Young kids put on tuxedos and pearls and have pseudo-intellectual conversations free of tees, blue jeans or any other typical teen wear. But really, like Dodger reigns because of Campbell Scott, Metropolitan soars because of Chris Eigeman's ability to jabber about anything and make it sound good – especially the beauty of Babar. He has the gift of making the over-the-top a bit more believable, or at least he delivers it with a little sugar to make it go down in an easier and more satisfying way.