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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Predictable Dialogue in Bridge of Spies

By far the best performance in Bridge of Spies comes from Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, but even he can’t sell some of the goop they put in his mouth. At the end, he’s on the titular bridge with Hanks’s James Donovan, awaiting his prisoner exchange, when he tells Donovan that he’s left a gift for him in his cell. Donovan chokes up (for the 50th time in the movie) and abashedly says he left no gift behind for Abel. At this point, Abel looks out over the expanse of the bridge and says, “This is your gift.”

Okay, that’s fine. A little cheesy, but Rylance is a great actor, and he can easily sell us that as a genuinely emotional line. But Spielberg can’t leave well enough alone: He then has Rylance quietly reiterate, “This is your gift.” Even worse, if I recall correctly, Spielberg had already used this sort of meaningful-repetition twice before in this same movie.

Has Spielberg ever noticed that door at the back of his soundstage? The one that says “Exit”? When was the last time he set foot in the real world? At that time, did her ever, ever, even once, hear someone meaningfully repeat something? I mean, it’s one thing to reiterate something louder for greater emphasis (“Have you no decency?”) but that’s never how Spielberg does it. It’s always quiet, earnest, and ludicrous.

Dialogue, of course, should not always be realistic. It should be more concise and have more personality than real talk. But that doesn’t mean that you can fall back on verbal ticks that only happen in the movies. Dialogue must seem startlingly fresh on first listen, even if we later realize that it’s actually just an old turn of phrase in a new dress. And only-in-the-movies clichés such as this one cannot be redeemed.

Spielberg, alas, has been churning these things out for 45 years now, and each year he gets more stuck in his ways, more and more reliant on the same shopworn tricks. Each movie has different credited screenwriters, but (with the notable exception of the two scripts credited to Tony Kushner) the scripts all sound the same. His script doctors know exactly what he wants, and they make good money by giving it to him.

At one point, early on, Donovan is astounded by his client’s sang froid and asks, “Don’t you ever worry?”, but Abel only shrugs and drolly asks, “Would it help?”, a line which got a nice laugh in the theater. Twenty minutes later, however, they repeat exactly the same exchange, which got a much smaller laugh the second time around. I was baffled: “Why would they repeat that gag again word for word?” But then, with a wince, I figured it out: “Oh, I get it, they’re going to have yet another ‘call back’ to this dialogue at the end, and they feel they must fulfill the ‘rule of threes’.” I then glumly waited for the inevitable call back and sighed ruefully when it finally came along.

This isn’t your audience’s first time at the rodeo. If you know a rule, then they know it too, and they’re now using your rulebook against you. They know that you want to emotionally manipulate them (as all great writers do), but they’re determined to protect their feelings from your grubby paws. You have to disarm them, and the only way to do that is to make them forget that they’re watching a movie.

As with so many other tricks, set-up and pay-off dialogue callbacks can be emotionally powerful, but only if the audience doesn’t notice what you’re doing. If you lazily push your audience around like an unwanted brussel sprout on your dinner plate, they’re going to notice, and loathe you, whether consciously or subconsciously.
I was going to also discuss The Martian this week, but I’ve decided to save it for my “Best of the Year” round-up. For now, I’ll just point one thing that makes it so remarkable: Ridley Scott is another ancient “prestige” director coasting on audience goodwill (and stylistic ticks) built up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As dubious as I tend of be of new Spielberg pictures, I actively avoid Scott’s…until stellar reviews finally drew me back into the theater, and wow. Not only is The Martian a great movie, but it’s thoroughly devoid of all of Scott’s trademarks. For once, he said, “Hey, they’ve given me another $100 million dollars to spend …maybe this time I should actually give a damn? Maybe I should reshape my style to fit the material instead of reshaping the material to fit my style?” The old dog suddenly showed us entirely new tricks.

Can Spielberg do this? Even Lincoln had many of his worst ticks, undercutting the valiant work of Day-Lewis and Kushner. Can he ever actually break free and do something startlingly new? It’s hard to imagine, but if Scott can do it, then surely anybody can.

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