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Opinion: Why a line of dialogue truly can define a film

Editor’s Note: Arash Azizi is a writer and a historian. He is the author of “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom” (Oneworld, 2024). The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Denis Villeneuve is busy these days. His film, “Dune: Part Two,” just opened in the US, with a $190 million budget, ensemble cast of stars and loyal following of the franchise. It’s already one of the most talked-about films of the season and won the No. 1 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).

Arash Azizi - courtesy Zoe Prinds-Flash
Arash Azizi - courtesy Zoe Prinds-Flash

In one of his promotional interviews for the film, the French-Canadian director decided to make some film discourse but ended up repeating a well-known prejudice that, I think, has hurt movies more than it has helped them.

“Frankly, I hate dialogue,” Villeneuve told The Times of London. “Dialogue is for theatre and television. I don’t remember movies because of a good line, I remember movies because of a strong image. I’m not interested in dialogue at all. Pure image and sound, that is the power of cinema, but it is something not obvious when you watch movies today. Movies have been corrupted by television.”

As controversial as these remarks might sound, they are something of a conventional wisdom in the film world today and have been for quite some time.

In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, the great Italian auteur Federico Fellini quipped that cinema was “a language made of image” and that “in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.” Like Villeneuve, he went on to complain about the small screen: “And that’s why television has killed movies, it has wounded the cinema in its most precious part.”

But you don’t need to hear it from Fellini or Villeneuve. This supposed truism is heard everywhere in the film world and even taught to film writers. Take it from Gotham Writers Workshop President Alexander Steele, who writes: “Film is a visual medium. That’s the first thing you need to know about writing a movie. In prose, it’s all about the words. In film, the image dominates. When you think of a movie, you see an image in your mind.”

Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Timothée Chalet as Paul Atreides in "Dune." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures
Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Timothée Chalet as Paul Atreides in "Dune." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Prevalence of this view is also evident on the film festival circuit. Whether at Cannes, Berlinale or Sundance, it is much easier to find visually beautiful films than films with strong dialogue, be it of the snappy, soulful or engaging kind. Think of Carla Simón’s “Alcarràs” which won the Golden Bear of Berlin in 2022. Gorgeously shot with the setting of peach orchards of Catalonia, the film suffers from poor writing and dialogues that rarely land.

With rapid technological advances in cinematography, such as drone cameras, VR and high-definition formats, harrowingly beautiful landscape shots now dominate so many films. In one dominant strain of the arthouse universe, characters often exchange few dialogues with each other and instead give one another stark looks and dramatic silent treatments (Villeneuve’s own “Dune: Part One” is, perhaps, an example).

It was this dominant cult of imagery that drove Ethan Hawke into a passionate monologue at a 2018 event for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “This drives me crazy. Every film school you go to they always teach cinematography,” Hawke said in words that are now being contrasted to Villeneuve. “They say it’s a visual medium.”

But, like so many other pieces of conventional wisdom, this one doesn’t stand much scrutiny. The definition of cinema as a “visual medium” is at once banal (“books are a language of words”; “basketball is a language of balls”) and also incomplete to the point of being false. Yes, films are obviously motion pictures but, ever since 1927, they’ve also been a medium of sound and, even before that, they’ve used dialogue (such as words used as a means of communication between characters). Cinema has never been a language of “pure image and sound.”

Even in the age of silent films, dialogue rendered as inter-titles was critical to cinema. When movies with recorded dialogue (“talkies”) first emerged in the late 1920s, helping to destroy the career of so many silent-era stars, they hardly had a more bitter critic than Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin stars in his 1931 silent film, "City Lights." - FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
Charlie Chaplin stars in his 1931 silent film, "City Lights." - FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

In a 1931 New York Times article, Chaplin defended his picture “City Lights” (1931) and other silent films as “a universal means of expression,” complaining that talkies “necessarily have a limited field, [and] they are held down to the particular tongues of particular races.” Speaking more forthrightly a few years before, he quipped that “moving pictures need sound as much as Beethoven needs lyrics.”

But Chaplin’s own “City Lights” can be remembered today as much for the masterful silent acting of Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill as for the powerful inter-titles. The movie’s fabled closing scene includes some of the most memorable lines in film history. (“You can see now?” “Yes, I can see now.”)

Chaplin would come to make the tough transition to talkies. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for the monologue that closes his “Great Dictator” (1940). In the movie, Chaplin is a Jewish barber who is mistaken for Adenoid Hynkler, the film’s spoof version of Adolf Hitler, and who makes an impassioned plea for liberty, fraternity and democracy.

Some call it the best-known speech of 20th century, on or off screen, while others have critiqued it as superfluous or sentimentalist. Having watched it in Iran in my teenage years, with only a broken command of English, it shook me, and stayed with me ever since. It turns out that the words can transcend their “particular tongues”.

This isn’t an anomaly. Any list of the best films in history will inevitably include examples of great dialogue. Just go through American Film Institute’s “100 Movie Quotes,” a 1998 list of most memorable lines in cinema’s first hundred years. Unlike Villeneuve, so many others evidently do remember films precisely for their ‘good lines’.

What would Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997) be without the punchy lines delivered by Pam Grier? Or Marlon Brando’s performance in “The Godfather” (1972) without the lines written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola?

Merve Dizdar stars as Nuray in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "About Dry Grasses" (2023). - Janus Films
Merve Dizdar stars as Nuray in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "About Dry Grasses" (2023). - Janus Films

The best of filmmakers, arthouse or otherwise, achieve the station they do precisely because they can weave words into images. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s cinema is characterized by his breathtaking depiction of his native Anatolian landscapes. But his characters also love to talk. You don’t need to speak Turkish to find yourself immersed in the acerbic banter of Nuray (Merve Dizdar) in “About Dry Grasses” (2023) or the long ruminations of a young writer and a rural imam over philosophy and religion in “The Wild Pear Tree” (2018).

These dialogue-filled scenes are each shot in Ceylan’s masterful and distinctive style. It is the combination of imagery and dialogue that makes these great films. The same is true about the mumblecore genre of American independent films that includes some of the best films made in the current century. Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017) wouldn’t be what it is without the memory-like imagery that engrosses us in her Bildungsroman. But it also wouldn’t exist without Gerwig’s excellent lines.

Villeneuve’s complaint about TV also ignores all the brilliance shown in recent years in shows as diverse as “Atlanta” (2016-2022) and “Derry Girls” (2018-2022). Such shows prove great cinema can be made for the small screen. One reason for their popularity is their reliance on writing, and bucking the hackneyed fetishes of the festival circuit, such as the cinema being a “visual medium.”

Film festivals  have come to realize this, now often premiering episodes of TV shows as part of their programs. In 2017, as Cannes celebrated its 70th anniversary, its slate included six episodes of mystery TV drama “Top of the Lake” (2013-2017), co-directed by the legendary Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion and two episodes of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return”(1990-1991). Many festival-goers lined up for the screenings.

When he received his honorary Golden Bear at Berlinale earlier this month, filmmaker Martin Scorsese glowed over his enduring love for the movies. He reminded the festival-goers that they were “part of a community… [and] that community of people is driven by an obsessive love with this art called cinema.”

“Now more than ever we need to talk to each other,” Scorsese added, “to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.”

If we are to define cinema as a medium, it is much better to set it such lofty goals than center it around unfounded aphorisms.

As the film world attempts to fight its insularity and find broader audiences, it would do well to let go of cliches that fundamentally misunderstand the history of the medium and instead re-discover its bountifully talkative past.

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