Monday, June 27, 2011

One of my writing pet peeves

I saw MIDNIGHT IN PARIS recently, which I liked but didn’t love (even if all the critics tell me I'm supposed to love it). There were some nice moments in it, I enjoyed the fantasy aspects but ultimately thought it would have made a better Woody Allen short story. (If you’re not familiar with his collection of short stories, treat yourself. They’re hilarious and wildly imaginative. Get Without Feathers or Getting Even.) But I digress as usual…

One aspect of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS really bothered me -- all the wasted dialogue. Woody Allen isn't the only culprit, I see it in other movies and shows too. And it's just a personal pet peeve. But if you’re a young writer-hopeful (I like that term so much better than wannabe. Wannabe sounds like an Indian Guides troop.), you might want to give this rant some consideration.

You only have a certain amount of time to tell a story. Every word needs to count. In MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (warning: scene spoiler alert but it won't effect your enjoyment of the movie), there's a potentially funny sequence when Owen Wilson (picture Woody Allen but young and Gentile) is trapped in a hotel room with earrings he took from his fiancé (for a reason I won't divulge). On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions. I'm sure Neil Simon, if given the same comic premise, would do the same.

But not here. Here the scene is filled with,

"My earrings are gone!"
"Really? You sure?"
"Yes!"
"Did you check everywhere?"
"Yes. They're missing."
"Really?" Did you even bring them?"
"Yes I brought them."
"I don't know that you did".
"I did."
“I don’t remember seeing them.”
“I brought them. I saw them this morning.”
“You did?”
“Yes.”

You get the point.

Sorry but to me that's just lazy writing. You may say, "well, that's the way people talk.". And I would say absolutely -- but it's not interesting. It's sure not funny and this is a block comedy scene. As a writer it's your job to do better. Anyone can write the exchange I presented above. Your job is to make it funnier or more compelling or more thought-provoking or…more whatever.

Can people stammer? Sure. Do they talk ungrammatically? Every sentence. They also hedge and hem and haw and talk in circles. And you can use those qualities and still be engrossing. I refer you to any David Mamet play. Naturalistic dialogue doesn't have to be boring. But it takes skill to make it sing. At least attempt to do that.

Some would say that promotes dialogue that is too stylized. And often times they're right. Just as bad as boring conversation is the "no human being would ever say that" charge. But I'd rather err on the side of style, on the side of trying too hard rather than not enough.

I can hear some of you now. What about Aaron Sorkin? He uses a lot of short sentences and characters repeating other characters’ lines. What about him? I know. I’ve even spoofed him myself. But there is a definite flow to Sorkin’s dialogue. There’s a rhythm. Everything is carefully designed. It’s not just idle chit-chat, it’s lyrics.

I'll stop just short of saying you're making art because that always sounds incredibly pretentious so I'll just say you’re making diversions worthy of our time and even our money. Make every word count.

Maybe Woody should have traveled back to Paris in the 1920s – and spent more time with Hemingway.

32 comments:

Dave said...

Ken,
Good post (as always). But you know what would be even better? Re-write that scene for us and show us what could be done.

Please?

Sebastian said...

I had a book of David Mamet plays in my hands a couple of days ago, flipped through it, and noticed that one character, for pages upon pages, was only giving one word (or sentence) answers. Tons of "Yes" and "No". Hadn't thought about Mamet in years. Funny how these things happen.

Great post. Thanks Ken :-)

Oh and tell me what you think about what Norma does as an announcer. Man I remember ten years ago when got up and did his schtick with the gloves and now I can't get anough of him talking about the game he's such a joy to listen to. He transports this insane amount of FUN when he talks about the game and I don't think it's made up.

Max Shenk said...

Yes. Thank you, Ken. Every time I see one of Woody Allen's movies, I'm struck by the unnecessary dialogue. His characters end up sounded stilted and borderline idiotic, like they're overstating the obvious. As a filmmaker, he has all these tools at his disposal to reveal what the settings-situations-etc etc are... yet he often resorts to needless dialogue ("Boy, I'm sure glad we decided on a weekend getaway in the Hamptons" etc etc).
I'd rather tell too little and make people guess, because to me the essence of dialogue is not that people necessarily reveal A LOT; rather, it's that they're vague, ambiguous, and leave you guessing.
Of course, wtf does Woody Allen care what I think? Still, it's something I noticed, too... thanks for putting it into words.

Nordy said...

Amen, and don't pass the needless dialogue. When I see/hear scenes like the one described in the Woody Allen movie, I think to myself, 'man, I bet that was written right before lunch when the writer was trying to just get anything on the page to hit his personal deadline before taking a break.'

The Milner Coupe said...

Wow. A terrific film with a ton of intelligent dialogue and you pick on this? Perhaps the fact that he chose 'not' to go the sitcom route in several scenes is what I liked most about it. It could be that the needless dialogue was there to show that a. his fiance was sure she brought the earrings and doesn't have enough regard for him to even consider his suggestion that she didn't. b. illustrate how far he's going with the lie. c. set up the next bit of dialogue where his fiance shows what an elitist snob she is as she begins to call security.

We know you hate Woody Allen, but you have to give him one on this movie. It is good, maybe great.

Vernon Lefty Gomez Addams said...

Not knowing what preceded this bit of dialogue, or what followed, we are left to take the word of an expert. But of course, we don't have to accept his view, or at least, I'm almost sure we don't. There is a tacit implication that we should, but it's not required.

But seriously...absolutely, read Woody's short stories, you will laugh out loud, which I did long before LOL became what it is today.

If my ex and I filmed that scene, the dialogue would have been:

Broom Hilda: My earrings are gone!

Me: Oh fuck! (collapses on bed).

Ken, the M's found a new way to win last night, scoring on a wild pitch...a wild pitch during an intentional walk. Something I've never seen before. Whatever it takes!

Tony said...

My WATCHING peeve involves procedurals in the CSI vein. Almost without fail when the writers want to explain something on screen, they split the explanation up between however many characters there are. It's like they took the explanations and said, "oh, there are 15 lines and three characters here, so they all get five lines!" No one anywhere ever has had a conversation that even approximates that kind of exchange.

VW: swisiv -- n. a missive delivered in Swiss

John said...

When you've been lauded by the leading film critics for 45 years as being not just a great comedian but a writing/scripting genius, eventually you can get to the point where it doesn't matter what you write -- there's a core group that's going to be enthralled no matter what bon mots come out of the characters' mouths.

Other than Allen deciding to write his next movie based on using Larry the Cable Guy as his male lead, Im not sure at this late date there's anything Woody can do in terms of bland/lazy writing that would knock the stars from the eyes of his hardcore supporters.

Breadbaker said...

I almost walked out of the movie five minutes in. He was repeating stuff from movies past and not doing it with much skill or panache--main character is in an entitled artist who has made a bad choice of woman, see every film since Manhattan. I could have done without the entire contemporary sequence. The "magical" part wasn't particularly earned; it's the 2010's, if you don't like your girlfriend, get on a plane and leave. But as a nice piece involving Paris in the 20s and the Belle Epoque, it was funny and it was obvious Allen has a talent for writing for historical characters he'd never really used before. That's where the movie was fun; the guy who doesn't know what he's talking about but gets the girl's attention has been standing in line at The Sorrow and the Pity since 1977; Marshall McLuhan, however, is dead.

Tom said...

"Maybe Woody should have traveled back to Paris in the 1920s – and spent more time with Hemingway."

Which is funny because Woody Allen CAN write like that, or at least could, in his great story "A Twenties Memory" from "Getting Even":

"That winter, Alice Toklas, Picasso, and myself took a villa in the south of France. I was then working on what I felt was a major American novel but the print was too small and I couldn't get through it. In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, "No." I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day."

Max Clarke said...

Saw Midnight In Paris and enjoyed it, but you have a point. Maybe it's unfair to hold Woody Allen to the Annie Hall standard, but I can remember most of the screenplay for that classic. There aren't that many memorable quotes for this film.

The lost earring scene did accomplish something. From that moment on, I suspected they were going to break up. The girlfriend didn't show a lot of grace under pressure.

A good film, though. If the critics gushed, maybe they were happy to have a Woody Allen film again which they could endorse.

Michael said...

Having read Woody Allen's short stories, I thought Midnight in Paris owed just a bit to The Kugelmass Episode. Read it and see what you think.

His 1920s Paris memories essay was redolent of Russell Baker, whom he admires greatly.

leor said...

great post. i recently had a personal experience that was similar. a sports anchor i was working with has terrible grammer, but defended herself as being "conversational". my counter to that was that a) it's not conversational, it's just plain wrong, and b) you're not having a conversation, you're presenting yourself as a professional news reader.

of course it's a completely different scenario, but i think it has the same sentiment: writing simply has to be elevated for screen/tv/stage, even if you want to sound relaxed and conversational.

Javid Suleymanli said...

Thank you very much :)

Happiness Notes
@JavidSuleymanli

Steve G said...

Just saw the movie this past weekend and enjoyed it without, as you note, the requisite love. You hit upon the scene that seemed to me the most out of place. It struck me as a klutzy scene from a bad sitcom. (Not that I would know such a thing except from watching TV too much.) Unless it was there to pad out the running time, I can't see what the scene added to a mostly cerebral or at times lighter than air comedy. On the other hand, particularly enjoyed Hemingway talking in Hemingway.

Carlos M Hernandez said...

"Im not sure at this late date there's anything Woody can do in terms of bland/lazy writing that would knock the stars from the eyes of his hardcore supporters."

I've seen maybe three or four Woody Allen films and was not a fan of Annie Hall so I wouldn't call myself a supporter and I loved Midnight In Paris.

"...it's the 2010's, if you don't like your girlfriend, get on a plane and leave."

Why would the character do that when he wants to live in Paris?

Anyway, back on Ken, I see your point. I remember watching the scene and thinking, "OK, already, move on!"

Paul Duca said...

Sebastian, I always thought that when it came to David Mamet dialogue, "Yes" and "No" weren't the one-word sentences that are most notable...

gottacook said...

The question of whether the Allen of today writes, or can write, lines that are as memorable as those in (for example) Annie Hall made me think of Broadway musicals with memorable tunes versus those that have few (or no) such tunes - which in turn made me think of the composer Richard Rodgers. Can anyone here name a song from a Rodgers musical written after the death of Hammerstein, such as Two by Two or I Remember Mama? Similarly, many of Allen's best-regarded scripts had collaborators: Marshall Brickman, of course, on Annie Hall and Manhattan, and Douglas McGrath on Bullets over Broadway. But that last one was more than 15 years ago.

I agree that his first two collections Getting Even and Without Feathers are great - not so much the more recent two. (But I still wish he hadn't tried to turn the play "Death" into a movie two decades later; Shadows and Fog was not very funny.)

Anonymous said...

The only Woody Allen movie I have ever liked (and this includes Annie Hall) is Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...

Everything else, to me, is just...meh. Ok, but not great.

Pam aka SisterZip

Cap'n Bob said...

"That winter, Alice Toklas, Picasso, and myself took a villa in the south of France."

Sorry, Woody, but "myself" is incorrect. The right word there is "I."

JRB said...

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned that Woody does not in fact write dialogue for most of these scenes. He sketches out what he wants and lets the actors improvise. I feel like it's left his actors dangling with egg on their faces for years now; I particularly remember Michael Caine having to funfer around in "Hannah and Her Sisters," just begging for a life-raft in the form of some actual notated dialogue. Clearly Woody does write a lot down, and the entirety of the narrated bits are written, but Woody's been a lazy writer for a very long time, and making Rachel McAdams improvise dialogue seems almost cruel. I did like the movie, but I liked it in the same context I like anything of Woody's since 1990 – if you can get past the extremely sloppy movie-making, his charm and his voice are wonderful companions. [I swear to God my word verification is "DEATH."]

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I didn't have a problem with the dialogue itself. This particular scene is only funny if you buy the acting and the expression that the actors bring to the scene. It's the fact that Owen Wilson plays the faux clueless fiancée that makes it funny, while keeping his true intentions hidden.

Owen Wilson was certainly capable of pulling it off. The same can't be said for Rachel McAdams.

Still, I seriously enjoyed this film. It's pretty much a visual love-letter to Paris, and I love the way Woody shoots and lights the 1920 scenes. The characters and plot feel almost secondary (not that I didn't enjoy them as well; Owen Wilson surprised me in this particular role).

Tallulah Morehead said...

"I've lost my ear rings!"

"Did you check behind your lobes?"

There Woody, how difficult was that?

cshel said...

I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris, for what it was - a light, fun, unique little comedy. I am a fan of Woody Allen's work, except for his old serious forays. And at this point in his career, I don't expect another Annie Hall. But I totally agree with Ken about that scene. It bothered me, too. In fact, the few scenes with the fiancee and her parents all kind of felt like uninspired retread. But the rest made up for it. And Owen Wilson did do a good gentile Woody. : )

Del Crandall said...

Top of 1st @ Safeco, Chip Caray calling Brian McCann's HR says, "it will fly away!" Nice tribute, Chipper.

Dan Wilson w/Rick over the weekend; Dave Valle tonight. That's a heck of a rotation in the broadcast booth. With those 2, Ken Wilson, Fairly, Hendu and you, it's amazing you're getting any air time.

Breadbaker said...

Not to let it go to your head or anything, Ken, but on this computer where I've never accessed your blog before, when I Google "Ken", the first suggestion is "Ken Levine."

And to respond to Carlos M. Hernandez way upthread,

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that is the way LUKE WILSOM speaks in virtually every movie he is in. Seriously. I wonder how much of this was just letting him work the premise with his own "style". One which I find increasingly annoying, and I used to like him, but he does this all the time.

Naz said...

I've never watched more than 10 minutes of a Woody Allen film. I lose interest in them immediately.

Carlos M Hernandez said...

Aww, Breadbaker, you're killing me with suspense! :)

Tom Quigley said...

There was a time when I thought that Allen's comedy truly bordered on the genius category, but over the last 20 years or so, my opinion of him can be summed up by what another screenwriter observed to me when Allen started the affair with his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi. "I guess those people don't think they have to play by any rules," he told me. Apparently, Woody Allen must feel that dictum applies to his screenwriting too.

Artemisia Coyle said...

Hmm. I kinda like thinking of myself as an Indian Guide troop. It sounds very cheerful: Camp Wannabe! That's where I know I'm gonna be! I'll do my best and then the rest (agent, contract, Malibu beach house) will take care ooooooof... it. self.

julie love said...

Cool blog Ken, thanx