How to Spot Lines That Reveal Bad Storytelling, Part One

This is the first in a series of occasional posts in which I will identify dialogue that reveals bad storytelling. I’m writing this because I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the many rookie mistakes that I continue to observe from storytellers who should know better, whereby the artifices of an otherwise convincing narrative are swiftly exposed because the writer hasn’t thought out character motivation or has missed out on opportunities to create a memorable work of art.

“That’s interesting!” Imagine that you just watched your best friend turn into a werewolf or that the spouse of your best friend revealed that he was in love with you. Would you say “That’s interesting!” or would you respond with something a bit less general and more heartfelt? A writer should never have to telegraph to the audience that an action is interesting. If an action is interesting to a character (and thus interesting to an audience), then a character will react to it in a way in which we know that it’s interesting. For example, here is an exchange from Preston Sturges’s wonderful film The Lady Eve:

Gerald: What I can’t understand is how he finished fifth!
Jean: There were only five horses in the race. What do you expect when you bet on a goat called After You?

If Jean had reacted to Gerald’s observation with “That’s interesting,” then we would have missed this great opportunity to see a con artist who observes all the specifics of a situation and who has no illusions about the way the world works. And when Jean falls in love with Hopsie, this transformation attracts our interest.

Even the person who questions another character doesn’t have to say “That’s interesting!” during the exchange. From The Big Lebowski:

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?
The Dude: Employed?
The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?
The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?
The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…
The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We see how The Big Lebowski is appalled, but genuinely interested, with the way in which The Dude can spend his unemployed life not doing much. The Dude, in turn, responds with his philosophy, which is parroted from George Bush’s 1990 speech on Kuwait. And the result is a deservedly famous, very funny, and referential exchange.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that “That’s so interesting! Tell me more!” has turned into an Internet meme, often introduced sarcastically into forum threads, that is largely identified with the late great Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka. Although that line did not appear in the movie, it nevertheless reveals how audiences are aware that saying “That’s interesting!” may represent the heights of condescension or artificiality.

So instead of having a character say “That’s interesting,” why not delve into her philosophy? Why would she feel that the situation is interesting? Moreover, when a character states her philosophy, it can be wonderfully revealing. In Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, for example, the title character says that she “helps young girls out,” not that she performs illegal abortions. And it is this simple reframing that not only allows Vera to be tremendously fascinating and complex, but permits the audience to empathize with her persecution.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”: Very often, a writer will have a character intrude upon two other characters who are talking and deliver this very common line. It will never occur to the writer that there could be a more interesting dynamic if the interrupting character is either clueless about the intrusion or has willfully interrupted. Indeed, interruption is often better conveyed through subtext rather than an explicit pronouncement.

One of my favorite interruption moments comes from John Cassevetes’s extraordinary film Faces. There’s an incredible scene in which Richard (John Marley) and Freddie (Fred Draper) are competing for the attentions of Jeannie (played by Gena Rowlands), with the three all dancing around a living room. Jeannie increasingly drifts towards Richard. Freddie attempts to get Jeannie’s attention, but is rebuffed. He is very much a third wheel. And this fascinating scene unfolds with all of the characters singing “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” This creates an incredible tension which sets up some emotionally revealing moments that follow. If Freddie had explicitly remarked, “I hope I’m not interrupting you two dancing,” it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

“Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened.” Bad storytelling often involves characters calling attention to the fact that they are asking for story details within a story. But that’s usually not the way storytelling works when you hang out with people. In real life, people hear a modest detail, maybe about something wild that the storyteller did the previous night. And that detail may beget another detail. The person listening to the story may try to persuade the storyteller to spill the whole tale, especially if the other person has said something curious or unusual. If you’re going to tell a story within a story, then it needs to be motivated by human curiosity or the story needs to reveal the character, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws. “Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened” is what a programmer with Asperger syndrome is likely to say. “Come on, man! You’ve gotta spill!” or “Wait! You swam in the water with a knife in your mouth?” Isn’t that more like it? Dialogue must sustain the illusion that it is natural. And if the audience senses that storytelling is being shoehorned into a story to advance plot details that the writer didn’t have the chops to convey through action, then it will start to catch on that a script is, well, more of a programmed script (especially if the dialogue is solely Q&A, the telltale sign of bad storytelling) rather than something that should be revealing the human condition. Nobody wants to be mansplained when watching a TV show or listening to an audio drama.

NYFF: Bullet in the Head (2008)

[This is the ninth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Your intrepid reporter has lined up several interviews with filmmakers and has even braved a press conference. (I try to be spontaneous whenever I attend mammoth expositions of this sort, but I wasn’t entirely aware that there was a press conference component to some of the screenings. A good reporter, however, always comes prepared. Just don’t ask what essential items I have in my backpack. I’m sure that my arsenal is somewhat unorthodox. But among the ordnance was some equipment to perform a little experiment.) The press conference did not quite work out to my satisfaction, but I now have a plan in place that should work well for next week.

I saw two films today: one very, very good, the other very, very bad. And there’s still have another film (good) from yesterday that I need to cover. So let’s get the bad apple out of the way first, shall we?

Jaime Rosales’s Bullet in the Head, which by no means should be confused with John Woo’s entertaining 1990 action flick of the same name, is a sleep-inducing mess that should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve been reading the nearly 10,000 words (!) I’ve generated here, you may recall that I expressed certain reservations with Serbis. I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t see a film that could be worse. Much to my regret, I was proved wrong this afternoon. (It’s a strange coincidence that probably means nothing, but I must point it out. Both films feature a sound mix loaded with intrusive street traffic.)

Despite copious quantities of coffee that were ingested very carefully in the morning, your intrepid reporter was forced to slap his cheeks in order to stay awake. Not just once. Four times. Unfortunately, I was not armed with a large trout that could probably wake me up in one slap. So I had to settle for palms that needed to do it in four. I caught a glimpse of my mug in the mirror about an hour ago and espied a slightly pinkish mark from these pelts. Let it not be said that your intrepid reporter nodded off on the job. I cannot say the same for some of my colleagues.

Let us be clear. Within Rosales’s film lies a perfectly interesting concept for a good 15 minute short. This is a film determined to tell its story without a line of dialogue. And with the exception of a character yelling “Fucking cops!” twice, it clings quite devoutly to this credo. I presume that this “artistic” choice was made so that the film would stand a better chance of being accepted into film festivals around the world. Or maybe the idea here was to cut down on the subtitling bill. Whatever the motivations, Rosales’s approach shares much in common with the flawed but interesting 1952 film, The Thief, which starred Ray Milland as a physicist and did not feature a single line of dialogue. But The Thief, for all of its problems, at least gave us an FBI agent pursuing Milland and featured the Empire State Building. Rosales’s film, by contrast, features not a single distinguishing landmark. Nor is there an FBI agent.

I would have liked an FBI agent.

There are, however, two cops. But they don’t really look like cops and they don’t really offer what one might identify as cop-like behavior. Instead of the character shouting “Fucking cops!,” he might have yelled “Fucking nondescript guys around thirty!” I contend that this would have been a slightly subversive and more entertaining line of dialogue for Rosales to deploy. And if Rosales had inserted this line into the movie, I would have been the first to declare Rosales a genius. But “Fucking cops!” is what we have to work with here. So “Fucking cops!” it shall be.

Bullet in the Head, for its first hour, doesn’t clue us into the possibility that there might actually be a bullet fired into someone’s head. The film saves this violent moment for later. So if you’re looking for a bullet in the head, you’ll get one. Just don’t expect anything spectacular. And I may have spoiled the film a bit by pointing out the cops. But maybe I’m not really giving anything away because the movie is, after all, called Bullet in the Head. So there’s a certain promise here in the title that the film has to live up to.

We see characters talking behind windows, across the street, at the other end of a restaurant, and at pay phones. Strangely enough, nobody in this movie seems to own a set of blinds or drapes. Which strikes me as damn curious and damn convenient, especially since we see the stoic Ion (played by a burly guy named Ion Arretxe, which suggests that Rosales is quite lazy in naming his characters) getting it on with his girlfriend/wife. Rosales, to his credit, does occlude our view of the events quite frequently, having people pass while the camera pans, thus deliberately mangling the camera move. He does sometimes choose interesting and incongruous audio to play over the visuals, such as a basketball court in the film’s establishing shot of Ion’s apartment. The actors don’t overexpress with their hands too much. And there is one amusing moment at a restaurant in which three people try to look over at another table without suspicion, and their body language indicates how obvious their efforts to be sneaky are.

But this film isn’t called Views Through a Window. It’s called Bullet in the Head! And your intrepid reporter, being a patient man, eagerly awaited a payoff. But there was none. There was indeed no compelling narrative to speak of. No particular detail within the apartment decor that might have said something about the characters. But I can assure you based on the number of eating shots that Ion is a character who likes to eat.

I suppose I would have enjoyed this film if I could (a) read lips and (b) read lips that spoke Spanish. But I am only slightly competent in (a) and utterly incompetent at (b). And if Rosales really wanted us to know what the characters were saying, he would have provided us with audio and/or subtitles.

So what we have here is a pretty disappointing film — indeed, one so disappointing that there was an audible hiss from the critics when the credits rolled. And while I’m not a guy who likes to fall into critical consensus, I will admit that the hissers had a good point. I certainly hope that Rosales’s misfire doesn’t hinder other filmmakers from making films without dialogue. There is much within our body language and our actions that is interesting without silly lines getting in the way. But these future filmmakers may want to consider including an FBI agent.