I recently watched a Gus Van Sant movie, Gerry, about two guys who get lost in the desert after a hike. Part of Van Sant’s Death trilogy, preceded by Elephant (inspired by the 1999 Columbine shooting) and succeeded by Last Days (inspired by Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide) Gerry was released in 2002. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon star and also co-wrote the script.
To me Gerry stands out as a shining example of how not to write a movie. Perhaps cinematographers may get something from Harris Savides‘ stunning work, or maybe actors might get something from the minimal performances, but as a writer I thought it was woefully lacking. The film had almost no dialogue and no backstory and therefore I knew as much about the characters at the end of the film as I did when it began. To be honest I didn’t give a rat’s ass whether they lived or died which is a bit of a drawback when one is supposed to be biting one’s nails to see if they make it out of the desert at all.
I always view movies as a writer; it’s inevitable I suppose. These days there aren’t many movies that really stand out in terms of dialogue as audiences don’t seem to have the attention span for character driven pieces. I recently watched Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford and starring Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. The script was written by Alvin Sargent who rightfully won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on the film.
I thought the movie was remarkable for the dialogue. Timothy Hutton’s character has just come out of a psychiatric institution and his stay there is not discussed much throughout the film. The one exception to this is when he meets a girl who was in the institution and she remarks on how well his hair has grown back. He rubs his head, looks at her with embarrassment and says what a stupid thing it was for him to do. With this five second exchange of conversation the viewer learns so much about Hutton’s character. We imagine how he may have hacked at his hair in a moment of madness and it deepens our understanding of him. It allows the audience to use their own imagination, to interact with the story, and this enriches the experience. (If you have never seen Ordinary People you should rent it immediately, even if you’re not a writer!)
I think much can be learned from cinema in terms of good dialogue. It can convey so much to the viewer without necessitating laboured backstory or spoonfeeding. Do any readers have any movies to recommend on this basis?