Monday, February 07, 2011

Jargon in Primer (2004), Brick (2005), and Emperor of the North (1973)

Having seen Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973) recently, I was thinking a little about the use of jargon to lend linguistic texture to films. Emperor was full of depression-era shit-talk... now, I realize the 70's was far removed from the 30's, but the 00's is even farther removed, so provisionally, I trust Emperor's rendition of 30's vocabulary. Some of it is pretty brilliant, and the slight bit of effort it takes to translate this language makes it extremely engaging. Apart from the epic final fight scene, I'd say the scenes I remember best are the ones where A-no.-1 (Lee Marvin) is rattling off cryptic advice and insults to Cigaret (Keith Carradine).

I love IMDB's quotes section:

"You ain't stopping at this hotel, kid. My hotel! The stars at night, I put 'em there. And I know the presidents, all of them. And I go where I damn well please. Even the chairman of the New York Central can't do it better. My road, kid, and I don't give lessons and I don't take partners. Your ass don't ride this train!"

This quote doesn't even come close to some of the other dialog. I could copy and paste the whole final speech, hollered back from the train as it disappears up the mountain, but I almost feel like I would be ruining it. It just sounds so much better spoken than it comes off written.

There are other movies that have this kind of jargon, used to similar effect. One of the most important examples is Shane Carruth's Primer, an intense, claustrophobic time-travel film released in 2004. One of the novelties of Primer is that Carruth doesn't dumb down any of the technical jargon for his audience, and the engineering and theoretical math comes across (to the layman, at least) as abstract, finely-textured gibberish. Again, it's some of the most memorable stuff from the film: those early nerds-at-work scenes where the protagonists are sussing out the mysteries of the universe in one of their basements. The cryptic language is immersive and engaging.

I think Rian Johnson's 2005 film Brick is worth comparing. Brick was written in jargon, as well -- an approximation of 1930's noir patter, anachronistically displaced into a present-day California high school. Now, I loved the film. It was sharp and intelligent and cynical and daring, a serious and self-assured indie film project. However, the jargon just didn't quite work for me, and in retrospect, the scenes that were heavy on stylized dialog (Brendan meeting with The Brain in the library, for instance) don't really feel like the film's greatest assets.

It's hard to explain this phenomenon, except to say that the stylization of the dialog was a mismatch for the gritty, neo-realist feel of the rest of the film. There's something so lucid and transparent about that desaturated video footage. Indeed, the dialog worked wonders when it spoke directly to the nature of the character and the situation: Brendan's short, muscular challenges to his adversaries, his talk with the principal, and The Pin's talk about J.R.R. Tolkien on the beach.

In my estimation, that talk with The Pin is tied for best exchange in the film; the other contender is this little bit, between Brendan and Laura Dannon:

LAURA: "You think nobody sees you. Eating lunch behind the portables. Loving some girl like she's all there is, anywhere, to you. I've always seen you. Or maybe I liked Emily. Maybe I see what you're trying to do for her, trying to help her, and I don't know anybody who would do that for me."

BRENDAN: "You are dangerous."

With very little bullshit, this gets across a whole range of information: Brendan's heroic character, despite his apparent clinginess and self-exile; Laura's role as a sweet-talker and temptress; the very important fact that in this world, every relationship needs to be regarded with suspicion. It does all this, and even makes reference to one of the classic noirs in a very effective, natural way. And like I said, much less jargony and cryptic than so much of the other dialog in the film.

So it's all about texture, and that subtle relationship between the texture of the film and the texture of the language. I'm sure there are lots of other movies that exploit language effectively, to engage the viewer in an active process of decoding, thereby improving the experience of the film world. I'll mention more if I can think of them.

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