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Words On A Page
by Jay Scott
Some of the greatest moments in film are not visual. They are the crux of important story changes, they are the words that propel the story forward and endure us to those who speak them. Words carefully written by the writer, and spoken by the actor. Think about it. What would JAWS be without Quint's eerie monologue about the fate on the USS Indianapolis?
“And the idea was, the shark nearest man and then he'd start poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.”
Those kind of moments where the actor takes the written word, makes it their own, and volia, serendipity strikes and we end up with one of the greatest moments in film.
There are lots of these examples, moments where you can feel the moment. Like in The Shawshank Redemption where Red tells us how Andy got away.
“In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I used to think it would take six-hundred years to tunnel under the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved Geology, I guess it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That's all it takes really, pressure, and time. That, and a big god-damned poster. Like I said, in prison a man will do anything to keep his mind occupied. It turns out Andy's favourite hobby was totin' his wall through the exercise yard, a handful at a time. I guess after Tommy was killed, he decided he had been here just about long enough. Andy did like he was told, buffed those shoes to a high mirror shine. The guard simply didn't notice, neither did I... I mean, seriously, how often do you really look at a mans shoes? Andy crawled to freedom through five-hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want too. Five-Hundred yards... that's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile.”
I love these moments in films. They are the brilliant little things that make a moment. In a lot, if not most films today, that seems to be the one thing that’s missing. Story, it seems, gets cast aside for effects, action and general BS that passes or tries to pass a cinema. When is the last time you saw a film and felt, literally felt an emotion just based on the words being spoken? Its far and few between, and some people think bad chatty dialogue passes muster, when in fact, its just a cheap string of words tossed together in hope of it making sense. When did great little moments like James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams telling Costner that people will come?
Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Those are the moments that hold a whole film together for everyone. It’s the parts that reach inside of you and never leave. I wonder why these moments are so far and few between nowadays. Writers getting more hack-ish? Studios cutting down on the great chit chat? Who knows. Lots of actors think they know how to deliver, but in truth they do not. It’s a sad little fact. If “To Kill a Mockingbird” was made for the first time today, the only person they could cast as Atticus Finch, in my mind would be Alec Baldwin. Say that you will, but he can deliver the goods. Just watch “The Cooler” “State and Main” or “ Glenngarry Glenn Ross”. Now that I think of it, so could Matthew McConaughey. In “A Time To Kill” he gave one of the most moving performances of his career to date. As that young Atticus like lawyer in a heated racial trial. Its one of the few books made into a film that I like the adaptation of. Not a lot can top his summation during the trial to the jury with his monologue. I totally digress.
So what are you favorite moments of well used words in a film? What are the ones that stand out to you? I leave you with this:
Atticus Finch: There are some things that you're not old enough to understand just yet. There's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man.
Scout: If you shouldn't be defending him, then why are you doing it?
Atticus Finch: For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again.
[he puts his arm around her]
Atticus Finch: You're gonna hear some ugly talk about this in school. But I want you to promise me one thing: That you won't get into fights over it, no matter what they say to you.