Show, Don’t Tell: Christopher Nolan’s Reliance on Dialogue

Anyone who’s been to the movies in the past decade has probably heard the name Christopher Nolan. He’s gained a lot of attention in recent years, and for good reason. In an industry producing sequel after sequel, Nolan does so many things right. Yes, his films have great special effects, moving performances, jaw-dropping visuals, and incredible scores (Hanz Zimmer is the man), but what I love so much is his originality. He’s proven that big budget productions don’t have to be mindless, and they don’t all have to be the same. Every one of his films are thought provoking and different. You’d be hard pressed to find anything similar to Memento, Inception, or The Prestige. Even the Batman series, although an addition to the astounding number of super hero movies today, has found a way to stand out among the rest. Interstellar is another achievement that can be added to the list. It’s very refreshing to see a director making big budget productions without compromising the art.

I respect him for this reason. However, as good as he is at coming up with original stories, there is something missing from many of his films – he relies too heavily on dialogue. A message is always communicated most effectively when it is shown to the audience rather than just explained by a character. This was my biggest problem with interstellar. The crew member Brand (Anne Hathaway) just explains a major theme in one scene. (Spoilers ahead) I’m referring to the part where the crew has to decide which of the two planets to visit, and Brand is very confident about a certain one. Then Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) informs everyone that she is biased because she is in love with the scientist waiting at this planet. Brand proceeds to explain that love is an important factor and should not be ruled out. What is the point of film as a medium if you don’t even use the various tools at your disposal to drive this point home? There are so many more creative ways to say that “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends all dimensions” than having someone say it! I could have closed my eyes during this scene, and I wouldn’t have missed any information. It’s not very believable that someone would even speak in this way, and the context of her whole monologue just seems so tacked on. Are we really supposed to feel emotionally invested in her love interest when we were just informed it existed moments ago? The Dark Knight did the same thing. The Joker just says, “In their last moments, people show you who they really are.” You could build an entire film around this idea, without using those words once. Quit telling everyone about the duality of human nature, and just show us. It seems that every Nolan film is hindered by this dependence on explanation.

Here are just a few examples of directors showing rather than telling:

“Rosebud” in Citizen Kane

We spend the entire film wondering what “Rosebud” means. Only at the last shot is it revealed that his childhood sled had this word painted on the front of it. It was the snow-globe in his room that reminded him of the moment his childhood was robbed from him. He was taken from his parents at a young age in order to inherit a life of wealth. This all happened while he was sledding and playing out in the snow. It is concluded that no amount of money can replace a childhood. Welles uses several techniques to communicate this, and not one of them is a character saying anything about Kane’s childhood. Only Kane knows what Rosebud means, and it has a profound effect on him. The journalist, and everyone else, are unable to uncover the mystery of the word, just as they are unable to fully understand the man. As misguided as everyone else is about Kane, the audience knows him very well. This is because of the key moments in his life the director has chosen to show us. There are various people who knew him in a certain way, doing their best to explain who they thought he was, but each of these story tellers offers only a piece of the puzzle. It’s up to the viewer to piece it all together.

The jail cell scene in Raging Bull

In Raging Bull, we follow a very self-destructive boxer, Jake Lamotta. Near the end, this quality is shown beautifully. He gets arrested, and becomes so angry that he violently resists the officers, and they have to put him in a solitary cell. It’s in this cell that reality sets in. He realizes that everyone he loves has left him, and the great life he once had is long gone. He walks over to the concrete wall and starts head butting it, then punching it as hard as he can. He starts to yell “WHY?! WHY?! WHY?!” before sobbing uncontrollably. He has put himself in this situation, and there is no one else to blame. He is still asking “why?” because he still doesn’t understand that all of this is his fault. His whole life has consisted of him “punching a concrete wall” so to speak.

The helicopter/ceiling fan sequence of Apocalypse Now

This scene uses incredible innovation to communicate without words. Shots of military helicopters in Vietnam are weaved together seamlessly with shots of a ceiling fan. The whole time there is a double exposure with Captain Willard lying in a bed. The sound of helicopters continues throughout. Coppola wants us to associate common household things like ceiling fans with military helicopters to put us in the mind of Willard, who’s been changed by war. We discover very quickly that he has no place in the civilian world, and needs to return to what he knows: the jungle. So much is communicated without a single spoken word.

Dialogue is certainly not a bad thing, but there is a balance, and Nolan has yet to find it. What is said should point the audience in a direction without being the final destination. Otherwise there is no reason to use a camera at all. He can create interesting visuals, but rarely seems to use them as a tool to tell a story.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

-Orson Welles

Daniel Clark, Film Feature Writer

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1 Comments

  1. Actually, I disagree. Dialogue IS the point. There is nothing to compare to the rousing speech (say the “Men of the West” speech in *Return of the King*), or the heartfelt exchange of ideas (such as the example from *Interstellar*). When dialogue is omitted, dumbed down, or consists only of quips and jokes meant to release tension – films become rather meaningless. Films that are so visual, but without important dialogue, ARE the meaningless blockbusters, full of explosions and car chases.
    Nolan’s films are brilliant in part because of the dialogue as well as the visual sense. Nolan isn’t afraid to let characters talk to each other. He isn’t afraid to spend a few minutes letting the audience know who the characters are not simply by what they do but by what they say. And I’ve never felt I was being spoon fed plot or explanations. I certainly never felt Nolan’s films talked down to the audience. Many of Nolan’s films, regardless of genre, have a certain film noir quality. *Memento*, *Inception*, *The Prestige*, *Interstellar*, and the Dark Knight trilogy are all dark films – and I’m not talking about color temperature. *Memento* not only puts the audience into Leonard’s unique situation – but the film’s surprising ending means you cannot trust the narrator. When watching *The Prestige* – the use of interweaving flashbacks mean the sympathies you have as an audience member for one character switch to his rival – and in the end, you cannot trust any of the main characters. This is built not only from visuals – but from what is said and what is not said. *Inception* leaves things VERY open-ended. Seriously, am I the only one who wondered if Cobb had ever really woken up or if his mysteriously never aging children were *really* his children? And *Interstellar* is seriously the darkest SF film just about EVER, though it’s subtle. Ever notice there are no animals in the film? No dogs, no cats, no cows, no horses, no pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, etc? Not even a bird flying across the sky. We’re told that all the food plants are going extinct – it’s certainly implied that all the animals are *already* extinct. Not only that, but even though Murphy is living on the space station when Cooper returns, and she’s incredibly elderly, – just how many people do you think were rescued from Earth and made it to the space station – a dozen, a hundred, a couple of thousand? It’s not like space stations have a lot of room. *Interstellar* shows us nothing less than the complete destruction of Earth, without apocalypse-film explosions, which is why I found it incredibly depressing. Also, it’s realistic in that the disaster that causing the conflict *has already happened* – look up the Dust Bowl sometime (and the Irish potato famine, the inspiration for “blight”). I actually found an archival black and white picture of a farm house in the midst of a dust storm that looked almost exactly like one of the images in the film *Interstellar* and it was a picture from the 1930s. That’s scary. Much scarier than any disaster flick. And the Dark Knight Trilogy is simply brilliant.
    It’s to be remembered that classic film noir films were also dialogue-heavy. In fact, since they were often low budget and were also inspired by hard boiled fiction – dialogue was important. Films like *Sunset Blvd*, *Double Indemnity*, *Casablanca*, and even *The Maltese Falcon* wouldn’t work without dialogue.

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