In the past few years, there’s been a boon in video essays on filmmaking and filmmakers on the internet. Insightful, short videos have cropped up that look at a particular director’s oeuvre, or use clips from multiple sources to illustrate a point about how a particular tool could or should be used when making a film. When assembled together, these mini-masterclasses in cinema can be quite helpful to better understand why certain films (and filmmakers) work much better than others, and can help burgeoning filmmakers hone their craft and improve their work.
A new video essay by Lewis Bond (YouTube user Channel Criswell) looks at the various ways dialogue is used in films and the ways it should be used to further characterization and plot. Using the opening of David Fincher’s The Social Network (as written by Aaron Sorkin), Bond establishes the hierarchy of dialogue in movies. At its most basic, he asserts, dialogue is expository—providing details about the plot, locations, and other basic information about the movie to keep the story going. Usually this is clunky and awkwardly handled, feeling like an infodump unnaturally spoken by people who should know each other.
But, Bond argues, what dialogue should be doing is revealing more about the characters. What information they divulge and the way in which they say it speaks to who they are as characters and allows the audience to understand their personalities, their goals, and what they deem to be of importance. While filmmakers can go too natural with their dialogue (and this video may be the only time the works of Tommy Wiseau and Woody Allen are ever compared) and reveal nothing, the great writers/directors/actors can pull a lot of nuance about the characters out of even the simplest of lines.
And lastly, for Bond, the apex of dialogue is when exposition is given but the audience doesn’t notice it, because they are too busy picking up on character details. These strains of purpose for dialogue come to a head in this opening scene of The Social Network, not just establishing Mark Zuckerberg’s persona, but also the tropes that will play throughout the story and plot points that will come up later on. It’s a brilliant synthesis of purposes coming together, seamlessly, while appearing as a natural conversation between hyper-intelligent people.