The Art of Great Film Dialogue

This weekend, I had the privilege of attending a women’s retreat with my church group.  At the brand new home of one our community’s members, we had a mega-sleepover with nail-painting, popcorn eating, and of course, girlie movie-watching.  While half of us watched ‘Phantom of the Opera’ upstairs, the other half watched the Southern, hairsprayed gem of sisterhood films, ‘Steel Magnolias’.

I had seen the film before, but forgotten its many gems of dialogue…

Though not every quote is serious or particularly life-changing, each line is true to each character and wouldn’t be caught dead in any other movie.  Only the pink crepe-paper wedding of a young Julia Roberts with an armadillo groom’s cake, would have a line like this.

Which made me try to think of other movies that have similarly spot-on dialogue, that serves more to establish character than anything else in the movie (hairstyles included).  Some other films that jump out from my immediate memory are ‘Fargo’ (which purportedly included every “Um” and “Yah” in the original script) and also ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (Most memorable line: “Inside the lump…was my twin.”).  In television, Maggie Smith has gained fame as of late, for her delivery of the Grand Duchess’s lines, which also serve up fans with perfect balance of nobility, snobbery, and honesty.  Some other great films where dialogue takes center stage in terms of characterization are ‘Raising Arizona’ and ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, both of which rely heavily on regional colloquialisms the same way that ‘Steel Magnolias’ does.

Character catch-phrases are an entirely different form of characterizing dialogue that can be generation-defining.  E.g. “I’ll be back” and “Oh behave!” have their respective fan bases, while “Here’s to you, kid” and “I coulda been a contender” each have their own as well.

On the flip side, one of the biggest turn-offs to me, is a film with flat, generic dialogue where the writers are making characters say things.  Like, “I’ve got an idea!” or “Why, you little–” that get the plot moving, but move characters like rusted gears, instead the fleshy, nuanced human beings they truly are. At any rate, my viewing of Steel Magnolias revealed to me just how much I appreciate good dialogue.  And how like a good man, good dialogue is hard to find.

Missing Noah’s Ark: an ekphrastic poem adapted from the painting “The Flood”

I go under.

Water rushing into my ears,

bubbling out of my nose,

eye sockets overflowing with its saltiness

my body sinks


As the black dye pinned to my skin

for the past 43 years

seeps off

dissipating into


creating a dark, hazy atmosphere

above my heavy head

My body, feather-light, floats lower,


I become the black

clunky dye,

drifting higher,


to the surface then


I am lies

contorted truths of passion and empathy for our family’s downfall.

I am greed

thirsting, devouring, licking clean all the wealth of my life.

I am anger

slapping, spitting, singeing, done to those I know best.

Tunneling down

ricocheting against the green waters,

I become numb to my senses.

I see cloaked darkness,

hearing the grain of dust fall in,

tasting the liquid that consumes my molecular structure.

I hit a wall.

I think my back feels

the splintered wood of a boat.

-Erika Bell

We Are Proud of the Love Club

I am not entirely sure what I was doing with my life at 16 years old, but I can say with utmost certainty I was not a New Zealand pop star whose 5-track EP is taking over the world. Barely old enough to drive in the US, Ella Yelich O’Connor (formally known as Lorde) has been climbing charts across several continents ever since the release of her first EP, titled The Love Club. It is now the third ranked album in New Zealand, and boasts the track Royals, which has reached Number One. Again, to reiterate: she is 16 years old. Don’t believe the hype? Take a quick listen to any of the five songs on the EP, and I guarantee any of your skepticism will vanish. Her voice has the depth and range of a 25-year old, not to mention a similarly mature range of diction. She sings about the fake, contrived lifestyle of pop stars (Lana Del Ray, in particular) and adheres to her modest upbringing. In one of the first interviews she gave, Lorde cited the importance of literature and writing in her life, and listed off a few impressive and intellectual names. Even stripping her of her irresistibly attractive voice would still leave some emotionally candid and provocative lyrics.

But that voice! Lorde’s music is instantly appealing because of its consistent sound: a deep and regular egg-shaker-type beat, grand accompanying vocals sung in a round, and of course Lorde’s primary vocals in the foreground. It’s Lana Del Ray meets m83 who kicks it a little with Lilly Allen while chatting with RJD2. And it sounds freaking amazing. Each track adds variety, and they are all distinct in their own tone, however there is an undeniable cohesion to the short EP. Lorde simply does not mess around; she knows the message she wants to deliver and has the skills to do it. Out of the 5 tracks, three most noticeably prove this fact.

We open with Bravado, by far the most m83-esque of the group, a song that is most definitely influenced by one of Lorde’s favorite bands, Animal Collective. This is the darkest track on the EP, and it takes almost half of the song before we are introduced to Lorde’s bright and chipper spirit. The song is a great introduction to Lorde’s ability to play around with tempo, and vacillate between octaves. It would not be my choice of song to blast on a sunny day, but it is nonetheless impressive.

Next in line is the masterpiece of the collection, titled Royals. This song is just brilliant. It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s meaningful and it’s artistically remarkable. Lorde absolutely rips the celebrity lifestyle to pieces, ridiculing the lyrical content of mainstream pop music. She attests (by practically rapping) “But every song’s like gold teeth/gray goose/tripping in the bathroom/bloodstains/ball gowns/trashing the hotel room,” and then immediately responds to this with the statement, “We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillac’s in our dreams.” Lorde is proud of the fact that she and her friends are not obsessed with the maniacal, celebrity lifestyle; they do not idealize expensive liquor or cars, and are not creating music to get rich. This attitude may reflect the fact that Lorde is still a full time high school student, but it is still laudable that she has not been consumed in the image of a trashy celebrity. This song is also unique because Lorde restrains nothing vocally; she exhibits her full capacity, and it is astonishing. This is a track that will stay in your head for days, and will add the lightest hop to your step.

Finally, sharing the same name as the EP, the song The Love Club is also a gem. Although not as dynamic as Royals the Love Club makes up for this with its lyricism. By spinning a rich tale of maturation and belonging, Lorde weaves her most complex metaphor, and reveals aspects of her childhood and the social experiences of her sixteen years of age. This track, above all, exemplifies Lorde’s unmatched ability to blend her youthful spirit and advanced writing skills. I highly recommend giving this EP a listen, and to keep an eye out for Lorde in the future. In her words, “It’s time the kid got free.”


My self-defined role in most gay, cis-man places is to disrupt the misogyny through . . . wait for it . . . not being misogynistic (gasp!). This usually comes in the form of talking about my support for womynism, my admiration for Virginia Woolf and bell hooks and Toni Morrison, and my love for vaginas. But not being misogynistic, as easy as it seems, takes effort when you inhabit spaces where men (gay and straight) beat their chests, talk about dick, refuse to utter the word “vagina” or “feminist,” support the patriarchy (in all the ways), and then have views of gender that make me want to fall off the cliff of civil society (I’m coming, Wilderson!).

It takes conscious effort for me to check my privilege, to note my oppressive behavior, and then change how I approach the world in order for me to not be a complete dumbass.

In my experience, and in (cis-man) friend’s experience that I’ve heard, misogyny is tied into the coming out process. You drop the truth bomb that you expect to shatter your world, “I’m gay,” but instead it goes to obliterate the feminine within your life while simultaneously projecting it back onto yourself through the internalization of stereotypes to ground one’s identity. I don’t like women. What’s a vagina? Ugh, there are too many women here. Why do women keep complaining, being gay is SO hard. Vagina is a dark cave where people go to die. I’m gay and I don’t like women.

To me this sounds like not an affirmation of gay identity but a complete success in embracing misogyny.

So to help combat this tendency in myself that society approves of, puts into me, and supports, I surround myself by (cis- and trans*-) womyn. I surround myself with friends who have lived experiences, voices, and feelings. Womyn have always been an important part to my life and I want to support the efforts of all womyn to fight systems of oppression directed against them.

Last night I reaffirmed that to love cis-womyn you have to love vagina. Last night I went to the Vagina Monologues.

Vaginas are magical. They are exquisite. They are beautiful. They are dangerous. They are fierce. They are angry. They are loving. They are a part unexplored by some, unknown by others, ignored by most. And for all of the phallic imagery in society, for all the talk of penis and dick and cock, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT VAGINAS. pussy. cunt.

(However problematic it is for me to use the last two words, which it is–#cisman, I support all womyn who chose to reclaim these words for their visceral, aesthetic, and wondrous power. And when you have an audience affirming a monologist by following directions of yelling “cunt” at the top of their lungs it is hard not to join in.)

The Vagina Monologues is the perfect venue–a place (perhaps the only place on campus these days. . . ) that actively supports vaginas. I come into the lobby to find friends, soon-to-be-friends, strangers. We wander from table to table picking up handouts from SAPAC, brochures from Safe House Center, condoms from Sexperteam, saran wrap talks from Spectrum Center, and buttons from Students for Choice. It was a pro-womyn space that should be everywhere.

Although the event wasn’t perfect–as nothing is–it was, in my opinion, a success. It left me thinking of what I could do next, “how do I proceed from here?”

I will talk about vaginas more often and not shame them when conversations about them come up. I will support all talk about vaginas and menstruation. I will talk about the oppression of womyn and specifically the oppression of trans* womyn whenever I get the chance. I will not allow for my community to disrespect womyn through acts of violence, be it verbal, physical, spatial, etc.

But I will check myself. I will not talk for womyn, I will let them share their story. I will listen to their lived experiences without assuming or judging. I will do my best to check my offensive language. I will embrace the feminine in all its aspects and not shame people for doing the same.

Listen to herstory. It has always been here.

On Film

Entering a new medium is often all at once immensely thrilling (look at all these new possibilities that have opened up before you!) and immensely difficult (quite frankly— what is everyone else doing that you’re not?). Sometimes the learning curve is immediate and steep, and other times the obstacles are not visible until much later. Consuming the art and playing the audience for it, I think, is little different.

The reappearance of the Ann Arbor Film Festival this week provides a fertile ground for indulging in sensory rumination, for exploring ideas and concepts dissembled and reassembled and fed to the audience through various audio-visual stimuli. It has been, as an event, largely opaque to me. I’d never quite understood its intended audience, its intended market, whether it was meant to be a rather exclusive intellectual mingling or something accessible to the public at large, and I’ve certainly never been.

Finally attending one gives me little to no authority to speak on the matter, but it has produced ideas, relevant ideas such as: Is the artist’s primary responsibility to the medium or to the subject? The proper treatment of one is no use without the same of the oddslot other. Do you lay out all the facts completely and fairly, or do you craft a narrative? Bits of both will end up being sacrificed before a balance is achieved. Yet the concept of genre, fitting the content into a known form, is often met with disdain regardless of its format. Prose, sculpture, or film, there are parameters, but there is also room to explore. How far then, and how?