Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Language as Narrative Voice: The Poetics of the Highly Inflected Screenplay

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Language as Narrative Voice: The Poetics of the Highly Inflected Screenplay

Article excerpt

This article explores the way inferential or evocative language functions to determine meaning and focus in screenplays. It will demonstrate that although shooting scripts might be read as denotative blueprints or instructions, screenplays can be understood only as a form of writing that communicates much of its meaning through the connotative nuances of language. Finally, it will show how narrative voice-that perspective that shapes and at times comments on the storycan be expressed through the use of screenplay language, which, properly interpreted, embodies the nuances of directorial style. How does language function in a screenplay? If a script is merely a blueprint for a finished film, is it useful to speak of screenplay style? How much can a script communicate by inference? Does the language of stage directions express something different than the language of dialogue? What do we make, say, of the script for The Player (1992), in which, in an early scene, Bonnie, the story editor, lounging in the hot tub with Griffin Mill, the studio executive, reads aloud, contemptuously, from her pile of scripts: Listen to this; He lifts her dress. She kisses him harder. He puts his hands in her underpants. She grabs his shoulders. He pulls her dress above her waist and he unzips his fly. He rubs against her wide, soft belly. He could come, but he doesn't want to. He lowers her dress (Tolkin 12A). Then, 100 pages later, we get those same lines, this time directly from the author as stage directions-"He lifts her dress. She kisses him harder" (Tolkin 110). Or what is communicated by the repetitive use of the aggressively stressed modifiers in the opening scenes of Blue Velvet (1986), in which there are sentences such as "A verv clean uniformed, smiling POLICEMAN with arms outstretched allows clean happy SCHOOL CHILDREN to cross the street safely"; "A bright red gorgeous fire engine is moving very slowly down the street. We MOVE IN to see the happy face of a FIREMAN"; "Blue skies. PAN SLOWLY DOWN to clean white picket fence, with beautiful red roses in front of it" (Lynch; added emphasis indicated by italics)? Would other, less modified language have the same implication? The Blueprint Question Let's consider the blueprint question first. Much has been written about the relationship between a work of art and the script, notes, or score from which it emerges. Nelson Goodman, a philosopher interested in what he calls the theories of notation, asks if Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would still be Beethoven's Ninth if one note were played wrong. He is interested in this for several reasons, among them to establish the "authoritative identification of a work from performance to performance." In a notational system, according to Goodman, there must be the ability to achieve such identification.

Goodman chooses not to deal with the more inferential elements of the musical score, such as tempi and expressive markings, in part because he sees them as adjectival, pertaining to how the piece is interpreted as opposed to that which makes the piece itself. Instead, focusing on the literal elements of the score, Goodman proposes an essentialism, a clear denotative underpinning that stays the same no matter the differing interpretations that are laid on top of it. Before we consider whether there is such essentialism in media writing, we need to clarify our use of the word "script" by reviewing the distinction between screenplays and shooting scripts. Under the studio system, a contract writer produced shooting scripts-that is, scripts whose slug lines, the lines in all caps proceeding the bodies of description, identified shots rather than scenes. Thus, a sequence of slug lines might read "INT. COURTROOM BIG CLOSEUP - MILTON - DAY," "PANNING SHOT - THE JURY," "MED. SHOT THE DEFENSE TABLE," "CLOSE SHOT BARBARA," "CLOSE SHOT - PEG," and, finally, "FULL SHOT - THE COURTROOM - FAVORING MILTON" (Gidding 71-72). Any descriptive material under the slug line functioned adjectivally to modify the slug line, not to represent the shot itself. …

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