Never Mind The Dialogue, Look At The Cutlery

Observatory, The Arts

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the icy water, James Cameron is rereleasing ‘Titanic’ in 3D with a revised night scene, after an American astronomer accused the original film of having the wrong star field for the time and date, 4.20am on April 15, 1912.

Cameron is a famous perfectionist, and commissioned an insane amount of work into accuracy in everything from woodwork and fabrics down to the crests on the cutlery. Which makes me wonder why on earth he was blind to the much bigger problems.

Firat there’s that awful painting of Ms Winslet, which might have been done on black velvet for all the resemblance it bears to a painting from the post-Edwardian era.

But the real iceberg that sinks the script is Cameron’s self-penned dialogue, which sounds not just modern, but idiomatic to the film’s period of release in 1995. If you’re a writer, it hurts the ear and sinks the film, no matter how lavish and accurate everything else is. In fact, a quick comparison of the original ‘A Night To Remember’ with ‘Titanic’ shows just how dated the new version has become.

A tin ear can spoil the greatest projects. Roland Emmerich’s recent ‘Anonymous’, a ridiculous historical tale of Shakespeare not writing his plays, made it sound as if the bard lived in LA. Modern phrases jump out from all kinds of films, TV shows, books and plays. That’s fine if you’re going for a modern parallel of idiomatic language (as ‘Shakespeare In Love’ did), but not if you’re being a stickler about everything else.

One of the most astonishing historical films for me is ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’ (1968) because Charles Wood filled it with dialogue that more approximated the period, and it sounds positively alien on the modern ear.

Charles Wood has a surreal, densely poetic style that demands much of punters and performers. About him, director Richard Eyre says ‘There is no contemporary writer who has chronicled the experience of modern war with so much authority, knowledge, compassion, wit and despair, and there is no contemporary writer who has received so little of his deserved public acclaim.’ His words thrillingly fit the visuals in a way that makes you realise how far removed modern language is from past language.

Of course, Cameron was building an immense spectacle for the multiplexes, and was clearly not that fussed about dialogue, which has never been his strongest point. But whereas Wood walked you into the past, Cameron shuts you out.

One example of corrupted language use would be the ubiquitous anglo-saxon word ‘fuck’, which an editor once pulled me up on for using in a story as an adjective, saying that before the mid-20th century it was only ever used as a noun (which I’m still not sure about). I rarely use it in books because there are more interesting ways to shock with language, and beside, you hear it on TV every night and its power is diminished.

But for me the rule of thumb is ‘Get the words right first, worry about the detailing after’.

4 comments on “Never Mind The Dialogue, Look At The Cutlery”

  1. Alison says:

    Amen to that. There is nothing worse than watching a film or reading a book and suddenly finding yourself completely thrown out of it by the simple use of a word that is wrong for the time. I do tend to think that most ‘costume dramas’ on the box suffer from a modernisation of language and an insistence of the use of 21st century ethics/morals. That’s why the original ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ worked and this one didn’t. I’ve always thought that most books are a little better – although we’ve all read the odd potboiler, let’s be honest. I’m an old-fashioned beast, though – I like things to be right.

  2. Shuku says:

    Resounding ‘aye’ from this ex-costumer/theatre/language graduate. Dialogue’s as important as any of the visual details; if the period’s going to be right, one has to take into consideration social mores, perceived views of the time, speech, colloquialisms, etc. Well. That’s my view on it anyway – I’ve been called unkinder things than just ‘anal bitch’ for nitpicking on stuff like that. I still maintain it’s what makes or breaks something (if the script/writing is good, that is. One can still be correct in all the details and have an awfully dull something-or-other, be it book or film.)

  3. Gretta says:

    “after an American astronomer accused the original film of having the wrong star field for the time and date, 4.20am on April 15, 1912.”

    Boffins, eh? Supreme pendant though I am, I think even I would’ve let that one pass.

    It’s not just wrong dialogue for the era which is jarring, but wrong dialogue for the country. More than a few times I’ve seen characters purporting to be from New Zealand, coming out with Australian references. It’s not helped by said character usually having the most appalling attempt at an Antipodean accent imaginable. Books are guilty, too. I seem to recall an Agatha Christie having an NZ character coming from some imaginary place which sounded not dissimilar to Woolloomooloo.

  4. Steve says:

    I find any sort of anachronistic glitches jarring, and being something of a history buff, am probably more aware of them than the average film watcher. My larger issue however is with the music. I have very sensitive hearing and can hear an ever-so-slightly out of tune stringed instrument – or voice – where most people wouldn’t notice a thing. I can hear bad arrangements, poor production and sloppy editing. And there’s a lot more of all of that than you might think. It can actually ruin my enjoyment of a film. Combine that with language, hair, makeup and settings inappropriate for the period and….well, it’s amazing I can watch anything at all.

Comments are closed.

Posted In

Related Posts