American Speech

Cinema, Illness, Language, Music, Sociology December 3, 2014

One of the great disappointments I experienced when I first moved to the US nearly five years ago was that regular American people sound nothing like the American people in movies.

I don’t mean that any country’s people ever sounds like its cinema, but that a certain type of film can capture, or re-invent, its linguistic community’s continuum of articulacy-inarticulacy in a way that allows you to be moved by its beauty—luxuriate in its pain.

My disappointment in American speech quickly turned into disappointment in American cinema because it’s the other way around. The cinema has failed the people.

Or: the cinema has failed part of the continuum while celebrating the other extreme.

The other extreme being that sort of determined, stylized, sometimes reverential, sometimes parodic-pastiched dialogue that’s completely well done in the hands of say Quentin Tarantino or 80s/90s David Lynch. A kind of over-articulate language that’s on the skin of personhood—think Don Corleone scratching his chin.

Actually, to take it a notch down, this—from Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988)—is completely genius:

I’ve always been enamored with the way American TV and movie characters, particularly in the high school range of psychosocial activity, refer to their mates by full name. Growing up, I always felt it to be a violence when someone said my full name. As if they were drawing on the specificity of my verbal identity in order to make a point about the quality of my existence (unwanted, unpleasant, ridiculous, etc.). This might have something to do with the fact that the teachers (and later college professors) who disliked me often called on me by full name.

But the American way of doing it has so much mysterious love attached to it. “I’m in love with Kevin” is miles apart from  “I’m in love with Kevin Arnold.”

Kevin Arnold & Winnie Cooper.

Anyway, while all of these impenetrable (to me) codified stylings make for a mesmerizing speech bubble of high articulacy—I am a character and I know how to express my character to you/“I’m a Veronica”—, I want some of what I see around me, that’s not so eloquent, that’s partly become absorbed into my own idiolect, that’s mostly irreducible, inabsorbable, and completely marvelous.

But it’s rare to find it. My offhand memory can only think of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), which is full of so much at-cross-purposes speech and silence that I actually need the country music for relief.

Even so, there is that one moment which is a country song that does what ordinary speech does, in a cinematic way. This is perhaps in part because (to an outsider) the principle mode of a country song is its confessional talking. The reticent cowboy with his buried self-consciousness and his monosyllables surfaces in a song. It’s a fascinating, paradoxical sort of expressive inexpressiveness.

The only country song I’ve ever liked:

And Keith Carradine is dreamy.

Or does no one say that?

The thing that prompted this whole thought-vomit, which I admit is very beige and general, is Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), which I watched a few days ago.

I was expecting to watch a good movie; I was not expecting it to be so terrifying or provocative, or moving-as-cinema. Julianne Moore plays a nondescript, affluent, suburban homemaker in the late ’80s who comes to the realization that the environment she lives in is toxic. She learns to name her illness as multiple chemical sensitivity (which I erroneously thought was a sci-fi phenomenon developed for the film, but it’s an actual nomenclatured aspect of our contemporary lives) and to become part of a community of people with the same illness.

The social politics as well as Haynes’s spatial framing (if I ever doubted that a teal sofa could make you physically ill, I don’t now) are great; but it’s Julianne Moore’s character, Carol White, that does it for me. How she speaks, how she moves, how she fades or stands out against the backdrop.

Haynes talks about how he studied the vernacular of LA suburbia in this BOMB interview—“There is a manifestation of Valley dialect in Safe, a tinny, depthless vocal quality that you’re hearing more and more among younger generations, particularly women. It’s a vocal laxity you don’t hear often in films, certainly not Hollywood films . . .”—in order to make the film. This vernacular is an alternative to the shticky brilliance of “the other extreme.” But there’s also Haynes’s decision to make Carol dumb.

I don’t mean dumb as in stupid or vacuous or physiologically impaired. It’s more the everyday inarticulacy of almost all people on the earth. This is pre-reality TV, pre-social media, pre-youtube prophesies; although talk shows and motivational speakers were very much part of the milieu, I imagine there wasn’t quite so much self-naming, self-diagnosing language in the air. Carol speaks a language of such unrelenting formula that it’s a profound non-joke. It’s like when my mother looks at me sadly and talks about how Indian children aren’t brought up to express themselves, but what she’s really pointing to is the fact that she can’t tell me what it’s like to not be able to tell me things.

Many of the people in Carol’s life are similarly ill-equipped in their speaking. This allows for a valuable ambivalence toward Carol’s condition. Instead of her husband saying, “I don’t believe in this made-up disease,” or “Why can’t you just put out?” he says “Who has headaches every day of the night?” (paraphrased from memory). We might read disapproval into his complaint as well as into Carol’s friend’s silent nodding, but there are no neat opposing points of view, no clear-cut pro and con camps sprinkled around the film. I can even sympathize with the fierce believers, or be suspicious of their declarations even as I don’t mark them as ridiculous parodies.

To spoiler things a bit (read: warning), Carol eventually joins a community of environmentally ill people lead by its equivalent of a motivational speaker/cult leader, some of whom are terribly articulate about their illnesses. She begins to absorb a new lexicon, a new awareness about her experiences; it’s one of the most painful self-realizations I can imagine. Towards the end of the movie, Carol is called on to make a speech and this is the height of eloquence for her. It’s funny-sad how her desire to say something magnificent and true to her self floods out as simplistic regurgitations of the discourse around her.

It’s completely stunning to me. Julianne Moore is stunning.

You may not want to see this as the clip comes from the very end of the movie, and maybe it doesn’t work without watching the whole thing, but here you go:

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