The Alarming Decline Of Expressive Language, In Life and On Film

A month ago I attended a Parents’ Day conference at one of our kids’ private high schools. A history teacher set to retire after 45 years of service was musing on reading the old student literary journals from the forties and fifties. Asked whether by comparison he noticed an erosion in writing skills in the history papers he grades today, he answered “Yes”- vehemently and without hesitation- while also mentioning a decline in expressive language skills in the classroom.

There seems little doubt that even as today’s high school and college students are pushed harder in a highly competitive academic environment, they cannot write an essay or use descriptive language nearly as fluently as their parents and grandparents could.

I suppose we shouldn’t be that surprised. We live in an instant messaging world, where we’re encouraged to use as few words and symbols possible to get our basic message across. Hence, it’s “CUL8R”. At the same time, we’re so overloaded with various "pop-up images" everywhere we go that inevitably our concentration and sequential reasoning are affected.

Some of us old-timers may still find time to read and write descriptively, but are our kids following suit? I think not, or certainly, not enough.

Of course, our popular entertainment reflects this same phenomenon, movies included. As some of you know, I watch a succession of very different films all the time, but two I just screened back to back seem particularly relevant to this topic.

The first feature was Marcel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve from 1939, new to DVD via Janus’s nifty “Essential Art House” series, the second a contemporary indie romance, Medicine For Melancholy (2008), which The Times’s  A.O. Scott called “an exciting debut” for director Barry Jenkins.

A tragic tale of a young working class couple and the sordid character that comes back to haunt them, “Jour” remains poetry that touches all the senses - one of the seminal  pre-war French pictures. I readily admit it’s a bit unfair to compare it to the humble Medicine, which, with apologies to Mr. Scott, is about as exciting as an enema. But I do it to make a point.

What struck me in the two films was the use of language, or lack thereof. The dialogue in “Jour” positively sings, even with its uneducated protagonists, while the couple in Medicine seem to speak very little, and when they do, they have very little interesting to say. Not the ideal ingredients for a memorable film, right?

In general, big budget offerings from mainstream Hollywood are even more script-challenged than their humble indie counterparts.

Yesterday, I walked in on our youngest boy watching Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx in Any Given Sunday (1999).  As I listened to Al reciting his hackneyed lines, I detected a certain absence, a deadness behind his pupils. Because - I surmise - Pacino, the old pro, has done some very good scripts over his forty years in the business. This however is not one of them, and he knows it.

And though my son’s attention is momentarily diverted- the movie is easy for a fifteen year old kid to watch- what is he actually getting out of it? His eyes look dull too, as if he knows that he’s not watching something that will stay with him as our best movies do. It’s just slick filler to help pass a lazy day.

This leads me to believe, perhaps naively, that “bigger, faster, louder” won’t cut it for very long. The century-old history of this medium reveals that most truly enduring films are not only cast and shot effectively, but are also cleverly constructed and written.

One of the principal reasons I love to promote older classic films is that they remind us just how entertaining and rewarding really smart scripts with snappy dialogue can be. In the back of my mind burns the hope that somehow, the thoughtful public will crave this sort of quality again. At the very least, they should know where to go looking for it.

By the way, these films don’t all fall into the category of starchy historical dramas, or those more lofty literary adaptations. We’re talking crime stories, comedies, and romances here!

Here are just a few of my favorite vintage titles featuring solid gold scripts that exploit our language in magical ways to achieve their desired effect:

The Informer (1935)- During the Sinn Fein rebellion of 1922, hard-luck Dubliner and IRA reject Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) gets into hot water when he informs on his best friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), a fugitive from the British "Black and Tans" who winds up with a bullet in his head. Gypo had sought the 20-pound bounty so he could embark on a better life with his prostitute girlfriend, but the rebels aren't about to let him walk away clean. This blistering adaptation of Liam O'Flaherty's novel by John Ford features a searing turn by McLaglen, who plays the barrel-chested Irish boozer and Troubles-era traitor with gut-wrenching pathos, especially when he delivers his last line. A labor of love for Ford, outfitted with Joseph August's atmospheric evocation of foggy Dublin and a superb score by Oscar winner Max Steiner, "Informer" is the kind of full-blooded political drama we rarely get to enjoy today. And McLaglen's turn as the desperate, deeply remorseful brute makes the tragic story of betrayal and redemption even more worthy of struggle. (Writer: Dudley Nichols, who won an Oscar.)

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)- John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of Hollywood fluff who decides he wants to make a serious picture about "real world" suffering. Disguising himself as a tramp, the earnest but naive Sullivan hits the road with a ridiculous entourage provided by his cynical studio bosses. Eventually, he meets a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns the hard way how poverty dampens, but doesn't extinguish, the human spirit. Widely considered the greatest of writer/director Preston Sturges's classic 1940s films, "Travels" is a stunning hybrid, blending giddy slapstick and razor-sharp humor with grim, unblinking social realism. McCrea and Lake make a fun pair, comically and romantically, while Robert Greig is a hoot as Sullivan's droll butler. It's hard to imagine anyone but Sturges concocting this incisively scripted, beautifully directed Hollywood satire, which ultimately has a lot to say about the restorative power of laughter.

Double Indemnity (1944)- Gorgeous schemer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists a besotted insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to draw up a life-insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge - and then kill him. The murder goes as planned, but the two lovers lose faith in each other's motives when they face suspicious claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose queries trigger a fatal game of cat and mouse. One of the quintessential noir films, Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" is a masterpiece of stark atmosphere and carefully stylized suspense. The talented Stanwyck, a familiar face in the 1940s noir universe, assumes her role with feline deviousness, while MacMurray - narrating the film via flashback - brilliantly plays against type. Raymond Chandler's screenplay sizzles with hard-boiled repartee and the great Edward G. Robinson is aces as always as the dogged investigator hot on the lovers' trail. Sinister, tense, and cynical, Wilder's "Indemnity" is riveting film suspense.

The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)- Fred Dobbs, Bob Curtin and an old-timer named Howard, three motley down-and-outers in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, respectively), pool their meager resources and set off to search for gold. When they find some, they must decide how best to protect it-from thieves and each other- and thus the seeds of distrust and madness are sown. This potent feature helmed by the gifted John Huston delivers savage human drama in a thinking man’s adventure film. Containing suspense, action and humor (thanks to Walter Huston’s salty old coot) ultimately "Treasure" delivers a striking meditation on the destructive nature of greed. Widely considered one of Bogie’s best films, director Huston walked away with Oscars for direction and screenplay, while dad Walter also won a statuette for his indelible, career-capping performance as the cackling Howard. One of the all-time greats.

All About Eve (1950)- Joseph L. Mankiewicz's peak as writer/director concerns aging stage actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), wise in the ways of fame and the theatre, who's nevertheless blindsided by an adoring fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve enters Margo's orbit as awed acolyte, then slowly usurps everything Margo has in one subtle, masterful act of manipulation. Don’t miss this sharp, caustic take on the theatre world, and the wide assortment of parasites, barracudas, and hangers-on that populate it. Eve is the wolf in sheep's clothing, a comer with just enough talent and cunning to penetrate Margo's inner circle and catch her when she's vulnerable and feeling her age. Davis gives the best performance of her long career, and young Baxter is outstanding. Oscar winning George Sanders also impresses mightily as jaded critic Addison De Witt, the only soul wise enough to see what Eve is up to. On his arm in one key scene is Marilyn Monroe, in a minor bit as a vacuous but decorative chorus girl. Mankiewicz took home directing and screenwriting Oscars that year, and “Eve” also won Best Picture. What a show!

Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)- Desperate to promote one of his clients, slimy press flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) turns to the most powerful man he knows: acid-tongued gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break anyone in New York. Falco gets what he needs from Hunsecker, but then is maneuvered to help ruin a mild-mannered jazz trumpeter (Martin Milner) with eyes for the poison-pen scribe's younger sister (Susan Harrison).Turning from his comedic work at Britain's Ealing Studios to direct this noirish, all-American masterpiece about greed, ambition, and the perversity of power, Alexander Mackendrick relied on estimable playwright Clifford Odets and writer Ernest Lehman for their scripting talent. What resulted was one of the most cynical, caustic films ever made about the sleazy underbelly of Manhattan show business, featuring blistering performances from Lancaster and a young Curtis in his prime. "I love this dirty town," proclaims the Walter Winchell-esque Hunsecker, and you never once doubt him. Sinister, tawdry, and burnished with a tone-perfect jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, "Success" was never this twisted.

Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1963)-In this satirical doomsday thriller, a U.S. bomber piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) receives a signal to release its nuclear payload on Russia. When the unfortunate Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) seeks out Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to learn why he ordered the drop, and why he's placed his Air Force base on lockdown, it's quickly evident the general has lost his marbles. Meanwhile, President Muffley (Sellers again) meets with senior advisers, including a hawkish general (George C. Scott) and the oddly sinister nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), to review their limited options to save the planet. The most inspired piece of Cold War satire ever and one of the screen's supreme black comedies, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 "Strangelove" confronted jittery audiences in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not long after the advent of the H bomb. With Kubrick's twisted genius as director and screenwriter in full bloom, and peerless performances by Peter Sellers (in three roles), Scott, and the unhinged Hayden, the film is unbearably funny and extremely disturbing all at once. (Kubrick and co-writers Peter George and Terry Southern were Oscar-nominated, but lost to that year’s “Becket”, in retrospect a bad call.)

Network (1976)- Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is a type A network television executive who rides the wave of an unfolding ratings sensation broadcasting deranged televangelist Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final performance). Beale hits a chord with disillusioned Americans, urging them to chant his mantra: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." But the Beale phenomenon may not last, as Howard's ever more bizarre rantings signal an emotional breakdown in the making. Sidney Lumet's devastating, disturbing satire of the modern broadcast age (written by Paddy Chayefsky) still has a lot to say thirty years after release. Beyond portraying a business that bypasses quality in single-minded pursuit of the dollar, television serves as metaphor for a society mired in sensationalism and greed. Dunaway is commanding in a caffeinated performance as ruthless Diana, Holden unusually affecting as a washed-up veteran of TV's glory days, and Finch a revelation as the unbalanced Beale, winning a posthumous Oscar for his work. (Incidentally, Faye won too.)

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