Tag Archives: Richard Linklater

Waterfalls of Language

Some of us are waterfalls of language. But we can be too sure that our verbosity will solidify our relations with others. 

I had a friend who had an aversion to people who constantly filled a room with talk.  It was probably the eastern mystic in Paul, who was constantly chagrined by people who had dedicated themselves to replacing whatever silence they encountered with their own observations.  I never asked him why he recoiled from these conversational marathoners.  But I think I knew.  He favored words chosen carefully.  He liked a comment that had a point, but not ten points. Most of all, he recoiled against Very Verbal People who turned their opinions into a circus of logorrhea.  Speaking before fully processing what you wanted to communicate wasn’t his style.  Not surprisingly, his care with words and comfort with silence made him a wonderful listener and a good colleague.

Even so, there are times when we do love verbal people who light up a space with their wit and responsiveness.  For most of us that room is usually a theater.  It helps when we can witness a conversation that has been worked out and honed by a room full of crack writers. It helps as well to have actors who can deliver the perfect response with a naturalness that lets us forget that their words came from a script.

The performer as a Very Verbal Person is something of a showcase for the possibilities of language, a model that we may admire for putting a difficult person in their place or, better yet, restoring the will of someone damaged by the worst that life can give.  A good script perfects what is never quite so clear in real life.

                         Merchant Ivory.com

My favorite cases include the Schlegel sisters in James Ivory’s 1992 film, Howard’s End.  E. M. Forster’s  two young women are confined by the conventions of the day to stay close to their modest home in turn of the century London. But they are full of ideas and thirsty for conversation, even if the potential conversant is simply a clerk who shows up at their front door to retrieve a misappropriated umbrella. Their curiosity makes them seem fully alive.

There is also the pleasure of hearing the complex overlapping dialogue of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). Co-written by he actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the series’s two free spirits migrate through first love to eventually face the challenges of marriage and a family. It’s all done with restless characters who have made their interiority transparent. Its the same satisfaction a viewer gets from vastly different television classics like WB’s Gilmore Girls (2000) or The West Wing (1999).  Writer Aaron Sorkin’s breakthrough series about the Bartlett administration is defined by Sorkin’s love of dialogue structured as a series of intense interrogatories and responses. No voiceless and moody reaction shots here. In Sorkinworld characters are always duty bound to frame their feelings as complete arguments and counter-arguments.

The surprise in the otherwise more conventional Gilmore Girls lies partly in the fact that the actors were running through scripts that were often twice the number of pages as similar hour-long shows.  Indeed, the long-running series now in re-runs owes its best scenes to the rhythm and pacing common in 1930’s film farces.  Who knew that there is a bit of Groucho Marx in Lauren Graham?

In these and other entertainments the fun is in watching Very Verbal People trade rebukes and put-downs using a logic entirely their own. The point obviously was not the real-world relevance of the logic, which only makes sense within the manufactured world of the narrative, but the pleasure of seeing people completely comfortable with the task of explaining everything.

All of this boils down to our love of the idea of total fluency.  We spend a lot of our waking hours trying to imagine the right thing. . .anything. . .that will resolve the challenges of dealing with prickly others.  Its only natural to admire those who make it look so easy.

Lunch Anyone?

 My Dinner with Andre                                             YouTube

I’m always interested in the response of my friends to a simple question. If they could conjure up anybody from the past or present, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? 

Sometimes we could use some new conversation-starters.  In my circle the usual topics run all the way from A to B, from the cool and wet summer, to the latest norm-violating behavior of our President. There are also some local issues that are good for a few minutes of hand-wringing, including plans to build an unwanted pipeline through our valley, or the always-good-for-a-comment angst about our state’s high property taxes.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a leap into the unknown, or even the frankly impossible. I’m always interested in an acquaintance’s response to a simple question:  if they could conjure up a meeting with anybody, who would they like to join for a leisurely lunch? A meal can not only satisfy an appetite, but ruminations with a good conversationalist can stay with us a long time.

All of us come into contact with remarkable people, friends or strangers with wonderful stories to tell or experiences that extend well beyond our own. It is usually just an intellectual exercise to imagine what it might be like to spend time over lunch with a famous person. But people we already know can be just as interesting. Think of the conversations with familiar companions that bubble up in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) or Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

To be sure, it sometimes works out that someone with intimate knowledge of a notable achiever may come away from a meeting chastened. More than a few writers have admitted that their living or deceased subjects remained interesting, but not necessarily as candidates for a fantasized social outing.  Biographer Nell Painter remembers working on a study of the famous slave preacher, Sojourner Truth.  But several years ago Painter told a C-Span interviewer that her “closeness to me receded” as she worked her way deeper into Sojourner’s life.  She respected her subject to the end, but finally doubted they would connect in a conversation. Sometimes a little distance keeps the great and good on a pedestal where we want them.

In a recent dinner with friends the question drew various responses.  Singer-songwriter Paul Simon came  up as  a good lunch companion.  He  has been a stream-of-consciousness poet for several generations.  And some of those enigmatic lyrics in Graceland: what do they mean?  Another liked the idea of sharing a meal with Jesus, and  it’s hard to quarrel with that choice.  But the guest of honor would probably make me a nervous eater. Did I order to much? Should I have shared it? Why didn’t I suppress the joke about turning my water into wine? Another mentioned Barack Obama.  He’s articulate and sometimes funny.  And his off-the-record perspective in this political moment would be fascinating  to hear.  Would he make us feel better about where the nation is headed?

Another person suggested the African-American blues musician, Daryl Davis. Davis seems to have a knack for drawing in listeners, including KKK members.  He told an NPR interviewer that in some cases he was the first black American these white men had spoken to socially. One measure of his success is that he has a pile of KKK robes that his newly sensitized friends have sent him after they renounced their membership in the Klan. Think of what he might teach us about the subtleties of face to face conciliation.

American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.

My choice tends to change by the week.  But right now I’d love to have lunch with the arranger, musician and producer, Quincy Jones. He is in his 80’s, with a career that spans playing trumpet in several great 50’s bands, to arranging and conducting some of the best performances caught on record: everything from Sinatra at the Sands, (1966) to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). He’s a walking history of American music: big-band Jazz, R&B, Pop and Funk. In interviews and a growing list of tributes (including 26 Grammys) Jones is unfailingly generous and interesting. Can a person still be hungry when sitting next to a national treasure?

There’s a useful point to this exercise. It’s a reminder that American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change. They may be famous or obscure.  But more than we think are close by,  their lives are testimony to the value of pluralizing our world beyond the shallow celebrities that sometimes narrow rather than broaden our horizons.

Since the fantasy lunch with the fantasy check is on me, who would you choose?