This may be the first time in recorded history that the names Tyler Perry and Quentin Tarantino have appeared in the same sentence. Opposites? They are at oblique angles to each other in different dimensions. They are to American film as Oprah and Chelsea Handler are to talk shows, or blunderbuss and napalm to weaponry.
It’s not as if Perry and Tarantino don’t have important things in common. They’re male Americans, obviously, and Southern natives. They direct their own scripts and also act. Granted, Perry acts more often, more prominently, and more ably. They’re extremely interested in African-American life, Perry rather more understandably.
Then there’s the matter of talk. For all that Perry and Tarantino approach words in wildly different ways, no two American filmmakers working today value human speech so much.
It’s a given that film is a visual medium. But there’s a reason that movies have been known for almost nine decades as “talking pictures.” Even before that, words in the movies mattered. Just imagine trying to watch a silent film without intertitles.
Yet it’s been a long time since Hollywood has given consistent care or thought to words. That’s why something like last fall’s “Killing Them Softly” stood out. It was based on George V. Higgins’s “Cogan’s Game.” Large chunks of the film’s dialogue came straight from the novel, and that dialogue fell on moviegoing ears like so much rain in the desert. (Aaron Sorkin? Too TV-glib — way too TV-glib. David Mamet? A playwright who happens to moonlight making the occasional film.)
American movies don’t lack for throwaways and comebacks and catchphrases. “Argo [blank] yourself!” is the most recent everyone’s-heard-it example. But lines like that, even the best ones — maybe especially the best ones — are unsustained bursts, the verbal equivalent of riffs and hooks in music. Great dialogue is musical, too, but music that’s been structured and developed. Great dialogue involves melody and harmony and counterpoint and, above all, rhythm.
A tagline or comeback is a dead end. Memorable dialogue is an open road. As you listen to Mr. Brown and Mr. Pink and all the other misters bicker at the beginning of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” you can well believe that 20 years later they’ll still be sitting there (or at least the ones who don’t get killed), still having the same discussion, and — this is the impressive part — still interesting to listen to. Something like “I’ll be back” or “Go ahead, make my day” is at once self-contained and interchangeable. Think of how many times you’ve heard people use either phrase in daily conversation. Lines like that, effective and quotable as they are, don’t need a context. Part of Tarantino’s talent is to make the context as interesting, and necessary, as the line.
When people think about Tarantino movies, they tend to think about his obsessions with violence and gore, schlock movies of the past and skankiness generally. Maybe they also think about the loop-the-loops he plays with structure. What they should also think about is his obsession with spoken words and the loop-the-loops he plays with them. Speech in his movies becomes as kinetic, and stylized, as the camerawork and cutting. Tarantino talk has a uniquely ballistic beauty.
Christoph Waltz has twice worked for Tarantino, in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” Waltz refers to Tarantino’s writing as “Quentin mechanics.” Just as quantum mechanics follows rules at variance from those of the visible universe, so does Quentin mechanics create its own system of actorly demands and opportunities. It takes a special kind of actor to thrive within that system — can you imagine anyone other than Samuel L. Jackson delivering Jules’s peroration at the end of “Pulp Fiction”? — but those who can are enabled to do amazing things. Just ask Waltz, who won a best supporting actor Oscar both times he worked with Tarantino.
Take away Tarantino’s dialogue, his films would still be worth watching (unless you’re squeamish). They’d be like “A Hard Day’s Night” without the songs: a really good movie, just not anywhere near as good a really good movie. Perry’s movies without dialogue would be nonfunctioning. Tarantino uses dialogue as a series of grace notes and flourishes. It’s the wind beneath his wings (not that Bette Midler cries out to be in a Tarantino movie). For Perry it’s the whole bird.
Perry wants to edify even more than entertain. He wants edification to be entertaining. The large and faithful audience his movies consistently attract shows how well he succeeds in that goal. He wants to teach lessons: about fidelity, about hard work, about how to live life. The more directly a lesson is taught, the likelier it is to be learned. So it should come as no surprise the extent to which Perry’s dialogue is expository. Writing students are always told to show rather than tell. Perry figures he already has the camera to show, so he can let his dialogue concentrate on telling. Or explaining.
A husband in another director’s movie would say to his wife, “There are pancakes on the table, baby” and give her a loving look. In a Perry movie he’d say, “There are pancakes on the table, baby. I put butter on them. Syrup, too. The plates they’re on are from Restoration Hardware. That’s also where I bought the table. The flatware I don’t know about. Anyway, I made the pancakes and buttered and syruped them and spent all that money at Restoration Hardware because I love you so much.”
Maybe that’s why Perry casts such attractive-looking actors. This goes beyond Hollywood’s love of good looks. Just as Tarantino needs to cast a certain kind of verbally dexterous actor, Perry needs gorgeous young leads — like Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Lance Gross, and Robbie Jones, in his latest, “Tyler Perry’s Temptation,” which opened last month — to compensate moviegoers’ eyes for what their ears are having to process.
The one time the woodenness goes away is when Perry’s characters, as Jesse Jackson once put it in a very different context, talk black talk. The flavor and texture otherwise missing in his dialogue show up and take over. There’s a moment in “Tyler Perry’s Temptation” that epitomizes this. Vanessa Williams drops her phony French accent and calls Smollett-Bell a certain canine vulgarism with such gusto and oral body English that the rudeness becomes a form of release — for the audience as well as her character. Or there’s Perry’s exaggerated delivery in the several movies where he plays his recurring female character, Madea. The comedy owes a lot less to what she says than how she says it.
Perry doesn’t have to write in such a flat, talky fashion. He chooses to. His dialogue draws on the example of television drama and the “well-made play” (“well-made” being a euphemism for “over-explained”). Even in his comedies, Perry seeks to provide moral lessons: about the cost of putting on airs, forgetting one’s roots, ignoring the power of religion. Dialogue in his movies has the importance of the homily in a church service — but also, alas, all the wit and polish and surprise.
Tarantino’s words reach back to screwball comedy. The way his dialogue can teeter between delight and delirium is pure Preston Sturges — not that Sturges ever aspired to association with purity of any sort. That was part of his genius. Part of Tarantino’s problem isn’t that he shrinks from purity, but that he so eagerly embraces impurity.
In his heart of hearts, one suspects, Perry wants to update “A Raisin in the Sun” (which is well beyond the category of well-made play). In his last two movies, Tarantino has wanted to make revisionist history that’s as much Roger Corman as Howard Zinn. What he was born to do is something different: update screwball comedy. The Coen brothers showed it’s doable, with “Intolerable Cruelty.” Think of how much better Tarantino could do it, though, with his mastery of crazed plotting and bank-shot banter. Best of all, he could find a place in the cast for Perry. Were those conversational worlds to collide, talk in the movies might never be the same.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.