A few days ago I watched the 2008 movie Burn After Reading, staring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. I enjoy stories with a little political intrigue, and this movie’s core plot of some local opportunists getting their hands on the secret documents of a former CIA operative sounded like a match for my interests. Plus, it has the word “reading” in the title.
You really can’t trust the descriptions you read on Netflix.
The movie was bad. Not just because of the shallow characters or the empty plot. Not just because the ending felt like someone lost the last few pages of the script and couldn’t get the actors to return once they were found. The movie was bad because of the dialog. Here’s a sample of some of the witty banter between two characters during an especially significant scene.
- Now give me the f___ing floppy or the CD or whatever the f___ it is…
- As soon as you give us the money, d___wad!
- You f___! Give it to me, f___!
- You f___er.
- I know who you are, f___er!
- You’re the f___er!
That’s some impressive writing. A note in the Internet Movie Database documents some of the efforts the writers took to bring out nuance and style: “Excluding the end credits’ song, the F-word (and its derivatives) is used 62 times, mostly by Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) and Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), including 6 times in the first 2 minutes.” The problem wasn’t the excessive R-rated language; even in real life some people do have potty mouths. The problem was that when you took away the four-letter words and the characters stumbling for something to say and the truly unimportant dialog between a woman and her plastic surgeon, there wasn’t much left. When the movie ended abruptly, I popped a multivitamin into my mouth to stem the degenerative effects the film had on my personal health.
And then I reached for a classic. Some classic books, like some older films, lack modern sensibilities about plotting and character development. But they make up for it in language. Books that become classics tend to have a healthy dose of great language, even nonfiction treatises on some political or scientific research. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens’ great opener from A Tale of Two Cities, is a classic all unto itself, even though nobody knows what the rest of the book is about.
As I pass through the books of the Well-Read Man Project, I’ve been encouraged by both the content of each book, and by the way the content passed from printed text to my swooning mind. One of my favorite passages so far comes from The Qur’an, a book with many ideas that exist outside of my personal worldview, but that nonetheless communicates those ideas with classic sensibilities.
If all the trees on earth were pens and the ocean were ink with seven oceans behind it to add to its supply, yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted. (31.27)
It’s not as action packed as the fight over a floppy or a CD or whatever it is; it’s better.
So many classic writers took the time and effort to build language that would speak to readers on its own, independent of the message being conveyed. Here is the opening text of Dante’s Inferno, a few lines of verse that draw you in to the story, despite having little to say about the larger work.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straight-forward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
It’s not just works of poetry and verse that show beauty in language. Here’s a random passage I flipped to in the philosophical nonfiction work The Republic, by Plato.
These two harmonies I ask you to leave: the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage and the strain of temperance.
I don’t remember what this section was even talking about, but I can still enjoy Plato’s use of point and counterpoint to convey so much thought in so few words. The dialog above from the Clooney-Pitt blockbuster could have employed some of these same language skills to bring out the richness of the English language.
- Pray, pass freely across the chasm between our persons the item that beholds your hands, be it floppy, be it CD, be it whatever medium…
- Nay, it must needs remain with my person until the treasure of your deep financial storehouses be released in due exchange.
- You cad, sad must be the mother that bore you. I demand receipt of that device, lest I unleash a torrent of curses upon you and upon the ticket-paying audience that does now attend!
- Bite me, d___wad!
The next time you need to get away from the cares of the world for a few hours, go see a movie. Just be sure you have a classic book nearby to mend the damage.