Character names in ‘Days of Heaven’

July 11, 2019

Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven was in large part created as it went along, its makers open to creative possibility and rediscovering it in editing and post-production. One major change in its design was the removal of much of its dialogue, with Malick and colleagues intent on telling a visual story as much as possible.

To compensate for this reduction of plot and exposition, Malick added a voiceover, as he had done in his earlier Badlands. It was provided by young Linda Manz and can be heard in the beautiful clip below. Some of the voiceover was written by Malick, and some came from Manz based on her hearing a woman read from the Book of Revelation:

In the book Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected (2015), edited by Carlo Hintermann and Daniele Villa, film editor Billy Weber talks about Manz and the indelible effect she had on the film – including its characters’ names:

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Jodie Foster: ‘He started imitating my accent’

October 20, 2017

An important character detail in the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the journey of Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, from a rural working-class background to sophisticated city life as an FBI agent.

Take for example this monologue by Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, during his first encounter with Starling (from 4:15 in the clip; transcript below):

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Movie accents: the good, the bad, and the mystifying

November 18, 2016

Dialect coach and voice actor Erik Singer released a video this week that analyses 32 film actors’ accents, pointing out what they do well and what not so well. There’s a fair range of performances and genres, with some notoriously bad accents and a few surprises.

It’s a highly entertaining video that lasts a little over a quarter of an hour.

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The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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Actors’ use of gibberish

January 12, 2016

Harriet Walter, in her book Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting, describes an exercise in actors’ training which is designed to ‘break the language barrier and stretch one’s physical invention’.

Named Gibberish, it is:

harriet walter - other people's shoes - thoughts on actingthe practice of substituting what was in the script with our own gobbledegook. The purpose was to release us from the constrictions of another person’s words, to bypass ‘meaning’ and send us straight to a creative source we might not know we had. With Gibberish we could burst our civilized seams and see what else was there. Who were we when released from the conditioning shackles of our hereditary patterns of speech?

At LAMDA [London Academy Of Music & Dramatic Art] we invented fabulous hybrid languages (mostly based on soundtracks from Swedish, Russian or Japanese movies) which broke the mould of our familiar accents and tones. We rediscovered the infantile pleasure in making noises and letting them reverberate to the ends of our toes.

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Mick Jagger, amateur linguist

May 16, 2013

Mick Jagger has appeared on Sentence first before, in my post about “bad” grammar in song lyrics. But I was surprised to learn that the Rolling Stones singer and occasional actor is something of an amateur linguist. Here, from Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless, is a note written in Camisea, Peru, in February 1981:

We shot some footage with Mick [Jagger] and the little Indian boy who is called McNamara in the film, and both of them did such a good job that the team broke into applause. During the scene Mick was bitten on the shoulder by one of the monkeys and laughed so uproariously about it afterward that it sounded like a donkey braying. Whenever we take a break he distracts me with clever little lectures on English dialects and the development of the language since the late Middle Ages.

Werner Herzog - Conquest of the Useless - Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo - book coverHerzog’s book is a darkly poetic account of the director’s protracted attempts to film Fitzcarraldo, the centrepiece of which involves hauling a ship over a mountain in Peru. At one point Herzog, faced with the “obscene, explicit malice of the jungle”, describes feeling “like a half-finished, poorly expressed sentence in a cheap novel.” There are no such sentences in the book, which I highly recommend.

And in case you were wondering: Jagger’s role was later cut from the script, through no fault of his own.


Samuel Beckett’s acting tip

June 10, 2010

During rehearsals for Endgame in London in 1964, Irish actor Jack MacGowran was wondering how best to deliver the line, “If I knew the combination of the safe, I’d kill you”.

He asked Beckett for advice; and the author, ever resistant to overinterpretation of his work, replied: “Just think that if you knew the combination of the safe, you would kill him.”