I caught Raoul Walsh's scrabbly, bumpy urban romance shamble Me and My Gal (watchable on YouTube) at Film Forum's Essential Pre-Code series this week and couldn't help but notice—and thoroughly enjoy—the ripping dialog, chock full of nicknames, asides, comebacks and comeons, retorts, repulses, slurs and insults. Part of this must be a document of the vernacular of 1932; part, too, must be intense stylization, a heightened hipness-catalog of the cool phrases of the month, all crammed into one sub-80 minute hodgepodge. It's one of the most pleasurable things about these pre-Coders—the forthright, often proud if not a little impudent cashing in on and recording of the Phrases of the Day.
What brought this to mind? I had just seen Alex Ross Perry's second feature The Color Wheel (extensively discussed and praised by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky earlier), and watching the Walsh made me think about Perry and Carlen Altman's acidic script. The dialog of the 2011 film, much of it taking place between Perry and Altman who play as antagonistic brother and sister, is of an extremely stylized sarcasm, biting and densely ironic, deflecting and deprecating, an aggressive, mean-spirited patter meant to hurt and repel those on the listening end of the conversation. A film like this makes me wonder if people notice indicators of our own contemporary time and place in cinema. Specifically, in the vernacular of genre films and those whose impulses lay in the direction of popular cinema, not just in the replete examples of the post-Neo-Realist approach towards quasi-documentary, quasi-fictional film. A vernacular that comes not out of "reality" or "the way real people talk," but in the specific precision of stylized milieu found in genre films—filled with types, gangster, lovers and the like—where conventions are lubricated by the speed of local slang dialect and overglossed by a hyper-attention to contemporary repartee.
Is Me and My Gal really a document of the way urban slang slingers verbally wrangled on a day to day basis? Do contemporary, malaise-collecting unemployed, over-educated white layabouts really interact with the world with unsurpressed rancor, irritation, and insensitivity? Not exactly in those ways, perhaps, no; at least not as consistently, thoroughly, overwhelmingly as in these two films. But I have no doubt each speaks for a place, a set and a time around which it was made, and speaks for those things in a far more tactile and tangible way, in the piling on of spoken words, the back and forth tumble of conversation and verbal sparing, than movies austerely aspiring for social verisimilitude.