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Slang Rap Democracy

Cinema that talks hip: Raoul Walsh's _Me and My Gal_ (1932) and Alex Ross Perry's _The Color Wheel_ (2011).
The Color Wheel and Me & My Gal

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.

Great subject and definitely worthy of a longer study. I’m continually fascinated by the use of slang in classic films noir. There is always a new twist of phrase to appreciate and learn. I’d love to hear examples of what the most outrageous are for some people.
I think serious cinema enthusiasts recognize, parse out, and often celebrate a tension that you discuss here: Social verisimilitude vs stylized milieu. I think slang appears more often (in American films, at least) as a device for the latter. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and MILLER’S CROSSING are always my go-to examples of that. They employ stylized language, but nothing as preposterous as what we encounter in THE WILD ONE or EASY RIDER. Much of the dialogue in GOODFELLAS, however, strikes me as natural, but I guess there is far more “plain language” than slang in that picture. I think the same is true of DRUGSTORE COWBOY. I wonder if what you are on to here is related to a common tension in the language of drama, on screen or stage: heightened reality vs naturalism. NETWORK and ALL ABOUT EVE are ostensibly stories that reveal how folks “really talk” behind the scenes; these tales get at the truth about human natures. But there’s not a natural line of script anywhere to be found in either, by my ears.
There’s also no doubt that the place, set, and time of the pre-coders is more universal and frankly more enjoyable than that of the mumblecores or whatever we’re calling this subgenre now that, with Tiny Furniture et al, it’s kind of gone aboveground. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen to a certain extent, and hope to see The Color Wheel at some point, but when Lena Dunham is proclaimed the voice of a generation I think something’s off. Me & My Gal, whatever its stylization, exaggerations, and self-consciousness, represents a cultural experience widely shared and historically important. I doubt The Color Wheel does.
Thanks for sharing, MovieMan. I agree with you, but that’s less about the movies, I think, and more about the industry-audience relationship. When the Walsh came out, everyone went to the movies and it was natural that the movies would be both of that audience and directly address it. Who’s going to the movies now and why movies are getting made for whomever…entirely different, so the address and the universality is different too…

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