Did you know you don’t need expository dialogue to properly tell a story? You didn’t?! Wowee zowee!!!
Just kidding—you probably did know that. I mean, if you’ve seen There Will be Blood or Badlands or Elephant or Playtime or Meshes of an Afternoon or Wall-E or, uh, any Stanley Kubrick film, you know that a lack of exposition screamed in your face doesn’t hamper a film’s message and themes. But oftentimes, I don’t think viewers or filmmakers or storytellers realize the power that comes from a movie unfolding and revealing a character’s past through mise-en-scene and quiet, little (yet powerful) moments.
In turn, I also don’t think they realize how much expository dialogue goes against the inherent power of film—a visual medium that should rely on the power of images to tell stories.
Take There Will Be Blood, for example. Do any of the most powerful lines and shots of that film have anything to do with expository dialogue? When the silhouette of Daniel Plainview is engulfed with oil flames? When Eli slaps the devil out Daniel? When Daniel lies with his son, covered in oil? All of those moments are enhanced by the exposition we know about Daniel—the fact that he has no real family, that he was betrayed by someone pretending to be his brother, that he is an greedy businessman alienated from society and God, that he feels betrayed by his son by the end of the film. But very little of that exposition is conveyed through long scenes of dialogue. It is, instead, usually conveyed through images:
Those are the moments this cinephile lives for—these images are what make films truly powerful.
But, then again…what about when expository dialogue……works?
I recently experienced a small moment of sheer brilliance when it came to expository dialogue while watching Moonlight—well, I should say: I almost experienced a small moment of sheer brilliance when it came to expository dialogue.
Let me explain. It happens when Black—formerly known as Chiron, as a teenager—visits Kevin in their shared hometown. Black has, since being kicked out of school, lived elsewhere, while Kevin has stayed and taken over a local diner. The macho, jacked, intimidating presence of Black all but vanishes the second Kevin makes an out-of-the-blue phone call, asking Black to stop by the diner sometime. And then once Black does visit the diner, and Kevin finally recognizes the giant man who was once the young, skinny, socially awkward Chiron, he speaks this one line that, in theory, should have absolutely floored me.
“Same old Chiron—haven’t seen you in 10 years and you can barely speak a word.”
This is a crucial, beautiful moment that exposes the transformation that’s occurred with Black, who was once a shy, coming-of-age teenager discovering his sexuality. Black is gay, and Kevin, who kissed Chrion on a beach years ago and gave him his first sexual experience, was the person to solidify that realization. And this one line, which leaves Black in a wordless, smiling, bashful stupor, reveals all the vulnerability that’s brimming beneath the surface of a man emitting a hardened exterior.
Here’s the only thing: This line of expository dialogue…doesn’t belong in this movie.
Why? In my opinion, the power of this line is greatly diminished due to the fact that we, as the audience, are well aware of this fact. And I mean well aware. Like, ad nauseam at this point.
That’s because the entire film, up to this point—which happens during the last third of the film that concerns Black and Kevin as adults—has been nothing but exposition. And a lot of that exposition is dialogue. While there are flurries of director Barry Jenkins’ visual talent—notably the scene on the beach, and the Refn-like color palette that coats Chiron’s most devastating moments as a child—none of those images go very far in relaying exposition in the way, say, Paul Thomas Anderson does in There Will Be Blood. The first two-thirds of Moonlight is essentially used to set up the revelation that Black has distanced himself from his confused, young, gay self. Conversations and lifelike dreams abound, blunting relaying what it means to be gay and the pressures of masculinity for teenaged boys. And all of it—every last word—is leading up to the final line spoken in the film, which is yet another beautiful moment of expository dialogue.
“You the only person that ever touched me.”
Yet, again…that line is, in my opinion, hampered by the fact that we not only already watched that scene unfold 40 minutes earlier, but also that a healthy portion of this film has been shoving Chiron’s desire to connect with somebody down out throats. Of course it’s tough to be gay and to not know how to act around your peers; of course it’s difficult to be a young, black man feeling the pressure of masculinity. But is none of that conveyed through those two lines of dialogue? Is 80 minutes of exposition really necessary?
I only ask because, in my opinion, the final 40 minutes of Moonlight are impeccable filmmaking, brutally honest about the pressures of masculinity and being gay. The performance from Trevante Rhodes is achingly revealing about how difficult it is to revisit one’s past. The interactions between Kevin and Black are filled with suspense and an undeniable energy, deliberately paced leading up to those final moments when Black is at his most vulnerable.
And, above all else, those final 40 minutes have a consistent tone that isn’t necessarily in line with the rest of the film. That’s why, in my eyes, this could be a perfect film if those interactions between Black and Kevin made up the bulk of the movie, revealing bits and pieces about Black’s past through those quiet moments that speak huge volumes.
I will acknowledge that my arguments rests on something completely subjective—that the first two-thirds of the film aren’t necessary to justify the power final third. It could come down to pure preference, since I prefer quieter films that hint at a larger story, as opposed to drama and dialogue that evokes the power of plays and performance as opposed to the visual power of films.
But I also think it’s revealing of the state of films, and art in general. We, as an audience, not only expect dialogue and exposition to guide us through a story, but practically demand it. You’d be crazy to deny the fact that, as television—the king of expository dialogue—has become more popular, so has the use of exposition and robotic shot selection, all but eliminating the director’s vision in many films. And because of it, movies like Moonlight often find themselves in a strange middle ground: part hypnotic vision of a single director, and part exposition-laden story that holds the audience’s hand throughout.
And I don’t have to tell you which scenario I’d rather become the norm, right?