Last weekend (retroactively, I guess sometime mid-November), I was arguing with a friend from my high school who was in town for the night. I had just come out of a University Mall Theatres screening of Inglourious Basterds, and was particularly surprised and enthralled by the film.

The strength of Basterds was its writing, as it is in every film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. He possesses a narrative style all his own, and writes dialogue so realistic that it makes even the most outlandish and fantastical themes seem plausible.

The friend from my high school, Steve, has been my friend since the first day of school in eighth grade. And in those nearly eight years, half of every conversation Steve and I have ever shared has involved the topic of film.

We bloviate on the best movies of our generation, dismiss certain actors and actresses and praise others, and generally consider ourselves the most luminous film aficionados of our generation.

And when two people such as these discuss something they love, sometimes they high-five in concordance, but mostly, they butt heads in discord, the latter of which applied to this particular argument, which occurred while Steve was about seven beers deep.

While I rampantly praised Basterds’s depth in plot, character and especially writing, Steve mentioned that his only qualm with Tarantino had always been how some of his dialogue can become too consuming, sucking time and energy out of the story.

I retorted that the dialogue in Basterds, not even for the fact that it shifted impeccably back and forth between four different languages, was some of the strongest, most interesting I’ve ever heard.

This scene is indicative of my point

“If you want to go sit and watch people talking for an hour, go see a play,” Steve said. He mentioned that film is a visual medium, where viewers watch things that they don’t normally see in everyday life: sights and sounds that take them far, far away from their seats.

I mentioned that all those things are still in Basterds, made better by the excellent writing, but he had another beer and I gave up the argument.

But what Steve was saying really made me wonder, made me think about the last decade of film. What makes a successful movie these days? Off the top of my head, I can think of a few of the most financially-successful movies of 2009.

I think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I think Transformers 2, Saw VI – ugh, I’ll stop. Was Steve right? These three movies were monstrously successful but, with the exception of Harry Potter, they were absolute garbage, rehashings of previous movies that weren’t interesting or provocative enough to require a sequel.

But they were visual – oh so visual. Who needs dialogue when you’ve got viscid dismemberment going on or robots turning into General Motors vehicles every second, with the occasional explosion to make you look up from your texting and remember the magic of moviemaking.

If filmmaking was judged solely on box-office performance, then Michael Bay would be winning the Best Director Oscar every year. Thankfully, though, this is not the case.

A good film is not a good film without good writing; let’s just get that out there.

A well-written screenplay makes a plot whole and engrossing, filled with characters that are real, developed, attractive or repulsive.

Effective dialogue between well-developed and interesting characters can make a scene so involving, so riveting, that there’s no need for the random explosion or gunfight to grab your attention and remind you to keep watching.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on the individual filmgoer. Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe we’ve been desensitized as a collective audience over the last two decades, thanks to the increased inclusion of computer-generated imagery that saves time and money on special effects, but hurts writing (and thus plot and character) integrity as a result.

Not that CGI means awful movies. A film that combines effective use of CGI with a well-written story can result in an absolute winner. Look at The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or The Dark Knight. To a much lesser extent, Avatar.

Film is a visual medium; I’m not disputing that. But silent films were silent only until sound came. Since then, how many silent movies have you seen? How many have been made?

For true visual displays with little to no writing evident, go see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra or go to the closest RedBox and get down on some Van Helsing. The latter is a serious guilty pleasure of mine.

Otherwise, maybe some of you (including Steve) could skip the next guaranteed blockbuster, and settle in for some lesser-advertised, smaller-budgeted film fare. Maybe some dialogue-filled, story-driven little film that, if you just give it a chance, may remind you that filmmaking once was, and in some ways still is, a true art.

Image from: http://www.awardsdaily.com/contendertracker/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/inglourious_basterds49.jpg

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