Our lasting adoration of movie monologues is powered by something very real, but something inherently fictional.
We’ve all been there. The chips are down; people begin to bicker/argue/mope/wallow. Or maybe they’re just not getting it; their eyes glazed with ignorance/hate/grief, the bigger picture remains unseen. You step forward, mind racing; in your mind’s eye the words pile up. Then the levee breaks, but the stream is steady, the words flow fast, they flow. You’re an avatar of the collective mindset of everyone in the room, you speak the truth. Sometimes it’s hard to hear but dammit sometimes it has to be heard.
Then, you go on to win the big game. The jury votes in your favor. Your opponent slinks back into the shadows. The alien mothership, smoking, careens into the ground. The crowd erupts in cheering and applause, or they approve with silence, ears savoring the faint echo of the words that came only moments before.
I’ll confess, I have yet to experience this kind of moment. Like drunkenness, sex, and food poisoning, maybe it’s just one of those things that one finds eventually, if one seeks it. But thus far, it has escaped me. And judging by the way some roll their eyes when Mel Gibson straddles a horse and barks about the merits of freedom, I think it’s safe to say that, to most, the concept itself is baloney.
Now, the falsehood of the movie monologue is not a revelatory notion – not by any stretch. We’ve all sarcastically indulged in the faux-inspiration of a deliciously long-winded, uninterrupted dialogue piece smothered lovingly by a solemn string ensemble. But despite the utter fantasy, we still indulge. It may ring hollow, but it resonates nonetheless because the desire to be heard is stronger than the reality that talking is hard and few listen.
Which is why a sub-genre of the movie monologue, the movie speech, will for the moment be ignored. From Patton to Independence Day, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, and Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground, the cinematic speech holds a mesmerizing power of its own.
Nonetheless, the rehearsed and ordained setting, complete with respectful or expectant audience, allows the phenomenon to transcend the silver screen, and in real life we will find no shortage of great speeches given to a waiting audience. In that setting, with enough of a run up, even we can arrange the right words, practice to perfection, and enunciate a rabble-rousing call to arms. The real beauty of the cinematic monologue is found when it is delivered in the heat of the moment; tentative, improvised but perfect; crafting the illusion that even in the moments of everyday commonness, we are capable of delivering our own Gettysburgian address and spontaneously generating our audience to go with it.
We’ve all put those moments together in our heads; the words in place down to every dramatic pause, glance and hand gesture. Even for someone like myself, where being the center of attention equates to being at the focal point of Archimedes’ heat ray, the fantasy of speaking flawlessly and being heard wordlessly is something hard to resist. But try speaking for five minutes without being interrupted or tripping over a word and the chances of even giving oneself a eulogy as succinct and beautiful as Roy Batty’s at the climax of Blade Runner seem very slim indeed.
Which is why, no matter how unbelievable, how corny, it’s so satisfying to see someone, anyone, get it right. Just take a look at Sylvester Stallone’s Cold War-ending speech in Rocky IV delivered after getting punched repeatedly in the face. Al Pacino opens his killer four-minute pep speech in Any Given Sunday with the words “I don’t really know what to say,” only to follow it up with a profound reflection on his life and a powerful metaphor without so much as taking a breath. It’s a lie, but a beautiful one.
However, there is beauty to be had in the awkwardness of it. When things don’t go so well or cover uncomfortable ground, that’s when we can really identify with the struggle. Ken Loach’s fantastic The Wind that Shakes the Barley is peppered with frantic discussions about independence and revolution that feature more stammering and uncertainty than a junior spelling bee. Walter Sobchak’s improvised elegy at the conclusion of The Big Lebowski has the sort of clichéd, pasted-together ramblings of a man who just wants to say something nice about a friend he seldom said nice things to.
Even Tarantino’s penchant for allowing characters to tell stories while others patiently listen allows for mistakes; see Walken’s monologue in Pulp Fiction, whose first half is measured and romanticized, and second half is rushed and glossed over when glorifying dysentery proves difficult. Samuel L. Jackson’s homage to Jaws’ USS Indianapolis monologue in Deep Blue Sea is literally cut short by the arrival of a superintelligent mutant shark. Okay, maybe not that last one …
The escapist fantasy of being that one voice that can make it make sense is one we shouldn’t deny ourselves, but we should be honest about the reality; that when put on the spot, saying something that counts is hard. Really hard. And let’s face it, in the end, we’re all Travis Bickle in front of that mirror in Taxi Driver; rehearsing, repeating, revising, and perfecting those words that we secretly know we’ll probably never get a chance to say.