Saturday, March 16, 2013

10 Monumental Film Monologues

There's a great difference between talking and communicating. In plenty of films, we see characters who speak their mind for more than a minute uninterrupted, and the dialogue might be good but it fails to move us.  The best monologues make us see the world in a way we've never seen it before, or touch on universal sentiments that we've always known but have never had the courage to voice. Here are ten of my all-time favourites. Oh, and THIS IS YOUR SPOILER WARNING. Scroll carefully. 

10. "Who cares about this stupid election?" (Election - Alexander Payne, 1999)

This monologue from Jessica Campbell may lack the profundity of some other entries on this list, but its inclusion is warranted by its accuracy. Tammy Metzler's words will resonate with anyone who's been through high school. In your final two years before graduation, you begin to realise the internal politics of school administration. You understand that some teachers play favourites, and that some hold secret grudges. You also know that many students pass their days in quiet desperation, hoping to secure a spot on the student body under the false belief it will automatically open up opportunities in their adult lives. In this sharp satire, Tammy runs for student body president against her older brother Paul and over-achiever Tracy Flick. Tammy only decided to enter the race after she found out her "girlfriend" is actually heterosexual and seeing Paul. Tammy knows she isn't popular, and she doesn't even want to win. She sees this election as an opportunity to launch a tirade against student politics, and she delivers a speech which earns a round of applause. She labels the election process as a "pathetic charade" that only benefits the winner, and virtually pushes for an anarchistic school. Unfortunately, Tammy is suspended for voicing her sentiments. There is a certain kind of movie scene that depicts something you wish you saw happen in your lifetime but probably never will. This is one of them, and it is absolutely fantastic.

9. "Top five things I miss about Laura" (High Fidelity - Stephen Frears, 2000)

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is my favourite book of all time, and Stephen Frears' film adaptation does so much justice to it. This monologue works for so many reasons that I could probably write an essay about this scene alone. Alas, I'll try and keep everything to a paragraph here. First of all, it's the way the scene comes from nowhere. Nothing in the previous scene suggests that this reflection will occur. We're just hit with it, and we welcome its impact. I also love the way John Cusack breaks the fourth wall to make his words very personable. He wants us to know what this woman meant to him; why he can't shake the remnants of her from his mind. We sincerely feel for him, and, in a way, feel like we have also lost Laura. The scene peaks at number 3 in Rob's list, when he tells us he misses Laura's smell and taste, and remarks "Some people, as far as your senses are concerned, just...feel like...home." It's one of the most beautiful sentiments from any film, and Rob is too emotional to even enunciate the number 4, so he has to hold up four fingers. Number 5 on Rob's list is subtly humorous and it reminds us of that one trivial thing we secretly adore about the person we love, whether that love is reciprocated or not. It's a nice touch that Rob refrains from giving us a top 5 list of the things Laura does that drive him crazy. It would have played out as unnecessary negativity and robbed the scene of its melancholic tone.  

8. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore!" (Network - Sidney Lumet, 1976)

It's a shame this monologue has lost some of its impact due to incessant parody and imitation, but the truth behind the words still rings true. Network hasn't aged a day since it was released in 1976. Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a news anchor who is told he'll be fired because of low ratings. During a live broadcast, Beale announces he will commit suicide during next week's news telecast. He is immediately fired for these comments, but is given one more chance to have a dignified farewell. He uses this airtime to say that life is bullshit, and this results in a ratings spike for the network, so he is reinstated in his position. Then comes this timeless speech. If you watch the news regularly, you'll notice that most stories are negative in nature. There are nights when the most positive thing reported is a dog successfully catching waves on a surfboard. As viewers, we might sigh and wish for a better state of affairs, but that doesn't change the reality of what is happening. Bad things happen every day. The world is a shit place. We're desensitised to hearing about things such as murder, rape and hooliganism, and instead of asking why that is, we just retreat to our cocoons of apathy. This monologue highlights the universal truth that no one will care unless you speak up. The people sticking their heads out of windows and calling for change are not revolutionising society, but they are making their voices heard, and that has plenty of symbolic value. Peter Finch is only one of two actors to posthumously receive an Academy Award in an acting category. The other was of course Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. It's a shame Finch wasn't alive to receive his award. He thoroughly deserved it and he deserved to feel happy about it. I also recommend Ned Beatty's "The world is a business" monologue, also from Network.

7. "It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world." (American Beauty - Sam Mendes, 1999)

You were warned about spoilers, and I'm going to give you a major one here: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) dies at the end of American Beauty. I just assume that everyone has seen this masterpiece by now. This scene simultaneously fills me with joy and sadness. We mourn Lester's death because we grew to love him throughout the film. At the same time, Lester's "spirit" is so calm and only remembers the fond moments from his relatively short lifetime. Music and sound are so important here. Thomas Newman's Any Other Name sets the tranquil mood. The recurring gunshot shakes us each time, even though we're prepared for it. The rustling of the leaves on the maple tree, the pouring rain, Frank Fitts' heavy breathing and Carolyn's wailing all heighten the immediacy of the scene. Memories are in black and white, while reaction shots from Lester's loved ones are in colour. I think this is how we interpret our own reality. The past is never completely satisfying because memories can only provide so much solace. Spacey's delivery adds so much to this monologue. He speaks in a tone that suggests he knows something we don't. I love that the film ends on the line "But don't will someday." It's an excellent example of how ambiguity should be used, and it adds to the mystique of Lester Burnham. I also love the way Lester recalls his memories: boy scout camp, yellow leaves, his grandmother's hands, the Firebird, Jane and Carolyn. We all have these things we hold dear to us, but when we get down to our final moments, which of these things will stand out? 

6. "We think too much and feel too little." (The Great Dictator - Charles Chaplin, 1940)

The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first proper 'talkie', having established himself in silent films such as Modern Times and City Lights. It was his most commercially successful film, but also the one that attracted the most controversy. Chaplin's likeness to Adolf Hitler (complete with toothbrush moustache) is no accident. He wanted to make a mockery of the man, even if it politicised the film too much. But it is Chaplin's six-minute monologue towards the end of the film that has inspired the most criticism. The dictator of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin), is expected to give a victory speech to the masses, but a Jewish barber (also played by Chaplin) who bears a striking resemblance to Hynkel impersonates him. The barber delivers a humanistic speech that calls for a society governed by science and progress, where empathy eradicates selfishness. Some people have called it the greatest speech of all time, but plenty of people think it is awkward and uncalled for, as Chaplin breaks the fourth wall and espouses his personal politics. I am a fan of the speech, but I can certainly see why many object to it. Despite the fact this was Chaplin's most commercially successful film, it is also the one most associated with his decline. After The Great Dictator, some audiences could not separate Chaplin the comic from Chaplin the orator. In 1952, Chaplin would direct Limelight, a film about an ex-music hall star faced with dwindling popularity. This was clearly autobiographical and Chaplin's exile from the United States came within the same year.

5. "It is the duty of all human beings to think God out of existence." (Bad Boy Bubby - Rolf de Heer, 1993)

If listening to this monologue depresses you, maybe you should consider why so many people around the world cling to religion for comfort. Human existence is, by nature, unfair. We're born into a world without our consent, where we spend the majority of our lives working before we grow old and die. Yes, life holds many brilliant moments as well, but only if we choose to create them. As the scientist explains, "We're all just complicated arrangements of atoms and subatomic particles—we don't live." Living is a human construct, designed to fill our time on Earth with purpose. Is this scene preachy? It's preachy in the sense that only one perspective is offered, but all I see is truth. What about people who, as sponge-brained children, are forced to accept that a higher power exists and that life must be lived in accordance to the dogma of a specific faith? As far as I'm concerned, that is far more preachy. When you assume the existence of something, the burden of proof falls on you. If you tell someone there is no God, you don't need to supply evidence. Of course, I write this as an atheist and I understand not all readers are on my side. I digress. Bubby is such an enigmatic character. He is 35 years old and has never set foot outside his mother's squalid apartment. Imagine that: 35 years in one miserable building, told that the outside air is poisonous. His mother, a Christian fundamentalist, is very possessive. She often beats Bubby and has intercourse with him. Bubby thinks nothing of this. He has no idea what incest is, let alone that the word exists. As you can deduce from this scene, Bubby does escape from the four walls of that apartment, and he discovers the real world to be a fascinating though terrifying place. That's why this monologue packs a huge blow. Bubby is having his ideas challenged for the first time ever. It is compelling and deeply rewarding to see him digest this knowledge. I highly recommend you watch this film. It's one of the greatest Australian films ever made, and the story is extremely original.  

4. "Coffee's for closers only." (Glengarry Glen Ross - James Foley, 1992)

Although this monologue comes in at number 4, it would come in at number 1 if I were ranking the monologues by delivery alone. From the moment he opens his mouth, Alec Baldwin dominates. I have only seen the film once, but sometimes I watch this monologue for pure enjoyment, and every time I am scared by Baldwin's ferocity. I feel as though I am in the room being berated along with the other men. Remarkably, this is Baldwin's only scene in the film, and it was written specifically for him by David Mamet. Baldwin plays Blake, a man who is sent to motivate four real estate salesmen to sell houses, or "close on leads". He entices the salesmen with promising leads from Glengarry Highlands. The first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. The second prize is a set of steak knives. The third prize is "You're fired." What's fascinating about Baldwin's character is that he seems as though he's in two minds. In one sense, he doesn't enjoy being in this room with four incompetent schmucks. He has other places to be, and he's only giving this talk as part of a favour. On the other hand, Blake is relishing every single moment of his rousing speech. He enjoys belittling the Ed Harris character: "You see this watch? That watch cost more than your car." And he thoroughly gets off on telling Jack Lemmon to put down his coffee. It is ultimately Blake's lack of empathy that makes him memorable. "Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here - close!" Because the scene comes early in the film, we're positioned to view the real estate industry as a dog-eat-dog pursuit. We know this film isn't going to consist of boring scenes involving nothing but paperwork. 

3. "And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie?" (Adaptation. - Spike Jonze, 2002)

First of all, let me just say that Brian Cox is one of the most underrated Hollywood actors. He has been for some time. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE REWARD THIS MAN!? This scene is excellent because Robert McKee (Cox) begins answering Charlie Kaufman's question in a reasonably calm manner. Slowly, his words become more intense. The tone escalates, and before we know it, McKee is verbally abusing Kaufman. It happens so quickly, and we don't know how to react. We are just as gobsmacked as Kaufman. Nicolas Cage is outstanding at selling his vulnerability to the audience. The poor guy just stands there and takes it, and even says "Thanks" at the end. This scene allowed me to view the world in a way I'd never considered it before. Like Charlie, I once equated the "real world" to unremarkable stories from day-to-day life. I saw so many things as unrealistic or exaggerated, merely because I'd never seen them personally. But McKee is right. Every single day, people die in horrible ways. People suffer immense heartbreak and family tragedies. We often forget about this and believe in two extremes: the real world (working a 9 to 5 job) and the realm of fantasy (you know, wizards and stuff). We discard the idea of a world that is neither mundane or fantastical, but downright ugly. Just for the record, I still think Adaptation. is the best of Charlie Kaufman's scripts. 

2. "You're just a kid." (Good Will Hunting - Gus Van Sant, 1997)

For a long time, this was my favourite movie scene, period. It's just so economical. So much is conveyed using two skilled actors, a profound script, and a park bench. The scene highlights so much about the difference between quantifiable knowledge (book smarts) and emotional intelligence. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is gifted with savant-like knowledge. Despite this, he chooses to work as a janitor at MIT. During sessions with psychologist Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), he learns more about himself and, in this scene, is taught an important lesson: NEVER ASSUME. Prior to this scene, Will saw a painting in Dr. Maguire's office that Sean had painted himself. Will assumed it was inspired by Maguire's wife cheating on him, and Sean reacted violently to this by choking Will. We later find out that Sean's wife died of cancer. That's why Will's assumption pissed him off so much. So here we have Sean lecturing Will, telling him that all of his knowledge counts for nothing if he cannot grasp basic human decency. Sean also highlights that Will hasn't even been out of Boston, and so his life experience is very minimal. The scene is about those tiny remarks, often said in jest, that are more insidious than we expect. It's also about pseudo-intellectualism and the difficulty of defining "knowledge". But most importantly, as I mentioned above, its main message is that assumptions are dangerous. You can't live your life thinking everyone and everything is a stereotype.   

1. "I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get." (Hannah and Her Sisters - Woody Allen, 1986)

Here is my favourite movie scene of all time. It doesn't matter how distraught I am. I can listen to these words and feel that everything is going to be just fine. For those who don't know, I am scared of dying. Whenever I think about death or the idea of eternal unconsciousness, a chill runs through my entire body. It almost physically sickens me. This scene doesn't change my views on what happens after we die (we are deprived of all sensory experience and we stay that way forever), but it does comfort me because it reminds me that life can be very enjoyable. There comes a point where you just accept it: "Yep, I'm going to die one day." Everyone knows it and there's no point in dwelling on it because it cannot be changed. So, the only option left is to just fucking have fun. Of course, that's made a little difficult by the fact we are expected to make a living while we're here. But it's all about the little things. In this scene, Mickey (Woody Allen) is watching Duck Soup as though it's an antidepressant. You know how people have comfort foods? People also have comfort films, comfort music, comfort literature, comfort sex, comfort anything. If we find enough things to comfort us and revisit them quite regularly, we can live satisfying lives. A common theme in Allen's films is what one can get away with in a godless universe. He explores this idea most prominently in Crimes and Misdemeanors, where a character gets away with murder. In Hannah and Her Sisters, the idea of a godless universe is repulsive to Mickey. Having to live an entire lifetime without a reward at the end just doesn't sound right. It is only when he retreats to his comfort zone, the cinema, that he rationalises his reasons for staying alive. It's simple: life is way more fun than death could ever be. I have written more about the search for meaning in my life (with reference to Woody Allen) here.

1 comment:

  1. GREAT picks. That monologue from High Fidelity might be my favorite scene of the film. A beautiful sentiment indeed.

    With the exception of the Bad Boy Bubby pick, which I haven’t seen, I love all of these monologues. Really solid work.