"Your father's lightsaber. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age."
- Star Wars: A New Hope
I thought for a change I'd watch some good movies. These were the HBO miniseries House of Saddam, the Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact, and Star Wars: A New Hope. There was an interesting similarity in all of these disparate examples of genres, formats, stories, and characters.
They had ZERO time for exposition.
In a context where half the films made nowadays devote a majority of their runtime to lengthy descriptions of the plots or discussion of plot elements, these films might seem to be cutting off the possibility of extending their runtime with padding. Just think: instead of A New Hope being two hours and five minutes, you could extend the runtime to thirty two minutes like The Last Jedi by just drawing things out.
And that's the last time I'll complain about modern Star Wars (scout's honor).
A New Hope, especially compared any number of newer films both independent and from giant studios, moves at a BREATHLESS pace. I'll admit to genuine shock in the sequence where Obi Wan describes his backstory and Anakin's backstory and describes the Jedi order and the old republic...in about half a dozen sentences.
Obi Wan says 'I was once a Jedi knight the same as your father.'
Luke's reply is 'I wish I'd known him better.'
In ANY more up-to-date film this would not have been Luke's answer to this statement. He would ask 'What are the Jedi?' He would ask 'What was my father like?' He would ask ANYTHING.
But, oddly, Luke is not interested in exposition at all. He doesn't delve into the subject so it's barely broached.
Here's the first description of The Force. It's three sentences long.
"Well, The Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together."
For a majority of the film, practically the entire film, this is the sum total of everything Luke knows about The Force and he doesn't raise any further questions about it. Likewise the Jedi order is sketched, not exhaustively defined. Pretty much every exposition potential of the film A New Hope feels like someone went into the script with a highlighter, blanket-selected massive paragraphs of descriptions, and only kept in the bare minimum of needed dialogue, description, or allusion.
And the same is true for House of Saddam. Yes, it's based on real events, but it's still amazing to me how little the show got away with extended sequences that would exist only to provide exposition. In fact like Star Wars there's one or two instances throughout the miniseries where major events are summed up in a few lines of text. Otherwise the story focuses on the people involved in the events, the effect those events have on the people concerned. Factions, wars, massive historical occurrences...none of them are as important as the group of characters the audience gets to know intimately and understand so that those large events can be put into the context of their thoughts, their feelings. It's one thing to show us a large crowd sequence of people cheering, it's another to see one character we got to explore experiencing similar optimism. Larger scale does not mean 'better'. Details sell the impact of events we might otherwise overlook. When Saddam orders the massacre of a village in vengeance the true horror comes home not in the 'action' of the event so much as the officer responsible having a breakdown in his apartment, surrounded by mirrors that seem to stare at him in judgement. When Saddam orders the execution of a row of political opponents the harshest sense of death is made clear not by the length of the line but when one by one he hands a gun to each of his cabinet officers and orders them to 'fire' without feeling in his voice.
Sudden Impact too could have a 'previously on' introduction to the Dirty Harry universe given this film came out after several other adventures, each of which effected Harry Callahan is some way. But Clint Eastwood (who directed Sudden Impact) chooses to introduce Harry without any exposition...while at the same time describing him perfectly. He arrives late to a hearing, wears enormous somewhat outdated sunglasses, and Clint does nothing to diminish his obvious aging. Harry's hair is getting whiter, his skin stretching and his veins stand out against his scalp. He's not loosing his toughness but he is losing his touch to the rest of the world which seems to be advancing past him. The chief describes him as a 'dinosaur' and he seems aware on some level that's what he is, but the world hasn't changed for the better so he sticks to his...cough...guns.
Again, sequences which in a film like The Departed seem to never end with characters blathering on and on in board rooms are reduced to a few pointed sentences in Sudden Impact. Harry barely speaks and mostly communicates his come-backs to statements he doesn't like, which are practically any statement he hears.
Scenes of exposition almost occur but Harry himself doesn't seem to take a lot of interest. While his superiors try to describe the complexity of the situation, Harry just grumbles and tries to leave because he has work to do, damn it. He can't spend his precious time he could be spending saving people and killing bad guys listening to some suit rattle off history lessons.
And this is an interesting distinction connecting these films as well: nobody in them wants to listen to exposition. Luke is kind of an impatient guy. Han Solo starts upping the transportation fee and he's prepared to leave the table in a huff. When Luke is describing The Princess, Han is confused and kind of annoyed that Luke knows more than he does but he doesn't go very deep into the situation beyond the danger is recovering her (which he doesn't like) and the possibility she will reward him (which he does).
Saddam is the information broker for an entire country so he is almost always the one who knows the most out of anyone. He doesn't like listening to other people telling him what to do even if they're right so he very rarely gets into situations where he asks for someone to sit down and outline the situation to him. The story of the series is instead Saddam DOING things. He makes decisions, he initiates discussions with other people, he schemes, he runs away. When his subordinates are doing something and not Saddam the series switches to them instead. House of Saddam, for a show about a guy who in the course of his career was more of a politician than a soldier, focuses pretty tightly on the most 'action' that occurred in the course of his life and the life of his sons. Action doesn't always mean gunfire. Saddam is always in the midst of some kind of activity. Conceivably the guy probably had a lot of downtime, but the series doesn't bother looking at him while he's sleeping or eating or just having a party. Even when the series shows him swimming it's because he's about to make an important demand of his captain of the guard. The first scene of the series where he's at a party is due to that party being a cover up for intimidation of the current president.
The series has little fluff to trim. It does take creative license, but it doesn't feel like it's spinning its wheels.
And Sudden Impact has a similar internal concept of pace. If Harry has gone more than a couple of scenes without his life being put in danger or getting into a fight the film will give him something to do, and something that matters. His first 'action scene' with a bunch of hoodlums in a restaurant plays directly into the gang they represented sending more goons to kill Harry on his vacation in revenge. There's never any real instances of things just 'happening'. It's a pretty tight script.
And those action scenes are deliberately diverse. When Harry gets into a gun battle it's never quite just Harry standing around shooting people with his magnum. In one instance a car pulls up, gunfire is exchanged, Harry runs away and the bad guys go looking for him, Harry gets the drop on them. In another a car chase leads to molotov cocktails being thrown. Anyone could stage an endless series of gunfights, but Sudden Impact gives you a selection of fine action scenes with differences so you don't feel the experience is stale. Of course Harry isn't going to die, but if he's always doing something new it's a reason to watch his story, and Sudden Impact even throws into the mix the story of a young rape victim looking for revenge told in parallel to Harry's own experiences, and eventually the stories intersect.
It's exposition via action.
Going back to a New Hope, another impressive situation I could see playing out I loved even as a kid was how naturally and efficiently characters came to have relationships with each other. Luke and Ben Kenobi don't have a great deal of time together before Ben is killed but in that time Luke clearly reveres the guy as his mentor and friend. When Han starts denigrating Obi Wan as 'that old fossil' Luke rejoins with 'Ben is a great man' and the statement feels earned. When Luke and Leia start falling for each other (in this version it was clear she wasn't originally supposed to be his sister) Leia does little things to indicate her affection for Luke like kissing him on the cheek before they swing over a chasm, declaring 'For luck.' It is FAR subtler a detail than a contemporary film especially which would only indicate a character liked another by having them accidentally catch the other one without their clothes on or falling prone on top of their love interest.
But Star Wars was content to have hints of the love triangle rather than outright declarations about it. Han winks at Leia in the ending ceremony but Leia either doesn't notice or is just ignoring him. Luke and Han have ONE conversation about the subject which ends extremely quickly.
Han: 'Still...she's got spirit. What do you think. You think a princess and a guy like me...?
Luke: (Abruptly) No.
Luke is pretty territorial about Leia and Han recognizes this, even indulging in a little smile.
Compare this with Guardians of the Galaxy which takes an entire scene to establish a comparatively tepid romance.
Starlord: It's a negotiation tactic. It's my specialty. Yours is more stab...stab...'those are my terms'.
Gamora: My father didn't stress diplomacy.
Gamora: He is not my father. When Thanos took my homeworld he killed my parents in front of my. He tortured me. Turned me into a weapon. When he said he was going to destroy an entire planet for Ronan I couldn't stand by. Why would you risk your life for this? (holds up tape recorder)
Starlord: My mother gave me this. Mom liked to share with me all the pop songs growing up. I happened to have it on me when I was...the day that she...when I...left Earth.
Gamora: What do you do with it?
Starlord: Do? Nothing. You listen to it. And you can dance.
Gamora: I'm a warrior and an assassin I do not dance.
Starlord: Really? Well on my planet, there's a legend about people like you...
(exhaustively describes Footloose)
*the two randomly begin to kiss after discussing whether or not someone with a stick up their butt is a metaphor*
Gamora: No! (draws weapon) I know who you are Peter Quill! And I am not some starry-eyed waif here to succumb to your...your...PELVIC SORCERY!
*random bar fight occurs to cover up the awkwardness of this forced comedic exchange*
Count the amount of actual human-sounding dialogue compared with raw exposition, not to mention a completely superfluous discussion about Footloose and whether or not having a stick-up-the-butt is an expression (I figured getting expressions wrong was Drax's thing, not Gamora's).
Here's when Han and Leia finally hook up in The Empire Strikes Back.
Han: Hey, your worship! I'm only trying to help!
Leia: Would you please stop calling me that?
Han: Sure Leia.
Leia: You make it so difficult sometimes.
Han: I do. I really do. You could be a little nicer though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I'm all right.
Leia: Occasionally. Maybe. When you aren't acting like a scoundrel.
Han: Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.
Leia: Stop that.
Han: Stop what?
Leia: My hands are dirty.
Han: My hands are dirty too. What are you afraid of?
Han: You're trembling.
Leia: I'm not trembling.
Han: You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.
Leia: I happen to like nice men.
Han: Nice men.
Leia: Very nice...
And of course C3PO interrupts the whole thing.
Notice though the differences between these similar sequences which are meant to do the same thing, but in Guardians the sequence is also pulling double duty. We learn TWICE that Gamora is an assassin (which we couldn't tell apparently from just her killing people) we hear all about her backstory, get a bit of Starlord's backstory, both of them flat out tell each other what kind of person they are...and STILL the romance seems to come out of nowhere.
In Empire Strikes Back the dialogue seems more like two people talking to each other than just people taking AT each other delivering necessary (and unnecessary) plot information. The closest we get to exposition is that Han considers himself a scoundrel and considers that a decent thing, but it's practically just a form of banter more than his describing his character. The focus is solidly on CHARACTER over the plot. Nothing is really moving in terms of the film's overarching story in this sequence, but then again it is because although some of the show is space battles the rest are the people involved in those conflicts and their associations with each other.
Consider if the scene between Starlord and Gamora played out more like people talking to each other in a similar fashion.
Gamora: No luck with negotiations?
Starlord: Story of my life.
Gamora: I've been meaning to ask you what that device is.
Starlord: This old thing? Tapedeck.
Gamora: Not familiar.
Starlord: It's a machine to play music. There's other devices that do that. This is one from Earth.
Gamora: Why keep such a primitive device on your person at all times?
Starlord: Sentimental reasons. You probably have something like that. Something important to you because of what it reminds you of.
Gamora: (Thinks. Holds up her sword.)
Starlord: There you go. Like that. I guess I should have seen that coming...
Gamora: So, this device is an otherwise meaningless keepsake you maintain. There are many other devices to play music available, more advanced and far more portable, some on this station. Why not upgrade? I have upgraded my own arsenal on many occasions.
Starlord: But you kept the sword for the memories, right? This baby here has some tunes you won't find anywhere else. Earth tunes. Classics. Want to try 'em out?
Gamora: I suppose.
(Listens to music)
Gamora: Not very much like the music I remember. More percussion. More...cheerful.
Starlord: But do you like it?
Gamora: Much...I think.
Starlord: You don't have to keep second-guessing yourself like that! You spend so much time overthinking things. Do you really need to all the time?
Gamora: I really think I do. Maybe you should try it some time.
Starlord: Sometimes...you can just turn yourself off and listen. Sometimes...all you need is to feel.
(Touches Gamora's hand gently. She thinks about the gesture.)
Gamora: Did you just...attempt to woo me?
(Let's go immediately)
Starlord: Me? No. What made you think I'd do a thing like that?
Gamora: Unsolicited advances towards me are are ill-advised. Not to mention the gesture was extremely prosaic if you had any deliberate intentions by it. I'm not sure whether to be affronted or insulted.
Starlord: I didn't mean anything by it. Just consider it an accident. I hope you enjoyed the music anyways.
(Gamora walks away...pauses)
Gamora: Of course...not all advances would be seen as entirely unwelcome. In the proper context.
Starlord: The proper context, huh?
(Gamora nods her head curtly and leaves. Starlord smiles to himself and leans against the railing.)
I'm not William Faulkner, me, but I think an exchange like this gives us all the information we need about the relationship brewing between these characters and something about them, but delivers the exposition in the form of actions instead of words. Starlord doesn't randomly ask about Gamora's parentage, she doesn't refer to herself as an assassin, and they don't decide the most interesting and attractive aspect of themselves is their sob stories. Sure we lose the 'pelvic sorcery' meme, but even Gamora's actress seems embraced to make such a goofy declaration which even her character wouldn't say given everything we know about her.
But wait! You point out the scrolling script at the beginning of A New Hope especially as BLATANT exposition!
I've probably mentioned this in earlier entries but the infamous text crawl is an homage to the serials that Star Wars is based on and is practically superfluous. All of the crawl from A New Hope especially is explained at some point in the course of the film. You miss the crawl, it doesn't change a thing.
All subsequent crawls in other films bizarrely did not take this concept to heart. Without the crawl in something like Blade Runner (an otherwise fine film) the film doesn't make a lot of sense because there is necessary information in the text crawl. Same with Johnny Mnemonic. I realize that in a fictive context characters can know more about their surroundings, the systems of their world, and the way their society functions than an audience might and them describing those niceties seems too ponderous for an realistic sensibility. If The Matrix was set onboard The Nebuchadnezzar and the main character was Morpheus the whole movie would be almost sans exposition because Morpheus knows everything and lives day to day in the midst of a weird world the audience does not comprehend from their own experiences.
To counteract this issue The Wachowskis included Neo as the everyman who gets everything explained to him in the guise of lessons for his benefit, also bringing the audience up to speed.
But as much as The Matrix is enjoyable, the exposition is pretty thick on the ground and only piles on as the series continued. I keep recalling the sequence in Reloaded devoted to describing how angles, werewolves, and aliens are programs...and this having NOTHING to do with the plot. In one instance a character kills another using a silver bullet, but this program does nothing else to act like a werewolf. If we hadn't had the scene devoted to exposition nothing would have changed.
Sometimes things can be short and sweet. The movie Dredd is an hour and thirty five minutes long.
Less than two hours! That's ridiculously short for a modern movie.
Yes it wasn't a financial success (mostly because people thought it was a rip-off of The Raid) but it did go to show just because your film is in theaters doesn't make it have to be upwards of THREE hours in length.
And even Dredd is packed to the gills with exposition rather needlessly, even if it's more rapid than a lot of other films with its dispensary. Flashbacks bleed into recordings bleed into exposition via the character's thoughts being spoken out loud. Some characters spend their time on screen describing things or 'talking' about their histories.
See, history is an odd thing. People generally do NOT like talking about it. I've had extended conversations about histories and stories about histories but usually they're with relatives or 'guy friends' I have who are just trying to make conversation. Ironically my experiences with more intimate discussions with girlfriends have been pretty innocuous. We don't talk about deep feelings or the tragedies in our past, we talk about movies and music and the weather and what we had for lunch and silly things like that because the act of talking about pleasant concepts is part of the joyful experience of being around the other person. We can get deeper into discussions about emotions if we run out of ordinary things to discuss or if we feel more comfortable but my first topic of conversation is NOT going to be 'By the way, my grandfather died in the hospital.'
It's all very well to learn through dialogue and use it as exposition, but if the exposition is obvious then you might as well have title cards and those echoing sounds that accompany characters omnisciently describing events directly to the audience.
Imagine if when our characters are in an exposition-heavy context they actually seem to behaving like real people during the situation. In A New Hope there's the famous scene where the old guy describes the Death Star plans in detail (although again surprisingly briefly) and what does Luke do?
He starts talking about 'bulls-eyeing wamprats' back on his home planet.
In House of Saddam there are boardroom sequences in which Saddam meets with his officers, receives the arbitrary details of the ongoing situation, and then makes some kind of declaration himself. How to keep this from being boring?
The series answer is to make everyone in the room so terrified of Saddam they're barely listening to what he's saying. The board members have saucer eyes, speak very plainly and quickly, and begin to have nervous tics. This isn't just your ordinary meeting. These are men who need to placate a murderous tyrant and avoid catching attention because as soon as you're his target for any reason you don't live long. Saddam's declarations are fairly typical 'We will win over the Western devils' kind of speeches but again what's made fascinating by a situation which could have been dull is that Saddam really seems to believe what he's saying. He swings his arms, he paces, he stands tall haloed in the lights above him like some kind of deity of war.
Something is always going on because exposition is an opportunity for character development, not the other way round.
In Sudden Impact there are moments where exposition has probably just happened or will happen later and Dirty Harry either leaves or arrives late. It's kind of fascinating to watch the main character catch wind of what will surely be long and drawn out iteration about the plot...and just turns around to get back to the action. The trial sequence is shown splintered between beats of Harry just walking down a hallway. We the audience don't need or get all of the descriptions of the trial, people talking about the case, and when Harry arrives his apathy about the situation translates to the judge lecturing him for a very short time period because she realizes he is barely listening.
This is why a movie like Die Hard 5 doesn't feel like a Die Hard film. John McClain, like Harry, doesn't like exposition. When he met the terrorist in the first film he had maybe five words to say to the guy. As far as John was concerned the situation was extremely simple so that's how it became from his perspective.
Having someone mumble on and on about politics just isn't the style of either McClain or his films.
In the future, and I know it wouldn't work for every film, it would be great to see some attention paid to whittling down exposition rather than piling it on top of movies like rancid whipped cream. In Harry Potter the exposition is delivered in a few seconds over a conversation at a bar table. In Lord of the Rings after an admittedly pretty but kind of needless introductory flashback sequence (which actually was at least extremely edited down from its original form) the 'exposition' is delivered in a naturalistic conversation between two friends on a wagon, and later over a cup of tea.
People TALK to each other, they do not exposit AT each other at the best of times.
And even more interesting is what is not said.
In Naked Lunch the film our lead hero encounters a talking cockroach after being busted for drugs and the cockroach tells him to rub bug poison on him and then kill his wife. At NO time does the main character ask why there's a giant bug, where it came from, or why it wants anything done. He's basically in a state of shock throughout the sequence and the bug is so matter-a-fact about what it says it is almost simply a given. He comes from Interzone, he is against centipedes, and he likes bug poison. That's just what's going on.
Now, granted, Naked Lunch is very clearly the hallucinations of an addict and addicts can accept things like this as a waking dream, but its still interesting to come away from an exposition sequence and actually WANT to know more about what's going on. It's a bit like an exposition scene which explains the plot but glosses over everything else in almost a metaphorical sense. How much do you really learn if someone only tells you the plot? Do you know anything about the people who are talking? Do you get to know anything about the people involved in the story?
Naked Lunch is like a plot which forgot to tell you the context or the characters and it embraces rather than dismisses the mystery of a universe in which everything makes sense to itself but nothing makes sense to the lead character or the audience.
You don't need that kind of ambiguity to still have a mysterious absence of information. Obi Wan describes 'The Clone Wars' and Luke recognizes what they are. End of exposition. We don't get to know anything about this event because it's enough to just have Obi Wan have been a warrior at one point, presumably for the Old Republic. There's a board room meeting in The Death Star to discuss politics for about five minutes at most. One officer describes 'regional leaders' but that's as close as we get to the design of the Republic as it was. The Emperor himself is never even mentioned, and as far as A New Hope is concerned there isn't even a Dark Side of The Force: Darth Vader is just a Jedi who uses his power for evil.
In Sudden Impact what is the nature of the state of race relations in the city? How about the exact crime families involved in the on going crimewave? How about the name of the assassins attacking Harry? None are necessary. Harry COULD you get the feeling ask, and the script clearly did think about these questions (we see impoverished African Americans resorting to crime and Harry even lets one of them go, we see names of his victims on police reports...) but the film doesn't feel it important to stop everything to point out details that are not of immediate thematic or character-important use.
And in Saddam there's whole story beats dependent upon things that are not explained specifically but are fleshed out in their implications. Saddam notes that one his cabinet members is not 'Al'Majid' but doesn't go into the specifics of what this means. It is clear though the way he makes this statement and the decisions he makes based on this fact that this is some kind of clan affiliation, and several episodes later he uses the term again and this is confirmed by a throwaway line of dialogue.
If this had been a Marvel film Saddam would probably have said 'He is not of the clan Al'Majid, unlike my closest and most loyal friends, and therefore it is necessary to regard him with more suspicion'. This does make it clear like a baseball bat to the side of the head to the audience what this term means and why it is important, but it also sounds extremely stilted and it is not imperative to have the film grind to a halt just so the characters can speak to the audience in this way.
It might help in some contexts, but if you're a good writer you don't need this kind of exposition dump. It can even make audience members feel like they're being coddled and treated like children which seldom makes people very pleased.
So if you want me to distinguish a good film from a bad film my answer is usually the same as it has been throughout my life. Interesting, compelling characters. A cohesive plot. Logical reasoning of same. A consistent and comprehensive theme or series of congruent themes.
And wherever exposition must be present it is delivered dynamically and sparingly.
Given these directives the very worst films I've seen recently could basically be saved, but in order for this kind of pervasive quality to filter in a film needs to be considered from the first as a lean and mean story and character study rather than excuses for special effects or a loosely composed series of potentially interesting but barely broached ideas.
When it comes to exposition, just say maybe.