November 17, 2007

On the screen

Caught on a screen very near me two weeks ago: a cute playing with anaphoric pronouns in an old episode of Taxi; an incredibly irritating editing of Eddie Murphy's 1987 Raw performance; and some great London street speech in the movie Metrosexuality.

I rarely work in complete silence.  I almost always have the radio, the TV, a movie, or my iTunes playing in the background.  I've  done this since I was a child.  (Please don't write me about my work habits.)  But this stuff has to be a background track, especially since when I'm deeply into the flow of writing or thinking I entirely cease to attend to the background.  Things that actually REQUIRE close attention just won't work: movies in languages I can't follow (so I have to look at the subtitles), for instance, or music that moves me strongly in one way or another.

Trash television and trashy movies are especially good for my purposes, and they have the virtue of providing me with occasional (but not too frequent) examples of linguistic phenomena I collect.  Mutant-creature movies -- giant or newly vicious (or both) ants, yellowjacket wasps, bees, snakes, fish, cats, whatever -- are especially fine.  Also mostly fine are things I've seen or heard many times before; I can tune in occasionally when something memorable comes along.  Monty Python can run in the background, and every so often I'll take a break to speak lines along with the Pythons.

ANAPHORA.  Which brings me to Taxi, a classic American sitcom I've seen all the episodes of several times.  Saturday two weeks ago, spurning KFJC's Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show (which is somewhat distracting because Robert Emmett, the host, is a very heavy user of Extris), I went through the first third of Taxi's first season on DVD.  Not perhaps the best choice in the world, since I kept finding things to take note of.  Including this wonderful exchange, from "Bobby's Acting Career" (first shown on 10/5/78):

[Alex, the show's main character, comes into the Sunshine Cab garage with a great dane]

Bobby: Where'd you find him?
Alex: I took him away from some guy in my cab; he was whipping him with his leash.
Tony [to the dog]: Hey, you shouldn't do that, boy!  You could hurt somebody.

Tony Banta, a cabdriver who's also a boxer and who's a bit on the slow side, gets the (intended) antecedents reversed (this is endearing, because he's looking at things from the point of view of the dog).  No sensible person would get the antecedents wrong.

(But simpler examples than this are trotted out, out of context, in textbooks and advice manuals, as instances of "unclear antecedents" for pronouns, in this case antecedents that are labeled unclear because they're said to be ambiguous.  I have a whole series of postings in the works on "unclear antecedents", including one on "more than one antecedent".  Bottom line: the advice material totally fails to take into account real-world plausibility and discourse organization, and these factors are absolutely crucial, here and with regard to the recently-discussed modifier attachment.  There are some bad-news examples -- I have a collection of them and occasionally post about them here -- but people mostly don't have trouble locating antecedents.)

The problem for me as someone working while viewing was that I had to stop and get this whole exchange down.  Not conducive to work.

BLEEP.  The next morning I thought I'd catch Eddie Murphy's 1987 performance Raw (at Madison Square Garden) on the Bravo Channel,  I wasn't prepared for Bravo's massive bleeping of all the taboo vocabulary.  It was seriously disconcerting: whole chunks of Murphy's shtick were reduced to function words with blanks, and since the routines were fast-paced, you actually had to listen carefully to them to guess at what had been elided.

Frustrating indeed.  After a little while I abandoned this bizarre event.

INNIT.  And passed on to a DVD of Metrosexuality, a film (originally, a TV show) set in London's Notting Hill district, with a large cast of characters, of several ethnicities, sexualities, and dialects.  It's very fast-paced, with lots of quick cuts.  Not really an Arnold Zwicky work thing, because it requires so much attention.  But it has some wonderful London street speech, including this telephone exchange right at the beginning, between an adolescent and his (flamingly) gay father, both black:

Dad: Just tell me what you want and be done.
Son: How about a lift home, yeh?  See, your no-good ragamuffin ex-husband ain't shown up, innit,  And I don't got no bus fare, innit.
Dad: But you do got legs, innit.  And you do can walk, innit.

(Plot point: the son is trying to get his two dads, separated for 18 months, to reconcile, and is contriving to get them both in the same place at the same time, on his behalf.)

There's just so much here: the deployment of innit (which has several uses in current London street speech, going well beyond its use as a fixed question tag) and the do's in the dad's last two sentences, in particular.

Sadly, the interpretive burden was just too great for me, and I moved to less challenging things, in the mutant-creature genre.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 17, 2007 08:30 PM