New releases: Marilyn and Ethan

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You will recall that I tend to serve as Language Log's film columnist. I try to keep readers abreast of the linguistic lessons to be learned from the contemporary cinema. Some have suggested that all I'm really after is a chance to get my cinema tickets reimbursed out of Language Log's research expenses funds, but that is an unworthy thought and I will not dignify it with comment. The most recent films I've seen are My Week With Marilyn and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.

My Week with Marilyn is a stunner of a film, and if Michelle Williams is not nominated for an Oscar I will be irritable for weeks. In fact if she doesn't win Best Actress I will be like a bear with a sore head for a day or so. Her channeling of Marilyn Monroe is just breathtaking. Awesome. The movie is funny, charming, touching, convincing… there just isn't a false note. Absolutely loved it, and so did my filmgoing pals Mark and Bonnie.

The linguistic angle? Umm… At one point Sir Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh) snarls that trying to teach Marilyn Monroe to act "is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger." I thought that was interesting. Urdu is an Indic language with some Perso-Arabic lexical influence. No badger has ever learned it. So don't tell me I came away empty-handed, linguistically speaking.

That leaves Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, which I saw with my son Calvin while I was in Portland for the Linguistic Society of America meeting last week. Given his interest in media (he's a video game designer) and my interest in big screens, we decided to see it in Imax. I recommend that, if you like a film to blow your socks off almost literally. The sound level moves the hairs on your arms and legs. The explosions make your chest throb. The immersive visual experience is so complete that when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to move down half a dozen floors of the Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building) by bungee jumping down the exterior on the end of a fire hose, and you see the panorama of Dubai spread out hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet below as he does it, and the fire hose isn't quite long enough to reach the open window he needs to get in at, your knuckles go white and you sweat under the arms. That doesn't happen to me all that often anymore, but after this film my shirt had to be consigned immediately to the laundry sack.

And the linguistics? Well, let's start with the extremely odd punctuation of the title. The colon has always been a part of the title in the "Mission: Impossible" franchise. That means when they do a two-part title with the original title as the first part, they would run into an ugly double colon: "Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol", which looks bewildering and inane (the unacceptability is pointed out in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Chapter 20, section 3.1). You don't know whether the first or the second is the major break. You need two different syntactic marks for phrase breaks to do what has to be done, and the colon is spoken for, so they settle for a dash as the second (and more highly ranked) mark. Thoroughly ungainly, I think. But they just had to get the franchise name in there, and the rest was pretty much forced on them.

Then there's the fact that in this film it becomes fully clear that Ethan is fluent and totally convincing in Russian. Fictional secret agents do well at languages. James Bond, we learn in one of the early stories, got a First Class degree in Oriental languages at Cambridge. [Update: Language Hat has informed me sternly that "while Ethan Hunt may be fluent and totally convincing in Russian, Tom Cruise is not." He's had some coaching, but there is no hope that he would convince anyone with his spoken Russian. Cruise is "certainly more convincing than the vast majority of non-Russians attempting the language onscreen, but if Hunt had spoken that way he would never have been able to pass himself off as Sergei Ivanov." And by the way, Language Hat points out that his buddy Bogdan can't even give a simple name the right stress: he says SER-gei, but he should be saying Ser-GEI.]

I think this is plenty to merit having the price of my tickets refunded to me by Language Log. Definitely. I can submit the tickets and the credit card slips. Accounts office please note.

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