Two Movie Tidbits.

I just watched Alain Resnais’s nouvelle vague classic Muriel (one of whose characters has the improbable name Roland de Smoke), and in one of the extras on the Criterion Blu-ray someone explains that the reason the lyrics the great soprano Rita Streich sings to Hans Werner Henze’s music are inaudible is because Henze set them as though the words were German, completely ignoring French prosody. Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

Also, I recently saw the delightful Bill Murray comedy Quick Change, and one of the best things in it is the gibberish Tony Shalhoub (playing a cabbie) speaks, as well as the look of tortured incomprehension with which he accompanies it. Shalhoub said: “They had me invent like a gibberish language because they wanted it to be like an unidentifiable thing. So I just made up my own dialogue, and it was a really crazy movie.” (It’s not just a comic bit, it’s an important plot point.) Highly recommended.


  1. I wonder now whether Tony Shalhoub’s performance in Quick Change influenced his casting as a cabbie on the NBC sitcom Wings. It did not occur to me before, since I didn’t see Quick Change (on television around 1995–1997) until after I was already familiar with Wings, so it looked to me like Shalhoub’s character in the film was just a more over-the-top version of his character on the show. Shalhoub had initially appeared on Wings as a hilarious waiter at an Italian restaurant, then returned the next season (starting fall 1991) as Antonio the cab driver who spends a lot of time hanging around the airport looking for fares*—although it was definitively stated at least once that he was still the same character. Presumably, the producers liked his guest appearance so much that they decided to add him to the cast, but his memorable role in Quick Change might have influenced the new profession they gave him when he became a regular.

    * It is interesting that fare has evolved to become the standard word for a group of one or more people who hire a cab ride. The origin, via metonymy,** is obvious, but I think it’s a cute development nonetheless.

    ** I thought that I had mentioned before that, in spite of some people holding strong opinions about the differences between them, metonymy and synecdoche are essentially perfect synonyms. I have found dictionary definitions that called metonymy a subcategory of synecdoche and ones that reversed it, with synecdoche as a particularly type of metonymy. However, while I mentioned metonymy in this comment, I didn’t talk about the inconsistently-interpreted relationship with synecdoche. (I did mention the similar situation—in which some users try to make one of two synonyms more specific of the other, but without agreement on which is the gensus and which the species***—with dynasty and royal house here.)

    *** That wording came to me from one of the explanations I remember reading of either metonymy or synecdoche, substituting either “the species for the genus, or the genus for the species.”

  2. either metonymy or synecdoche, substituting either “the species for the genus, or the genus for the species.”

    So this footnote chain arrives to the conclusion that using metonymy in the sense of synecdoche or synecdoche in the sense of metonymy is just an instance of both metonymy or synecdoche? Wow.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    Here is what I could find in Classical writings on the subject:
    Quod [aliquando] paene iam magis de synecdoche dicam. Nam tralatio permouendis animis plerumque signandis rebus ac sub oculos subiciendis reperta est: haec uariare sermonem potest, ut ex uno pluris intellegamus, parte totum, specie genus, praecedentibus sequentia, uel omnia haec contra, liberior poetis quam oratoribus…
    Nec procul ab hoc genere discedit μετωνυμία, quae est nominis pro nomine positio, [cuius uis est pro eo quod dicitur causam propter quam dicitur ponere] sed, ut ait Cicero, hypallagen rhetores dicunt. Haec inuentas ab inuentore et subiectas res ab optinentibus significat, ut     ‘Cererem corruptam undis’, et     ‘receptus     terra Neptunus classes aquilonibus arcet’. Quod fit retrorsum durius. Refert autem in quantum hic tropos oratorem sequatur. Nam ut ‘Vulcanum’ pro igne uulgo audimus et ‘uario Marte pugnatum’ eruditus est sermo et ‘Venerem’ quam coitum dixisse magis decet, ita ‘Liberum et Cererem’ pro uino et pane licentius quam ut fori seueritas ferat. Sicut ex eo quod continetur: usus recipit ‘bene moratas urbes’ et ‘poculum epotum’ et ‘saeculum felix’, at id quod contra est raro audeat nisi poeta: ‘iam proximus ardet | Vcalegon.’ Nisi forte hoc potius est a possessore quod possidetur, ut ‘hominem deuorari’, cuius patrimonium consumatur: quo modo fiunt innumerabiles species. Huius enim sunt generis cum ‘ab Hannibale’ caesa [et apud tragicos aegialeo] apud Cannas sexaginta milia dicimus, et carmina Vergili ‘Vergi- lium’, ‘uenisse’ commeatus qui adferantur, ‘sacrilegium’ deprehensum, non sacrilegum, ‘armorum’ scientiam habere, non artis. Illud quoque et poetis et oratoribus frequens, quo id quod efficit ex eo quod efficitur ostendimus. Nam et carminum auctores     ‘pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas’, et     ‘pallentesque habitant morbi tristisque senectus’, et orator ‘praecipitem iram’, ‘hilarem adulescentiam’, ‘segne otium’ dicet.   Est etiam huic tropo quaedam cum synecdoche uicinia; nam cum dico ‘uultus hominis’ pro uultu, dico pluraliter quod singulare est: sed non id ago, ut unum ex multis intellegatur (nam id est manifestum), sed nomen inmuto: et cum aurata tecta ‘aurea’, pusillum ab ea discedo, quia non est pars auratura. Quae singula persequi minutioris est curae etiam non oratorem instruentibus.
    Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria

    Metonymia est tropos, cum ab eo quod continet, significatur id, quod continetur, aut superior es inferiore, et inferior superiore.
    Sextus Pomponius Festus, De Verborum Significatione , 205

    [B]i[b]i pagvs. Tropus metonymia.   Hoc est: pa[g]ani bibunt.
    Pomponius Porphyrio, Commentum in Horati Epistulas 105

    What these authors intend for synecdoche is “all hands on deck”, where (to continue with the merry peasants) “A good bottle” would be metonymy (the bottle is not part of what is consumed, but the container or surrounding entity).

  4. jack morava says

    I saw `Muriel’ sixty years ago and the memory gives me goosebumps; I’ve never had a chance to see it again. I hope no one will mind couple of snippets from Wikipedia:

    Henri Langlois was one of several commentators who noted in Muriel a significantly innovative style and tone: “Muriel marks the advent of cinematic dodecaphony; Resnais is the Schoenberg of this chamber drama”… Among English-language reviewers there was much perplexity about Muriel, described by the critic of The New York Times as “a very bewildering, annoying film”.

  5. Yeah, there was indeed much perplexity at the time; it was mostly his fellow French critics and directors (who of course were sometimes one and the same) who appreciated it. Godard stole liberally from it for 2 ou 3 choses, e.g. his exterior shots of the high-rise where Juliette lives, very reminiscent of the repeated shots of the four tall buildings in one of which Hélène apparently lives in the Resnais. (He includes a poster of Muriel in it as appropriate acknowledgment.)

  6. John Cowan says

    What these authors intend for synecdoche is “all hands on deck”, where (to continue with the merry peasants) “A good bottle” would be metonymy (the bottle is not part of what is consumed, but the container or surrounding entity).

    “When you call your car your wheels, that is synechdoche; when you call it your ride, that is metonymy.”

  7. Stu Clayton says

    The positive view of the film was summarized by Philip French: “It’s a rich, beautifully acted masterpiece, at once cerebral and emotional, that rewards several viewings and is now less obscure than it seemed at the time”.[20]

    I suppose that’s because the people who saw it “at the time” are now old, and thus themselves more cerebral and emotional. They don’t give a damn about obscurity because it makes no difference anymore.

  8. Qua movie, quite agree on Quick Change. The movie is based on the book (well worth reading) by Jay Cronley (1945-2017), who did a number of comic novels back in the 70s and 80s, several of them plundered by Hollywood as vehicles for other SNL cast members.

    Five years before there was Quick Change, there was Hold Up, same source material, set in Montreal, and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Kim Cattrall of all people.

  9. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that — it looks great!

  10. For a hilarious take on gibberish go to YouTube and look up ‘kamelasa’ – comedy sketch of a Dane and a Norwegian trying to hide their embarrassment at not being able to understand each other.

  11. Yes, kamelåså has been seen at LH a number of times, e.g. here:

    That video was made by Norwegians. None the less funny it is funny the first time, but different uploads of it have been linked in the Hattery numerous times over the years. There’s a much better HD link in this overview article that calls kamelåså the best known Danish word outside of Denmark. (Danish multisyllabic morphemes don’t end in and the stress is wrong for a compound, so it doesn’t sound very Danish to a Dane).

    (Lars goes on to protest too much, insisting “we [Danes] do understand each other” — sure, buddy, you keep telling yourself that.)

  12. A while back I ran into a Danish woman at an event I was attending, and I thought I would impress her with my knowledge of the Danish language by mentioning kamelåså. Alas, she had never heard of it.

  13. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    We are in fact able to nod in agreement when we sense that another Dane is claiming to be understood. It may be a paralinguistic skill, but it’s something.

    And of course she hadn’t, it’s Norwegian.

  14. John Cowan says

    The best thing about that overview-article version of the video is not the HD, it’s the Welsh (and sometimes Irish) subtitles!

  15. Scottish Gaelic subtitles; though that is close to Donegal Irish, the Danish of Irish.

  16. the Danish of Irish.

    Easy-peasy. (Shudder.)

  17. I thought the danish of Irish was some kind of stew-filled meat pie?

  18. John Cowan says

    My bad; I missed the wrong-way fadas. (A grave offense, I’m sure.)

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