Sunday, August 26, 2007

Please don't laugh, this is a comedy -or- Spider Pig

by Escutcheon Blot
On my recent trip to Warsaw (a trip I make every year...failing every year to read some book or other on the long train ride)I put aside a little time from the spreading about of that fresh, clean, invigorating Blot-essence which is my normal wont when in Warsaw(Vienna on the Vistula) to catch a couple of flicks I wanted to see in the Original.

You see, (or maybe you don't--I'm very open) in Poland, films--those not for children--are not dubbed, as is done in Germany, France, or Italy (children's films are dubbed). There, they simply turn down the volume, and over it they record one speaker, usually male, reading all of the dialogue. He is called the Lektor. Like Lecturer (or Hannibal). Which is exactly what he sounds like to my non-Polish-understanding ears. Hectoring, very. The original soundtrack is still audible, but not to the point of understanding. This practice my Polish friend, herself almost perfectly bi-lingual, defended over dubbing; asserting that, since one heard the original voices of the actors, this enabled one, with a bit of practice, to colour the dialogue as delivered by the Lektor, with the intended vocal qualitites--and required no knowledge of English. This is a positive, of course, only assuming that the voice in question is one whose original sound is not a detriment to the characterization(referencing Keanu Reeves here would merely be gratuitous--and mean--so I won't mention him).

They also have a practice, lately especially, of playing original language films with sub-titles (big hits only) concurrently with the lektored Polish versions(on different screens, of course). I have taken advantage of this English-friendly attitude (common in Holland and Norway--although in those countries one hears curiously little Polish) by seeing several first-run films which I would otherwise have had to have seen dubbed into German, or have waited until they came to premium cable, or have seen them on the way to or from America, on a 10cm screen attatched to the headrest of my forward neighbor (whom I will usually have ended up hating, as they always recline 10 minutes into the flight, and don't raise their seats until the last 10 minutes). Needless to say, this has been a great boon for me. As long as there are no laughs.

A drama, requiring only a sad and profound understading of great human strife and woe, is just fine and dandy when readers and hearers sit in close proximity to one another. Aside from the occaisonal gasp, the audience is not expected to make much of a fuss. But a comedy is made to be laughed at (or with). "But Blot!" you say, "what's wrong with a little laughter?". Everything.

The vast majority of people, even seemingly perfectly bi-lingual, will read their own language much more quickly than they will understand a text in a foreign language; even one ostensibly known to them. I first noticed this problem a few years ago in Munich, when I went to a subtitled showing (relatively rare in Germany) of Calendar Girls in an art house kino (a movie theater is a 'kino', 'theater' is for live theater only). I was at first surprised, then increasingly frustrated as I missed joke after joke, as the audience was reading the German translation far more quickly than those elderly, over-exposed English ladies could possibly spit out the original. The preemptory laughter obliterated the actual jokes. At the time, my German was much weaker than now, and I had no hope of reading the sub-titles quickly enough to 'get it'.

As I had not yet seen a comedy in Poland (or at least not one where people laughed), I eventually got over this trauma, and the pain receded into distant memory. I went to Warsaw full of hope and hype for Harry Potter V and The Simpsons Movie. Harry was first in the queue. During the previews, a dubbed trailer(Poles, for some strange reason, consider The Simpsons to be a children's series, and hence, a children's movie) for The Simpsons was played, featuring Homer and Spider Pig. Homer was singing "Spider Pig", which was also dubbed by the Polish voice actor. "Shpaiderr Krumm, Shpaiderr Krumm, something something something in Polish dum dee dumm", elicited uproarious laughter in the audience. My friend later informed me that the text sounded simply funnier in Polish than in English...of course she did not grow up with the Spider Man cartoon--being communist at the time.

Bemused, but not forwarned, I blithely went to The Simpsons the next day. Fortunately the theater was nearly empty(the film had been running almost a week--and it was dubbed completely into Polish on the screen next door). It was, however, a surreal experience. I laughed when no one else laughed. Everyone else laughed as I sat silent, uncomprehending. (Yes, I know; after high school this should have come as no great surprise.)

Due to fundamental differences between Polish and English, some jokes were either not translated at all, or translated in very unfunny ways. Homer's farewell to the Indian seer "Goodbye Boob Lady" earned a rare Blot bark of surpised laughter; ringing sharply through the silent theater. One could hear the shocked chirruping of central european crickets. My friend whispered that it had been translated into Polish as, "Goodbye Old Gypsy Woman". Nearby, a young woman with a dusky cast, and flashing, black eyes, stared intensely at me. The rose in her hair quivered indignantly.

Now, we Blots have long been possessed of a magnificence unsurpassed when forced into an attitude of cold disdain. I therefore coldly disdained with every fiber of my being. Disdain of rare magnitude seems to have saved me from a gypsy curse.

Other mis-cues followed. I was alone in gasping at Marge's "Throw the G.D. Bomb!": not translated into an appropriately shocking Polish equivalent. This is an aspect of Poland that seems to have changed since the ascension of the Kreepy Kachinskis Twins to the posts of President and Prime Minister. Team America, a film of rare pathos and emotional depth (and marionette sex), is not to be found in Poland, although the preceeding South Park movie was almost immediately available of DVD. There is a disconcerting rise in censorious prudery in the Polish capitol; although the store with the English name(I kid you not); Five Finger Erotic Store (!) still sits on a major thoroughfare. It seems one is still allowed to be shocking in Poland, as long as one is not shocking in Polish.

But that's neither here nor there. I was mildly disappointed in the Simpsons, although not surprised that a brilliant 22 minute form couldn't be extended to ninety minutes--or whatever it was. I would like to defend it, however, from one criticism which came from a writer I normally enjoy--Mark Steyn.

Steyn makes the argument that the Simpsons fails because it lacks the brilliant musical parodies that so enliven the TV series. Well, I beg to differ. Certainly there is only one song parodied, that of Spider Man. And Homer's words are trite in the extreme. But they are also brilliant in that they are self-aware in their obvious banality.

"Spider Pig, Spider Pig
Does whatever a Spider Pig does.
Can he swing from a web?
No he can't, he's a pig,
Look out! Here comes the Spider Pig"


The very insouciant stupidity of the song, I would argue, is its brilliance. Steyn also makes the error, distressingly common in today's "intellectual" circles, of conflating brilliance of text (not immediately obvious in Spider Pig) with brilliance of music. That, or he left before the credits ran. The magnificent choral anthem "Spider Pig" was one of the most intelligent bits of musical parody(and funniest) I have ever heard. My friend and I (she is a concert pianist) were rocking with laughter. But musical, as opposed to musical theater, literacy is a quality so rapidly decreasing as to be almost unknown today--outside of trained musicians. I remember reading many years ago(I think it was in the New Criterion) a writer lamenting the fact that the self-identified intellectuals of today could tell you all about the latest writers, graphic artists, philosphers, et al, but if pressed to talk about music, would fall back on popular singers of a few decades past, as an example of "serious music". And then they would quote texts. Texts are not music. Understanding and appreciating one is no substitute for understanding and appreciating the other.

This was not always the case, by any stretch of the imagination. In Patrick Dennis' book Aunty Mame, Mame punctures succinctly the prospective bride Melissa Maddox's musico-artistic pretensions:
"Have you noticed, too, my little love, that Melissa's 'Fugue in D' is actually 'Ramona' played backwards and in C--her only key?"

Or Lady Catherine De Bourgh's (Pride and Prejudice) statement that " I would have been a great profficient had I but learned to play". There are many other examples. The point being that a basic knowledge of music used to be considered a fundamental aspect of a well-educated person, and the shamming of such knowledge ripe fodder for satire.

Some of the greatest music works ever composed have no text at all. Some have rather banal texts which are elevated by musical brilliance. One of my favorites, the opera Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell, is set to the rather pedestrian doggerel of Nahum Tate (later poet laureate of England--go figure). A simple test of musical, as opposed to textual, literacy, proposed many years ago by someone whom I don't remember, is to ask someone to go to a piano, and starting on middle C (everyone should be able to find middle C on a piano--this requires only visual memory and no musical ability whatsoever) pick out the initial theme of the overture to Carmen (The Bad News Bears theme). Many will play an F as the 6th note, whereas the actual note is an E. This is not as difficult a test as it sounds, as the first four notes are a repeated C.

This is not said as an harangue to learn about music (although that would be far from a bad thing) but rather as a warning not to criticise that which one does not understand. Mark Steyn should stick to politics and other family games. A qualified music critic he isn't--although he is far from being alone there. Most music critics are not qualified to criticize either--the common denominator among them being the ability to witily and scathingly destroy careers, rather than find middle C.

And stop laughing when I am trying to hear the damn jokes.

Yours in moderately High Dudgeon,

Escutcheon Blot

1 comment:

Jeffrey said...

'Scutch - some harsh words for Steyn. I've rather enjoyed much of his writing on popular music (meaning mostly earlier 20th century stuff) - a lot of it less on the music and more on the lyrics - I wonder if your rebuke would measure those pieces the same way.

Your larger point is taken, though, as my own musical knowledge lacks a great deal.

Interesting stuff about he kino house in Berlin and Warsaw.