Is This Realistic? Citizen Sociolinguistics and The Movies

A question I often ask when I’m watching a movie’s depiction of local speech, a stigmatized dialect or mock-worthy speech act is, “Is this realistic?”

How could one possibly answer that question?

Would you find a “real” speaker of that local or stigmatized variety or notable swatch of talk and check with them?

Who might that be?  And who am I to label that variety “local,” “stigmatized,” or “mock-worthy” anyway?

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective, one route to go is to look at the comments on-line.  Take a look at a stretch of movie dialogue on YouTube—inevitably you will find an example—and see what commenters say.

Here are a couple examples to illustrate:

Example 1:  Akeela and the Bee. 

This movie is about Spelling Bee competitions and an unlikely competitor, Akeela, who comes from a predominantly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles.  The movie makes a big deal about ways of speaking, as illustrated in this clip, where a Professor criticizes Akeela for her use of “ain’t”:

I like this depiction of Akeela’s snappy retort to the obviously lonely and socially awkward professor.  As the movie proceeded, I kept wondering how this clash of language attitudes and lifestyles would unfold.

Then, in another pivotal scene, Akeela’s brother tries to weasel out of helping her learn spelling words, but is peer-pressured (by an older and cooler guy from the neighborhood) to help her.  The scene seems almost goofily Hollywoodish, as it depicts, in a heartwarming way, the neighborhood rallying around Akeela to help her learn crazy-hard words like staphylococci.   

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After I see this, the “is this realistic?” question kicks in big time.  Here’s when I start scanning the comments.  And the commenters seem to answer, “yes!”  While some chime in simply criticizing (“Fuck this wake ass shit”[sic]) or loving it (“Love this Movir so bad”[sic]), the more specific comments remark on its authenticity:

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These commenters rally around the positive depiction of Akeela as a flexible speaker of both a local African American variety in Los Angeles and Akeela’s prowess as a spelling hero for the community.

Example 2:  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Straying far from Akeela and the Bee territory, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off throws intense shade on anything having to do with school.  In one of its most quoted and widely circulated scenes, an Economics teacher (played by Ben Stein) bores the class with his “discussion” of The Great Depression, tariffs, and supply-side economics (aka voodoo economics).  In this clip, his “Anyone? Anyone?” refrain is featured as a non-question, a feeble bid to get students talking:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhiCFdWeQfA

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This clip, like the Akeela clips, while entertaining, smacks of Hollywood overkill.  Teachers aren’t really THIS BAD are they?  And again, I find myself asking the question, “Is this realistic?”  It does seem to illustrate a recognizable and much-mocked speech act, often referred to in educational research circles as the “guess what I’m thinking” question.  But does this really happen in schools anymore?

To answer that question, I turned again, as is the Citizen Sociolinguistic way, to the comments.  Of course, many commenters recognize and appreciate simply the hilarity of Ben Stein’s performance.  But, additionial comments pile up in painful recognition of the “Anyone? Anyone?” speech act:

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For these viewers, Ben Stein’s performance smacks of today’s dysfunctional classrooms.  Part of the hilarity of his performance, I suspect, comes from its pinpointed realism.

Some of you astute readers might be questioning this Citizen Sociolinguistic method of gathering evidence of the “realistic” quality of these Hollywood performances.  Why grant any credence to YouTube commenters?  Why even believe what they say?  They might even be being ironic!  Yes—and perhaps some readers will interpret these comments this way.  And yet, even the existence of these comments (ironic or not!)  illustrates that these ideas are circulating out there in the real world.  And, as soon as they get put down in YouTube, they continue to circulate.  The comment regarding Ben Stein’s performance, “This never gets old.  I still have classes like that,” for example, has (so far) received 45 likes.  Viewers seem to identify with this perspective.  This performance of “teacher” seems to be a recognizable prototype; his much-maligned questioning style is one that students out there recognize and loathe.

And Akeela’s neighborhood peers, rallying behind her spelling training, seem to also be illustrating recognizable attitudes about ways of speaking and studying language.

These performances resonate.  That’s why they are up on YouTube.  That’s why they garner comments and why those comments garner thumbs ups (in some cases, many thumbs ups).  Those comments and thumbs ups perpetuate an understanding of these as recognizable ways of speaking—and attitudes about those ways.  Is something realistic? It never starts out so.  It becomes realistic in how people, subsequently, display their answers to that question.

What movie depictions of speech have you wondered about?  Do Citizen Sociolinguistic investigations shed light on those wonderings?  Please comment below!

Making a Scene: Get thee to YouTube

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 9.44.39 PMI just saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. The production features Peter Sarsgaard as a hipster Hamlet, drinking, sniffing coke (meth?) and lackadaisically moping around, while delivering his lines in a way that uncannily grabbed my attention. His perfectly laid-back, but pained delivery turned the super-familiar, “To be or not to be…”, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…”, “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him…” into brand-new-seeming phrases.

Hearing these lines again also made me think of the modern Internet meme-like quality of much of Shakespeare. How different is “To be or not to be” from President Obama’s “Yes we can!” or Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”? Why do we keep watching and performing these phrases again and again? One reason might be that each time we hear these recognizable words in new contexts, we experience something different (See also, modern day poetics post). How would this work with Shakespeare?

I decided to choose one meme-like phrase of the play and focus on that, and Sarsgaard’s performance struck me most during the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. I had remembered this scene as one of an angry Hamlet ranting at Ophelia (his girlfriend) telling her, “Get thee to  a nunnery!”, shoving her around crazily. But in Sarsgaard’s version, Hamlet and Ophelia (played by Lisa Joyce) seemed not really to be talking to each other at all. Hamlet wasn’t ever yelling and rarely even directing his speech at Ophelia, but musing to himself about the pointlessness of marriage, the fickle nature of all women. He closed the scene in angst, leaving the stage without looking at Ophelia:

I say, we will have no more marriages:

Those that are married already, all but one, shall live;

The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Throughout the scene, Hamlet came off as depressed and disillusioned with all womanhood and humanity. Ophelia seemed heartbroken, for losing Hamlet, and for Hamlet losing his mind. Each seemed not to be talking to, or even addressing each other. The scene, as played by Skarsgaard and Joyce seemed about painful and isolating misunderstanding. It seemed deeper and sadder than I had ever remembered.

I turned to YouTube: How do others make meaning out of these words?

First, I found the Mel Gibson (1990) movie version:

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Though this scene takes a long time, Gibson cuts nearly half of the text. He never even says “get thee to a nunnery,” “make thy way to a nunnery” or even, the final, “to a nunnery go!” Instead, he yells a lot and pushes Ophelia around.

Next, I looked to the more elegant Kenneth Branagh & Kate Winslet (1996) movie version. Here Branagh includes all of Shakespeare’s text, including “Get thee to a nunnery.” And he delivers it directly to Ophelia’s face.

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Branagh, like Gibson, but not to such a degree, yells a lot while storming around a huge castle atrium.

Ethan Hawke (2000) takes a different approach. He is a modern guy, involved in business dealings in New York, up in a high rise, holding a beer (Carlsberg). But, like Gibson & Branagh, in the nunnery scene, he emotes directly to Ophelia. He is massaging her shoulders as he delivers his “Get thee to a Nunnery” line, and oddly pleading with her when he tells her why she should go, “We are errant knaves all; believe none of us”:

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One YouTube commenter (the only one) suggests a possible problem with this performance:

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As Georgian Wolf’s comment hints, Hawke’s engaged stance toward Ophelia seems strange considering the harsh, yet almost stream-of-consciousness content of his lines.

Big Stars are not the only ones performing Shakespeare on YouTube. So, I started looking at non-professional versions performed by students in English classes. My favorite was an unlikely performance by “Hong Kong students”:

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This version came closest to the painful sense of detachment and loneliness I got from Sarsgaard’s performance. Hamlet is staring off into space for the “get thee to a nunnery” line. And, many of the other lines cut to imagined, dreamlike spaces (and distinctly non-Denmark like settings):

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This HK Students’ version might speak more to other high school age students (especially in Hong Kong) than any of the professional productions do. And, collectively, this small set of YouTube scenes (and there are many more) illuminate the potential range of interpretations of a single scene, even a single line, of Shakespeare—including the potential to mock Mao Zedong!

Still, many High School English students seek out the “Spark Notes” website rather than YouTube to try to figure out what is going on in Shakespeare. How does Spark Notes represent the Nunnery scene?

Hamlet is very nasty to Ophelia and tells her to become a nun.

After seeing a YouTube repository of Shakespeare scenes, performed in dozens of new ways, this bare bones description disappoints. Unlike a Spark Notes synopsis, YouTube performances of classics don’t attempt to generically summarize THE meaning of a scene. They collectively communicate the huge range of potential meanings behind not only Shakespeare, but all our language. Also, inevitably, some performances work, some don’t. Why? What comes together to make a scene? How could centuries-old drama make sense in our world? Why do some performances speak more to certain people than others? To explore these kinds of questions, get thee to YouTube!

Have you encountered YouTube versions of “classics”? Have you any favorite versions? Can YouTube help students connect to literature and understand language in this way? Please comment below!