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Completely Incomprehensible (When Chinese People Speak Chinese)

from Monday, July21st of the year2008.

For reasons completely incomprehensible unto me, I purchased, for cash money, a copy of the film adaptation of The Da Winci Code. I have no idea why I did this; I read the book and it was just wretched, an assault on language and punishingly irritating. Anyway, maybe I subconsciously was aroused by the idea of Paul Bettany applying a cilice to his person. In any event, I would love to know the history in film of people speaking heavily accented English rather than just speaking whatever it is that they speak. I know this is a time-honored tradition but even as a kid, I was interested in this phenomenon. I suppose a lot of this comes from Cold War anxieties, where you need the enemy to speak a perversion of English, rather than a fluent, eloquent version of his mother tongue.

I have posted before about my perverse excitement at being able to read Osama bin Laden’s eloquent screeds; the shock was, of course, to find how “un-accented” the language was, and how smoothly it flowed and developed. It must be somehow important to maintain “accented English” as this politically charged level at which English can exist, although I wonder the extent to which it reverse-engineers xenophobia among children.

The other day, I totally saw Hancock, which was, you know, 2.5 hours of air conditioning, and in it, our Hero torments a carful of teenage Chinese thugs, who, through subtitles communicate such delights as, “You pay for new roof!” ““ The whole thing was so outrageous that I turned to N”” and B”” and delivered what I think is a good analysis of filmic accents: “When Chinese people speak Chinese they don’t sound like Chinese people; they sound like People.” Fair enough: words to live by.

Anyway, so what is even going on: Paul Bettany in this movie is some kind of homicidal albino Opus Deiid-out monk, and his accent is like, a combination of Mandý Patinkin in The Princess Bride and English people on a gap year in Spain. It is Wildly Inappropriate. Also, some of the time he seems to be speaking Latin. It’s outrageous. Doesn’t he have a nice, plummy accent he can trot out? Isn’t that the whole point of hiring him? As I write this, I am cleansing my mind with an episode of A Shot at Love with Týla Tequíla, who just shouted, “Shut your f***ing trash-hole, bitch!” which is sort of a nice interlude. I love that you can even say “Trash-hole” on TV. How times have changed.

Things I have recently consumed: Many instances of BBQ Brisket. A giant steak that was beyond delicious. A baked potato, for the first time in what I would guess is six years, with bacon bits upp inn. An enormous amount and variety of queso, including one abstractly composed one featuring a pile of beef in addition to a red tortilla chip suspended like the interior of the Louvre pyramid in an abstract puddle of surprisingly good guacamole. I totally love Tex Mex. Where do I even get it in New York that isn’t horrifying?


  • Depending on the ratio of Tex to Mex you’re after and how upscale/downmarket you fancy, there are a couple of good places. Lobo in Park Slope (other branch in Boerum Hill or Cobble Hill or whatever) is a fave.

  • I haven’t tried Cowgirl in New York but its sister restaurant in Santa Fe is pretty tasty.

  • If I remember correctly, in The Hunt for Red October when the Russians are talking to or in front of the Americans, they speak Russian or English with thick Russian accents, but when they speak to each other on the submarine, they speak totally unaccented English. I think this is because the reds were just screwing with us and could talk normal all along.

  • The answer to every question raised by this blog post is clearly Chilis in the Financial District.

  • The Corner, located where Lafayette forks, and Taco Chulo on Grand St. in Williamsburg have tacos that are incredibly tasty but probably gayer than what they make in Texas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I had a chicken chimichanga thing and gooey cheesy refried beans at Festival on Rivington and found it immensely satisfying, though that was after six beers.

    Regarding The Hunt for Red October, Sean Connery’s Russian is hilarious. Not even one-tenth as realistic as Cate Blanchett’s in Indiana Jones.

  • The foreign accent conventions in Hollywood films have always driven me nuts as they are equal parts racist and equal parts absurd. My favorite parody of it was an old George Hamilton movie, “Zorro, The Gay Blade” where everyone spoke in ridiculous Spanish accents, even when they were dead and doing voiceover narration as their son read letters of instruction from the grave. “Fight injewstice to the pipples” is a phrase I still find myself happily using and which you might want to appropriate for the Netroots Conference in Texas.

  • Well, I don’t even know why you read the book on the first place. Is as bad as it could be. Predictable and boring. And the movie… I can’t look at Tautou’s face anymore.
    I watched “El Cid” the other day. This movie is mythical. Of course I have thought about American movies set in other civilisations. It doesn’t seem weird hearing Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra speaking in fluent English. But somehow wiht El Cid it was weird. Only some of the actors (I guess most of them of Italic origin) could pronounce names and places. Imagine my laughter hearing Heston say ‘Calahorra’. It’s not that difficult.
    Well, but not all is bad, cos at least they pronounced the last city they conquered as [vaˈɫɛnsia], as any other American would do, making it similar to what it is actually in Catalan (not Spanish). And the name of the hero as [sid] which resembles more to what Arabic speaking people would say (in fact, it was originally spelled ‘Çid’.
    And Hancock! I refuse.

  • an elegant, logical and significant post… yet what it immediately brought to mind was ‘allo ‘allo…

  • Chevys in Times Square, yo.

  • Another absurdity: while foreigners in stories have an extensive vocabulary, they fail to acquire the most common phrases or words like yes and no. Although it is of course a very useful narrative tool, this has bugged me since reading Tintin comics as a kid.

    Nico responds: Yeah, Tintin as we all know was 100% out of control. But also very romantic and beautiful. I wrote a piece about it! Check it out. My secret side-point is that a lot of times, these whacked out ethnic stereotypes get kids interested in finding out what’s “really” going on; Lawrence of Arabia I think worked the same way on my parents’ generation.

  • ok, here i am. re: tex mex. this is probably not what you’re looking for but there’s good/bad tex-mex (by which i mean chips and salsa, strong margaritas and lots of enchiladas with lots of cheese) at this place on bway and 102nd. a hint of what mexican in ny used to be before actual mexicans lived here (although it’s by mexican brothers). loved the mariachi in costume. loved the fresh guacamole. down side: the entrees are practically more expensive than nobu. and it’s good/bad (but not evil).