June 13, 2019

The blah-blah-blah filter

Kate observed a while back that the dialogue in a drama communicates more than the raw semantics, such that technically incomprehensible dialogue need not impede comprehension (citing a scene from the classic police procedural Kojak).

To be sure, "dialogue can't be all connotation and jargon." But when

the dialogue carries weight with the characters, it carries weight with the audience. Meaning is determined as much by context, reaction, intonation, and individual word choice as by any insider knowledge.

I'm going to try approaching this idea from a slightly different angle.

As a general rule, while the audience doesn't have to understand everything a fictional character is saying, we do have to believe that the writer understands what he is making his characters say and why. We make a leap of faith and implicitly trust the source of the information we are getting.

Which is why the audience is so easily fooled by an unreliable narrator.

For example, few people outside the uniformed services comprehend all the intricacies of military rank and hierarchy ("captain" and "sergeant" are particularly problematic). But the screenwriter of a war movie had better know what he's talking about. Or else the actors had better sell it.

And once we are sold, as in any given episode of Star Trek, it is surprising how much meaningless technobabble a story can tolerate. As long as we grasp the key points of the story, our brains are adept at filtering out the blah-blah-blah from the elements driving the plot along.

In the anime series Hyouka, Hotaro even begins to wonder if his "powers of deduction" are due to his ability to spin the facts of a case into a compelling tale. In one episode, he has Eru present him with a randomly-chosen incident, from which he invents a convincing "proof."

The comical payoff is that he inadvertently solves an actual crime in the process.

But Hotaro has a point. The power of the human brain to filter the randomness out of random events also gives it the power to create cause and effect out of whole cloth. Hence conspiracy theories.

But when that blah-blah-blah filter doesn't work at all, we can be equally left in the dark. True fluency in a foreign language comes down to the blah-blah-blah filter.

I understand news and NOVA-type science shows in Japanese pretty well. But when watching Japanese medical dramas and police procedurals (without subtitles), I often have difficulty grasping what technobabble matters and what doesn't and in the process lose track of the plot.

Jargon and slang and mumbled lines and people talking over each other make things even murkier.

Of course, the former and the latter are working at cross-purposes. The point of a documentary is to explain technically complicated concepts to a lay audience, while the information presented to the viewer in a crime drama has the initial intent of obfuscating the existence of a simple explanation.

Practically every mystery drama ends likes a game of Clue. It's the narrative equivalent of Occam's Razor, a simple enough explanation that everybody in the audience will comprehend in the end. Clouding the waters is the whole point.

Observe how quickly a one-hour drama proceeds from climax to denouement. I recently happened across the last ten minutes of an episode of Elementary and had little difficulty figuring out what had happened in the previous fifty. But, of course, that is not why we watch.

Columbo was a highly influential series in Japan. Yutaka Mizutani's detective in the hugely popular Aibo series is a clever combination of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes and Peter Falk's Columbo. He's a lot of fun to watch even when I only understand about a quarter of what he's saying.

But after stumbling all the way through a crime drama in Japanese, I can often work backwards through the episode and figure out what was going on earlier. This suggests that the Japanese version of Columbo would be easier to follow. Aibo follows a more traditional mystery plot structure.

Telling the story backwards doesn't always work with medical dramas unless I can identify the particular issue at the core of the conflict. Though common plots like "cute kid waiting for a transplant" are easy enough.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
6/13/2019 7:19 PM   
In addition to this, I've noticed non-North American dramas to jump around as though they shot 90 minutes and then randomly removed scenes until they get to 50 minutes.