The Generic Television Show Plot

A man analyzed the plots of thousands of television series using complex statistical analysis and came up with the following description of a generic television show episode:

Just for fun, let's put that into a single narrative: the typical script starts among a group of wise-cracking teenagers at the school, making plans for the day to come and the weekend. At the office, however, a dead body is discovered. The wisecracking ceases, and instead the befuddled victims try to describe more accurately how the murder happened, to apologize for their mistakes, and to inspire each other not to give in to defeat but to fight for victory. A heartfelt plea to the Almighty for help lies over their testimony at the trial; and they carefully move into the future, apologizing once again and reflecting on the new truths they have learned.

Eerily disjointed.

Norwegian 'Slow TV'

I visited Norway last summer and came back filled with envy. Here's the thing about Norway: It's a ludicrously beautiful country perched atop a massive underground ocean of oil. Plus, its sensible government doesn't blow the oil money on platinum-plated palaces. Instead, it first funds a lavish welfare state and then deposits the remaining surplus cash into Norway's $1 trillion government savings fund. Norwegians all looked absurdly healthy and happy, as if they didn't have a care in the world.

Abstractly, you might sometimes just want to punch them. But then you meet them, and in eerily flawless English, they bitch endearingly about all the problems their country faces, from right-wing extremists to the high cost of living to timid, ineffectual politicians. You know, typical Scandinavian problems. So then you begin to like the Norwegians.

And really, how can you stay mad at people who enthusiastically watch 6-day-long 'Slow TV' marathon shows featuring totally normal cruise ships voyages, train journeys, or knitting orgies?

Below, 236 minutes constituting part I of the Bergen-Oslo train journey, considered one of the world's most picturesque:

Conan O'Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt's Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:


Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks -- what do you say?

German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:

The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.

And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.

...English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging--some of them well into old age--without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.

I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte -- at least not in front of her -- but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your  'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.

Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:

  • You can drink and eat and smoke whatever you want while watching.
  • You can get a fantastic blu-ray DVD of an opera for perhaps 1/3 the price of a decent ticket.
  • You can see operas from all over the world.
  • You get a variety of camera angles, not just one static view from 100 meters away.
  • The sound quality is incredible on the newest DVDs and blu-rays, and superior to what you would hear in any seat you can afford.
  • For foreign-language operas, you can see immediate translations as the singers are singing, enabling you to appreciate the acting and follow the plot.
  • You control the climate, so no stuffy, over/underheated concert halls, no coughing, no hyperflatulent geezers, no ringing cellphones, etc.
  • You can back up and re-play interesting scenes or arias.
  • You can skip the dull recitative.
  • For non-opera CDs, you can see the facial expressions of the soloist, members of the orchestra, and/or conductor. This adds immeasrably to the listening experience.

The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.

Intercultural Blind Spot: Glenn Beck's German Fans


This is a post about an intercultural blind spot. An IBS exists whenever people who are interested in another culture -- but not extremely well-versed in it -- develop a distorted view of the other culture based on the lack of contextual knowledge (and the hubris not to recognize that lack). This can take many forms:

  • You take the spokesman from another culture seriously because (1) you are unable to detect the tells that alert a homegrown listener to the fact that this person is stupid or nuts; and/or (2) you are unaware of that person's history which shows them to be nuts even though what you heard sounded fairly reasonable.
  • You assume that one of the spokesmen for the other culture whose work is easily accessible because he speaks your language 'represents' the other culture as a whole, rather than just a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of it (example for English-speakers: Peter Schneider).
  • You take a spokesman from the other culture too seriously because he or she is saying what you want to hear and/or confirming reassuring stereotypes (example for German speakers: Michael Moore).
  • You assume the spokesman from the other culture must be as popular and influential at home as he is in your country.

Doing some unrelated research, I came across the website Politically Incorrect, which subtitles itself as: 'News against the Mainstream - Pro-American - Pro-Israeli - Against the Islamization of Europe - For the Constitution and Human Rights'. It's a curious mixture -- some of the posts are the sort of heavy-handed sarcasm and name-calling you see on the more tiresomely ranty kinds of political websites. Other posts make halfway-defensible points, and yet others take fairly well-aimed potshots at the indubitably politically-correct German state-run media.

Just when I was tempted to think some of it might be worth taking seriously, though, I ran across this entry (my translation):

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, a document called 'The Project' was discovered during a raid in Switzerland. The information, which has been kept secret by the US Administration, reveal the largest terrorism-financing scheme in US history. This documentary film relentlessly uncovers how the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the US Administration in an attempt to destroy the West from inside.

The film will be shown on Glenn Beck's The Blaze...

Whoa, wait a minute -- Glenn Beck? Katy, bar the door! For those of you lucky enough not to know who he is, Glenn Beck is a tear-prone, soddenly über-patriotic, half-educated conspiracy monger (and former cocaine user and radio shock jock) who had a batshit-crazy show on Fox News in the United States, before even Fox News dumped him. After Fox fired him, he dropped off the radar screen, and all sane Americans breathed a sigh of relief -- except for the late-night comedians, who mourned the passing of the most ludicrously sinister and sinisterly ludicrous media figure since Father Coughlin. He now runs his own media empire, spinning out inane tales for the tinfoil-hat brigade.

Host nation, allow me to proclaim: Glenn Beck is a 24-carat, no-holds barred moron. It's hard to think of a German who occupies an analogous space in the cultural landscape, but perhaps Horst Mahler (g) comes closest, even though Horst Mahler is a million times smarter (and more malevolent) than Glenn Beck. Nevertheless, you get the point. If I were to mention to a German friend: 'You know, I was reading an article by Horst Mahler the other day, and he made some really good points!' there would be a spit-take and howls of laughter. That is also what you will get for taking Glenn Beck seriously.

The Humans Behind the Simpsons, and German Word of the Week

This may not work for Germany, where the Simpsons is dubbed into German* (the horror...), but there's something hilarious, and odd, about this Actor's Studio interview of the Simpsons voice actors (h/t MTW):

We must invent a word for 'the eerie feeling which arises from seeing real humans producing the voices of well-known animated characters or voice-dubbed movie stars.' Germans get many more chances to savor this feeling, since all major stars are always dubbed by the same voice actor (for instance, Nicholas Cage in Germany is spoken by Martin Keßler (g)). Many of these voice actors become stars in their own right. This can lead to the phenomenon of Martin Keßler sounding more like 'Nicholas Cage' to Germans than Nicholas Cage himself ever could.

I get the feeling that German is the most practical language for creating this word. Perhaps Zeichentrickfilmsynchronstimmenwirklichkeitsentfremdung?

Continue reading "The Humans Behind the Simpsons, and German Word of the Week" »

The Mouse Goes up the River

I was just watching Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse) this morning while cleaning house a bit. This is the most famous German childrens' television shows, broadcast every Sunday morning since 1971 on one of the main public-television stations. The star of the show is a pudgy burnt-orange mouse whose eyes click when he blinks them. He plays in silent comic vignettes. Between the vignettes there are real-world reports aimed at children.

As befits a public television station with an educational mission, the reporting segments are pretty matter-of-fact and highlight unflashy subjects like streetcar repair, how to build an Airbus, forestry, construction, jogging, and the like. This time around, to my amusement, the reporter Ralph took the kiddies inside a prison (g). The reporter Ralph, a genial fellow in his 20s with square black glasses, was first led through several big metal doors and fences to get inside the prison. Once inside, he was given a tour of the inmates' cells, the visiting room, meetings with social workers, the telephone area, and a few other places. We observed the nightly ritual of 'Umschluss', in which inmates are allowed to visit their friends' rooms (with the doors locked behind them) for a game of cards or a chat.

We saw an interview with Johnny, a bald 21-year-old serving a three-year sentence, which is long by German standards. Johnny describes his life in prison, tells us that he misses his family most of all, and wishes he had listened to the advice of friends and family, who had told him to clean up his act. When it comes time for Johnny to sweep his cell, the reporter helps. At the end of the interview, Ralph shakes Johnny's hand, wishes him good luck, and expresses a hope that next time, they'll meet in a more pleasant place. They then show him being escorted out of the prison.

A month or so I was at an academic conference, trying to explain German attitudes on criminal punishment to American scholars. I pointed out that state television is still important here, and programming on public channels is controlled by a certain set of guidelines and presumptions. The Show with the Mouse fits right in. There was no ominous music, no 'dramatizations' of the crime, no references to 'predators'. The millions of kids who watched this program saw a prisoner being treated with respect and even warmth by the reporter. The prison was portrayed as a place with strict rules where your freedom is limited, but where you can also socialize, take classes, and greet visitors from the outside world. Above all, it was made clear that all the people in this prison are going to get out within a few years and rejoin society, and this was portrayed as a normal and even good thing.

Of course, this is certainly not the only picture of crime and punishment German children are exposed to as they grow up -- there are tabloid newspapers everywhere in Germany, after all. But the Maus show today at least can act as a counterweight to more exploitative portrayals of crime.