Several years ago, in the days before GPS, my father was driving through a very rural section of Ohio and found himself rather lost. He was in danger of being late for an engagement, so he swallowed his pride and asked for directions from the one attendant at the one gas station he could find. The attendant, in all earnestness and sincerity started…
Clearly, giving someone directions based on landmarks that no longer exist does not help at all, and even the mileage given is pretty vague. When Dad was relaying the story to us later, he added his own commentary by suggesting that “the guy must’ve lost his sign.”
The “sign” referred back to a Bill Engvall comedy routine in which he complained about how some people give you really stupid responses to simple questions. Engvall proposed that if they had a sign around their neck that clearly stated, “I’m stupid” that would spare anyone the bother of asking them questions in the first place because they’d know in advance that any response would be a waste of everyone’s time. Our family adopted the idea and referred to people needing a sign any time we came across someone acting particularly stupid. It was essentially a coded message that allowed us to get across an idea to other members of the familywithout blatantly drawing the attention of the person(s) we were annoyed with.
People do this quite a bit, in fact. How many conversations, in person or online, have you had in which people start pulling out movie quotes to comment on any given situation? The bar your friend suggests you avoid becomes a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The person who needs to step out for just a moment adopts a bad Austrian accent and says, “I’ll be back.” The loss of an inexpensive, but valued, item results in claims of how “that rug really tied the room together.”
The references act as social touchstones. They encapsulate a scenario and all the emotions connected with it in a manner that only people who have seen the movie can fully understand and appreciate. It’s not just the idea of comparing a rug to whatever it is you may have lost, it’s the loss of one of your few possessions of emotional value, at the hands of perhaps physically painful and perhaps illegal means. It’s about trying to continue on with what little you have, and how you don’t ask for much, but you keep finding yourself thwarted by those richer and more powerful than you. But you’re going to continue grooving on as best as you can, because that’s all you really can do. All of that is summed up in “that rug really tied the room together” because it refers to the broader context of “The Big Lebowski.” And anyone who’s seen that movie understands the significance of that quote relative to the whole plot of the movie, and the characters involved in it.
The quote becomes an abbreviation of a story or scene, which is used as a metaphor for the siutation.
But it’s a metaphor only for those familiar with it. Check out this recent strip from Scott Kurtz’s PvP comic…
It’s easy enough to follow along the basic idea of what’s happening, even if you’re not familiar with the characters, but to understand punchline, you need to have seen “Ghostbusters” and recall who the Gatekeeper and Keymaster were, as well as what happened when they met. I suspect most of Kurtz’s audience is familiar with all of that, but someone coming to this from outside that circle might find this strip falls flat.
I’ve managed to get through most of this week’s column without referring to where the title comes from. One of the well-received episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was called “Darmok.” In it, the Enterprise meets with an alien race called Tamarians. The Federation has met with them before, and is able to translate their language, but it makes no sense. The words are recognizable and understandable, but their meanings are lost. Captain Picard is forced to join alongside the Tamarian captain in a sort of an isolated wilderness survival meeting. Eventually, Picard realizes that the Tamarians speak only in metaphors, referring to stories and events in their history to provide direction and context to others. Not knowing that history made it seem to the Federation like they were spouting nonsense.
This episode is essentially a thought expierment in taking the notion of cultural metaphors to an extreme. The Tamarians aren’t understanable because everything they say is effectively a movie quote from some movie you’ve never seen. There’s no context for people who aren’t in that culture to comprehend the real meaning, and all the emotional implications that come with the quote. “Shaka, when the walls fell,” to cite the show in context here.
Does that mean we need to see every movie and TV show, and absorb every bit of pop culture? Of course not; that would be impossible. But in order to understand and appreciate the perspective of someone who tells you to “go away or I shall taunt you a second time,” it might help to find out what they’re quoting and it’s original. You might make some interesting discoveries in the process! Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered!