Monday, December 22, 2014

The indefinite article

I did not like Le Week-End. Let's get that out of the way at the start.

But instead of bagging on it from the get-go, today I'm coming back to struggling with something that I don't think I've actually written about previously, even though it bothers me from time to time:

How to alphabetize movies with foreign titles?

I struggled with this most recently when I watched L'Atalante, not knowing whether I should put it under L or under A. Translated to English, the title is The Atalante (it's the name of a boat), which would always be alphabetized under A.

However, I was uncertain enough with that decision that I put it to the Flickcharters group on Facebook. One guy came back with what I thought was a convincing argument. He said that libraries alphabetize foreign titles by the first letter that appears, even if it is an article, because they don't assume their English-speaking customers understand any language other than English. If you had no idea how French worked as a language, you would certainly look for L'Atalante under L, not A.

I bought that. But then I watched Le Week-End and I doubted it again.

The title is The Week-End. Then why am I alphabetizing it under L? I wouldn't alphabetize it under T if it were in English. And complicating matters further, it's not even a foreign film. It's an English language film that takes place in Paris.

The uncertainty goes way back. I watched El Mariachi sometime in the mid-1990s, and always alphabetized it under E. I knew that El meant The, of course, but my argument was that there was something essentially iconic about the title: EL MARIACHI. Like, if there were some lesser-known Spanish language film called El Orso (The Bear), I wouldn't consider it an iconic title and therefore would just file it under O.

But then El Mariachi's alphabetization got directly challenged by El Topo, which I saw a couple years ago. (And yes, you'd really think I would have seen a movie whose title started with El sometime between the mid-1990s and a couple years ago, but I don't recall having this debate with myself once in the interim.) El Topo is a probably more iconic title than El Mariachi, but I was less familiar with it, having never been around to watch midnight movies in New York in the late 1970s. This one seemed like a clear-cut case of needing to be alphabetized under T.

As I sit here and type this, I am not actually sure what I'm doing with these two movies right now. Let me go and check and I'll be right back.

I guess the grandfather clause applies, because I added El Topo as Topo, El but left El Mariachi as El Mariachi.

French titles have all followed the El Topo model ... with the exception of L'Atalante. For example, La Boum was once filed under L, but the last time I revisited this question, I recategorized it under B.

The question then becomes: Why do we translate some titles and not others? I might as well call La Boum The Party in my records, but I don't. That's because it was introduced to me (in French class, no less) as La Boum. I have thought of it as such since. (For a fuller discussion of this topic, see here.)

I think I would be okay with either methodology if I could just pick one and stick to it. But apparently I can't, which is the most frustrating part for an anal-retentive listmaker by myself. I just can't categorize L'Atalante under A and I just can't categorize Le Week-End under L. Is it just the fact that the L has an apostrophe, and it looks too funny to write Atalante, L' ? (It's so funny that I had to leave a space after the apostrophe just so I could distinguish it from the question mark at the end of that last sentence.)

One thing is certain: Le Week-End is no good under any taxonomy. It's Le Merde.

Truth in advertising, though: It took me almost a whole weekend to watch it. I started watching it admittedly too late on Thursday night, and internet problems prevented me from making the progress toward finishing it I needed to make. I had only 40 minutes or so left to watch on Friday night, but caught only 20 more before I was done in. I managed to finally finish it after midnight on Saturday.

I suppose I should tell you what I found so objectionable about it: the incredibly mercurial nature of Lindsay Duncan's wife character. You get that Jim Broadbent may not have been a perfect husband to her, but also that he always tried, and is probably guilty of being an eccentric old goof more than any actual sin. Yet her behavior toward him is consistently inconsistent. One minute she's looking at him with absolute disdain, the next she's laughing and flirting, and the next she's talking about divorce. It's maddening, and the film's lack of any forward momentum in other respects just makes it feel incredibly tedious. By the time Jeff Goldblum shows up as an annoying third wheel of sorts, the whole thing has become Une Catastrophe.

But would I file that catastrophe under U, or C?

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