Friday, September 16, 2011

What’s in a synonym?

I place the blame for my regular indecision over which shower gel to buy squarely on the shoulders of 11th century Normans.

It was common in the Middle Ages for invading forces to replace the existing culture, religion, language etc. with their own, so as to not leave people in any doubt over who was in charge and prevent any patriotic resurgence.

But not the Normans that invaded England from France in 1066, oh no. Rather than cement their dominance through forcefully replacing the existing language they just let the peasants use the existing Saxon words while the elite used French, and we thus have many words duplicating the same meaning.

Many say we owe the Normans a debt of gratitude for a colourful language replete with a multiplicity of synonyms; I say, look how it has complicated the personal hygiene industry.

My particular dilemma is centred around how I want to feel after taking a shower. While shopping for shower gel I was confronted by two bottles of product of the same brand. One of which was blue and, according to the label, would ‘invigorate,’ (from the Latin, invigorare) the other was green and would ‘energize’ (from the Middle French √©nergie). After consulting a dictionary I found the only significant difference between the two words was their spelling.

But then why make two almost identical but not quite products? Looking along the shelf I realized that all brands sold gels that were the same in almost every way but labelled with a different synonym. Competition between brands I can understand, but for a company to sell products that compete against itself—how does that help anyone?

Having a multiplicity of synonyms raises questions (or queries, same thing) over which words to use. The ‘vernacular’ we use is almost identical to the ‘dialect’ we use—both defined as how people in a specific region speak. Perhaps ‘purchased’ fits the rhythm of a sentence better than ‘bought’—both of which are defined as “to obtain/acquire for money or its equivalent” in the American Heritage dictionary.

Unable to discern the difference with intellect only, I decided on a practical research solution. I purchased one and bought the other.

For the first week I lathered myself daily with the blue shower gel and felt undeniably invigorated—but, in all fairness, I also felt energized. And when I switched to the light green gel I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel, as per the label, totally energised—but also more than a little invigorated.

The bottom line here is that they produced the same result regardless of the adjective on the bottle or the colour of the contents. So if they do the same thing and the adjectives mean the same thing why don’t the companies in question save themselves a lot of effort and me a lot of confusion by just selling a single shower gel?

And how did such a plethora (excess, overabundance, glut) of products identical in all but adjective and colour come into being?
“How many shower gels should we put on the market?”
“Well, how did our test subjects report feeling after their shower?”
“Err, one of them said they felt invigorated.”
“Great. Look up all the synonyms for invigorated and that’s how many products we launch. Good job I took history, those Normans knew a thing or two about marketing.”

I submit therefore that despite the company’s inability to choose a single descriptive word and stick with it, that it is impossible to have a shower and not feel both invigorated and energized. Refreshed even. Which, incidentally, derives from Old French and is available in lilac.

Having eliminated the adjective and the colour, I turned to the ingredients. It might be that I am not sensitive enough to differentiate between the advertised sensations but its true their ingredients are not exactly the same. ‘Invigorate’ had identical ingredients as ‘energise’ with one added exception—Tetrasodium. Tetrasodium, a miracle of modern-day chemistry—guaranteed to invigorate without energising.

Then again, only ‘energize’ contains Polyquaternium-7 so maybe that’s what gives energise a different, if unidentifiable, shower experience. But Polyquaternium-2 (which one can only assume is a close relative of Polyquaternium-7) is found in another of the almost identical gels, only this one’s called ‘relax’—a word that is, to any linguist ancient or modern, the complete opposite of energise. I showered in ‘relax’ and felt both invigorated and energized, though confusingly, I could have also quite easily taken a nap.

What about natural ingredients? ‘Invigorate’ contained natural lemon oil and spearmint, whereas ‘energize’ contained lemon grass and citrus lime. Maybe its common instinct for all members of the animal kingdom to know that to be invigorated you suck on a lemon, but to be energized you suck on lemon grass, but this nuance was lost on my freshly bathed person.

Why brands of shower gel have multiple flavours—all of which simultaneously do something that is both different and exactly the same as their related products—eludes me. Though I admit to being perplexed as to why none of them advertise themselves as being good at making me clean (unsoiled, spotless…sparkling?). Which is generally my reason for showering.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Once and Future Divas

What is really astounding about renaissance paintings is their size. Perusing a book of art, regardless of how big a coffee table is needed to hold it, gives you no indication that the originals are often so huge they are too big to put anywhere unless you have a castle or a palace. Which most of the original owners had of course. The biggest painting in the Louvre is Les Noces de Cana which is an astounding 22 feet high by 32 feet long. It is a curious thing then that thousands of people each day ignore it, because they are straining for a glimpse of the 30 inch by 20 inch work that hangs opposite, The Mona Lisa.

When I saw the most famous painting in the world I could hardly help but be underwhelmed. Sorry, no really I really am. The trouble was I already knew it so well; what it looked like, its history, and various interesting factoids about it (It’s painted on poplar wood, not canvas). And it’s not just a case of having seen it once or twice, I’ve seen The Mona Lisa everywhere all my life—children’s shows, the news, documentaries, comedy sketches—enough that it is very familiar to me; as I’m sure it is to much of the world.

Her every facet has been examined and discussed for generations. On television, professors of art reveal facts and secrets the casual observer does not perceive no matter how hard they look at the real thing (it took four years to paint—that’s three square inches a month). Reproductions on posters and in books allow you to see more detail than you can when you’re in front of the real thing; and in colors that are actually more true to when it was created than the original now shows. The morning I was at the Louvre I’d seen the image a dozen times, bigger, in better color, more detail, and less crowded conditions than the original itself.

So what added benefit then does seeing the original have? I argued to myself that one day the original will not be with us but I will always be able to say I saw it. Except of course the original will likely outlast me so I’ll never actually be able to say that unless I live to a ridiculously old age. And if that happens, the gathered audience will likely be more fascinated by my impossible longevity rather than the fact I saw a painting whose image they would surely have already seen.

There are things of historic import about the painting to be sure, but the vast majority of us don’t know them or wouldn’t realize their significance if we did (especially if our name is Dan Brown). The question of who she was created mystique and her various thefts gave her notoriety. But so what? Dare I suggest that in the age of celebrity, The Mona Lisa is mostly famous for being famous?

Elsewhere in the museum another well-known diva awaited and I had time, barely, to see her, which was lucky because she could barely be seen—The Venus de Milo.

The Venus de Milo is armless. Unless she falls on you. You feel sorry for her though. She stands at one end of an entire wing of impressive white statues, all of which have a complete set of limbs, making the whole scene like a snapshot of life in a school playground. The other statues hang around in groups, but none go near the ‘special’ kid, the one that’s a little ‘different.’ And unable to actually use sticks and stones, names is all they’ve got.

‘Don’t you wish you could point like us?’ they taunt.

‘You’re pointing at a ceiling tile,’ she retorts with a defiant sniff.

‘If you had arms to hold up that blanket you wouldn’t be showing so much,’ they mock, adding ‘it’s only because you’re not covered they come to see you.’

‘Like you can talk—Mr. Where’s my fig leaf gone?’

‘Bet you wish they’d put you in the armoury.’

‘Shut up.’

And so Venus is shunned by the other statues, defiantly upright though it must hurt inside. Longingly she looks over the heads of her human admirers, wishing she could join in with all other statue games, while they flaunt their ability to point, wave, hold things and otherwise make a single endless gesticulation.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deadly Tedium

The seventh Harry Potter film (part one) was less exciting than watching a sloth. A sloth that trails behind all the other sloths because it can’t be bothered to keep up. A sloth that other sloths call ‘Mr. Lazy Pants.’ It was too long, too dark, and far too boring. Not much happened, then not much happened again. Something started to happen, but was quickly shamed into not happening by the other non-happening things. Every time I thought the engine was about to kick in and run all on its own it stalled right back to another ten minutes of Harry Potter and the Tent in the Wilderness. The Order of the Phoenix was pushing the boredom envelope—a great fight scene at the end but it was all of ten minutes long and you had to sit through two hours to get to it. I suspect many only saw that scene because their limbs were unable to get them out of their chairs. Deathly Hallows though makes seven years in Tibet look positively fast-paced and snappy; and I don't mean the movie—I mean seven years in Tibet.

Let me be clear, I am a Potterite. I have looked forward to each new Harry Potter installment. And they have, overall, done an outstanding job making the film versions. But my loyalty doesn’t stretch to praise just because it’s the latest addition to a franchise I’m a fan of.

Where to begin? (yes, spoilers follow, but they spoiled it for me first). How about the return of Doby the elf who is summoned by no-one yet appears at the right moment and saves the day stating that he “is always there to save Harry Potter” in a tone of voice that suggests this is a well-established and oft used catch phrase and that if you didn’t surmise it from the last four films during which he made no appearance, you’ve simply not been paying attention. It was also a bit of a fib. Doby’s method of saving them from a dungeon is to save everyone else in the dungeon and, with a “meet me at the top of the stairs in ten minutes,” leaves Harry and Ron find their own way out. And if he’s always there to save Harry where was this two-foot nothing bastion of salvation when Harry faced the newly embodied Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire, or any of the other myriad perils faced since they first met?

Or what about the lack of good character moments? In a franchise known for giving singular roles to its staggering line-up of world-class acting talent, this installment gave nothing to remember. Where was Snappe’s tour de force? Where was Hagrid’s comic relief? Where were the one-movie wonders of the Gilderoy Lockhart or Rita Skeeter mould? Any new faces (and all well-known ones) were instantly forgettable because the screen time for anyone not named Harry, Ron or Hermione amounted to less minutes than it takes to soft boil and egg.

Humor has been an element of all the films so far but here the funnies are only half attempted and seem out of place. Unexpected use of magic in everyday life (not to mention action sequences) has also been a staple up to this chapter but both are as absent from this film as our teenage heroes are from Hogwarts. There was great potential for an incredible action sequence with dozens of wizards battling on brooms but it happened, apparently, just off the edge of the screen I was watching. The special effects budget was instead spent on multiple Daniel Radcliffs in various states of undress. And not a white horse in sight.

The plot (boys meet girl, girl has tent, they all go camping) is decidedly holey. Potter and co. as Dumbledore’s army have taken out death eaters but when the clearly less powerful snatchers show up our heroes run, chuck a couple of token ‘poofs’ in the bad guys direction, get surrounded and...give up. The kids couldn’t travel by apparate at the start—which justified the wizards on brooms fight that no-one saw, but once that was done, they could travel by apparate because, well, frankly, we now need them to so Harry suddenly has had a birthday and that explains that.

And if they had to open the Horcrux locket in order to destroy it with the sword, why didn’t they open it when trying to destroy it before they knew they needed the sword?—because it would have wiped them out, silly. More to the point—why wear the locket? If you come into possession of a locket you know contains part of the very soul of the Dark Lord neither your first or last thought should be “I know, I’ll put it on; it goes great with my hiking boots.” Even after they knew it made them grumpy and irritable no one said “shouldn’t we wrap it in a Kleenex and carry it around in a pocket,” they just kept wearing it.

I’m sure many Potterites are currently preparing a statement along the lines of “there’s so much more in the books that explains all this.” And “Ooo” say the filmmakers “there’s so much to pack in,” presenting those as excuses for dull, bite-ridden, jerky, story-telling. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell the story well on film. Lord of the Rings did—and the HP franchise has done it successfully more than once (with the director of this film too—even more baffling). A film should explain itself internally and not rely on some outside source. If I have to read a book in order to understand a film why bother seeing the film?

And I don’t accept it’s because this one is darker. A darker plot does not mean a film needs to retain nothing of the reasons we originally became fans of the stories. “This film is darker” the Pottersville creators say with each new installment, as if convinced that’s the only thing that will get audiences in to see it. Where are the things that made us love the franchise in the first place? Many a good series on TV and film has been ruined because the makers tried to fix what wasn’t broken and I fear that has happened here.

Nor do I buy the argument that “the books (and films) have had to become more adult as the readers of the series have gotten older.” Readers of all ages enjoyed the first ones and no one said it wasn’t dark enough or that there wasn’t enough undressing. “But the characters were younger then” Yes, they were. So? Older doesn’t inherently mean darker. At this rate if any of them survive till their twenties the plots will be so dark they’ll need Ingmar Bergman to direct.

And the argument that the plots and characters have matured to accommodate the ageing of the generation that grew up with them, excludes every following generation that starts the series (and every one before). The fact is most Harry Potter fans have not and will not grow up alongside the Harry Potter characters, so that argument is an excuse for making a darker film not a reason.

Yes, I shall be in line to see part two, because I am forgiving enough that one bad film (and a less exciting one) in such an immense franchise is allowable. But I find this one more alienating than entertaining. So much time spent being moody and sullen without any of what made the first movies watchable and interesting. Here’s hoping Harry Potter and the Perpetual Doldrum is not coming to a theater near me soon.