Talky Tuesday: Un poco Coco

The first time I saw the Spanish version of Coco 4 years ago, I think I got about 60% of it. Watching it a second time now surprised me.

Inspired by Hallowe’en, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day last week, I’d been thinking about watching Coco again, but then seeing it pop up on Disney+ as Coco (In Spanish) just clinched it, so last Friday night I had to give what I consider to be the “real” version a second look.

Of course, for reasons known only to… nobody, maybe?… when I started up the Spanish version on Disney+, I was greeted with a soundtrack in English, which was doubly ridiculous because I knew that a Spanish-language version of the film existed. I’d seen it in a theater, so it was not an hallucination.

It turns out that I had to manually switch the spoken language from English to Spanish, which makes no sense at all. I mean, considering that they have the English and Spanish versions right next to each other as separate choices, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the Spanish version to not start up in Spanish.

No reason other than, you know — white, Anglo bias.

When the film came out originally four years ago, as soon as I read that Disney/Pixar were going to be releasing a version that had specifically been rescripted and dubbed in Spanish, I knew that it was the one I wanted to see.

Firstly because it seemed like the only appropriate language to tell the story in, but secondly because, as a student of Spanish, it seemed like a good time to take a real-world test.

So I found the Spanish language screening at a theatre in North Hollywood, went to the box office to buy a ticket from the pale, red-headed woman at the counter who looked at my Irish-Nordic ass and immediately said, “This screening is only in Spanish.”

It didn’t sound like it was confirming my decision. Rather it came off as, “You’re not going to understand a word.”

I just smiled, said, “That’s why I’m here,” and gave her my money.

That was almost exactly four years ago. I slipped into the theater, found a seat on the center aisle away from the other audience members — all Hispanic families — and sat down to watch.

I loved the film from the first frames and cried more than a few times during its run time. As for the dialogue, I’d have to say that, at that time, I understood maybe about 60% of what was said, more in some parts and less in others.

Still, I got the basic gist of the story if not the exact relationships between the protagonist Miguel and his deceased family members and couldn’t understand most of what Gael García Bernal’s character Hector said.

The reasons for the latter became evident this time around.

Anyway, it was a turning point in my long, ongoing self-education in Spanish, which I think has been going for about nine years now. Having not really had much opportunity for practicing conversation for complicated reasons, I had at least been working on comprehension, largely through immersion.

My car radio, for example, had been set on a local Spanish language station since I got it in late 2013, and I spent many a commute listening to the morning and evening shows and gradually understanding more and more.

Ironically, since I’ve been told that it’s harder to understand sung lyrics than spoken words, I found the opposite to be true, and at one point had a karaoke collection in my head of at least half a dozen songs in Spanish I could have belted out at a moment’s notice, if only the opportunity had ever come up.

Narrator’s Voice: “But it never did.”

Still… in watching the film in late 2017, I pretty much only got it in broad strokes: Music was banned in Miguel’s family because of something that happened in the past; his great-great grandfather was a famous musician and actor, no doubt modelled on several Mexican movie idols of the 1930s and 40s, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead, where he meets up with his defunct ancestors, one of whom — Mamá Imelda — is clearly the matriarch of the deceased members of the Rivera clan, although I was never sure whether she was Miguel’s grandmother, great-grandmother, or however many steps above that, and I certainly had no idea how all of the various tío/as and papás fit into it.

Yeah, terms for specific family members tend to be one of those things terribly specific to any given language and culture and also something that native speakers grow up with, but which learners are rarely exposed to in school because, why?

So, yeah. I had no idea at that time what nieto/a, yerno, suegra, bisabuelo/a, or tatarabuelo/a meant.

Between then and now, I watched the film in the English language version (which I consider to be the dubbed one) and it was still fun, but just seemed somehow off.

Which brings me back to last weekend and my second viewing of the Spanish version, and I really don’t consider it a cheat having watched it twice previously, because I let myself pretty much forget the specifics (that I hadn’t forgotten already) and just go with it and… wow.

What a difference four more years of immersion and practice make. I found myself understanding almost every spoken word this time around, and also getting most of the jokes, which had just flown over my head previously.

Of course, having long since passed the point of translating to English in my head — which hadn’t been the case in 2017 — also made it lightyears easier.

I understood why the Rivera family under Imelda had rejected music long ago to become shoemakers (it’s all in the opening) and followed everything else as Miguel tries to sneak out from his Grandmother and her vengeful chancla to go play guitar in Mariachi Plaza.

Then, when he’s suddenly sucked into the land of the dead, not only was I able to understand the exact relationships as he described them, but I finally knew why Mamá Imelda did not make the trip across the Marigold Bridge with the rest of the family this time.

Her photo was not on the family ofrenda, and it was not there because Miguel had inadvertently taken it. Photos on ofrendas for remembrance, in the film, are basically passports for the dead to visit the living.

Another joke I’d missed originally — one of the dead with amazing teeth gets to come back because his photo is on the ofrenda maintained by his dentist.

So far so good, and I’m following it all, and then we meet Gael García Bernal’s Hector for the second time. Previously, he had tried to run the border disguised as Frida Kahlo, but was caught when he sank into the Marigold Bridge (yes, it’s definitely a visual metaphor for crossing the Rio Grande), and winds up in the office of an emigration official.

And suddenly this scene became very incomprehensible, driven by the kinetic energy of Bernal’s vocal performance combined with the animation in which he keeps disassembling and reassembling his skeleton in order to keep his interviewer off-guard.

He ultimately fails to convince the officer, and I only understood his exit line, as he asked whether he could take his Frida costume with him, only to be told “No.”

—¿Puedo traer mi disfraz?


Still… everything is clear until Miguel and Hector finally meet up and, yet again, it suddenly gets murky on Hector’s part until he starts calling Miguel “chamaco,” and then it hits me.

My god — Bernal is slanging it up Mexican style, so of course I can’t understand him. And, of course, I don’t know enough to know whether it’s puro chilango (Mexico City slang) or just Mexican slang in general, but it does remind me of a very delightful biopic about another Mexican film icon.

This would be from the Spanish-language film Cantinflas, the biopic of the man who was basically the Charles Chaplin of Mexico and who almost but not quite made it to international superstardom via the epic film Around the World in 80 Days. Anyway, early on in the film, Mario Moreno (Cantinflas) has met his future wife, Valentina Ivanova, a Russian woman who lives in Mexico but who is otherwise fluent in Spanish.

While they’re walking together in Mexico City while he’s on tour, he runs across a friend in the street, and they proceed to have a rapid-fire conversation which, if you weren’t born and raised in Mexico City, you probably won’t get at all. (Dog knows that I didn’t.)

At the end of it, Valentina looks at him and says, “What language was that, Spanish?”

His reply: “No. Puro mexicano.”

And he’s not wrong.

Probably the closest English equivalent to this that I can think of is something like Cockney, which involves obscure rhyming slang, and you just either know it or you don’t.

And the incomprehensibility transcends the cockney accent. Even spoken in British RP or American Newscaster English, it would not make sense without the key.

“Butcher them Bristols, Ken.”

“I know, Mark. Them scotches ain’t bad, neither.”

“Yeah, but boat like a bottle, sadly.”

“You’d have to be right Brahms’d to fire up your orchestras over that one.”

Even if you do speak English, you probably didn’t understand that at all. Now imagine how extra difficult it would be for a non-native English speaker. Here’s the translation from Cockney to real English.

“Look at those tits, Ken!” (Butcher’s hook = “look”; Bristol cities = “titties”.)

“I know, Mark. Those legs aren’t bad, either.” (Scotch eggs = “legs”)

“Yes, but face like an ass, sadly.” (Boat race = “face”; bottle and glass = “ass”)

“You’d have to be really pissed (drunk) to work up your balls over that one.” (Brahms and Liszt = “pissed”; orchestra stalls = “balls”)

Oops. I think I was discussing a family film. The other complication in Cockney slang, of course, is that sometimes they leave both words in and sometimes they only take the first word from the rhyming pair.

Of course, you don’t have to be Cockney or from Mexico City to come up with colorful slang all on your own, and the British author Marjorie Allingham, who wrote a series of detective novels featuring Albert Campion. His assistant, Lugg, once came up with this doozy: “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.”

Apparently, it meant, “It’s crazy to bribe a cop with worthless money,” but in the 1950s, a writer for MAD Magazine saw it and all the writers began slipping it into the magazine in various places. Kids saw it and, while they had no idea what it meant either, they started using it, frequently as a nonsense answer to their parents.

Basically, it went viral by word of mouth and a comic popular with teenagers.

But, even though eight out of ten words in the quote are perfectly understandable English, the two that aren’t throw everything off and make the entire thing a mystery.

That was kind of like the first time I saw Coco in Spanish. I knew most of the words in the sentences, but then one or two would pop up and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. This time around, though, a lot of those mystery words are part of my vocabulary, and suddenly there was no mystery.

That’s how language learning works. Be persistent, practice or study a little bit every day, and immerse yourself when possible. You’ll be surprised how your brain will pick up on and retain things.

Just remember: When you first learned your native language before you ever went to school, you just picked it up by listening to the other people around you. You may have just been approximating things at first — “Me, juice now?” — but eventually moved to more complete sentences and chances are, short of developmental challenges, you could at least hold a very simple conversation with an adult by the time you started school.

It’s the same thing learning a language as an adult. Don’t let them lie to you and tell you it’s impossible. It isn’t. You just have to put yourself in the same place you were as a child, listen, repeat, and learn from your mistakes.

Good luck!

Wednesday Wonders: That’s incredible!

Probably inspired by my trek into the real world to see Free Guy when it opened, I cracked open the ol’ Disney+ over the last weekend and decided to catch up on films I’d missed in the theater in the past.

I settled on The Incredibles 2 (2018), which came out fourteen years after its predecessor The Incredibles (2004). I did see the first film in a theater and loved it.

But this isn’t going to be a review of either film. Rather it was something that struck me during one of the villains speeches, although it didn’t really hit me until after the film.

The plot in a nutshell is that the sequel picks up right where the first film ended, with the Underminer emerging from the ground in a boring machine and wreaking havoc. The Parr family, aka the Incredibles, try to stop it only to make things far, far worse.

Superheroes — called “supers” in this universe — have already been outlawed, and the Parrs are reduced to living in a cheap motel, but they only have two weeks.

Along comes an apparent hero to the heroes, though: Winston Deavor, a huge superhero fan like his father. He and his sister, Evelyn Deavor, inherited their father’s business after he was killed by burglars after no supers showed up — seeing as how they were illegal at the time.

Don’t say the sister’s name too quickly, though.

Anyway, Winston enlists Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr, to take part in a PR campaign to redeem the image of the supers and get them made legal again. Her husband, Bob Parr, is left at home to take care of the kids — although Winston couldn’t stand seeing them living in a motel, so lends them one of his many homes, which is an isolated mid-century modern showplace literally built for a billionaire.

Helen is going to be wearing a miniature camera on her missions in order to give people a super’s POV, but from the first mission she runs into the films villain, Screenslaver, who uses hypnosis via video screen to control people.

And it was one of these speeches, delivered to a TV audience as Elastigirl tracks down said villain that it struck me. It’s another case of the villain not necessarily being wrong.

Here’s selected bits from the monologue:

“Elastigirl doesn’t save the day; she only postpones her defeat. And while she postpones her defeat, you eat chips and watch HER confront problems that you are too lazy to deal with. Superheroes are part of your brainless desire to replace true experience with simulation. You don’t talk, you watch talk SHOWS. You don’t play games, you watch game SHOWS. Travel, relationships, risk; every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat, and participate in life.”

The ultimate purpose for all of this, the villain explains is “So that the system can keep stealing from you, smiling at you all the while.”

Hm. Sound familiar?

Again, I can’t say that I disagree with the villain’s monologue at all and, as we know far too well in the 2020s, there are no superheroes to come save us. There are some heroes who stand up all too briefly at particular moments, but no Justice League or Avengers out there fighting crime.

Meanwhile, and especially during the days of COVID and isolation, we have replaced experience with simulation. Ironically, a lot of people didn’t listen to the supers who stepped up at the beginning of the thing — e.g. Dr. Fauci — and so we wound up deep in trouble, which continues to this day.

What I’m not sure of is how much writer-director Brad Bird agreed with the villain or not. On the one hand, it could have been a really subtle F.U. aimed at superhero films in general and Disney and Marvel in particular. The Incredibles are the only two superhero films that he’s written and directed.

The rest of the films he’s both written and directed are The Iron Giant, his 1999 debut, Ratatouille (2007), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and Tomorrowland (2015), the latter two being forays into live action.

So you could say that he’s not a fan of superhero films and has only been involved in one franchise that he did not create. On the other hand, he does leave some clues lying around that maybe having supers is not the best thing, or at least not in this particular world.

Oh yeah — The Incredibles has always been stuck in this uncertain era that seems to have both modern gadgets and dated style, but canonically it apparently takes place in 1962, although it could be an alternate universe, given that people being born with superpowers is a thing.

The ending of the film is a big nod to supers possibly being more trouble than they’re worth and (THREE-YEAR-OLD FILM SPOILER ALERT) we get to watch as the entire family, after finally setting up a date between teenager Violet and her total crush Tony, see a passing cop and robber chase and silently agree to pursue. They dump Tony at the theatre with popcorn money, although Violet swears that she’ll be back before the trailers are over.

Okay, another alternate universe bit: in 1962, the trailers actually did come after the feature, which started on time. They came between the feature, intermixed with the cartoon(s) and newsreel and before the B Movie.

This is film history 101, although I’ll let it slip as shorthand to a modern audience. Her saying, “I’ll be back before the end of the first reel” wouldn’t make a bit of sense nowadays.

Still… the family is willing to interrupt their life to get involved with something that really looks like it’s a simple police matter.

There’s also an undercurrent of sexism and toxic masculinity going on. First off, Bob can barely handle that his wife is suddenly getting all of the attention while he has to take care of the kids — a task he can barely handle. Second, Helen Parr is known as… Elastigirl. Not Elastiwoman? Not just SuperStretch?

Even if she started young, she should have given herself the name promotion and rebranding. Hey, Superboy did it and became Superman — at least in the Golden age, although that was retconned away in the modern age.

Supergirl, however, was always just “girl.” Naturally.

These hints carry on to their kids. Violet’s powers are non-destructive: Invisibility and creating protective forcefields. Her brother Dash, though, while only having superspeed also has a pretty destructive streak, best shown when it’s revealed that his dad’s old car, the Incredribile (I think) has been bought at auction by some wealthy man even though it was believed destroyed.

Dad still has the remote, which he digs out, and, surprisingly, it works at whatever distance they are from the location of the car. Dash seizes the remote and wants to fire off the rockets, bot Dad dissuades him.

It does say a lot about an animated film that is ostensibly just a family-oriented action/adventure story when it makes you think about the possibly bigger ideas that the filmmaker may have hidden within the story.

Then again, Brad Bird always puts a lot into his movies. I think my next feature watch is going to be Ratatouille.

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