Category Archives: Ambiguities

Ambiguity, Tashlin-style

When I set up this blog with WordPress, the site sensibly encouraged me to create categories for my posts; this I did: you can see them over there, on the right —>

What with Frank Tashlin on my brain lately, it occurs to me that two of those categories – Tashlin and Ambiguities – mutually reinforce each other to a certain extent. That is, when I stop to think about it, I realize that my now-decades-long interest in Tashlin is due, in part, to the fact that I admire the ambiguities that are essential to his work. Indeed, I believe that Tashlin’s best work is his most ambiguous, and vice versa.

I intend to use this website to expand on some of the ideas in Tashlinesque, so this seems like a perfect opportunity to do so, especially since the particular ambiguity that I wish to discuss, from Tashlin’s great 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, is one that I mention in the book only in a (lengthy) footnote. I am focusing on this ambiguous moment because I think it is especially incisive.

The Girl Can’t Help It is about a semi-reformed mobster, Fats Murdock (Edmond O’Brien) who hires a down-on-his-luck talent agent, Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), to make his protegée, singer Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield), into a big star. Miller doubts that even his best efforts will ever make a singing sensation out of Jerri, for the very sensible reason that she has a singing voice that shatters lightbulbs. Miller tells Fats that he doesn’t think that Jerri will ever be a star. One evening, when Jerri, Miller, and Jerri’s maid, Hilda (Juanita Moore), are together at Jerri’s house, Fats calls them and angrily demands that they turn on the television so they can watch Eddie Cochran performing on a variety show. Fats’s point is that Cochran has an unusual voice, too, and he’s a big star; Fats irately rejects Miller’s claim that Jerri is unpromotable. Even though neither Miller nor Jerri “gets” why someone with so odd a presence and voice as Eddie Cochran can be famous and well-loved, they resign themselves to redoubling their own promotional efforts.

(As a side note, let me say that Fats was 100% correct about the unusualness of Eddie Cochran’s voice and performance style. I love the guy’s music, but it really was kind of odd. His vocal style, his guitar-playing, and his movements may all be aptly described as “herky-jerky” and/or “hiccupy.” He really did cut a strange figure. Knock yourself out on the YouTube.)

The scene only becomes ambiguous when we see Miller’s, Jerri’s, and especially Hilda’s responses to Cochran’s performance of “Twenty-Flight Rock. A clip of the scene is below.

This is how I describe the scene, and its ambiguity, in my book:

Tashlin makes a very ambiguous joke about the song’s racial origins. While Tom and Jerri watch Cochran with mild befuddlement, Jerri’s black maid, Hilda (Juanita Moore), demonstrates her enjoyment of the song by dancing around Jerri’s living room. When Miller looks at her questioningly, Hilda makes a smiling gesture of dismissal and leaves the room, still dancing.

The scene’s stance on racial matters is uncertain. Hilda, the only black person in the scene, seems to have a “deeper connection” to the music – arguably a version of the stereotype about the hypersexuality and “natural rhythm” of black people. But Hilda is also the only character to connect to the music on an authentic level: the song was made to be danced to, and she enjoys dancing to it. Jerri and Tom – both of whom are involved in the music industry – don’t know what to make of the song. For them, Cochran’s style is nothing more than a successful business model. This is precisely the kind of challenging, ambiguous cultural satire that Tashlin favors, as it reinforces the notion that rock music is both debased and authentic – a dynamic that was and is undeniably relevant to the American music industry.

 — Ethan de Seife (me!), Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012, p. 235).

The most challengingly ambiguous element of this scene is, as noted, its attitude toward matters of race. Complicating and related to this ambiguity is Tashlin’s double-edged attitude toward popular music, and popular culture in general. Two interlocking ambiguities for the price of one!

The problem is this: it is important for us to grasp that, of the three characters, only Hilda genuinely enjoys Cochran’s performance. This is important because the satire of the scene requires us to understand that for Fats, Jerri, and Miller – even though they are all sympathetic protagonists – popular music like that of Eddie Cochran is just a way to make a buck. (Though it should be noted that, as is apparent in the clip above, Fats enjoys the song, too.) The only character to treat the music as 100% artistically valid is Hilda: her dismissive gesture as she exits the room provides humorous visual confirmation that Jerri and Miller do not “get it,” a fact reconfirmed by their body language, and by the clueless looks on their faces. This is just one of many ways that Tashlin, throughout his career, uses satire to criticize the very popular-culture industries that provided his livelihood. This criticism gets at the central dilemma of popular culture: if it’s mass art intended for mass consumption and mass profit, is it still artistically worthwhile, or is it too “debased”? (The very existence of this website should demonstrate my position on this matter, but I do think that the question is still relevant and worthy of exploration.)

But: if Hilda’s response to “Twenty-Flight Rock” is genuine and authentic – and, again, it is important to the scene and the film that her response is genuine and authentic – then the scene raises another ambiguity: is this a scene of racial stereotyping? There is no easy answer, especially at nearly sixty years’ remove from the film’s release: a topic as vast and complex as racial attitudes of the mid-1950s are difficult to reconcile with modern perspectives on race – which are no less fraught, of course.

Is Tashlin suggesting that Hilda’s authentic reaction to rock music is somehow related to the fact that she is black? Maybe. The possibility exists for this reading, and seems to be confirmed in several of the film’s other scenes of musical performance (of which there are many): Tashlin generally presents the Caucasian musicians as silly and frivolous, and the African-American musicians as somehow more authentic or even ennobled. (Doesn’t matter if the stereotype is a “positive” one; it’s still a stereotype.) White musicians like Nino Tempo and The Chuckles sing extremely lightweight songs in The Girl Can’t Help It; black musicians like Fats Domino and Little Richard sing, frankly, better songs, and are presented far more reverentially. The best example of this latter tendency is surely Abbey Lincoln’s performance of “Spread the Word,” which for me is one of the visual highlights of the film.

Lincoln’s astounding beauty is presented in a terrific, symmetrical composition, a choice that grants a certain gravity to her performance. (As well, her song is about religion: rather a more serious [albeit more swingin’] subject than the “cinnamon sinner sellin’ lollipop lies” that The Chuckles sing about.) Especially when Tashlin cuts between the shots of Abbey Lincoln and Jayne Mansfield herself, we get a sense of the different attitudes he has to these two women and what they represent in the story of The Girl Can’t Help It. Lincoln and Mansfield are dressed in similarly figure-hugging dresses: Lincoln’s is deep orange, and Mansfield’s red. Their body-types are in fact fairly similar. But Lincoln looks distinguished as she stands quite still, undulating only mildly: it is primarily her hands that sway. Mansfield accentuates, for comic effect, each thrust of her hip and dip of her shoulder: at this point in the film, Miller is “building up” Jerri Jordan, having her sashay through every nightclub in town in order to attract attention to her outrageous curves. (He is cynical enough to know that Jerri’s singing ability has nothing to do with her ability to land a record contract.) In other words, Jerri/Mansfield is an emblem of tawdriness: she is literally selling herself, all for the sake of the pop-culture industry. Whereas Abbey Lincoln, playing herself, is more restrained and elegant, and seemingly represents the good that can result when popular music focuses not on commercialism but on authenticity.

But maybe these meanings don’t really have anything to do with race. Perhaps the key word really is “authenticity,” but not an authenticity that is necessarily grounded in racial identity. Tashlin’s principal interest seems to be the exposure of cheap, crappy, in-it-for-the-money forms of popular art. Abbey Lincoln’s song is treated reverentially because it is a great song that depends on and exceeds vernacular traditions; Eddie Fontaine’s performance of “Cool It Baby” makes Fontaine look silly because it is silly: at best, this is a featherweight song. Eddie Cochran’s performance itself shatters the idea that authenticity is based in racial identity: Tashlin’s presentation of Cochran’s number — similar in its starkness to the presentation of “Spread the Word” — imbues it with a certain elegance and praise. The song is great; it’s the carnival-barker-style variety-show host (Peter Potter, an actual 1950s TV host) who comes off like a huckster; so, too, do Jerri and Tom, for their inability to access the meanings in the song that have to do with anything other than making a profit. Cochran may be weird, but his song is actually pretty excellent.

Still, the answers here are not easy to come by, in part because Tashlin directs some of that same criticism toward himself. After all, he was making a film for Twentieth Century-Fox that was designed in large part as a promotional tool for the many musical artists who appear in it. Tashlin was selling out, too, and he knew it. He just happened to have good taste in music, and in art in general, and decided to use his not-insignificant filmmaking abilities to give us clues about which of the performers he felt had some talent, and which of them were just cashing in on rock and roll, the biggest and most current pop-culture fad of the day. Such meanings would not be as accessible to us – nor as compelling – were they not presented in an ambiguous fashion. Ambiguities such as these are useful and worthwhile precisely because they raise troubling notions, a fact that can give a text some serious power.

 

Postscript

This is the first of my posts to have been written largely from a moving vehicle. When I wrote most of the above post, I was on a bus to Boston, where I presented a paper at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Apparently, they have the internet on buses now. Fascinating.

The paper I presented is unrelated to Tashlin, but it does concern an ambiguous text: Neil Young’s sprawling, utterly fascinating Greendale project, thoughts about which have been rattling around in my brain ever since I saw a performance of the Greendale stage show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March of 2004. I am happy to report that, once that presentation is significantly revised, a written version of it will be published in Broken Arrow, the venerable (125 issues and counting!) journal of the Neil Young Appreciation Society. My writing is, I suppose, mostly scholarly, though not forbiddingly so, I like to think. At least, I always try to write in an accessible and engaging fashion, to the best of my abilities. I have long had an interest in “fan culture” (and in fact gave a lecture on that very subject just last week in my class on Hong Kong Cinema), but most of my writing has appeared in academic journals of various types. So I am really pleased that an essay of mine will appear in a fan journal, especially one whose focus is one of my favorite artists of any kind. I’ll write more about the Greendale presentation here soon. Until then, dig into that Greendale site a bit. Weird, compelling stuff.

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, "We're only in It for the Money"
Why? What are YOU in it for?

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Ambiguity #4: Robert Plant: Environmentalist or Stoner? Or both?

Back in high school, a good friend of mine used to work at a local skate shop, and I would sometimes hang out with him there. His job was to sell skateboard parts and bike pads and suchlike to local kids, but we spent far more time hanging out and watching videos on the wall-mounted TV. This being a skate shop, the TV was ostensibly to be dedicated to the showing of VHS tapes showing the greatest moves and tricks of Tony Hawk and co., but when that grew tiresome, he would pop in concert films.

One of the heavy-rotation movies was Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same – though this was the late 1980s, my friends’ and my audio diet was quite heavy on the “classic rock” of the 1960s and ‘70s, and Zep was one of our standbys. (Haven’t listened to them in years now, but I suppose they’re fine. Always liked the odder Zeppelin stuff, like “No Quarter.” Anyway.) Actually, now that I think about it and do a teensy bit of internet research about it, maybe the Led Zeppelin concert film we watched was not The Song Remains the Same, but rather some sort of bootlegged concert film of some kind. No matter, though.

The lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s inescapable song “Stairway to Heaven” – you know, the song that classic-rock radio stations all across the nation declared, year after year, to be the Single Greatest Song Ever Recorded In The Whole Rockin’ History of the World – read, in part,

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune

Then the piper will lead us to reason.

And a new day will dawn for those who stand long

And the forests will echo with laughter.

In various versions of this song – I honestly don’t remember now if this was exclusive to live versions, or if this may be found in the album version, as well – Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, would often append, at the end of this verse, a spoken question: “Does anybody remember laughter?” The implication of this query was something along the lines of “Our modern world is so sad – we have lost touch with the very spirit of laughter,” or something more or less like that. I don’t necessarily consider Zeppelin to have been hippies, but that sentiment – and, indeed, much of the imagery in “Stairway to Heaven” – certainly jibes with the general hippie ethos.

Anyway, in the particular Led Zeppelin concert film that we watched so often in the back of the skate shop in my hometown, Plant, apparently extemporaneously, changed the words of that little post-verse query. His question was now

Does anybody remember forests?

This little lyrical change — which you can hear, in an excerpt, in the YouTube link below — creates a small but historically interesting ambiguity.

When I was 16, and my friends and I heard, in the live version of “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant make this little change, our immediate assumption was that Plant was really stoned, and forgot the lyrics to a song that he had co-written. Knowing what we knew, even then, about the recreational drug use by the members of Led Zeppelin, this was not an unreasonable assumption. Those guys did a lot of drugs.

But there’s surely at least one other potential reading, and it strikes me now as the more likely. Maybe Robert Plant, in identifying forests, rather than laughter, as a long-lost, unremembered entity, was attempting to call our attention to the deterioration of global environmental conditions. Admittedly, it would have been a somewhat meager wake-up call: a single, ambiguous, uncontextualized line in a pop song does not an environmentalist make. But, even if it was not necessarily making daily headlines in the mid-1970s (or whenever that concert took place), deforestation was a known fact back then. First-wave environmentalists like Rachel Carson and John Muir, both dead by then, had raised that call quite loudly; more contemporaneously, the outspoken John Brower was indeed a figure whose name appeared in print quite often by the early 1970s. (Brower is the subject of John McPhee’s terrific 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid, among other mainstream publications.) Though it was not the coherent movement/phenomenon that it is today, environmentalism was surely a “known thing,” and perhaps Robert Plant, in making that lyrical change, meant to align himself with it. It certainly seems plausible.

If indeed I can be said to have one, my point about this extremely mild ambiguity is just that: historical context can and often does play an important role in how we read texts. As I’ve noted, 20+ years ago, my particular frame of reference (rock ‘n’ roll, classic-rock radio, rock history in general [hell, I’d read Hammer of the Gods by that point in my life]) encouraged me to opt for the “druggie” reading; today, having witnessed the American environmentalist movement, and its attendant generalized environmental awareness, rise to prominence over the last two decades or so, I’m far more inclined to opt for the environmentalist reading of Plant’s reference to ill-remembered forests.

It is, I would submit, an entirely natural and reasonable thing to read or interpret texts by reference to the historical context that is most prominent or dominant in one’s mind or experience at the time of encountering the text. When we are aware of, or alerted to, a specific phenomenon on a regular basis, that phenomenon assumes a greater importance to us, and may be seen to serve as a kind of lens through which we understand other phenomena. A current example may be the way in which everyone talks about the “carb” content of food these days – a fairly new development in nutrition, and one which I think we can safely attribute to all of the attention that such programs as the Atkins Diet have received over the last decade or so. I don’t ever recall even the staunchest dieter talking about carbs as recent as fifteen years ago. When a text is ambiguous – even mildly so, as in the case with the live version of “Stairway to Heaven” – we are all the more likely to understand it through the lens of the context or frame of reference which is, at the time that we encounter the text, more pertinent and prominent in our minds.

I have no idea, by the way, why this particular song and its attendant small ambiguity entered my brain recently. I haven’t heard “Stairway” (as we used to call it) in years, and I don’t do a lot of thinking about Led Zeppelin or forests. But it does strike me as a good example of how different historical contexts can suggest new meanings for a text.

Ambiguity #3: Cheesy Shasta cola ads from the ’80s!

Join me, won’t you, on a magical journey back to the year … 1983!

Shasta ad #1:

Shasta ad #2:

I’m honestly not sure which of these ads I prefer. They’re both so steeped in the neon-hued pseudo-hip commercial jingle-jangle of my youth that all kinds of long-neglected mental circuits flare up every time I watch either of these thirty-second blasts of earworm nostalgia. I was approximately ten years old when these ads were broadcast regularly. I don’t really recall the images, but that Shasta jingle has lived in one or the other corner of my brain for nearly three decades now. It’s scary, really.

The Shasta jingle contains a bit of garden-variety ambiguity that I think is worth writing about, if only because I’m sort of a nerd for words, and this mild ambiguity is rooted in the lyrics of the Shasta jingle.

The central question is: Does “wanna” mean “want to” or “want a”? Surprisingly, none of my many slang or “regular” dictionaries (not even the big old dusty one from 1962) have an entry for “wanna.” Merriam-Webster online insists that “wanna” is not in the dictionary.

But – aha! The Free Dictionary provides a few basics.

The key point here is that the word is a contraction of either “want a” or “want to,” which I guess we knew already, but it’s nice to have a little confirmation. There’s also a nice “usage” quotation, down the page a bit, from Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which is a pretty good book.

The meanings of that catchy Shasta jingle and the ads in general change slightly, depending on which of these readings you favor.

The lyrics of the jingle vary very slightly from ad to ad; I’ve posted the ones sung by the saucy female singer:

Don’t gimme that so-so soda
The same old cola
I wanna rock ‘n’ rolla.
I wanna pop (pop, pop)
I wanna Shasta.
I wanna taste pizzazz
All the great taste Shasta has.
I wanna pop (pop, pop)
I wanna Shasta (Shasta).
I wanna thrill
I wanna wow
Taste it all
I want it now.
I wanna pop (pop, pop)
I wanna Shasta.

The thing is that sometimes the context of the lyric requires that we take wanna as “want to,” and sometimes as “want a.” Some of the above “wanna”s make more sense when read as “want to”s, but some leave a bit of room for interpretation. For instance, the singer of the jingle wants to taste pizzazz (inasmuch as the ineffable quality of pizzazz is potable, and inasmuch as it is contained in Shasta’s beverages); reading this line the other way makes no sense.

Actually, no: reading it as “I want a taste pizzazz” does make sense, if we entertain the notion that “taste pizzazz” might be, say, a semi-quantifiable quality of soda pop. Perhaps it is related to umami.

Interestingly, there are no examples of “wanna” in this jingle that must be read as “want a”; every one of the likely candidates may be sensibly read as either “want a” or “want to.” Both “I wanna thrill” and “I wanna wow” may be sensibly read using either form of wanna. If the singer wants a thrill/wow, then she is looking for excitement; if she wants to thrill/wow, then she is looking to instill excitement in someone else, presumably by becoming the highly interesting and delightful person into which Shasta will inevitably transform her.

Most prominently, we have the case of “I wanna pop!” Surely this means that the singer of the song would like to imbibe a sweetened, carbonated beverage, but there is a vanishingly small chance that the singer wants instead to explode! (I grew up on the east coast of the US, so I never called such beverages “pop”; these are sodas.) Or maybe both: maybe the singer desires to instigate the suicidal process of self-explosion by consuming a tremendous amount of fizzy drinks. But I am guessing not, much as that would make for an enjoyable commercial.

Finally, what to do with “I wanna Shasta”? The obvious reading is that the singer of the song wants to drink a Shasta-brand beverage, but if we may slip into adspeak for a moment, it’s possible to consider “Shasta” itself as a verb, which would make “I want to Shasta” not entirely implausible.

Companies turn their products’ names into verbs all the time (“Are you gellin’?”); other times, consumers perform this service for them. The most prominent recent example of the latter tendency is also the most ubiquitous: the use of “google” as a verb, a practice that the company itself has taken legal action to quash.

Here’s an interesting piece from The New York Times about the differing views on “verbing” corporate nouns.

And here’s a nice list, from the archives of The Straight Dope, of “verbed” product names.

“Shasta” is most assuredly not on that list, nor have I ever heard it used as a verb. It’s not even likely that the Shasta company intended to “verb” the name of their product, in these commercials or elsewhere. Still, because these are commercials, and because commercials use language in specialized ways, and because there are precedents for companies turning their products’ names into verbs (despite the notion that it will “weaken the copyright”), it’s not impossible to read this as “I want to Shasta.”

What the hell might the infinitive “to Shasta” mean? By way of answering that rather stupid question, it’s worth considering the nature of the text we’re looking at here: a television advertisement.

All ads have a purpose: to sell you something. Does the mild ambiguity of these silly Shasta ads compromise their ability to sell SELL SELL? I don’t think so. These ads intend to encourage you to buy Shasta’s fine carbonated beverages, yes, but, more than that, they are designed to sell the “experience” of Shasta. Were I a member of ShastaCo’s television-ad focus group in 1983, I might check the following boxes to indicate the kind of experience these ads communicate:

Fun
Youthful
Colorful
Refreshing
Playful
“Cool”
Lively
Fashionable (insert snickering here)

Taken together, those checked boxes are probably pretty close to the verb meaning of “Shasta” – or, at least, that’s what the P.R. people would like you to think.

These meanings, and the other messages that are the primary function of these ads are not hindered in any way by the teensy “want a”/“want to” ambiguity. Only nerds like me pay attention to such things. And while this jingle has been rattling around in my head for at least 25 years now, I don’t believe I’ve had a Shasta beverage in at least as long. So I guess these commercials have both succeeded and failed.

Here’s a special bonus for those of you who have read this far along: a third (and distinctly UNambiguous) Shasta ad, this one featuring Barry Williams (Greg from “The Brady Bunch)!:

Update (August 9, 2011):

– I declared above that I didn’t know which of the two Shasta ads I prefer. I have now decided. It’s gotta be the first one, if only for the bizarre presence of that second dude, whose sole purposes are to look “tough” and to say “Pop!” and “Shasta!” as the lyrics demand. As well, the main dude’s skin is hilariously shiny.

– I am pretty certain that it is Casey Kasem himself who does the brief voiceover in the Barry Williams Shasta ad.

 

Update (11 October 2011):

I have written a new post that clarifies and corrects some of the information in this post. Please check it out!

Ambiguity #2: “The HIV Song”

Here’s a recent-ish post from the lovely blog for Continuum Press’s “33 1/3” series of pocket-sized books about individual albums. It’s an excerpt from that series’s book on Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese – specifically, that album’s semi-notorious tune “The HIV Song.”

I couldn’t possibly love Ween any more than I already do. I’m glad to see them finally getting their due. Too long were they dismissed as “joke rock”; I happen to think they’re one of the more important and creative rock bands of the last twenty years.

Just one of the many many wonderful things about Ween is the ambiguity inherent in “The HIV Song,” whose only two words are “HIV” and “AIDS” – no commentary or context whatsoever (unless you count the whimsically insane calliope music that accompanies those half-sung, half-spoken words). What’s great about this song is that by saying almost nothing, Gene and Dean open up the text tremendously, thus generating quite a lot of controversy, none of which, really, can be made to stick. The excerpt from the book does a very nice job of addressing this issue, and is well worth reading.

Long live the Boognish.