Monday, August 13, 2012

The cone of silence

I believe I've mentioned in passing, though I haven't previously given it its own post in the notorious Why I don't learn Chinese series, that one of the things I most enjoy about not knowing much Chinese is not being bothered by other people's conversations all the time. In any country in the world, a great part of the conversation surrounding you in public places is crude, dumb, unfunny, and objectionably ill-informed or bigoted. I suffered from this sensation of almost continual annoyance particularly acutely during the years that I lived in South London, just before moving to China a decade ago. And it felt absolutely blissful to escape from it, to enter an environment where I was spared having the soul-crushing inanities of everyday conversation obtrude themselves into my consciousness all the time.

The curious thing is I've found myself similarly insulated from the background babble now that I'm back in the UK. Part of this might be that there are a lot of foreigners around (in the centre of Oxford, tourists and language students probably outnumber the locals two or three to one at this time of year), and so a lot of the chatter I overhear is still in incomprehensible foreign languages. And part of it may be that I am detuned from the English of British native speakers, grown unfamiliar with the thicker regional accents, and never been familiar with more recent slang terms and styles of speech and pop culture references: much of the 'English' I'm hearing sounds like a foreign language to me now.

But I suspect the main reason is this. When you know that the language surrounding you is going to be opaque to your understanding, you stop paying attention to it. The key to not overhearing the conversations of everyone around you is not to listen - but that is a very difficult knack to acquire. Now that I've done so, I hope I don't lose it again.

Who was it said, "I'm not an eavesdropper; I just have an Attention Surplus Disorder"? Ah yes, it was the compulsive epigrammatist Robert Brault.


JES said...

A favorite topic of mine -- not because I know much of Chinese nor any other non-English language (save, ever more dimly, Latin), but because of my hearing issues. I believe that hearing and understanding speech, for the hearing-impaired anyhow, is primarily an issue of attention. One of the most frustrating experiences for me is watching -- trying to watch -- a non-captioned/-subtitled film or TV show, in the company of someone who knows of my hearing problem. Why? Exactly because such people are almost always sympathetic. If that sounds ungracious, consider: every time they ask, Can you hear that? or Do you want to change the channel? or even just declare It just pisses me off that this isn't captioned!, I have to break my focus on the screen: lip-reading, watching the other non-verbal cues from the actors, and so on.

It also folds neatly into that recently featured post of yours from last year, about modern electronic annoyances -- the shutting out of the outside world (via earphones), which induces obliviousness to the outside world!

Froog said...

I find it an intriguing exercise to see how much I can understand of a film, or at any rate if I appreciate it in a different way, if I watch it without the sound.

There's quite often a TV on in the background with no sound, or sound turned down way too low to hear, in Chinese bars and restaurants. And quite often they'll have it hooked up to a DVD player and show popular films. For a few years Zhang Yimou's Hero was almost ubiquitous.

I recall a debating club dinner I attended in Canada many years ago on Valentine's Day, where they showed Casablanca on a continuous loop in the background. I hadn't been very fortunate in the company I found myself sitting with (I think, as usual, I was in pursuit of a girl, and Fate - or the organisers of the event - had positioned her at the far end of the room), so I started paying more and more attention to the film. It's such a paradigmatic story, I suppose we all know it forwards and backwards even if we've only seen it a few times. It's not in fact one of my great personal favourites, but I think I did warm to it more through that experience of paying more attention to its visuals.

JES said...

I like Casablanca about that much, for about the same reasons. (Well, I didn't have quite the same wistful, "what might have been..." motivations.) It was one of our first DVD purchases.

Meant to ask if you'd heard about Kane's having been bumped to second place in a "greatest films" list (a once-a-decade international poll of critics, by the British Film Institute), by... Vertigo??? (One report here. That story mentions that a separate poll -- of directors -- also knocked Kane out of the top spot, replacing it with a film called Tokyo Story, by Yasujiro Ozu. I don't believe I've ever seen that -- or even heard of it, for that matter.)

Froog said...

I have at least heard of Tokyo Story. It was one of those I went to see in an arthouse cinema as a student, out of a completist sense of duty, but it left no very deep impression. Very long, very slow-moving, and rather stodgily earnest, as I recall; and a social drama about a society in which I suppose I just didn't have all that much interest.

I should give it another try. I think I may even have a copy in my huge DVD collection somewhere.

I found the Italian cinema of the same era quite electrifying; I could entirely see what the fuss was about with films like Bicycle Thieves or La Strada. But Japanese films mostly left me fairly cold, the ones with contemporary settings anyway. (Although I'm not invariably won over by the Samurai 'classics' either. I didn't get why Rashomon was such a big deal, and even The Seven Samurai has its longueurs in the first half.)