Attack of the creeping misnomer
WE are told we should not judge a book by its cover. But the cover is that which we see first, and it is, in all life, difficult to discount a first impression.
The American Cancer Society and the Drug Enforcement Administration thus might appear on first impression to be organizations suggesting the support of these two misfortunes.
Here are the three worst titles in the world:
The Thirty Years WarThis falls afoul of one of the first rules of the theater: “Don’t start the audience counting songs on you.”
There you are, at a musical, it’s the last act, and the thing is dragging, dragging, dragging. You consult your program to determine how many more songs you have to sit through before you can go home. Remedies include writing better songs or not listing the number in the program.
Similarly, we can imagine some guy in Europe (the site of the contest), long about year 14 or so, comparing his boredom with the process against the war’s title, and throwing up his hands against the thing’s impossible length.
Another dreadful title for a war is “The French and Indian War.” This title is confusing. Was it — I wonder, every time I hear the phrase — a war between the French and the Indians? Over what? Or between some unnamed third party and a conjunction of the French and the Indians? “French and Indians” is a better title for a theme party. And, perhaps, the war began as one, then went bad. We do not know.
‘Gigli’This was a film from a few years ago. I did not see it, and, to judge by the grosses, you did not either.
We do not know if it was a good film; it may well have been. We didn’t go because we didn’t know how to pronounce the title. Here we are on Friday or Saturday night — “Let’s go to the movies. Oh, here’s an interesting-looking film: ‘Jiggly’ or ‘Dzjeeeli.’ ” Now, you and I abhor looking stupid, who does not? Therefore, we are faced with a 50-50 proposition: We can walk up to the ticket window and stand a 50% chance of saying the name wrong and feeling like a fool. Bad odds for meager gain, so we choose to see another film. Baaaaad title.
The Museum of ToleranceThis is, as I understand it, a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and is dedicated by Jews to the cause of justice.
Now, as a committed Jew, I’ll vote for Jews every time, and I am also fond of justice. But I cannot go to this museum, as the title’s wrong. Tolerance is the act or ability to abide the offensive. I do not find my people, the Jews, anything but attractive, and I don’t care to invite or applaud anybody’s tolerance. Worse still, to my over-caffeinated sensibilities, is the linkage of “tolerance” (already a nonstarter) with “museum,” meaning “repository of the no-longer operative.” Bad title.
All right, you say, puffing out your chest, give me a better one to which I respond “It’s too late now.”
Nobody likes the Jews. This, to a Jew, is freeing, nay, exhilarating aperçu. It explains a vast amount of odd behavior, including but not limited to the Holocaust and the Brady Bunch.
People sometimes pretend to like the Jews, but such pretense is generally limited to appreciation of “Exodus” and/or “Fiddler on the Roof,” cultural icons that non-Jews like because they make them feel better about hating the Jews. By contrast, people like Greeks because they think Greeks are “cuddly.” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is not only a good film but a great title. Snappy, feels good — literally — to say, and it makes us wonder what such a ceremony, and thus such a film, might be like. People — that is, non-Jews — do not wonder about Jewish ceremonies, as they A) don’t like Jews, and B) know all they need to know, having seen “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Hatred of, or disappointment with, the state of Israel has gifted a lot of racists with a healthful outlet for that energy left uncathected by the excision of the word “nigger” from the American language. Perhaps, I muse, if the state of Israel had a better title, it would appeal more to a cruel world. Perhaps a title that would allow such a world to engage its sententiousness (a traditional perquisite of the Jews). Perhaps if the state were called “Tryin’-to-Please ” or “Nu?” or, in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s idiom, “Hymieland.”
And what about the gay community? Some of you have encountered them, in their quality of entertainment, on television; others in bed.
They, like the rest of us, are working their way through the national consensus — stuck, for the moment, between Willie Best and Sidney Poitier.
The Jews, my ever-handy folk, meanwhile, have been demoted from Lee J. Cobb to Vincent Price, whilst the acts of Arab terrorists enjoy an amusing dual status: their suicide bombings in America seen as “bestial obscenity,” those in Israel a “cry for help.”
Which brings me back to my theme.
My new play at the Mark Taper Forum is a vicious comedy about those imponderables: race, sexuality, religion and the war in the Middle East. But you wouldn’t know it from the title.
David Mamet is a screenwriter, novelist and the author of many plays, including “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
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