Bright Lights Film Journal

One Culture, Two Systems: The Rules of Spanglish and Twice Upon a Time

“When talking to others, what needs to be articulated?”

I have always loved the idea of a film rooted in two languages: a movie so comfortable with its own vernacular that not everything would need translating. The ideal would be a film moving too fast to get bogged down in explanation: where bits of Howard Hawks-like dialogue would get lost in cross-talk, and wispy segments could be left to trail off. This phenomenon already occurs, to some extent, in Bollywood — where the stylized use of English is conceptually inseparable from many expressions — and in Hong Kong, where English words can be pronounced two ways: like little laminated tags that dangle off sentences, or assimilated so fully that one might mistake them for archetypal, Chinese phrases. This kind of merging also takes place in American culture, though it’s rarely seen onscreen: in Latin America, where it’s common to hear people shifting rapidly between Italian and Spanish,1 and North America, with its cross-pollination of Spanish and English, leading to Spanglish.

People who switch between languages in talking tend to apply the beats of one dialect to another. While a sentence may sound perfectly fluent, it’s specifically coded to another pattern — a different, oblique rhythm seems to be passing through it. Moving between languages doesn’t always mean shortcuts in thinking; sometimes one reaches over the barrier to grab a word, rather than relying on approximation — and not just because a phrase is “untranslatable.” When speaking Spanish, it may seem apt to say “frog” or “pumpkin” in English, because a word that sounds different means something different. The tongue senses that “pumpkin” needs that right sense of plumpness to fill it out — a switch-over can occur the way a song springs to mind. After all, the brain has only so many speed-dial functions; as a speaker of multiple languages, you may have only a vague idea of which word you’re about to say next — or where you are at that particular moment. Unless all your languages are kept in water-tight compartments, they’re likely to be scrambled by cross-directional use.

I’ve often thought that a film which features these kinds of verbal cross-overs — surprise match-ups and two-word fusions — could make for an exciting form of comedy. Maybe this is the way for screwball to go; rather than the honed one-liners of “insult” comedy, how about a film which deals in the non-sequiturs spat out during fast talk? How about faster dialogue in general, which shows the connections made during quick thinking?

One recent film that seemed gloriously — almost absurdly — at ease in two cultures is the marvelous French comedy Twice Upon a Time (right, 2006). Those expecting a mild reunion romance between Charlotte Rampling and Jean Rochefort may have been startled by the film’s creation of a strange, denaturalized “London” populated by Francophones and Anglophiles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the film’s setting is not “England” at all — it’s almost as if an invisible stage has been arched across the two countries, allowing a common pool of associations to circulate, and become confused. Since the main value France and England can agree on is Wildean wit, the script bases itself in this style; a blend of queerness, sentiment, and razor-sharp humor is regarded as the norm — the one medium which all the characters can relate to. The movie begins in a bizarre enough fashion, taking the iconic images of a culture and simply telling us that they are other than what they are. For instance, the famous nude photo of Rampling by Helmut Newton is still much admired, but no longer a one-off; it has been reconfigured as a still from an Oscar-nominated film. In this version of history, the mystique behind that image has been sufficient to generate its own film; rather than an object of constant speculation, there is, in theory, a tunnel of like images for us to burrow into. Film events are given an alternative back-story; shots of the real Rampling’s past2 are inserted into a long and consistent account of how they came to be. The movie informs us that all these historical moments are somehow different from what we know; everything takes place in a slightly altered, but recognizable reality.

Writer/director Antoine de Caunes uses Rampling’s unique place in film culture — her central presence in both Britain and France — to create a world stage, in which characters are linked purely by fictional and theatrical associations. In this Francophone England, even the presenters of breakfast TV seem fully immersed in French culture, despite the fact that they dig for tabloid details. French is also spoken, for some reason, between Rampling and the staunchly British actor Charles Dance; French conversations take place in various salon-styled clubs across London. English, on the other hand, is spoken between characters who should logically be conversing in French. When this kind of exchange occurs, what sort of communication is taking place? Why would friends hold forth in this unnatural manner? When characters speak to each other in their second tongue, it becomes clear that everything is on the “surface” and nothing is confidential — particularly when the dialogue occurs across platforms and archways. Just as history is not exactly as we remember it, “Englishness” and “Frenchness” are coded differently than in real life. In the movie’s particular take on being English, Rampling’s son (James Thiérrée) is seen as a Wildean young aristocrat, moping in his studio.

Nevertheless, people are in danger of losing their ethnicities if they’re not careful (“You forgot your English principles”). Cultural memory may be based on a specific set of references, but it is tenuous. In London, Rochefort’s French assistant (Isabelle Nanty) is interrogated; forgetting herself, she replies fluently in English, before catching herself with a look of amazement — she then repeats the statement in French. This kind of slippage in role-playing occurs when characters accidentally reveal they know more than their outlines indicate — or when they forget traits that appear to be “innately” theirs. Ideally, all conversation relates solely to theatrical and film culture; the host at a dinner party simply says the word “Showbiz” when seating two actors together. The movie doesn’t transcend the nostalgic style of the reunion comedy — it plays with the genre’s coziness, as well as its stereotypes and mugging. Rampling and Ian Richardson seem only too happy to play a brusque variation of their nationality. De Caunes invests the film with what appear to be his personal, treasured ideas of Anglophilia — a kind of castled Englishness, where characters have names like Evelyn. This version of England involves not only people being given the generic title of “Lord,” but queer bondage as a standard routine, and bitchy put-downs uttered by the likes of Boy George. The scenes of Rampling in different guises are all cinematic quotes — there’s the bespectacled grouch of recent films, the actress in her trenchcoat for an assignation, as well as the austere Rampling with S&M associations. An amusing sequence involves Rochefort interrupting a rehearsal of Titus Andronicus, where Rampling plays the murderous queen Tamora. This is a convincingly avant-garde, specialist production, with white walls doused in red, and Rampling with scraped-back hair. When she sees Rochefort, she decries him as a traitor, and the camera tracks the avenging queen — without a break in the minimalist gothic mood — as she pursues him, crudely yelling “You fucking piece of shit” while smothered in stage blood.

A film like this doesn’t necessarily require a bilingual audience — just one willing to sit with moments of incredulity, while the occasional snippet goes over our heads. However, this is not a movie based in impromptu observation — more like a stately parlor game, with interchangeable references and languorously perfected lines. It invents a culture where lordly Englishness is taken for granted, and phrases like “the fall of Saigon” are inserted like the nonsense, far-out idioms of Wilde. De Caunes’ major feat is in creating a society of back doors and drawing rooms that is also a plausible, emotional reality. Twice Upon a Time deals with the irrational associations of language — but it’s not a film about rapid thinking, or excited impulses, or sentences that zap past comprehension.

Spanglish is — or at least it gets closer to that than any recent American film I’ve seen. The title is extremely evocative, and a wonderful word in itself, suggesting something both glittery and mashed-up. Like most James L. Brooks films, Spanglish is sentimental around the edges — literally in terms of the device that frames the story — and it’s a movie that wants to make its liberal audience comfortable. Nevertheless, it takes on an issue that seems to be omnipresent in Hollywood culture — or at least it would be, if the films were willing to go there. Wealth may be a style element in U.S. cinema, but rarely does a film discuss who does the cleaning in those perfect sitcom houses, and how much of the daily maintenance of lifestyle is done by people with few options. Within the traditions of the family picture, Brooks brings the margins into view — yet this lively and delightful film is in no way maudlin or guilty. It’s too weird for that. If the film wanted to be consciously noble, it might have shown a U.S. family whose horizons were expanded by a “zesty” immigrant group. But it wouldn’t have made that family topsy-turvy to begin with — it would not have featured a mother/daughter team with the humor of Preston Sturges, and the inbred neuroses of The Little Foxes (1941). The grandmother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), an alcoholic jazz legend, and the offspring of that lifestyle, Deborah (Téa Leoni), are their own, vintage double act. Evelyn resembles the in-house lunatics of ’30s comedies, while Deborah is a delicious ditz out of My Man Godfrey (1936). So the Claskys are no “control” group — the children’s father John (Adam Sandler) is more accessible, but the maternal line is a particular, decaying strain of showbiz.

Turning the family into such a one-off means that the film doesn’t really tell us anything about demographics, or how multicultural houses operate in the States. All it can do is show us the functioning of this one, abnormal case, and ask whether its products — its conversation, its tensions, its interactions — might relate to other situations. In its reluctance to settle down, this movie is as magically scrambled as the films of David O. Russell — maybe even more so, since the incongruous dialogue is not merely comic but a reflection of daily life. In North America, there must be a constant collision of systems and languages. Fused words and sentences must be created every day, and there’s no question that all of this needs to be absorbed by the mainstream — because if it isn’t, how will people ever communicate?

Spanglish starts off on the path of the young immigrant making good, but any notion of the film being a well-meaning test case is exploded when we meet Téa Leoni as the mother: gorgeous, irresistible, and a ten-to-the-dozen wordsmith. When Flor (Paz Vega) interviews as a housekeeper for the Claskys, she finds the family gathered on a little patio, chattering away like a mad bunch of aristocrats, like the clan in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Imagine if an immigrant case study moved in with Carole Lombard — that’s what we have here. What sort of household would that be? What kind of relation would they have — the “outlier” of one culture and the norm of another, operating in different zones and languages? And imagine if, while the new party was settling in, Lombard did not respond to the realist acting, but continued being Lombard — like a surreal installation, all by herself. This impossible situation is stretched further when we realize that Flor speaks practically no English, and needs her cousin Monica to translate. What would it take to translate Carole Lombard, during one of her more incoherent rants? Monica can only shrug when it comes to interpreting Deborah’s ramble, because this woman is an abnormal speaker of American English. Not only is she distracted, but Deb contains multiple voices within herself — her conversation is full of “note to self”-style asides, such as “shut up Deborah!” Phrases are rarely finished before they’re spliced with tangential comments — and the rest of the family respond to these footnotes, complicating the exchange once again. To add to the confusion, Deborah has a habit of telling people what she’s like and how she seems, which bears little relation to her behavior: “This is me being nice,” or “I’m very loose, and meticulous at the same time.” She puts on an affable tone to say, “Let’s just talk,” but drops it as suddenly. She smiles hopefully and anxiously when Spanish is spoken — her worried eyes won’t relax until everything has been translated. One of the first words Deb offers to Flor is “booga-booga” (which can only be relayed phonetically), before launching into a speech that lasts several minutes. The entire babble is then handed over to Monica to translate — Deborah graciously waves her hand, giving permission to interpret the monologue. But this woman’s talk can’t be recorded without some form of graphic, possibly 3-D, notation.

So it’s not Spanish that is zapping past us but English: a peculiar kind of California slang that has become over-detailed and processed, cut in with pop references, old movie gossip, and the lingo of self-help books. Although Deborah’s talk is — just barely — comprehensible within her own clique, its connections are not apparent to an outsider. She inserts the ideals of therapy and group-talk into conversation, apropos of nothing: for instance, “I just needed that moment for us to build on,” as if such a comment could be meaningfully addressed. While this dizzying woman is amusing, she is also a nut-job, with her hyper-rantings about weight and crying and needs. She is constantly distressed about the fall-off from a perfect image; when she’s unable to pronounce “Flor,” she becomes hysterical, fearing this may lower her self-worth. It’s a strangely plausible performance; as anyone who has spent time with a depressive extrovert knows, being around this kind of behavior is like having a rhythm imposed on you. Life tends to be a matter of waiting for the peaks and wanes — the fluctuations in exposed moods, and treasured moments of peace. The film is especially convincing thanks to the inspired casting of Leachman as the delusional but sparkling grandmother. The relationship of Deb and Evelyn (above) is reminiscent of the one in Absolutely Fabulous, where the most interesting dynamic was actually between the middle-aged Edina and her mother: a grown woman impatiently abusing her dotty, possibly insane parent. Deborah and Evelyn are highly disoriented, dysfunctional women who strategize as a team, mapping out what’s possible given their madness.

Listening to this mob, Flor must sift through many layers of incomprehension, since the dialogue is not just banter but the communication devices of a group. It’s rare to see a movie family so convincingly connected by language — where expressions are hatched to describe or correct moods. When Deborah says to Evelyn, “Don’t go there, or I’ll go there,” her voice indicates a specific, frightening location that silences her mother immediately. Like all families, this one has its own built-in devices for preventing blow-out; John has several jingles for placating his wife (“Deb, you love me!”). Relationships are based on tacit understandings of phrases — warning tones, verbal drills, special voices used as codes — that keep the delicate chemistry in balance. Our introduction to John occurs when he asks his son if he’s “thinking seriously about getting up,” as opposed to “actual up.” This kind of specifically vague comment represents a step up for Brooks; in Broadcast News (1987), his way for characters to show their closeness was to say, “I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.” In Spanglish, the script seems far less calculated: it really comes across as the language of a household with believably eccentric corners — a group dialogue strung together by unique references.

When Deb becomes amorous after John gets a great restaurant review, the whole house knows to contain her stormy, short-lived excitement. John seems used to the practice of talking his wife through sex, carefully narrating and setting the tone (“we are so smooth”), and guiding her through a successful and productive interaction. As Deb exposes her perfect tense stomach, John delivers the ritual compliments to this “mother of two,” and wards off her customary, post-coital sadness with a couple of hushed little phrases (“Deb cheer up!” or “You had fun, I swear!”). Has he developed this vocabulary himself — or has he been instructed to support her in this way? In any case, he seems accustomed to her come-downs: her elation lasts only a minute before her face literally deflates and starts wheezing. Each person (other than Deb) appears to have a number of formulas for marking or lifting the mood. Spanglish seems most interested in the slogans a family might develop to keep things running, fondly or helplessly: the pleasantries exchanged to make sure no one’s upset — a “we’re still okay” kind of acknowledgment. The family is seen as an incubator of language devices — since these are all atypical speakers, Brooks seems to think that what they come up with might help us understand how cultural groups work.

For Flor, this is an extreme first case to deal with: to a newcomer, L.A. English presents particular challenges. One has to sort out those phrases used to narrate oneself and those used to communicate. Flor is unused to a culture in which everyone participates in an ongoing self-narration, using an ironic sitcom voice — sarcastically voicing either themselves or each other. Part of the reason John and Deb connected seems to have been these precise intonations (“Since high school we’ve been able to read each other”). Within the family, euphemisms are interspersed with emotional responses: parenting phrases are dutifully trotted out to promote an ideal of mental health.

Therefore it’s the English speakers who are untranslatable — due to the use of jargon, but also because their talk is rooted in classical Hollywood, rather than just entertainment journalism. Brooks does touch lightly on the familiar aspects of L.A. culture — glass pavilions and restaurant ratings — but the Claskys are seen as a particular case of showbiz hybrid. Brooks creates a composite of cinematic archetypes — even Flor resembles the sacrificing mothers of ’50s films — who fit together unexpectedly. More bizarrely, Evelyn trains her grandson to sing her old standards, with the appropriate degree of maudlin emotion: inviting the little boy to ape her in what is virtually a drag act. The boy happily copies this manner of world-weary disenchantment, along with his mother’s “self-help” tone — it’s not a coincidence that he’s the only character without his own voice, uttering only a few words throughout the film.

The film places a great deal of value on what Flor makes of all this, and how she expresses her reactions. Flor may be incredulous at a euphemism like “sea-glass” — a term for bits of bottles found on the shore — but Brooks is more curious about how she deals with left-field phrases and concepts (while inventing a few of her own). Spanglish, in this sense, refers to how Spanish interprets English: a foreigner’s apprehension of a crazy and consistent verbal system, generated by a charismatic mother. Paz Vega slightly overplays her role, telegraphing her misunderstanding and fiery sparks of anger; nevertheless, Flor is seen to represent a more direct relation to emotion than the other characters. When John is anxious about the worth of his daughter Bernice (above), he needs Flor to articulate his feelings. It’s “great to hear someone else say” that Bernice is fantastic, otherwise he’s unsure of his perception; this is a man who secretly believes his daughter is wonderful, despite his wife’s harping over the girl’s weight.

“Plain” speech — as in talking about actual concerns — is a problem for all the characters, but it’s especially an issue when one party is speaking in their second tongue. Before Flor learns English, the conversation tends to consist of platitudes and apologies, and smiles of good-will — a willingness to move one’s mouth when the other does. Like most foreigners, she constructs phrases out of the words “good” and “happy.” When John wants to be kind to Flor, he merely utters the word “simpatico,” which is not at all effective — it’s like his wife saying, “This is me being nice.” “Thanks” appears to be the appropriate response for a good comment — as in, thank you for saying something that intends to be polite, or that I like to hear. But even with little fluency, conversation can move past formality to genuine gratitude: John thanks Flor for a moment of connection he isn’t used to. Initially, Flor rehearses a number of English phrases to say to the family: learning remarks she can toss off “spontaneously,” and the casual tone with which to convey them. However, once these are used as a starting-point, real intimacy gets going. The film is about the interaction between different kinds of language: not only Spanish and English, but between common and unique, studied and off-hand phrases. As John and Flor grow close, he can make a remark like, “You know why,” and hit a specific, emotional target. Having spent his adult life with Deb, John is not convinced that words have any reality. He’s shocked that conversation can involve an exchange of opinions, or make actual headway; his wife’s language is enchanting but has no weight, or power of redirection.

The connection between John and Flor reflects the film’s theme of articulation and language contact. Although there is little instance of Spanglish itself (“You don’t set the barrio high”), characters speak in a slippery idiom — so that most “communication” consists of an uncomprehending half-response to language. When talking to others — whether foreigners or family — what needs to be articulated? What is implicit — and what would be patronizing to explain? For Deb, over-expression is the norm: when her marriage is in crisis, she must be physically crushed by her mother to stop talking, and limit herself to a rehearsed statement. An argument between Flor and John involves Flor’s daughter having to translate both sides; the child tries to convey all the force of the adult remarks, thumping the table when required. Talking to oneself is another form of articulation, often used by John. John doesn’t know how to address his children or colleagues, let alone non-English speakers (“That was an unusual way for me to make myself understood”). Throughout the film, we can hear him mangling his own voice — to Flor, his torment looks like Mexican soap-opera acting. Yet his creative and nonsensical use of language suddenly comes into focus when he falls in love with Flor: “They should name a gender after you . . . all of that, and you’re you.” There it is: the non-sequitur with a specific meaning, the use of vagueness to make oneself perfectly understood. When he tells Flor, “This floor is going to eat us alive” — as in, we should remain suspended in unreality — she looks back on this exchange as the “conversation of her life.” But finally, there’s the emotion that is inevitable no matter how it’s phrased, when the Claskys reach an end-point in their marriage: “I’m done tonight, Deb.”

The hilarious Leoni gives one of the best American comedy performances — she seems to have been flying during filming. Deb’s self-image is so precarious that she is anxious about being pierced by the comment of a child. After a fight, she nobly chokes back sobs; later, she displays small anxious eyes under a blanket (“I don’t exist,” “What am I going to do about me?”). Sudden rushes of confidence come when she feels she is projecting something close to her ideal. Her dramatic instincts kick in even during her confession of an affair — hiding from view, then emerging from behind the wall as a coup. However, during the confession, she becomes jealous of John’s understated response (“Are you really that much nicer than me?”). Yet one scene indicates that Deb may not be so unique. On a drive with a real estate agent, she is unable to relax due to not being “one of those girls whose hair floats perfectly in a convertible.” The agent immediately eases her distress by adjusting the windows according to the wind, allowing a smooth flow-through of hair. It’s clear that the man is seasoned at dealing with this particular genre of women, and their very exact needs.

Evelyn’s highlight comes when she watches a language program with Flor: seemingly forgetting she is a native speaker, she begins studiously reciting English, with a great effort of pronunciation — and looks pleased and contented at getting things right. This scene-snippet is worthy of the best ’30s comedies: it’s that crackling ingenuity boxed in realism. Evelyn’s strange relationship with language can be seen throughout the film: she frets over losing the punch line to an anecdote, and the children are expected to soothe her and deliver set responses to her stories.

Sandler’s lovely performance shows that his usual persona — a bullied hostility and inwardness around women — is clearly a choice. As it turns out, those frat-boy stylings convey warmth, and he has a nice relationship with the young actress who plays his klutzy daughter. However, it’s John’s look of wonder when Flor tells him she loves him that is the actor’s best-ever moment. As this magical girl blows past him, he utters a wild exclamation he never gets to finish: “What?,” or more correctly, “Whaaa . . . ?” This scene is reminiscent of Bertolucci’s Besieged (1999), in which two people keep getting disconnected images of each other, and there’s a feeling of amazement when the intangible converts itself into the real. Brooks has already established this kind of rhythm in an earlier sequence. On Flor’s first day, she is hysterically cautioned by Deb never to throw a ball at the dog. However, on one occasion, she unthinkingly tosses the ball and the dog runs to fetch it. From then on, the momentum is unstoppable: the ball is dashed, the dog turns tables; the ball is thrown at different angles, the dog jumps into new rooms. As a rhythm builds, space keeps expanding: each time a room is traversed, it seems newly accessible. Something is tossed at you, you toss it back — and yet another space opens out. The mere act of throwing something outwards results in chance and chaos entering a system. Both this ball sequence and Flor and John’s love scene have that sense of exhilaration seen in Bertolucci. It’s that feeling of: where is the other coming from? Flor and John keep moving at each other from new angles; they swerve like opposite but attached poles — reversing and aligning, and eventually, attracting. Their first real exchange occurs when Flor approaches John on his way to work; she stands on the sidewalk, working out what to say, while he sits patiently in the car. Soon, horns toot and traffic builds up as two people wait on each other to communicate — yet neither of them moves until the other is ready. This delicate sense of connection is a relief from the whirl of Deb’s speech. Throughout the film, various interpreters can only hold up their hands at the jabber she expects them to relay: in an all-too-likely scene, she interrupts a random car-washer to translate for her, assuming the man can speak Spanish.

Brooks draws attention to the different aspects of communication: for instance, what sense of people we get merely from eye movements and gestures — what they seem to intend by their looks. Flor tries to force specific meanings into her limited vocabulary; by contrast, a range of messages is sprayed out during Deb’s talk. There’s also the way we produce or limit what we hear: when Deb thinks John has been unfaithful, she needs to know everything, so that she can imagine each detail. On the other hand, John wants to hear as little about Deb’s affair as possible — but in the process, his internal dialogue spills out (“I’m trying to figure out whether there’s a way to avoid knowing”).

For John, language has never advanced a reality until now; the family has never considered the possibility that talk contains content that could affect their lives. When a family consists of a prattling mother, a grandmother who blanks out between sentences, and a housekeeper with a few rehearsed phrases of English, what kind of meanings are generated? What sort of connection is possible? The point of Spanglish is that, despite the garbled mix of tongues, a message still gets through. Occasionally, speaking means voicing one’s intention, but more often it involves grabbing an approximate phrase, while the rest gets lost in translation — or as John says, “I’m missing your words.” When John accidentally snaps at Flor, he forgets who he’s talking to: “I think I meant that for someone else.” In that moment, John has misplaced himself: he’s like a dual speaker who has forgotten his location and uttered the language of his “home” in public. The film shows how a vernacular developed within a family, a community, or a culture might “place” us in the outside world. Uttering an unexpected word launches you into a different zone and involves a degree of head-spin: thus everyone needs a moment of grounding, before starting to speak again.

  1. In South America, the frequent merging of Italian and Spanish is often described by (non-Italian-speaking) locals as “cheerful.” Praise or euphemism? You decide — but it’s interesting to see how the festive associations of multiculturalism persist in non-Western countries. []
  2. These retrospective shots of Rampling are just dazzling — resulting in one of the most gorgeous opening sequences I’ve seen. De Caunes takes the original tack of trying to overwhelm us with sheer physical beauty — not the manner in which things are photographed but a body that exists off-camera. The editing somehow launches us into the image, letting us internalize the fact of these looks. Presumably the same thing could be done with a montage of, say, Alain Delon or Nastassja Kinski — but in the case of Rampling, De Caunes highlights a beauty whose oddness has become conventional to us through repetition. This isn’t the harsh, structural Rampling, nor the hooded figure she plays for Ozon. For those of us who always perceived Rampling as a chic “ready-made,” à la Kate Moss, the film makes us respond freshly, to this mix of thoroughbred and siren. []