Tuesday, December 25, 2007

“A Star-Making Turn”

I guess this is my week for movies and linguistics. I just saw Juno and while being completely smitten by the movie I couldn’t help but think of the cliché that this is a “star-making turn” for its young star, Ellen Page. Before turning myself towards that construction, I want to say that Juno is one of the best comedies to come out in years. Its author, Diablo Cody, has a back story worthy of its own screenplay, but you can Google around yourself to follow-up on that. The characters have dialogue that snaps in the fashion of classic noir and screwball comedies and the cast is exceptional. Though it’s somewhat in the same genre as the disappointingly vacuous film Waitress, it’s a lot snappier and smarter; if you’re a fan of the recent great neo-noir film Brick you’ll probably love Juno.

Now, on to linguistics: As I thought about the construction “a star-making turn” I thought it was an unusual NP and I wasn’t sure why, but it has something to do with the metaphorical mapping of turns coupled with the ambiguity of the adjective “star-making”.

To begin, I Googled the phrase a bit to confirm my intuition that this construction is most common to entertainment news, and that seems to be true as these few examples should attest:

--Lily Allen Plots U.S. Takeover, Ben Gibbard Plans Star-Making Turn In Geeky Flick and More
--…including his star-making turn in the sleeper hit comedy,
--Rudy Giuliani's star-making turn in "Monsters Attack Manhattan

Then I wanted to see what, if anything, could replace star, so I got the following Google results:

42,400 for "a * making turn"
205,000 for "an * making turn"

There are few variants for “star”, although “epoch” came up more than I could have predicted and “career” appeared too, but I was surprised to find one use of match-making turn (this will turn out to be quite an instructive example).

epoch-making turn
--This is an epoch-making turn for Iran
--Then came an epoch-making turn in the history of student politics from 1966.
--Classical economists' emphasis on labor was certainly an epoch-making turn if one thinks about it.
--The appearance of our first book triggered an epoch-making turn in the Japanese media's treatment of homosexuals.
--These have been composed at various times and languages, each at an epoch-making turn in the long history of the religion.

career-making turn
--an actress' career-making turn

match-making turn
Humming to himself an air from "Faust" no one would have thought that he was deliberately contemplating doing a match-making turn, but certain it is that his brain was busy devising means of suggesting to Arthur what a splendid girl Martha was.

I believe that match-making turn above is a different use than star-making, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The head noun turn can be used to mean either of the following:

1) A change in direction (making a left turn)
2) The opportunity to do something (to take a turn Xing)

In the case of (1), the turn would presumably refer to an anonymous actor turning from the path of anonymity to the path of fame. The case of (2), however, is more complicated: there would seem to be a metaphorical mapping to the concept of a person X taking a turn doing Y, in the case where Y causes the performer of the turn to become a kind of Z (I suspect that Z must be some kind of category name). But is it inherent in the act of Ying that one becomes a Z, or is it a special case that this time around in the otherwise ordinary and banal performance of Ying, X happened to become a Z?

Let me put it this way: imagine I formed two lines of people.

· In line A, each person steps up and got a turn starring in a movie, but the movies are mostly dull and ordinary and few people ever see them, but one in a thousand make the actor famous. Line A is easy to get into and is quite long.

· In line B, each person steps up and gets a turn starring in a movie that is guaranteed to make the actor a star (I’m very choosey about whom I allow to stand in line B).

So, in using the phrase “a star-making turn”, are critics saying that an actor is in line A or line B? (a similar ambiguity exists in (1) as well, as far as I can tell). This could be stated as a structural attachment ambiguity of the phrase “star-making”. Is it (a) or (b) below:

a) [[star-making]ADJ[turn]N]NP

b) [star-making-turn]N

There is now the contrast between “a star-making turn” and a “match-making turn”. They require quite different mappings, don’t they? Whereas a “star-making turn” causes the performer of the turn to become a kind of star, a “match-making turn” does NOT cause the performer of the turn to become a kind of match.

I remember a friend of mine years ago saying something to the effect you linguists make language more complicated than it really is. Well, that may be the case. Language may indeed be primal and simple. But it remains the case that in reading the phrase “a star-making turn”, we all somehow navigate multiple metaphorical mappings and structural ambiguity. How exactly that is done remains a mystery.

Now go see Juno. It’s an adorable frikkin movie.

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