Monday, October 11, 2010

In Which I Reference Things No One's Seen

When I'm living in the same general vicinity of Captain Film Major, my life develops a refrain: "Are you serious? You haven't seen it? Why haven't you seen anything?" Not necessarily in that order or using those exact words every time, but it happens a lot. In his version of reality, I live in a bubble and have never seen any movies.

When I'm living in the actual world, I end up saying something very strange. Namely, "Are you serious? You haven't seen it? Why haven't you seen anything?" Usually not in that order or using those exact words every time, but it happens often enough and something along those lines.

This might be because, while I haven't watched a lot of TV or movies, and the books I've read aren't always the most mainstream (I hid from Twilight for more than a year), but that's never stopped me from referencing them. I make a lot of references, as it turns out. It's gotten to the point where some of my friends have told me, "If you're about to say, 'have you watched...' or 'have you read...' just assume the answer's no."

This makes me wonder, what references can we really expect people to get? Because, quite frankly, I don't expect everyone else on the planet to understand my insane quoting of West Wing (doesn't mean I don't think everyone should watch it, by the by), and I'm coming to terms with the fact that people don't run around quoting Shakespeare (though every time I realize that I get a little sad inside), but there are some things, I think, should be universally understood.

There are some things that we all walk around expecting people to have a working knowledge of. The plots of classics, such as Romeo and Juliet (though I swear I've seen someone screw that one up). The Bible. Major historical figures. (While kids are more likely to recognize Ronald McDonald than George Washington, I think we're all agreed you should know who he is.)

Then there are some things we don't classify as "important knowledge" but everyone has and you'll be surprised if someone doesn't. For example, Harry Potter. I'm not kidding. If you're not conversant in Harry Potter (and by conversant, I don't mean my level of creepy, quote-spouting fandom, I mean knowing the plot and characters), you will be missing things in American culture. How can I prove this? I heard someone reference it on the radio yesterday, fulling expecting to be understood by all listeners. And you know what, I feel very sure he was. (I, personally, think there will be a bullet-note in History classes on the 1990-2010 mentioning the phenomenon that was Harry Potter. But that's a story for another time.)

Then there are other things, like the stuff I go on about, that you might think people should know about but won't know about when you reference them. For example, when I say, "Men and women can never be friends, because the sex thing inevitably gets in the way," I, despite my disappointment, have to accept that most people won't understand that I mean When Harry Met Sally. (And, by the way, you need to go watch that movie. It's fabulous.)

I've a whole list of references I could make that no one in the world will get. I think we all do. Inside jokes with friends. Old movies and books we've seen and read that most people haven't. Songs by indie bands that never escaped our hometowns. They're great references, I'm sure.

We just can't make 'em. Or, really, we can. But at the right times and places. Which, often, aren't our books. References that aren't dated and we can expect any reasonable person to get are definitely fair game. Any other reference, if it's too obscure, will either need to be explained, which takes a long time, or it will go over everyone's head. Either way, it defeats the point.

There are exceptions to this, of course. If you're familiar with the show NCIS (catch that reference there), one of the characters, Tony, is a film buff, and he's constantly referencing films. But, for them to pull it off, it's done in a very specific way. First of all, they make it clear that this is something specific to that character. He's the only one running around making film references. Second of all, the references are almost all explained so that the viewer can understand the reference and why it's important.

References, though, outside of context to explain their importance or made by characters who wouldn't ordinarily be able to make that reference (ie: girl who never, ever, ever watches movies making a sudden, inexplicable Cary Grant reference) won't work. They'll be missed or they'll come off as strange. And not in a good, I'm-so-fascinated way. In the what-in-the-name-of-tortilla-chips is this person doing, this makes to no sense sort of way. Not the goal.

Trust, me, I've been the girl who gets people saying what-the-tortilla-chips, I'm that girl a lot, and it usually requires more time to explain than I want to devote words in an MS to pulling off. Making references people won't be able to understand is not the best use of our time.

By the by, we have some new members with us today. Hello, all! Nice to have you here. I'm sure you'll like it. I know I do. Anway, guys, this'll be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Do you often make references people don't understand? What's your thing(s) you reference that people don't get and you wish they would? How is your knowledge of Harry Potter, When Harry Met Sally, and Cary Grant films?


  1. I tried to reference Proust's madeleines in the lab and got a bunch of blank stares. For me, it's frustrating among our fellow bloggers because we've all read such different things. I wish we could talk about more books, but I find myself relying on movies to make a point. Lord of the Rings has been something I've felt safe using as a reference. For awhile I considered suggesting a book that everyone could read as a reference, but I think even that would be unpleasant for people, given our wide variety of tastes. What to do?

  2. I don't really use a lot of references. At least I don't think I do. I'll have to pay attention now and see.

  3. When I do make references, which isn't very often, I do explain them to make sure I don't confuse anyone. A side-benefit of providing the explanation is that you might turn that somebody on to the source material. :)

  4. Domey -- I'm trying to improve my "fluency" in Lord of the Rings. It's been fun. When I was in high school, the district made a lot of effort to get everyone to read the same book so that we'd all have something in common. It didn't work as well as they'd hoped, but it's a nice idea.

    Susan -- I didn't notice either until I started running into people who didn't get the references. Sometimes we don't notice things like that until it stops working.

    DL -- True, that could be a potential side benefit.