Sunday, January 2, 2011

When androids dream of electric McGuffins

'Sense and Sensibility' is a meaningless title, it just more or less means the same thing twice. This was not always so.

It seems to be that 'Sensibility' used to mean something more akin to 'Sensitivity' and vice versa.*, so the title of the Jane Austen novel: 'Sense and Sensibility' would be more readily comprehensible in modern English if it were re-named 'Sense and Sensitivity'.( One sister is all prudent and careful-like: 'Sense', and the other is all about emotions feelings: 'Sensitivity').

Why and how the words 'Sensible' and 'Sensitive' so dramatically changed meanings since the 1800's ,I have no idea. But they definitely did, and they retain their original meaning in their French, Spanish and Italian counterparts; leading to occasional confusion.*

I'm only bringing it up today to demonstrate that I am aware that words can dramatically change their meaning over a fairly short period of time.

So, you may ask; if I can accept that language is organic and fluid, and that words change meaning over time; can I ever accuse anyone of using a word 'incorrectly',- simply because they attribute a different meaning to it?

Yep. I think I can.

I mean, I think dictionaries are there for a reason: it's all well and good for language to develop, but I do think we should take some pains to slow down this process.
We should slow it down as much as possible so that language maintains it's comprehensibility for as long as possible. We should resist the temptation to happily bounce along tolerating lazy writing, just because it feels less formal.

Don'tcha think?

Getting back to Jane Austen again, isn't it wonderful that we can read something as bitchy and as perfect as:

"Elinor agreed with it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition."

and understand it perfectly?

So I wish today to discuss the sad corruption of one the loveliest elements in the modern story makers' jargon; the 'McGuffin'.

We all know what a McGuffin is, right?
Well at least we've all heard of one ,No?
Well at least the term is half-way familiar, Yes?

Oh sod it. Okay books and films and plays and comics have stories, and, as well as 'lost love' and 'personal relationships' and 'punishment from the gods for saying or doing something silly in the first act', sometimes stories have 'McGuffins'.

The McGuffin is the name for a story element coined by Alfred Hitchcock, the importance of the McGuffin lies usually in its' perceived importance; a McGuffin is... a McGuffin should be....ummm they get the figs and they get the dough and they kind of....

Oh never mind: here's a couple of definitions culled from the electric tube omni-brain we call the web:

"a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction"
^ MacGuffin, Princeton University, WordNet 3.0

" a device or plot element that catches the viewer’s attention or drives the plot. It is generally something that every character is concerned with."

"a term for a PlotEnablingDevice, i.e., a device or plot element in a movie that is deliberately placed to catch the viewer's attention and/or drive the logic of the plot, but which actually serves no further purpose - it won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. More specifically, it is usually a mysterious package or superweapon or something that everyone in the story is chasing."

Main Entry: McGuffin
Part of Speech: n
Definition: in film, a plot device that has no specific meaning or purpose other than to advance the story; any situation that motivates the action of a film either artificially or substantively; also written MacGuffin
Etymology: Alfred Hitchcock's term, based on a story where this device was used in a story set on a Scottish train
^'s 21st Century Lexicon

I could get more but I'm sure that basically you get it by now.I'm also sure that you've noticed that definitions of this word fall into two types: a general one and a specific one, and that these differ on one important point,i.e. is a McGuffin a catch-all term for all plot devices such as diamonds, the microfilm, unobtainium e.t.c.? - or does it only refer things which are of great importance to the characters and seem very important to the audience but whose real function is to give us a shared focus of the story; to qualify for true Mcguffin status, must they invariably transpire to be not that important at all?

A dictionary will not help us here.

Consider what the man himself had to say about it:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers "Oh that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?". "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers "Well, then that's no McGuffin!".

So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all..."

Oh Hitch, you lovable old gas-bag. Only you could be so maddeningly enigmatic and so completely specific at the same time. Don't give us such a great word and such a central term to your whole philosophy of storytelling and then tell us that it means nothing at all! Unless...

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what I believe to be of paramount importance in this anecdote, is the setting. Why? I ask you, did Alfred set his illustrative parable on board a train? Perhaps you feel that it's for no other reason than that's as good a place as any for strangers to discuss luggage. You may be right.
I do not concur.
Let us listen to the evidence again and consider the setting and the interchange in situ:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers "Oh that's a McGuffin".

Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack,...

The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?". "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands".

Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack,...

The first man says "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands",
and the other one answers

"Well, then: that's no McGuffin!"

Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack, Clackety-clack,...

Whistle and steam

The train enters a tunnel and the carraige is plunged into darkness.

When it emerges back into the light, the scotsman, his package and his interrogative companion are nowhere to be seen: in their stead, a portly middle aged man in a black suit with a large bow fiddle case. He undoes the clasps on the case and opens it revealing... nothing.Not even a bow fiddle. He turns, looks directly into the camera and with a dead-pan expression says:

"So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all..."

Okay so I overdid it on the end bit, so really just consider the MacGuffin as far as the tunnel. From the time that our Caledonian traveller places his strange parcel on the rack it becomes the focus of the story.
We are then told a name and we get to wonder what the name means. We anticipate new knowledge, and not until we hit that tunnel are we aware that we've simply met a Scotsman who has a roundabout way of telling people to mind their own business.

It matters not a jot.

Why? Because simply speculating on the elusive McGuffin has already taken us miles into our journey.

That, as I see it, is the true nature of the Hitchcockian McGuffin. To simply lend an interest and focus as the story begins; simply to get us past those first few train stations,past the suburbs and deepinto unknown territory.

With this in mind as a McGuffin we can see what a perfect example we have in Psycho. A woman steals money and skips town. The audience wonder:'Will she get away with it?', 'Will she just bring it back?','Will she get caught?', nobody wonders 'Will she get chopped up in the shower by a maniac transvestite when she's taking a shower?'
This is because we are every bit as distracted the McGuffin, as the traveller was intrigued by the parcel.

It's like telling someone to pay specific attention to the fact that 'T.S. Eliot' is an anagram of 'toilets', and that when T.S. Eliot described the the ‘meaning’ of a poem - he compared it to a bone thrown by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind while the poem goes about its own, deeper business: he was describing a McGuffin and the anagram of his name is of no importance.

I hope I have gone someway to illustrate the McGuffin as I interpret it and why I believe it is erroneous of George Lucas to describe the plans for the Death Star as a McGuffin.

And why neither the ark or the crystal skull or the holy grails are McGuffins no matter what Harrison Ford claims.

Hitchcock left us with a parable, not a definition, so the borders of McGuffindom are hard to patrol; between diamonds, rosebud, secret formulae and letters of transit there are a lot of maybes and few 'pure' examples of what he was getting at, but one thing I am sure of:

Death Star plans aint it. Whatever the man on the train was up to, he wasn't looking for Ould Ben Kenobi.

It can be argued that McGuffin has been so widely mis-used for so long that the word no longer actually means what it meant and that it has now gone the way of 'sensibility'.

If this is true, I can think of nothing more tragic: the loss of a great word, from a great man, for a great concept

and a victory to ignorant indifference.

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