Ed and I had gone back to watching Billions, having forgotten why we’d given up on the third season midway through. (He doesn’t like watching Bobby Axelrod pitch deals to oligarchs, I don’t like watching Clancy Brown play Jeff Sessions.)
Anyway, we were sitting there in front of our wall-mounted TV (wall-mounted !), trying to be entertained, when John Malkovich, playing the oligarch, told a story about giving a sip of wine to a hungry little boy in a Soviet Union food line during the 1980s.
The little boy takes the wine, and now Malkovich sees, standing behind the boy, the child’s mother. “She had big breasts,” he says, “she must have known someone” (I’m quoting from memory). The events that follow are violent, so I won’t post them here.
The second part of the line had me stumped.
“She must have known someone” — did that mean the little boy was his mother’s pimp?
Was it “known” in the sexual sense?
Or was it “known” in the sense of the mother having connections that got them enough food to eat? But if that were the case, why was the little boy hungry? Why were they waiting in a food line?
I asked Ed what he thought.
He thought the story was what it was without the known-someone line; mother-pimping hadn’t entered his mind. The little boy was hungry, and the oligarch, after sharing his wine with the child, assaulted the child’s mother. That was the story.
That was the story, but it didn’t make sense of “she must have known someone.“
It turned out Ed hadn’t really registered the line, so we played the scene again. (Malkovich is riveting, by the way, but I can’t find the scene on the web, which is a shame because Malkovich’s performance is infinitely watchable. His monologue is absolutely horrifying, and he is simply playing a man talking about a memory from 40 years ago.)
Having watched the scene a second time, Ed still didn’t think there was any “pimping” involved. He didn’t know what “she must have known someone” meant, either, but he didn’t seem to think it made a difference.
I went to bed, but Ed soldiered on, and the next day he told me that the little boy in the story had turned out to be the oligarch himself.
So the little boy was the pimp?
This exchange brought home to me the fact that, in a script, all lines matter. You can’t assume you know what happened in a scene if you don’t know the meaning of a line like She had big breasts, she must have known someone.
But how many people are aware of this?
Ed’s a historian; I studied film. To me it’s obvious every line in a script counts, but did I know that before I took film classes? I bet I didn’t.
Watching plays and movies, people must blow past spoken lines they don’t understand, the same way they blow past written lines they don’t understand when they’re reading.
But here’s my question: do people even know they’re doing this?
Probably not !
This is making me feel a lot more sympathy for Common Core’s focus on close reading, I have to say.
Apropos of close reading, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a terrific book. It showed me how much meaning I miss reading fiction — how much meaning I miss that I don’t know I miss.
I plan to read it again soon.