June 03, 2005

That's why they call it x

Last week, I finally saw Parker & Stone's Team America: World Police. Most of it had me rolling on the floor with laughter, but one exchange got me thinking about the expression that's why they call it x.

For those who haven't seen it (yet): a major theme of the movie is about how actors can be oh-so-self-important. Perhaps ironically, the hero of the movie is a stage actor named Gary that Team America has recruited specifically for his acting skills; his job is to infiltrate a terrorist cell and to "act like a terrorist" so that the Team can figure out who's planning the next big terror attack.

ANYWAY, at one point in the movie, another Team America member is temporarily fooled by an actor, so he says to Gary: "I could've sworn she was telling the truth." To which Gary replies: "That's why they call it acting." (If you're interested in the script, here it is.)

And then, as if to taunt me, I heard the very same expression again two days later on NPR, in a Weekend Edition Saturday piece on Henry Fonda (here's a link if you're interested; I'm not going to bother fetching an mp3 clip). Scott Simon was wondering aloud about the fact that Fonda's apparently distant personality (as revealed in Jane Fonda's recent autobiography) was at odds with the very close feeling one gets from his acting (or something like that) -- to which the guest film critic (Shawn Levy) replied, "That's why they call it acting."

But what does this expression mean? When the x of that's why they call it x has (or at least evokes) two somewhat different meanings, the expression makes perfect sense (to me). After playing a new piece of music for the first time and improvising a little, for example, I can imagine saying "(so) that's why they call it playing". Compounds can also be used in the expression, when the meaning of the first (non-head) member of the compound is somewhat obscured by the meaning of the compound as a whole; for example, I can imagine saying "(so) that's why they call it a root canal" when I see it being performed on Dentist TV. (Oh, does that channel not exist yet? Give it time.)

But neither of these appears to be what's going on with "acting". It's certainly not a compound, and I can't imagine what two meanings might be evoked by this word in order to produce the intended effect. To accept that it's kind of being treated like a compound -- "(so) that's why they call it acting" -- means to also accept "(so) that's why they call it painful" (after, say, having a root canal yourself. (Actually, come to think of it, that form's not so bad. I guess the fact that -ing is not quite as clearly a derivational suffix -- or at least not unambiguously so -- makes me distinguish "painful" from "acting".)

I was telling my friend Colin Wilson about the "acting" examples, and he reminded me of a similar line in the excellent 2001 David Mamet film Heist. Danny DeVito's character, Mickey Bergman, says: "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." Mamet's intended effect with this line is clear; it perfectly captures Bergman's obsession. It's as if, to Bergman, the sound of (the word) "money" is ... well, for lack of a better way to put it, synonymous with what the word means. I guess I can sort of imagine Parker & Stone toying with this idea (for obscure comedic effect, of course) in their use of the expression in Team America, but I'm less inclined to think that this was behind Shawn Levy's use. Any ideas?

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at June 3, 2005 12:30 AM