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Ask The A.V. Club: January 11, 2008

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There Will Be Questions

My boyfriend and I recently saw There Will Be Blood, and we've had a bit of a debate ever since. [Warning: spoilers ahead.] Early in the movie, Paul Dano comes to Daniel Day Lewis' character and introduces himself as Paul Sunday. Later, Day-Lewis meets Eli, also played by Paul Dano.

My question is, did Paul Sunday exist, or was Eli simply crazy? I, personally, thought his existence was made clear when Eli attacked his father and blamed Paul for the problems the family had been having. The boyfriend, however, thought that Eli was simply crazy and that near the end of the film, when Eli tells Daniel Plainview that his investments dried up, he's talking about the money Plainview gave Paul at the beginning, in exchange for the information about the oil on the Sundays' land. So which is it? Does Paul Sunday exist? Or is it never made clear either way?



There Will Be Blood superfan Josh Modell responds:

The first time I saw it, I thought that Paul and Eli were the same person, at least until later in the movie, and that there was some sort of wink when Eli and Daniel first "met." On subsequent viewings, I think they're definitely different people, brothers. Though it is a little confusing, I can't imagine Paul Thomas Anderson doing that on purpose, leaving us hanging about the question of whether Paul Sunday is real.


Here's support for your theory that they're two different people—a Hollywood.com interview in which Anderson explains why Paul Dano plays both roles:

HW: Originally Paul Dano was only supposed to play the role of Paul Sunday, and then it was expanded for him to play Eli Sunday. Can you talk about expanding that?

PTA: We had an actor, and it didn't really work out; and we had Paul—and he was in a small part. We thought, "God, why is he in such a small part?" And then, better yet, maybe because of my obsession with East Of Eden, I thought, "Well, they've got to be twins, right?" I had actually been talking to a friend at the moment that all of this was happening, who was also telling me about his twin brother. I thought it was too good to pass up.

In addition, it's worth noting that in the official script, available online, Paul is introduced as "A YOUNG KID (Paul Sunday aged 16)," and Eli is introduced as "…a very skinny man/boy, the son: ELI SUNDAY (aged 18)." So as interesting as it is, I can't subscribe to the "Eli is crazy, there is no Paul" theory; they clearly started out as different characters, and there's nothing specific in the movie to suggest that Anderson decided otherwise.


And incidentally, the money he invested would've been the $5,000 that Plainview gave to the church after being "saved"—the promised but long-owed "down payment" on the $10,000 that Eli initially demanded for his church. (At the end of the film, Eli demands the other $5,000, with interest. You probably remember where that leads.)

The Mah Nà Mah Nà Phenomenon

I love the fact that TV commercials for Big Lots use a naggingly familiar tune that first infected my brain in childhood (where I think it involved Billy Barty running around in a green Martian suit, but maybe that's just me. Ricky Gervais did an a cappella version of it, either on The Office or as an outtake on one of the DVDs.


It goes (I know this never works) something like this: "Ma-na-ma-na! / Doo-dooo-da-dooodoo / Ma-na-ma-na!" Do you have any idea what the name of that tune is? If I call it by its true name, maybe I can make it go away.


Keith Phipps has an answer:

Sometimes it does work, especially when the chorus is just a bunch of nonsense syllables, and the person you're asking has heard them a bunch of times. The song is "Mah Nà Mah Nà," by Italian soundtrack composer Piero Umiliani. First released in 1968, it was written for the Italian film Svezia, Inferno E Paradiso (Sweden: Heaven And Hell). I've seen only clips of it, but it appears to be a documentary in the "mondo" genre that thrived in the 1960s after the success of the 1962 film Mondo Cane. Exploitative travelogues, mondo films featured "shocking" cultural practices from around the globe, often staged and always with a special emphasis on sex and violence. The form reached its terminal velocity with the Faces Of Death series, but enjoyed a short window of respectability. Mondo Cane was even up for the Palme D'Or.


But I digress. "Mah Nà Mah Nà" debuted as the accompaniment to a topless sauna scene. And here it is! But be warned, the clip cuts off before it gets NSFW:

Released as a single, Umiliani's song became a minor hit worldwide and a popular background tune for comedy shows. (Maybe even one involving Billy Barty and Martians. Who knows?) But it reached critical mass thanks to Jim Henson's Muppets, who performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sesame Street, and, most famously, The Muppet Show, where it became a number by "Mahna Mahna And The Snowths." It looked like this:

Umiliani, who died in 2001, worked tirelessly in film from the '50s through the '80s, composing music for every popular Italian genre film from spaghetti Westerns to sexploitation movies while creating lounge-y jazz on the side. A good chunk of that work has found its way to CD and online download services like eMusic and if you're a fan of film scores, especially Ennio Morricone, I can't recommend it highly enough.


Also: Mah Nà Mah Nà!

The Extra B Is For BYOBB

I have been reading Keith Phipps' Box Of Paperbacks blog entries and thinking back on the huge boxes of classic science fiction that my parents had in their garage. For a while now, I've been trying to recall the name of an essay from a collection of short stories and essays—I think it was by Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke—and over the years, in fits of curiosity and boredom, I've searched the online table of contents for every one of their collections I could find, but I can't seem to locate the essay. In it, the author describes a means of simplifying the spelling of English. He suggests that every year, a letter be removed and another re-tasked. Each time he makes the suggestion, he begins spelling that way, until it is almost impossible to read. I don't recall the name and I'm not sure of the author, any ideas?



Donna Bowman is lucky enough to have a name that's spelled perfectly sensibly:

If I were a sadist, Sean, I'd write this answer in reformed spelling, of the kind that Melville Dewey (inventor of the Dewey Decimal System) advocated. I'm sorry—that should be Melvil Dewey, since he simplified the spelling of his own first name, though he balked at changing his last to "Dui."


Dewey's efforts in the 1920s, as well as those of other famous reformists like H.G. Wells, Andrew Carnegie, and George Bernard Shaw, inspired the creation of the short-short story you remember. Titled "Meihem In Ce Klasrum," it appeared in the science-fiction periodical Astounding Stories in September 1946. The author, W.K. Lessing (writing under the pseudonym Dolton Edwards) advanced a modest proposal in which each year, the president would nominate a single spelling simplification, which would then be implemented. By eliminating useless letters and counterintuitive combinations gradually, year by year, written language would be improved at a pace that the American public could accept.

The gimmick, of course, is that the essay's spelling scheme changes every time a reform is mentioned. The first simplification is the elimination of the soft "c" (substituting "s" for all occurrences), followed by the elimination of "c" altogether (since "k" can be used for its other sound). After Lessing gets rid of double letters and instituting phonetic diphthongs, the real craziness begins:

In 1951 we would urg a greit step forward. Sins bai this taim it would hav ben four years sins anywun had usd the leter "c," we would sugest that the "National Easy Languag Wek" for 1951 be devoted to substitution of "c" for "Th." To be sur it would be som taim befor peopl would bekom akustomd to reading ceir newspapers and buks wic sutsh sentenses in cem as "Ceodor caught he had cre cousand cistls crust crough ce cik of his cumb."


By 1975, all superfluous letters would be removed from circulation. "Even Mr. Yaw, wi beliv, wud be hapi in ce noleg cad his drims fainali keim tru," the author triumphantly concludes.

You probably read the story in Isaac Asimov Presents: The Great SF Stories 8, which collected the piece as one of the best of 1946. It's understandable that the prolific master's habit of slapping his name on books he didn't actually write led you on a wild goose chase.


Versions of "Meihem In Ce Klasrum" have enjoyed renewed (if pseudepigraphous) life as e-mail forwards in recent years. One is attributed to the European Union; another purports to be the work of Mark Twain. But Cornell Kimball (or is that Kornel Kimbal?) of the Simplified Spelling Society investigated both in 2002, and find that more than likely they are rewritten versions of Lessing's original satire. (Both employ the "one reform per year" trope, and both have the same basic order of spelling changes.) The EU e-mail is a joke through and through, and the Twain piece is nowhere to be found in that author's collected writings.

If your fixation on this short story inspires you to get rid of the horrible randomness of the suffixes -able and -ible, we'll be in your debt forever, Shawn. (I assume you'll change your name so we won't all be thinking "seen" when we read it, like we do now.)


Stumped No More!

As is so often the case, we threw a lot of questions your way last week, and you came through for us:

Elizabeth was looking for a movie that "was only on around Christmas, and was about a little goblin prince (part of a clan of goblins that lived in a cave in the mountains) who really hated his nasty, evil family and wanted to be good. The goblin ran away from the mountains, met a little girl with blond braids (the entire thing was very Scandinavian) and a pair of gnomes, husband and wife with tall pointy hats—and (long story short) eventually converts to Christianity and becomes a gnome through the love of Jesus." Many people wrote in to confirm that this is The Little Troll Prince, an hourlong 1985 TV special featuring the vocal talents of Don Knotts, Cloris Leachman, Vincent Price, and Jonathan Winters, in addition to cartoon-voice staples like Frank Welker and Rob Paulsen. A little digging reveals that it was animated by Hanna-Barbera (which would explain the familiar visual style), but funded by the International Lutheran Laymens League (which would explain the overt Christian content).


You can "enjoy" music and video clips from it here:

Kirby was also looking for a kids' film, "about these little puppet people from another dimension who came to earth and stayed hidden with this girl in her house in the suburbs, where she was hiding them from her parents. The puppets looked kind of like Cabbage Patch Kids." Group consensus says this is another 1985 TV special, The Hugga Bunch. Some people who wrote in remember specific scenes that Kirby was asking about, but The A.V. Club was unable to stomach more than about 60 seconds of the damn thing to confirm it. The whole special is painfully available on YouTube, in suicide-inducing segments:

Benjamin was wondering which Star Wars book claimed that "Boba Fett slept without an alarm clock, his ninja-like abilities allowing him to rise from sleep on command." Geeky fans are split between whether this is from a story in the collection Tales From Jabba's Palace or from Tales Of The Bounty Hunters—both reportedly include Boba Fett stories. Jabba's Palace got a lot more votes as the overall source, but the only person to cite a specific story by name was "Talmanes," who thinks it's a Bounty Hunters installment called "A Barve Like That": "It's about a conversation Fett has with another person trapped in the belly of the Sarlacc. The title is a variation on the old joke about the three-legged cow, which I will not retell (as it features heavily in the story, which is surprisingly good)." If the Sarlaac-stomach thing seems familiar, Benjamin, you might start there.


Chris said, "I remember catching the tail end of a science-fiction movie (possibly a short piece) featuring a man playing a futuristic game of chess on a glass board with stylized chrome geometric laser-firing tank-like pieces. He was playing said game against a kind of apelike alien who, when beaten, screamed horribly, and the bearded human protagonist was beamed outside of some kind of pyramid. It was that weird." Board commentator Chris S pointed us to "Quest," a short film "directed in 1983 by Saul and Elaine Bass. Yes, the Saul Bass of countless movie title sequences and corporate logos. It was based on a short story by Ray Bradbury and even features Barrett Oliver of The Neverending Story fame in a small role." He even kindly provided the relevant footage via YouTube. Way to go, Chris. And way to go, Ray Bradbury, still the reigning source of Ask The A.V. Club questions.

Next week: Star, or porn star? Plus reasons to care about producers. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.