Saturday, 4 April 2015

Ousiastic Metaphor in Early Cinema

I expect most readers know what a metaphor is. But ‘Ousiastic’? Well I admit I just made the word up, though I felt confident it must already exist. However I find it’s not in the Oxford Dictionary. I derived it from the Greek ‘Ousia’ which means ‘substance’, so if something is ‘ousiastic’ it’s an actual thing, and not ‘merely’ an idea or some other abstract entity. Now a metaphor is something verbal; we might be talking or writing about actual things, but the metaphors we use are figures of speech. By  ‘Ousiastic Metaphor’ I mean using an actual thing in place of some other thing that we can’t or won’t use.

Slipping on a banana-skin was a trope of early silent comedy films. Some chap is strolling along the street and suddenly he whips out a banana, eats it, and tosses the skin over his shoulder. Someone else comes along, steps on it, and falls over. This joke became standard and was repeated right up to the days of Woody Allen: in one of his films there are giant bananas, about six foot long, and sure enough Woody Allen eats one and drops the skin, and we are all laughing proleptically because we know that any second his pursuers will slip on it.

But hold on: how often, in real life, do people eat bananas in the street, and then toss the skin down? How often do people then slip on them? Are banana skins notoriously slippery? (No, they’re not actually: try to slip on one.) What is slippery and often found on pavements is something else entirely: dog shit. People regularly stand in it and often slip over. But dog or indeed any kind of shit, like primary and even secondary sexual organs, are things whose existence the Great American Public prefers not to acknowledge; only very advanced modern films allow them.

So there you are: the old silent comedies used banana-skins as an ousiastic metaphor for dog shit.

(The difficult-to-make-out black and white picture is a still from a Harold Lloyd film, said to show the first recorded example of the banana-skin joke.)

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