I don’t typically watch truly silly movies unless it’s just a way to spend an evening with my kid (he’s 28–this isn’t a bittersweet custody dispute sort of thing). However, on a recent flight, I watched San Andreas, the latest Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie. The title of the movie refers to the San Andreas fault, a geological blemish in the North American continent which will, one day, cause the destruction of much of California. The premise of the film is that The Rock is a helicopter rescue expert, and when his daughter disappears after the earthquake, he goes off to find her. There are a couple of hilarious scenes involving his great skill with helicopters, such as one in which he puts a helicopter in a perfectly still position (on autopilot, I guess) and rappels down to rescue someone. This is ridiculous–a helicopter is basically a bucking bronco, and it’s really difficult to get them to hover in one spot. (The book Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason, has a great description of just how hard this is to do, and how hard it is to learn to do it.)
The good thing about action movies like this, from a language learner’s perspective, is that they’re short on dialogue. That’s a bummer if you’re watching them in your native language, but if you watch them dubbed into a foreign language, it’s great. It’s super-difficult to follow a long conversation about, say, the evils of right-wing extremism in a foreign language, but it’s not that hard to follow conversations like “Hi, Dad!” “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for how I acted yesterday.” “I love you, Dad.” “Everybody get down!” In a movie like that, there’s usually some good soap-opera-type dialogue: “I assert that X.” “Are you saying that X?” “Yes, X.” (Soap operas are the language learner’s friend.) So: on a long flight across the Pacific, I watched “San Andreas,” dubbed into French.
SPOILER ALERT! We get to know The Rock’s helicopter rescue expert persona in the beginning of the movie, when he saves someone from a car that is dangling from the side of a cliff. Even very early in the movie, Zipf’s Law strikes, and we run into some words that are absolutely commonplace, but not statistically common at all:
- la bascule: scales; teeter-totter (it’s called a see-saw in many parts of the US). Remember that car? It’s hanging off the side of the sheer wall of a cliff. The cliff wall forms the side of a deep ravine. The walls are crooked on the vertical axis, so the helicopter can’t go straight down. The Rock says: on va faire la bascule: “we’re going to do ‘the bascule.'” We then see the helicopter execute a maneuver in which it slants from side to side so that the blades don’t span as much of a distance on a flat horizontal plane, and drops downwards a bit each time. It turns out that this is an actual technique for getting a helicopter into tight spaces. American helicopter pilots call it “tipping the hat.” It was invented in Vietnam, where pilots used it to get into small clearings below the jungle canopy. (I know about “tipping the hat” because on the next flight that I took after seeing “Sand Andreas” I sat next to an Air Force helicopter pilot, and we had an amusing conversation about the movie.) There are various words related to la bascule:
- basculer: to tip over, topple; swing (figuratively)
- basculer à droite/gauche: [politics] to swing to the right/left
- balance à bascule(s): scale, again
- la bagnole: [slang] car. The Rock refers to the car hanging from the cliffside as a bagnole.
- le séisme: earthquake. Obviously, this is a movie about an earthquake.
- le tremblement de terre: earthquake, again.