Cute as a Button in the Eye
Posted by Neal on February 20, 2009
We went to see Coraline last week. It’s an OK movie; it does a good job at setting a creepy mood, but even by its own internal logic, it doesn’t quite make sense (unlike, for example, Monsters, Inc. or the Toy Story movies). One of the best scenes has Coraline’s “Other Father” in a parallel world improvising a song in her honor. It’s an upbeat, catchy melody, which I learned in the end credits was written and performed by They Might Be Giants (you know, the guys who did “(You’re Not the) Boss of Me“). Here, see for yourself:
If you’ve seen the movie, or even just the previews (or read the graphic novel the movie is based on), you know that one of the unsettling details of the parallel world that Coraline visits is that all its inhabitants have buttons instead of eyes. They Might Be Giants have cleverly alluded to this fact in the line that goes:
She’s cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline.
I love the syntactic ambiguity here. More specifically, it’s an attachment ambiguity. In the normal reading, the prepositional phrase in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline functions as a sentential adverb, modifying the sentence She’s as cute as a button, as shown in the diagram on the right.
However, anyone who has been watching the movie up to this point is well primed to parse the prepositional phrase as modifying the noun button, as illustrated in the diagram on the left. Ordinarily this parse would be unconsciously discarded, in the same way as we’d never even think about parsing Kim disassembled the TV with a flat screen to mean that Kim used a flat screen to disassemble the TV. But in the context of the movie, both parses are salient, and both make sense (as long as you’re willing to stretch the meaning of in to include in place of, or on if you imagine the buttons to be placed on top of the eyes).
The only flaw in the exploited ambiguity is the clash between the singular a button and the plural the eyes. It’s hard, even impossible I’d say, to get a wide-scope reading of the eyes, so that we’re talking about one button for each eye. I keep thinking about a single button that is somehow in (place of) both eyes at once. That’s an extragrammatical correction you just have to grant in the name of artistic license.
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