He was seeing this anthropologist, but…

Ambiguity in screen comedy:

In film ambiguity is something that happens in acting not in dialogue. They say things that are lies but they are at least direct while they are doing it. They will tell you that they did not kill the man, but their eyes will tell you otherwise. This is not ambiguous, you are told what to think. Even the supposed sexual ambiguity of many characters in films is not that ambiguous. It does occasionally happen that characters in film are played in a camp manner and no direct dialogue suggests their sexuality either way but this is generally less about ambiguity and more about deniability. This occurs when a nervous director wants to introduce a moderately gay character but be able to deny it if the studios call him up.

Occasionally there are genuine cases of ambiguity of this nature, the two leading men in Hitchcock’s Rope are supposedly bi-sexual, although there is no evidence in the dialogue to support this. These supposed ambiguities are hard to pinpoint because they are all in the acting style and therefore totally dependant on interpretation. Hence the claim that this is all about deniability. But very rarely do you find true ambiguity in film; dialogue that is vague in its meaning. Here is an example of it from Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s comedy When Harry Met Sally.

Sally Albright (Meg Ryan): Is Harry bringing anybody to the wedding?
Marie (Carrie Fisher): I don’t think so.
Sally Albright: Is he seeing anybody?
Marie: He was seeing this anthropologist, but…
Sally Albright: What’s she look like?
Marie: Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.

There may appear to you to be no ambiguity here, and the reason you may think this is behind why dialogue ambiguity is so hard to spot. If something is ambiguous then it naturally causes people to understand one of the various meanings. People naturally see one meaning and ignore the alternative.

The ambiguity comes in the last line, “Your basic nightmare”. To understand this you have to understand what has happened during the film up until this point. Harry and Sally have argued and have been unable to remain good friends. They are both seeing different people and Sally appears not to mind. Marie probably doesn’t believe that Sally is really over Harry. The ambiguity lies in whether Marie is confronting Sally over this denial or not. If she is confronting her then she is saying that this is your nightmare because he is seeing somebody who is attractive. But she could just as easily be saying that women who are thin, pretty and who have big tits are a nightmare; perhaps because they are so vain. The ambiguity which is neither addressed in the dialogue or the direction is over the possibility of confrontation.

Of course this is a very obscure and unimportant case of ambiguity, but I believe that this is because dialogue ambiguity is so very rare. I challenge you to find a better case.

Anyway, here for your entertainment is one more quote from the film:

Harry Burns (Billy Crystal): The fact that you’re not answering leads me to believe that (a) You’re not home, (b) You’re home but you don’t want to talk to me, or (c) You’re home, desperately want to talk to me, but you’re trapped under something heavy. If it’s either (a) or (c), please give me a call.

Perhaps this too is ambiguous, the question is, what could be the heavy object to which he’s referring? Perhaps it is the wagon wheel.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal look on while Bruno Kirby drags out his wagon wheel.

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