Sunday, August 8, 2010

Moments of Revelation

There's a certain kind of horrifying moment that I love/dread in movies and TV shows, and was reminded of this seeing a great one in the Swedish movie of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Don't worry -- it's not pictured here -- and I won't give the plot away.)

It comes during a calm, silent close-up of journalist Mikael Blomkvist as he realizes everything he thought he'd figured out was wrong. It's subtle, sublime work by the actor (confusingly named Michael Nyqvist) and it reminded me of some of my favorite other moments of realization, when a character catches up with the audience (or they realize something simultaneously.)

I recently have rewatched a lot of Hitchcock with my daughters, who are just the right age, and there's always a great one (or more) in his movies, but none came close to the shot in Rear Window [right] when Raymond Burr looks up at the spying Jimmy Stewart. (My kids shrieked so loud I think Hitchcock heard them.)

One of my favorites is in The Shining, [left] when Shelley Duvall finally examines the novel that her husband (Jack Nicholson) has been writing so diligently, only to find it's the same chilling phrase, over and over, typed in endless variations.

Well, of course suspense and horror movies are going to have these moments. But two of my earliest memories of this kind of moment come from comedies. And I realize the laughter stems from the same anxiety as the scream.

There's a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Rabbit Hood, in which his object of torment, instead of Elmer or Daffy or Porky, is the Sheriff of Nottingham. At one point, Bugs runs into the Royal Garden, and the Sheriff berates him. In a few swift leaps, Bugs is suddenly tricking the Sheriff into purchasing the property to build a house on. We cut to the Sheriff merrily hammering away at the framework, then he slowly comes to a halt and turns to the camera. He realizes he's been had....and promptly hits himself on the head with the hammer, screaming "I hate myself!" We're on Bugs' side, and delight in the protracted dawning of the comeuppance.

The more complex, genius comedic moment-of-shit that remains iconic in my memory is Jackie Gleason playing Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners episode "The $99,000 Answer." Because while Gleason is the star, unlike Bugs (more like Daffy), he's also the butt of everything.

Ralph gets to be on a "Name That Tune"-style quiz show, and he is convinced he will win it all and move to Park Avenue. He practices relentlessly, driving everyone else crazy. His test pianist is Ed Norton (Art Carney), who brings in a pile of sheet music and, true to his own eccentricity, prefaces every song with the same annoying introduction. Finally Ralph screams at him to stop.

Ralph is cocky as he opens his appearance on the show, bragging he's going to go all the way. Then the very first question -- "Who is the composer of 'Swanee River' -- stumps him. To help, the show plays the first few bars: it's the tune Norton had been playing as an intro. Ralph [left] has the moment of realization: he has no idea. He stammers, sweats, and finally croaks out, "Ed Norton?" 

Why does this still tickle and haunt me all these years later? I guess for the same reason that moment in Dragon Tattoo struck a chord. We all want to be the smartest guy in the room and we shudder with recognition when we realize that despite all our hard work (or hubris), we may have missed the obvious.


Sal Nunziato said...

Really great piece, David.

I watch "Rear Window" the way people play favorite albums. I couldn't agree more, re: the scene. After countless viewings, I still freeze when Burr sees Grace Kelly pointing to the ring on her finger.

How about in Godfather 2, when Fredo is entertaining Michael and crew in Cuba and he tosses off Johnny Ola's name? The look on Michael's face when he realizes he was betrayed by his own brother is a killer.

Matt H. said...

Your thesis is clearly spot-on for me, as I have a clear recollection of each and every one of your examples, quickly remembering the "moment" in the oldies as soon as you introduced the scene/movie... yet your writing still makes it fun and, like the classics, wanting to read on and re-experience it through your words!

Carl said...

You forgot the one where Gregory Peck pulls Damien's hair aside and reads the little "666" on his head. I remember you were sitting with me at the theater, because 5 seconds later I jumped into your lap.

David Handelman said...

@ Sal -- yes, I should have put in the "What are your favorites" tease to stir more discussion.

@Carl -- if what you say is accurate I probably blocked out the whole experience. But also, I don't think that movie holds up today, does it? I saw a bit of it on TV and, like the Exorcist, it seemed.....silly.

David said...

nicely observed. It's not the same thing really, but for small worldness I'll say that I just finished the first season of Slings & Arrows (finally, thanks to Netflix on demand) and really appreciated Mark's very subtle acting in the scene where his evil girlfriend tells him to eat up because he's looking scrawny and pale. A weird turning point for him and the audience, tho of course we've been way ahead of him in realizing how awful she is ...

I do believe that the question of whether the audience is ahead of or behind the story is 1/2 the game in telling all kinds of stories. and you're right that one thing that makes these scenes so effective is when you catch up at exactly the same time as the protagonist.

I've noticed that in stories with some big reveal of a hoax or turn, shortly before that point you the viewer often start saying to yourself "boy, this movie is really unbelievable/bad." I think it was Sixth Sense where that first gelled for me. But back to your Hitchcock, it may be that Vertigo is the greatest messing-with-your-mind in exactly that way ...

While I'm rambling I'll say that I wanted to do a Shining tribute in Advise & Dissent: the day Miers resigned, her follow-up documentation had just been delivered to the Senate (since her first round of paperwork was so lame). What was in those boxes? I pictured Specter a la Wendy opening them up to find page upon page of "All work and no play makes Harriet a dull girl," with exactly that low-angle shot of him with the growing horror/realization on his face ...