recurring images we may not need

by Sara Gran

Image by kevindooley via Flickr

I was talking with some friends the other day about these recurring images I’ve noticed in movies over the past few years, and what they might mean. The strongest recurring image is the vomiting scene. I would say over 90% of movies made within the last, say, four years have at least one scene of a person vomiting, loudly. The sound seems to be a part of the phenomena. When did vomiting become so appealing? I used to work in this building where people would always fight about the garbage–who’s dumpster was who’s, what night which garbage went were, what went to the various garbage outlets. And my brilliant co-worker (Hi Carolyn! Are you out there?) said well, elimination is a very deep issue. So maybe that’s part of the vomiting issue. I also wonder if it has to do with “not swallowing” something. But what are we not swallowing? What is it that we just can’t stomach?

Another image, one that’s waning in movies but still going strong on tv, is this: someone sets a match, timer, or other gimmick to blow something up. Person walks away from incendiary device. Huge explosion follows. Our hero walks away, explosion in the background, without breaking stride or looking back. This one is a bit more obvious, and I think it’s even been poked fun at in a few parodies. But I still think it’s a fascinating image. Why the complete lack of response to the explosion? Why a refusal to even glance back? And these scenes are nearly always physical impossibilities–the hero is usually way too close to the explosion not to get burned, but he never does.

The last one is one I’ve seen in a lot trailers lately–I noticed it in trailers for the new harry potter movie, for example. This is a design element where, behind the titles or credits, there’s a kind of big roiling black smoky somethingness–a weather system or fire or smoke incident that involves big round black cloud-like things rolling around. It’s a very dark image. It’s a bit reminiscent of the giant clouds of dust created when the towers fell down, but in shades of black.

I wonder if these images have something to with the fact that we’ve been at war for like ten years? What do you think? I don’t have any strong opinions here, but I’m curious to hear what others think.

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21 Comments to “recurring images we may not need”

  1. Sara I can’t come up with anything intelligent re the puking. However I score films and in thinking about it, two of the three films I had in Sundance this year had a puking scene. In the mix on one occasion, the producer says, “Let’s have that puke audio LOUDER!! I want people to really FEEL it!” Now, the film is a smartish Paul Rudd driven light comedy, and the scene depicted actor Zooey Deschenel throwing up because she was pregnant and had morning sickness, it wasn’t like it was this REQUIEM FOR A DREAM attempted all-out assault on your senses.

    On this other issue, I do hope you’ve seen this clip re dudes walking-away-without-turning-around-having-blown-up-something-in-slo-mo because it’s brilliant, and it features not only Will Farrell’s Neil Diamond, but also the creator of LOST rocking an amazing keyboard solo :

    And I will say re the ominous dust-cloud thing: there are certain “template” or stock CGI effects that are pretty easy and cheap to just have generated and stick in your movie. Studios understand that the audience recognizes these on a reptile brain level and knows the reaction they’ll get. The audience goes to blockbusters expecting, demanding really, this kind of stuff. One other example of such an effect, is the army-of-zombies-swarming-over-the-hill ala THE SCORPION KING or LORD OF THE RINGS… know, the hero and his people hear a far off sound and slowly turn to look yonder, the camera pulls in, uh oh! “This….cannot be good…” says the hero and then you’ve got the zombies or orcs or whatever swarming over the hill and it’s like wow look at all those zombies! But the fact is it’s a pretty stock computer algorithm, much like the dark cloud amassing, with lots of spooky interior movement, is that a face?? etc….and in my opinion this is laziness on the part of the filmmakers and investors playing it safe with the multiplex. “Do one of those “army comes over the hill” things! Blow everyone’s mind! Make it look IMPOSSIBLE!” But I’m sure there is some sort of Jungian thing at work as well, not to take away from that. I’m just saying these images no longer possess any real power whatsoever.

    But this reminds me a bit of 9/11 (i’m not going to go into a 9/11 story BUT)…I was working down there in like October of 2001 at a place that served the rescue workers food, blah blah blah, and I remember walking out of the joint one night, about maybe 9pm, looking at “ground zero” and thinking shit this looks like DIE HARD 6, the part where they blow up the World Trade Center and Bruce Willis’s wife is stuck down in the subway station etc etc, the film they had to shelve because it would be too difficult for people…it looked totally overdone, and well, fake! We’re so accustomed to seeing these computer-generated images the only way for my brain to process this sight was to make that association.

    Another interesting aspect of this is that the film “community” pitched in with most of those huge floodlights, so ground zero work could continue at night, so the area had truly been “lit” by film people in a very real way.

    anyway great post!! thanks

    • That will ferrell video is brilliant, thank you! I see it’s from 2009, so my observations are a bit dated. It’s interesting to hear how these little tidbits actually work their way into movies, like the producer wanting louder vomiting and the ease of these things on CGI. But what exactly IS IT that they’re recognizing on that reptilian level? Just the image as it relates to other films, and summons that memory? Or something more? Wow, I didn’t know that about the floodlights at ground zero. I do remember the military vehicles around manhattan and feeling like it looked like a movie–and that’s what worries me slightly about this stuff is it does seem that the images we see over and over we tend to make real in some way. And I don’t want to vomit a lot or die a big black scary cloud! Walking away from the explosion might be OK, though. Thank you for your interesting thoughts!

  2. You know what else has vomiting in it? Every short story written for a college class, it turns out!

  3. Ha, thanks Sara!

    I think it would be super hard to walk away from explosion and not want to look back at it and, you know, make sure everything that you wanted to blow up actually blew up, right?

    No indeed I’m sure these specific images you mention are archtypical (sp??) stuff, we know they affect people profoundly, it’s just now we’ve seen them a zillion times it’s kind of a sad thing that we tend to get numb to their power and purpose.

    Of course we fetish-ize food and eating and vomiting and being fat and anorexic, there are reality shows aplenty to bear this out. The dramatized vomiting thing probably started out as a means to humanize a character, or to indicate that they’ve fallen so far into their own personal hell that here they are vomiting! That seems more easily understood, I don’t know…..the vomiting in the Exorcist was kinda fun tho!

    Back with the film thing, I think we can’t yet know the CGI is going to do to the human imagination, it’s pretty weird to me that I might go and see something like INCEPTION, which in premise sounds trippy and great, but when you actually watch the streets of Paris folding up on you like a California roll there’s something (at least for me) that goes ah they programmed that, that’s an interesting idea and they executed it pretty well, but there’s nothing visceral or frightening about it, and there really should be.

    Not to be fusty but of course when Orson Welles didn’t have a set he propped up a lamppost and an overhead light and fogged everything else out, it’s so much more effective because your brain fills in the details. Or the PSYCHO shower scene, it’s what you don’t see. Like the whole problem with “monster” horror film, once the monster gets revealed the movie is basically over.

    As for why these images are repeated, there’s the laziness factor (it worked in this context, let’s just keep doing it). On a more sinister level, and this is slightly tangential but still relevant I think, we have this militarized society here, and there’s no doubt in my mind, especially in the early years of this century that TV shows like 24 and certain action films depicted torture and other repulsive, basically immoral (and illegal) behaviors to prep the masses, the message is hey Jack Bauer is just doing his job cos if he doesn’t torture this terrorist guy Los Angeles will blow up and they have his daughter and what can he do? But I really do think these devices made horrors like Abu Ghraib have far less of an emotional impact. I think the imagery in these shows went a long way for clearing a path for pigs like Cheney to sit there and say waterboarding is fantastic and saves lives. And this is beyond tragic and is so deeply ingrained at this point that it’s hard to say where we go from here….

    Nightmares should in a sense be allowed to stay in the realm of the dreamer, their value is cheapened by depicting them in a generic/ standardized manner, in a massmarket context.

    I don’t know if these are good points but thanks for raising this stuff Sara!!!

  4. What are some images from noir films of the postwar era that we reckon effectively reflected cold war paranoia, that were a reaction to the creepy and totally imaginary FATHER KNOWS BEST 50s kind of thing? And in what way did they become a cliche, and therefore lose their effectiveness? I don’t know why I’m harping on movies…..

    • Very funny you should ask! one of the friends I was talking about this with, the brilliant writer/filmmaker Monica Nolan, who did our guest post on lesbian pul fiction a few weeks back, recommended a book to me on exactly that topic: Running Away Form Myself, by Barbara Deming. I might be getting the details wrong, but I think she got a grant from the library of congress to do exactly that–go to movies in the forties and note recurring images (what a job!).

      To me the ultimate moment in those creepy 50s noirs is what I think of as the Threshold Moment–when the hero has a choice to make: step into the mansion witch the monkey funeral or continue on? Take the case or walk away? It’s almost as if it’s a world where one wrong choice can drop you into this paralell universe…speaking of which, I’m off to the film noir fest now! Nathan, what do you think?

  5. They’re really good points! I do feel there’s a degree to which seeing this stuff on film numbs us from reacting appropriately in real life. On a smaller scale, I think you see this with all the law & order type shows–everyone seems to think their neighbor is a serial rapist now, and they can’t let the kids play outdoors at night. “Nightmares should in a sense be allowed to stay in the realm of the dreamer, their value is cheapened by depicting them in a generic/ standardized manner, in a massmarket context.” I think that’s brilliant! I think that was part of what was wrong (to my mind) about inception–among other things, there was too much logic in the dream sequences (and the cgi, as you mention–dreams aren’t that clear!)

    It’s funny, I wonder if the cool-guys-don’t-look-at-explosions thing is about just that–knowing that you did a good job, instead of the constant insecurity, doubt, and self-hatred most of deal with constantly. Maybe the explosion is just the best way to visually represent that self-assurance that we all think everyone else has?

  6. I can’t watch vomiting scenes. [I was going to say I can’t stomach them, but I’m above that.] Having said that, the marionette vomiting scene in “Team America: World Police” had me laughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe. And there’s Mr. Creosote.
    I think it’s become the cliche in movies to show how real the actor is being. On the other hand, since they’re spewing fake vomit, it tends to make me think, Gee, that looks fake, so it has the opposite effect most of the time.
    As for walking away from an explosion — a brilliant moment of black comedy with Heath Ledger’s Joker walking away and triggering explosions via a handheld device. It doesn’t work for a moment; he looks at it, puzzled, slaps it hard, the explosion goes off behind him, and he gives a slight, satisfied nod. Worth the Oscar right there.

  7. ha yes, the cool guys don’t look at explosions thing is all about being so positive that you’ve done an amazing job blowing up something, you have no reason to second guess yourself and therefore mentally you’re already on to solving the next problem by the time the actual explosion occurs. Why should you bother to actually look at it? You already know it’s awesome cos you’re the best there is!

    That actually sounds like a fantastic job Barbara D has! Imagine, they can’t possibly still be giving out grants like that! What is this, Sweden? How does such stuff advance our American interests?

    Creepily though it reminds me of a study I hear about, now I have no source for this on hand, but I’m told the Pentagon did a lot of research on music listened to by soldiers post-Vietnam, as somebody in the military command got the idea that all this hippie protest stuff was killing morale, or rather killing the desire to kill….the end result of which is that now we have this tank (called a Stryker, seriously!) they using in Irag and Afghanistan that apparently comes with a interior Bose surround stereo system and an MP3 menu programmed by the military themselves, consisting only of music shown to get people psyched to shoot other people, ie BURN MOTHEFUCKER BURN, rap-metal kind of stuff.

    Yeah that’s certainly an iconic moment in noir film, take the case or walk away….let me think on some other images that always pop up and what they might mean

    • The Stryker, like many Army vehicles, is named in honor of someone. No, it is not named after Jeff Stryker.

    • Oh, I forgot to mention, she got that job in the forties, when the movies were in theaters! No, they’re not still giving out grants like that! But yes, “You already know it’s awesome cos you’re the best there is!” –I think you may have hit on it there. No self-doubt! No second guessing!

  8. When De Niro blows up the mailbox in MEAN STREETS does he look back? I can’t remember! I think maybe he looks back a little… but he doesn’t seem to want to! Hey, I know, I should watch MEAN STREETS and find out.

    • I haven’t seen mean streets in so long I don’t remember any explosion. But I’m curious, given that the deniro character is so NOT the cool, confident guy (if I remember right).

  9. Any excuse to re-watch MEAN STREETS is a good thing!

  10. Been thinking about the TWILIGHT ZONE… there’s an example of a show that nailed the post war paranoia to the wall, with a barrage of totally unique imagery/ existential concepts that still scare the crap out of me. Genius!

    • And so many Twilight Zone episodes revolve around the same theme–THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY SEEM. The pretty people are really ugly! the kids are really in charge! it seems like now but it’s a hundred years ago/ahead!

      • True! So what made those images so powerful during that era? Cos we still have this THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM theme, you see that everywhere, but there’s stuff in the TWILIGHT ZONE that seems pretty specific to the time period. The birth of the suburbs? Is it like film noir in the sense that you have all these super damaged PTSD guys coming home from wars to a brand new fake weird environment that is supposed to be perfect and all smiles and pineapple on the ham, and this creates this darkness in a overly bright space, which was sort of a novel development in this country?

  11. In a way you could say the same of TWIN PEAKS….did something similar for the tail end of the Reagan/ Bush I era, just an overall ambient dread, so perfect and powerful, truly truly nightmarish imagery…watching that show is like dreaming….to say nothing of FIRE WALK WITH ME or INLAND EMPIRE. Now there’s a guy who somehow makes his own nightmares feel like yours

  12. I am in agreement on these motives (do they count as motives or are they just copy cats?) having an initial impact and the impact fading as the motives become fads. How much of these scenes are cultural and how much are they Jungian? Do the clouds and explosions translate to India or China in the same way? Have film industries in other countries copied that same CGI effect or changed it for local impact?

    Another take on the ultra confident demolitionist is the “avenger”. A cold-heart or merciless avenger whose killing work is done and now refuses to further acknowledge the scum he has killed. That YouTube clip includes a couple scenes that are not straight melodrama butuse the lack of reaction show the characters as sociopaths: Bardim in NO COUNTRY, Tarantino and Clooney in DUSK TIL DAWN. In those two cases the sociopaths are opposites. Bardim is focused and intent, Tarantino and Clooney are careless, undisciplined fools.

    A newer recurring image getting on my nerves is the ubiquitous take-out coffee cup. These have been a staple of gossip magazines with photographers following celebrities around town to coffee joints. Now I see the stupid cups everywhere. SNL had a video short that featured an intervention and all the characters were holding those stupid coffee cups. Maybe that was an inside joke.

    • That’s interesting, the culturally specific question…the Bollywood thing in
      India continues to rely almost totally on narrative, usually a classic “forbidden love” kind of story, intercut with big musical production numbers, right? I’ve not seen the Indian or Chinese equivalent to a Western blockbuster, but I’m tempted to say the popular films would tend to rely on good old fashioned storytelling and large sets with lots of extras, Golden Age Hollywood style, rather than getting all psychological and head-fucky. Then of course there’s the early John Woo stuff which he was making in Hong Kong, and those films were super groundbreaking in terms of now-cliched action sequences, he did it better than anybody and nobody’s topped him since.

      The HARRY POTTER stuff they just import, right? Cos why reinvent the wheel. But it would interesting to see how something like FIGHT CLUB would go on the Bollywood circuit. Probably pretty well since Hollywood’s reach is so long and profound, but it’s an interesting topic!

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