Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Movies: The one I would save.
Arbogast, creator of what might be the closest thing to a definitive horror blog, started a blog-a-thon around the concept of those unfortunate horror victims that we wish we could save. Unofficially dubbed the "The One You Might Have Saved," the blog-a-thon results have been downright brilliant. Check them out, but notice to those with coworkers or kiddies about, Arbo's own entry includes tits and a bush shot. Arbo's loves the ladies, what can I say?
I've never officially managed to throw my hat in the ring for either of the now two waves of entries for this thing because a) I'm a coward and fear the withering gaze of contempt and pity Arbo would give me if he ever read my writing and, more importantly, 2) I've never been able to decide between two victims that shout out for some saving.
Ultimately, I've decided on one.
The person I'd save is Christine "Chrissie" Watkins. You might not remember the name, but I guarantee you remember her: She's the skinny dipping hippie chick who becomes the shark's first victim in Jaws.
My reaction to Christine's death is visceral and always unpleasant.
One can easily over intellectualize the immediate experience of watching a film. Christ-ine (check the name) dies calling to God. Her death is, simultaneously, an act of delivering news to the town. The community will fail to heed the news and be judged for it. If you prefer your horror more secular: The young Christine enters the water on the promise of sexual adventure, when an unseen monster rises from the depths to pierce her body (the damage being localized in the nether regions) and destroy her. Not political enough for you? Reframe the rape fantasy as a class revenge fantasy. Christine is one of the summer people. Those rootless seasonal residents think their money entitles them to treat the island as their own private playground. Her lack of concern for the dangers of night-swimming is a facet of the privilege of the wealthy. Only this time, she pays for it.
But all that's bullshit. Write that crap in the margins of your Bordwell and Thompson to share with your Intro the Film class amigos.
The power of Christine's death comes from the fact that Spielberg frames it so powerfully as to make it something you experience before thought. Like the carpet/hardwood floor countdown scene of The Shining, the scene builds to a climax through the use of dozen nearly subliminal cues.
The scene starts with a subdued soundtrack. A harmonica and guitar are prominent, but they fade along the conversation, replaced by the sounds of the tide. There's a brief moment when the dialogue between Christine and her presumed conquest sticks out, but this is eventually replaced by alternating shots of the famous John Williams motif and a soundtrack where the slightest ripple of water sticks out. As we watch the boy chasing Christine falter, Speilberg even gives us a quick foretaste of Christine's fate. Christine is swimming a leisurely backstroke and, Bubsy Berkley style, kicks up one leg. Then she sinks and the leg, silhouetted against the early dawn sky's reflection on the water, sinks into the dark.
Her head emerges and she calls to the boy. The sun's behind her and the water glows. It's almost beautiful, but it casts her features in a dark near oblivion. You can't really read her face. She's simply a female form, calling out for somebody to join her. The nebulousness of her identity is revisited almost immediately: After we see the would-be drunken hook up collapse on the beach, we get a shot from Bruce the Shark's POV of Christine, just a female form, gracefully passing over the surface of the water. Her track across the dim blue background will mirror several shooting stars that appear throughout the flick.
There's that damn music.
We get another above surface shot of her. She smiles, she's happy, she's enjoying being healthy and young and playful. The music stops and all we hear is her deep breathing, from all the swimming, and her splashing.
Then another shot from under the water. She's just a dark shape, clearly female, but any female. Perhaps all females. The music starts again.
Cut to above the surface again. Before the trouble starts, we already know this is the end. The music, which has been a subsurface phenom up to this point, doesn't stop. Our brains our primed for the coming violence.
There's a little tug, and a shocked Christine is pulled down to her nose, but not completely under. There's a pause as she rises slightly and looks around. She looks vaguely upset, but not harmed. Though this only lasts a second. The next tug pulls her all the way under. It happens so fast, a tiny little whirlpool forms where she was. She emerges quickly, her breath, which is astoundingly loud on the soundtrack, is now ragged and uneven. She doesn't even gasp, just makes these uneven breaths before she's under again.
Then the scene explodes. As with the music between the attack shots, the sound acts as a sonic bridge between shots. Christine emerges nearly out of frame and begins to scream, "Oh God!" Her voice is unhinged. She drags the phrase out. Her scream acts as a link to the next shot. She's dragged across screen. There's a light buoy in the background. The light buoy isn't just some clever, ironic metaphor; without it, against the gray-blue dawn, we'd have no sense of her speed. Because we have a stable point of reference, we can sense the power of the beast dragging her.
She's pulled toward the light buoy (the beast must change directions between cuts). And then she stops and is thrown back and forth across the screen. The limits of her jerky movements are slightly past frame on the viewer's left and just right of center on the right. It's a sawing motion that evokes images of the feeling of worrying some meat or a dog working on a bone. Without showing us any blood or even the slightest bit of the shark, we know exactly what we're watching. Her shrieking is punctuated by her cries for help. She screams "help me," then "no," then "help me."
We get a shot of the boy, passed out on the beach. Her screaming vanishes from the soundtrack. I think, oddly, the boy is the viewer. As scary as Jaws may be, there's always a little disconnect. We're watching from dry land, as it were. When we watch the movie, we know we're safe. We always already back on shore.
The soundtrack, notably, doesn't just kick back in. When we cut back to the violently flailing Christine, the soundtrack quickly speeds back to her screaming. This odd stretching of the soundtrack produces a pig-like snort that rapidly resolves into a high-pitched scream. When you first hear it, it almost sounds like the beast is making some grotesque sound. (Notably, great white sharks do kind of snort when they come out of the water; the effect is, I suspect, intentional.) Christine's wailing - banshee-like, literally, in that is sounding doom for many others as well - is punctuated with her screaming, "It hurts."
"It hurts." It seems almost so obvious as to be silly. But that's the point of this scene. Without a clear source of pain, ripped from context, lit to become some ur-body, Christine hangs on our screen, like some image of a saint in the throws of martyrdom. She's embodied pain. She is hurt.
New shot. She's dragged, nearly thrown, against the light buoy. Suddenly, she's no longer being dragged. She holds on to the light buoy and repeats, with her head lowered against the metal frame of the buoy, "Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god . . ."
Suddenly she's grabbed again and dragged towards the viewer.
The first shooting star is seen behind her in the sky. It's a badly done effect, because it wobbles in sky a bit.
She screams for God now. "Oh God, oh god, please help."
Her request for God to help her will be the last thing we hear from Christine.She goes under and stays under. He has forsaken her.
I realize, as I write, I don't want to save Christine. Some better angel of my nature wants, of course, to reach out and stop her suffering. What I really want, though, is for God to save Christine. I want her cries for help to be answered.
Somebody once wrote that faith isn't the belief that everything will eventually make sense. It's the belief that everything will turn out alright.
Christine's death hangs there, an earnestly nihilistic image of humanity as a suffering body. Her death says to me, "No. Things will not be alright."
If I could save on victim in a horror film, it would be Christine. Because if she could be saved then, perhaps, then there would be the possibility for all of us that things might just turn out alright.
But we never can save her. She always vanishes under the water.