Posted by Jeff Stafford on June 16, 2007
Why is it that so many filmmakers feel inclined to show us more than we need to know when it comes to bodily functions and the occasional physical malfunction, especially when it comes to vomit scenes. It’s not acting, it’s reacting and it usually pulls us out of the moment, not into it. Instead of thinking about the character’s extreme emotional state, we’re more likely to wonder where all that corn came from or why is the puke green? Are the actors not capable of registering extreme emotional duress or revulsion or nausea through facial expressions or gestures instead of heaving the contents of their stomachs across the screen, courtesy of the prop department? (or is it make-up…maybe it’s set decoration).
Vomit scenes are usually a dramatic cop-out and hardly ever lead to a deeper understanding of the character or advance the storyline in a significant way although there are always exceptions to this. The scene in “Rosemary’s Baby” where a ravenous Mia Farrow gorges herself on raw liver and suddenly realizes what she’s doing. This is a clue to what’s growing inside her. Or the one in “Gone With the Wind” where a starving Scarlett makes herself sick on radishes dug out of the dirt. Here’s a scene that demonstrates the total degradation the once proud southern belle has been subjected to by war. And there are other classics you can point to with tasteful vomit scenes – at least by today’s standards – such as “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), “I Remember Mama” (1948), “Mr. Roberts” (1955), etc. But generally vomit scenes are included in films because they are a substitute for real drama and almost always produce a reaction from the audience. And when you think about it, almost every current movie seems to have one (with the exception of documentary and animated films – wait, there’s a major marionette vomiting scene in “Team America: World Police” and even a puke scene in “Super Size Me”).
As evidence, I mention the most recent movie I’ve seen “Red Road,” a Scottish psychological drama about a woman who works as a surveillance operator for a security company. The film has a spartan style to it where details about the main characters are revealed slowly and it’s not clear until the final third of the film why Jackie (a striking performance by Kate Dickie) has been shadowing and flirting with Clyde (Tony Curran), a recently paroled ex-con. In the key scene where Jackie first gains access to Clyde’s tenement apartment via an open door party, she finally meets the man she has been watching intently on her surveillance screens but he has no clue who she is. When he begins to press her for details about herself, she suddenly flees his apartment in a panic and in the privacy of the elevator vomits up a lot of liquid – all of the “dutch courage” it took to brave the party). But we really didn’t need this scene because Dickie had already expertly conveyed that her character had a troubled connection to this man, that something terrible had passed between them before, and she is in private agony over it. The vomit scene is simply stating the obvious. We already knew she was about to jump out of her skin when Clyde started coming on to her at the party.
Before “Red Road,” I saw “Lonely Hearts”, the pointless remake of the far superior 1970 true crime thriller “The Honeymoon Killers.” In it, there is a scene where the current fiancée (Dagmara Dominczyk) of grifter Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) – he and his lover Martha Beck (Salma Hayek) murder lonely widows for their money – has an episode of morning sickness which we get to experience as well. Even though this bit of information does serve as foreshadowing – her pregnancy proves to be her death sentence – we don’t need to see the contents of the toilet bowl, do we? Couldn’t a clever director find a more inventive way to convey this?
And before “Lonely Hearts,” I saw Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” which is probably the most inappropriately entertaining movie you’ll ever see about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The scene in question is one where Dutch resistance worker Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) posing as a Nazi sympathizer is forced to perform a song at a German officer’s party accompanied on piano by the man who murdered her family and friends during an escape attempt. She makes it through the song, faking a devil-may-care abandon, but then rushes off to a private toilet under a staircase to heave her guts out. We already know she’s in emotional turmoil. We saw the look on her face when this man killed her family, we saw the look on her face when she realized who he was at the party, now we get to see what’s in her stomach. Mr. Verhoeven, must you rub our faces in it? Yes, he must. He’s not the bad boy of Hollywood (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” “Starship Troopers”) and Germany (“Turkish Delight,” “Spetters”) for nothing.
Anyway, I could keep going but you get the point. Vomit scenes are so prevalent in films now that they seem commonplace in our day to day existence (not mine, maybe yours). But to all you aspiring filmmakers out there, please come up with another creative approach to expressing a character’s “inner turmoil.” The vomit scene is beyond cliché at this point and I hope this topic doesn’t end up as a MacFarland book such as VOMIT IN THE MOVIES. I can see the chapter headings now – “Comical vomit scenes,” “Scary vomit scenes,” “Vomit as an artistic statement,” etc.
We all know sh*t happens…and so does vomit, especially in the movies.
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