By C. Robert Dimitri | Think Pieces | April 14, 2011 |
By C. Robert Dimitri | Think Pieces | April 14, 2011 |
The aim here is not to nitpick or criticize. It is simply to indulge in affectionate thought experiments and tangents related to movies that I have enjoyed over the years. What are the unspoken motivations, the unexplored avenues, and the seemingly insignificant details that lie between the frames? Oh, and if you have not seen the movies I write about in this column, you are a little behind the times, but I offer a spoiler warning regardless.
The Princess Bride
This is a perfect movie. I would not dare to suggest changing a single moment of it. Nevertheless, there is one detail in the story that has always bothered me. I hope you do not deem it sacrilegious, but I wanted Inigo Montoya to win that duel with Westley.
Perhaps “wanting” Inigo to win is not that unsurprising and even a common viewer impulse. At that point in the story, we have much more reason to like Inigo personally. He shares fun, joking banter with Fezzik. Neither he nor Fezzik seems inclined to harm Buttercup; they are mercenaries who have fallen under the employ of the unsavory Vizzini. Inigo treats Westley with respect in helping him to peak the Cliffs Of Insanity and giving him ample time to rest for an honorably conducted duel. Most significantly, he tells Westley his life’s quest to avenge his father’s murder. If that story did not put you in Inigo’s corner, then what would?
What about Westley? At that point in the story, he is not even Westley; he is only the mysterious Man In Black. One might assume he is going to free Buttercup from these kidnappers, but initially we do not know what his motive is. In the scene with Inigo, we find that he is as polite and honorable as Inigo is, but is that appealing personality enough to trump Inigo’s story about his father? Maybe you could guess that the Man In Black actually is Westley; maybe when you first saw the movie you recognized that was Cary Elwes. Certainly on repeat viewings the “true love” element is a powerful incentive in the narrative.
Throwing out all those factors, the element that irks me is still present. Inigo has been studying swordplay for twenty years. It is a discipline that has received his complete dedication over that span. His lagging search for Count Rugen prompted him to take up other jobs (primarily as a mercenary useful for his swordsmanship) and even turn to drinking, but he had still devoted an extraordinary amount of time to the craft. We can assume he certainly went well beyond the “10,000 hours to mastery” rule originated by Herb Simon and recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.
In contrast, what has Westley been doing? He worked as a “farm boy,” fetching pitchers of water for Buttercup while mooning over her. Then he spent five years acquiring his heroic skills on Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship Revenge. This obviously included fencing practice, but - as Westley tells us - he spent much of that time learning other trades as well. No, Westley did not “dedicate his life” to fencing in this already shorter span of time, and the evidence we are given indicates that in five years the experience Westley acquired would be dwarfed by that of Inigo.
What happens when these two great masters battle? They are both exceptionally skilled, but Westley essentially dominates him. Certainly, Inigo holds the advantage when he fights right-handed against Westley’s left hand, but otherwise the duel is barely even close. Westley blatantly toys with Inigo and disarms him with ease.
I could justify this many ways. Westley is younger. Westley had better teachers. Westley is innately more talented. Westley is motivated by true love, which trumps the motive of revenge in the world of storytelling and could provide Westley with a superhuman adrenal surge. The flow of the duel itself, its choreography, and the accompanying repartee are supremely entertaining for viewers, and that is what matters most from a cinematic standpoint.
Nevertheless, as someone who would like to attach superseding value to practice and hard work, it still bothers me. Based on the empirical evidence, Inigo should have prevailed, or he at least should have given Westley a more competitive fight.
When Harry Met Sally…
Harry: “Like the other night. I made love to this woman, and it was so incredible, I took her to a place that wasn’t human. She actually meowed.”
Jess: “You made a woman meow?”
Harry: “Yeah. That’s the point - I can say these things to her. And the great thing is I don’t have to lie, because I’m not always thinking about how to get her into bed. I can just be myself.”
Jess: “You made a woman meow?”
That is a great comedic beat in a film brimming with them. I thought there was more to it, though. There is something extra underlying the incredulity and admiration expressed by Bruno Kirby’s Jess in that moment at the batting cage. Harry casually bandies about his ability to transform women into anthropomorphized felines at the moment of orgasm. This inducement might be representative of the upper end of his sexual prowess, but he was not surprised by it. In contrast, Jess fixates on this detail as being exceptionally beyond the norm. Jess wants to know how to make a woman meow.
Jess might feel awkward asking Harry for more information, so I imagine that he follows the scant clues available and scours the New York streets in an effort to track down Harry’s meowing date. What exact technique did Harry employ? Maybe it was not Harry specifically. Does she always meow to express her pleasure in bed? Does she tell her partners how to bring it out of her?
Jess’ search culminates in his finding the meowing woman’s apartment. He is surprised to find that someone else has been searching for the meowing woman, as they arrive simultaneously at her door. “Older Woman Customer” played by Estelle Reiner (she of the “I’ll have what she’s having” line) has also heard this tale of a woman that meows during sex. The story has been making the rounds through the city, and Rob Reiner’s mother’s character also seeks counsel for better orgasms.
The meowing woman politely greets them and reveals information that should come as no surprise: her caterwauling is an elaborate case of faking it. Jess is relieved to learn that his sexual abilities are not as far behind average as he had feared, and the disappointed Older Woman Customer - recently duped by Sally into a lunch order that was far lacking in the expected inspiration - must continue her search for greater sexual satisfaction.
Feeling remorseful toward the men she has deceived - even if her action was a deception borne of good intentions - and regretting the trouble of Jess’ epic city-spanning odyssey, meowing woman offers him the gauche wagon wheel coffee table that an ex-boyfriend left at her place. Jess quite likes the wagon wheel coffee table, and it seems a good souvenir to ease any doldrums when Harry next makes him feel inadequate with tales of sexual exploits.
I have watched this film many times, but what was the detail I only just noticed this time? The scene with Sally’s fake orgasm at the diner followed immediately after the scene at the batting cage. This seems a clear indicator that although meowing inhuman heights could be reachable during sex, Harry did not attain them. Perhaps I too was blinded by that holy grail of orgasmic meowing.
I first watched Say Anything on either a Friday or Saturday night back in late 1989 or early 1990. There were three or four male friends with me in that living room along with that rented VHS copy, and although I was interested in seeing the movie, I do recall a self-conscious twinge among us over a group of young high school guys staying in to view what vaguely resembled some sort of “chick flick.”
Despite that non-ideal audience, the quality of the film won us over. I would later designate Say Anything my first-string “third date movie,” although I did not have the opportunity to put that role to the test very often.
At this point in the story I should note that the timing of the video release of Say Anything coincided roughly with the popularization of television picture-in-picture technology, and my friend’s television had this feature. To lighten the mood (and perhaps as the story progressed to conceal the fact that at least a couple guys in that room wanted to be Lloyd Dobler and were falling for Diane Court), someone periodically used the remote to freeze images from the film, which could then be bounced from corner to corner of the screen and be the subject of MST3K-esque riffs. Once our amusement with a particular image was complete (e.g., Eric Stoltz in that rooster outfit), we would move on to the next one.
The game ended quite abruptly when Diane dumped Lloyd in the front seat of his blue Malibu. He gave her his heart, she gave him a pen, and we froze that image of John Cusack’s face as simulated heartbreak struck. One of us immediately coined that picture-within-picture of a crushed visage to be “Lloyd’s hurt face in the corner.” In hindsight I do not know exactly why that gave us so much entertainment, but we left that image on the screen for the remainder of the entire movie. Perhaps it was a badge of investment in the film and its emotions; we could not simply dismiss Lloyd’s devastation as we had those other prior fleeting frozen moments. Say Anything had achieved resonance, and “Lloyd’s hurt face in the corner” encapsulated that.
Amidst the Bavarian Dutch style pretzels, the kickboxing, the school counselor who kicks back with the students at the graduation party, Corey’s 63 songs about Joe, John Mahoney’s terrific performance as Diane’s father, Lloyd’s desire not to buy, sell, or process anything, that boom box playing Peter Gabriel, that pitch-perfect seat-belt-light-ding ending, and many other details that make this one of my favorite movies, it has always been “Lloyd’s hurt face in the corner” that stands out first in my mind. I invite you to look upon that image now; gaze upon the depth of Lloyd’s pain in that moment with a scrutiny that you never have before.
C. Robert Dimitri first saw The Princess Bride in a theater with a few of his elementary school friends, after reading a retelling of it in a Scholastic Scope magazine. As for When Harry Met Sally, that viewing was with a group of male and female high school friends, who called it an evening over the course of the movie (I still do not know why they did not want to see it through to the end) leaving only him and his soon-to-be girlfriend from those bygone days to watch the conclusion. You know the Say Anything story. C. ROBERT DIMITRI WILL RETURN IN ENTIRELY TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO DETAIL - THE SCI-FI PETS EDITION.