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Doom with a View

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Earl Fowler

Who hasn’t wanted to live in the movies? Or die there, for that matter?

It’s a domain where — despite mortifying setbacks and slick competition from better-looking rivals — the average guy eventually wins the heart of the hot girl and the awkward girl gets the hot guy.

A place where the bad guys patiently take turns battling the unarmed good guy, rather than ganging up and beating the ever-living crap out of him.

Where ignoble henchmen are always the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, despite having endless rounds to fire. Where the surrounded, outmanned and outgunned hero takes a superficial flesh wound to the shoulder while making every last bullet count. Where the last goon is guaranteed to fall to the last virtuous bullet.

It’s a place where mismatched but winsome protagonists fleeing in sporty automobiles routinely exchange witty insults while ignoring oncoming traffic or the twists in the road because, against all known laws of physics, the 27 police cruisers behind them are guaranteed to flip, crash and career over piers in spectacular fashion. No innocent bystanders or officers (except the corrupt ones) will be hurt.

Where ingenious but gormless yet oddly endearing but weirdly lovable yet engagingly bathetic but poorly coiffed nerds can hack into the Pentagon with five or six master key strokes (universal password: Mar-a-Lago).

Where all the cool high school kids look like they’re in their twenties (because they are) and their alluring but troubled parents appear to be Dawson’s Creek alumni (because they are).

Where there’s always parking in front of the airport or the police station or the hospital and no one ever tows your car. Where you can get punched in the face 20 times without ever suffering a concussion or needing an orthodontist. Where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.

Where, when the court case seems beyond redemption and the smug corporate lawyers on the other side are adding up their fees, the last-minute testimony of a reluctant surprise witness ensures justice will be served.

Where the perspiring hero’s hunch about which wire (hmm, the red one is kind of pretty) to snip always proves correct, disarming the conveniently ticking time bomb one second before the whole place would have been blown to kingdom come.

Where … whew! Did you see that? It’s just a spooked cat that suddenly jumps up with an arched back to build suspense before the deranged face of the knife-toting serial killer appears in the mirror as you close the medicine cabinet door and suddenly the damn car won’t start like it’s 1956 and oh shit oh shit oh shit.

Where no one eats more than a crust of the lavish breakfast someone off camera must have been slaving over since 3 a.m.

Where photos on security cameras and cellphones can be endlessly zoomed in on to reveal the identity of the murderer. Could have saved 45 minutes of old-fashioned coppering if only we’d thought of that sooner.

Where the arrogant, impulsive police inspector can never remember from one episode to the next that he is always wrong and the quirky, sharp-witted amateur sleuth he unfailingly derides as a nuisance — Miss Marple, Father Brown, insert honorific here — is always right.

Where you badmouth person B to person C behind person B’s back and then realize that B has silently come into the room or maybe was there all along and is standing behind you and you say to C: “They’re right behind me, aren’t they?”

That never gets old.

Where your mom calls while you’re sleeping off a hangover after making a fool of yourself the night before and she says “turn on the TV” and you do and, holy spit, all hell is breaking loose and your daughter and ex-wife are in danger and only you can save them along with, oh yeah, the rest of the civilized world. (By the way, your ex still loves you and you still love her, which is why you have a hangover, and Armageddon is way cheaper than counselling.)

Where it goes without saying, as if this were ever in doubt, only Americans (or Canadians, Brits or Aussies playing Americans in Canadian cities masquerading as New York or Chicago or L.A.) can save the civilized world.

Where a traumatized woman begins her road back to revenge by cutting her hair with toenail clippers and a butter knife in a dimly lit bathroom and, golly gee whiz, damned if she doesn’t emerge looking even hotter than she did before.

Where someone says “we’ve got company” when the enemy shows up and “there’s no time to explain” when there’s no time to explain and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, Matthew McConaughey or Mark Wahlberg takes his shirt off.

Where the two lead hotties — who loathed each other at first sight before she found out that despite his gruff exterior, he’s much more lovingly manly than her ever-less-appealing, ever-more-effete fiancé — are finally about to surrender to the steamy and-then-I-asked-him-with-my-eyes-to-ask-again-yes-and-then-he-asked-me-would-I-yes-to-say-yes-my-mountainous-man-meat sex scene to which this whole thing has been ineluctably building, only to be interrupted by an urgent phone call that one of them just has to take. Duty calls.

Damn your eyes, duty, nobility and self-sacrifice.

Now, I could go on in this vein for between 96 and 120 minutes, the standard length of a Hollywood movie, but let’s do a director’s cut to the chase: I really don’t think it’s the hoary cinematic chestnuts and hackneyed clichés that keep us streaming piffle at home or coming back to the multiplex for $25 popcorn. Not per se, anyway. The content is almost irrelevant.

Rather, he says, placing a camera on a boom arm to make it easier to move around between ordinary, simple-minded theses, my take is that it’s the sheer predictability of most television and movie fare — the way you can count on everything to all work out in the end — that gives us succour. Temporary respite from the mercurial madness and erratic flux of an inconstant world. Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.

That’s particularly true, I think, in the way death comes to Hollywood. In the real world, people become critically ill or are fatally injured willy-nilly, haphazardly and unfairly, without regard to moral character or what would make for a satisfying storyline. Reality doesn’t give a toss about setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolution, point of view, theme or denouement.

But when we watched Star Trek as kids, we always knew that the uncredited crew member no one had ever seen before would be the one guy zapped into oblivion by the Klingons or the Romulans. Mr. Sulu was never truly in jeopardy. Set phasers to stun. Just tase him, bro.

The character played by a lesser known Black actor in either a criminal gang or a dedicated team of detectives is guaranteed to be offed within 15 minutes of the opening credits.

It’s an absolute given — a staple on British detective shows like Midsomer Murders and Vera— that anyone who arranges to meet a cop the next day with incriminating evidence about the killer will be startled in the next scene by an unseen visitor he or she recognizes and say something like “Oh, you startled me,” just before being fatally conked, stabbed or garrotted. The usually razor-sharp detectives who solve all murders after four or five more bodies pile up are constitutionally unable to remember this simple fact from one case to the next. (Also, isn’t it lovely that they have only one case to work on at a time?)

At this point (cue gratuitous dream sequence to dig the screenplay out of a middling patch), I’ll call in a little professional assistance:

“The spunky little kid or the wizened old soul who befriends a main character in a hospital has no chance,” Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper observes in his book 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed. “We’ll find out the kid (or the old-timer) has died when the main character steps in to pay a visit, only to see a nurse’s aide stripping the bed. Nothing says death in a hospital scene like a nurse’s aide stripping the bed.”

One might have supposed that Roeper himself would have been doomed as Roger Ebert’s successor at the paper after that 2018 scandal over his purchase of more than 25,000 fake followers on Twitter, but hey, these days everyone’s a critic. And one can’t cavil at his other examples of relentlessly inevitable demises that somehow retain the power to move us:

The fresh-faced soldier who talks endlessly about his girlfriend, looks longingly at her photo every night, and tells everyone, “We’re going to have a baby!” will be coming home in a body bag.

The pregnant young wife who looks at her husband with pure love and says “I’ve never been happier in my whole life” has no chance of making it out of the movie alive.

Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a death can be? Soppy movie bromides mean never having to say you’re gory.

Speaking of which:

“Of course, all lusty teenagers in the Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street movies,” Roeper continues, “will be sliced and diced to pieces, usually after they’ve just made love or gone skinny-dipping.”

I know what you watched last summer. And the summer before that. And the …

Top three:

The popular veteran cop who has travel brochures on his desk and is a week away from retirement — he’s never going to see that condo in Arizona, is he?

The bad guy is locked in a life-and-death clinch with the good guy, when suddenly a gun goes off. We see the look of shock on the good guy’s face as he falls away — but of course it’s the bad guy who’s been shot in the gut.

Wise old-timers in the form of janitors, next-door neighbours, retired athletes, or inmates who have been locked up for 50 years — they’re bound to croak, usually in the arms of their young protégé, who says, “Don’t you die on me now!” as if it’s up to the old guy.

In the real world, the veteran cop moves to Arizona and has a fatal heart attack three years later while watching a 1974 episode of The Rockford Files over a bowl of Doritos. The good guy is far more likely to be shot than the bad guy who, after all, is the one holding the gun. And in my experience, young protégés with dying old-timers in their arms hardly ever admonish them.

The ubiquitous non-death, though, that features in the climax of just about every adventure/action/crime/spy/police drama/spaghetti western flick ever made arrives at that pivotal moment where the hero decides to spare the life of the subdued villain, temptation for some well-deserved retribution notwithstanding. Unlike his conquered foe he’s not a killer, 17 dead henchmen vanquished en route to arresting the villain notwithstanding.

To me, the funniest bit in the Austin Powers films is the moment where the International Man of Mystery, cryogenically unfrozen in 1997 after 30 years as a Popsicle, is astonished to learn that Liberace was gay: “I mean, women loved him. I didn’t see that one coming, no.”

How much more fabulously obvious could the flamboyant pianist in front of the candelabra have been? Yet it really did come as a shock to millions of fans 40 years ago when Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former chauffeur and young lover, sued for palimony.

Similarly, given how formulaic most TV shows and movies are, we have to go well beyond an accommodating state of suspended disbelief and into a realm of blank, unblinking, wilful amnesia to maintain our seemingly inexhaustible capacity to be surprised by the foreseeable, entertained by the obvious.

When it comes to Big Screen deaths, familiarity breeds verklempt audiences. We didn’t see that one coming, no, and we went out of our way not to.

The other Austin Powers scene that always kills me is the one in which Dr. Evil introduces the captured shagadelic but dentistically challenged heartthrob (aka Daddy’s nemesis) to Evil’s son, Scott, over a meal. Powers’ sexy but cerebral sidekick, Vanessa Kensington (played by Elizabeth Hurley, baby), has also been ensnared.

Scott: “What? Are you feeding him? Why don’t you just kill him?”

Dr. Evil: “No, Scott. I have an even better idea. I’m going to place them in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.”

Bond. James Bond. To. The. Letter.

Remember the closing scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in which Clint Eastwood leaves Eli Wallach hanging at a lonely graveyard — literally — only to rescue him from a safe distance with an astonishing single rifle shot?

It’s no joke. It’s a trope, Tuco.

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As per Danny Kaye's "Lobby Sequence" in Up In Arms: "Manic-Depressive Pictures presents; Hello, Fresno, Goodbye...the opening scene is set in Fresno California. So what do we see? The same old beautiful chorus girls! And what are they singing? "When it's cherry blossom time in Orange, New Jersey, we'll make a peach of a pair..." -- Up from the gulch rides a hunk of man; he is our hero, Cowboy Dan; a gallopin' yodelin' buckaroo...his horse of course is a baritone too...

EarlM Fowler
EarlM Fowler
Oct 12, 2022
Replying to

Oh, honeydew be mine, because we cantaloupe.

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