Media Circus

Published September 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

why was Princess Diana's death so shocking? None of the pundits have discussed what I think of as the real surprise: Occupants of a speeding car can actually get killed. This is a stunning violation of the laws of movie physics, which clearly state car chases cause only overly excited soundtracks, not smash-ups and death. And judging from the crowds willing to wait in line for hours to sign Diana's condolence books, real life for many people pales next to the tinselly lives of celebrities -- whether viewed on-screen or through the prism of the tabloids.

I hesitate to contradict Batman, but all those noises coming from George Clooney et al. about how the paparazzi drove Diana to her death strike me as ridiculous. The excessive speed of the car, the unseatbelted passengers and the concrete posts seem the deciding factors here. The pursuing photographers and drunk chauffeur probably contributed to the accident, of course -- but then I'd say so did the example set by stars like Clooney in his Batmobile.

Hollywood both feeds our fantasies of false hazards (aliens under the bed, mean old Freddy Krueger coming up the stairs) and blinds us to real ones. To my mind, one of the most deleterious things about "G.I. Jane" is that when Demi Moore gets repeatedly hit in the face during a war games exercise, she suffers only photogenic gashes and bruises -- no dislocated jaw, no knocked-out teeth. That's one of the most insidious lessons of Hollywood: that violence has no lasting ill effects.

In reality, the slugger is sometimes surprised to find himself in worse shape than the sluggee. A few weeks ago, the New Yorker ran a fascinating Talk of the Town piece by an emergency room physician, who reported that -- contrary to Hollywood -- one of the most common and dangerous effects of a barroom brawl is the slight, easily overlooked cut inflicted on the brawler's knuckles by the victim's teeth. You never see this in the movies, of course, but because human mouths (unlike canine ones) are so germy, that little knuckle wound, if left untreated, could easily result in massive infection and an amputated arm.

You don't think audiences believe on-screen clichis about risk? They do indeed. This concept crystallized for me a few years ago when I visited Singapore. I was at dinner with some Singaporeans, and we were discussing the high murder rate in the U.S. compared to the low one there. "But of course, in America, at least people don't steal cars," said one woman. Why on earth did she think that? "Well," she said, looking puzzled at my surprise, "in American movies and TV shows, no one ever bothers to lock his car. They just open the car door and drive away."

The banal filmic conventions of cars and car chases are Hollywood clichis of long-standing. But I wonder what subliminal effect less famous ones have. A couple of years ago an old friend of mine, John J.B. Wilson, wrote a funny little paperback book about this called "Everything I Know I Learned at the Movies." J.B., as he's called, is the founder of the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation, which celebrates the worst annual achievements in film just before Oscars night. But he makes his living writing advertising copy for movies, so he knows how Hollywood promotes absurdity. As he remarked to me once about the cheesy special effects in the "Superman" series: "You'll believe a man can dangle!"

J.B.'s insights into movie laws about danger include:

  • "Before firing the gun he has aimed right at you, the bad guy will take a moment to explain why he went bad -- thus giving you just enough time to gain the upper hand."
  • "When surrounded by bad guys, remember: they live by an unspoken code which demands that even if they outnumber you 12-to-one, they can only attack you one at a time."
  • "If you're the good guy, even with 100 guns aimed right at your head, 98 of them will miss (and the two that do hit will result in only minor flesh wounds.)"
  • "When driving down a winding mountain road while carrying on a conversation, always remember: it is more important to maintain eye contact with your passenger than to look at the road in front of you."

A few years ago, a rash of movies began depicting something I thought of as Da (Head) Butt, in which the hero, hands tied, escapes by smashing his forehead against the bad guy's, which for some reason only knocks out the bad guy, never the hero. A friend of mine, TV writer Morgan Gendel, pointed out this phenomenon to me. He had first noticed the move in the original "Lethal Weapon," but quickly saw it used subsequently in "Black Rain," "Kindergarten Cop" and "The Hard Way."

Morgan became so obsessed with head butting that he wrote a piece about it for the New York Times. And yes, as he discovered in his reporting, Da (Head) Butt would very likely result in Da (Brain) Injury.

My other favorite on-screen clichis include:

Crusading White Person in Third World Country: This venerable situation spans all genres, from "King Kong" to "The Year of Living Dangerously." The most annoying recent example is "The Lost World," which underscores Jeff Goldblum's crusading whiteness by having him repeatedly address his teenage daughter, who is for some reason black, as "my goddess, my queen." Subliminal lesson: Patronizing dialogue equals high-minded heroics. I think part of the reason "George of the Jungle" was such a refreshing hit was that it finally depicted the Crusading White Person as an idiot.

Homeless Person as Groovy Saint: The screenwriter may make eyes glaze over at dinner parties with this stuff in reality, but for years proper liberals have listened up when it comes from a character who muses wisely on-screen while stroking his oily beard and drinking Ripple. Notable examples include Nick Nolte in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," Robin Williams in "The Fisher King" and Joe Pesci in "With Honors." Actually, audiences may be tiring of this even if Hollywood isn't. Witness the box office disappointment over the really very engrossing "Conspiracy Theory." In it, Mel Gibson isn't even actually homeless, he's just a Ranting Urban Psycho as Groovy Saint, and people still stayed away.

Ultra-Realism Involving Toilets: This developed into a vital mood element in the post-Tarantino, hyper-macho slew of scripts, all influenced by John Travolta's seminal reading-on-the-john demise in "Pulp Fiction." No longer do small children need to ask their favorite question about film plot points: "But Mommy, when did they have time to go to the bathroom?" Because these days we generally know exactly when they did.

The Big Toilet Scene has now even made its way into romantic comedies like "My Best Friend's Wedding," the denouement of which involves Julia Roberts tearfully begging Cameron Diaz to forgive her while Cameron hides behind a locked stall in a crowded sports arena ladies room. The throng of other women waiting to use the bathroom, their own urinary needs forgotten, become a fascinated Greek chorus as Julia and Cameron have it out. As far as I'm concerned, this represents one of the most dangerous movie clichis of all: that the problems of the main character -- and everyone's the main character of her own life -- are so compelling that innocent bystanders would rather watch them unfold than get to the toilet themselves. (Or, for that matter, drive on streets unthreatened by speeding cars.) No they aren't, and no we wouldn't. Ladies, get out of the way and go home. And while you're at it, fasten your seatbelts and for God's sake, drive safely.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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