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Sick Unto Death

When Hollywood purges, the world recoils.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JOE QUEENAN
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The regurgitation of foodstuffs is one of the least appetizing human activities, and certainly not a Kodak moment. Why then has on-screen vomiting become such a fixture of motion pictures in the past few years? The situation is so dire that upchuck has even begun to appear in animated form, with a cartoon version of Keanu Reeves spilling his cartoon guts in the recent film A Scanner Darkly.

Whether the motion picture in question is Lady in the Water, The Constant Gardener, Doom, Ray, Sin City, The Road to Perdition, Cheaper by the Dozen, Saved, or Remember the Titans, sooner or later the statutory vomiting scene will occur. Just as the testicular place-kick, the distaff haymaker, the severed ear, and the multicultural street gang have all become visual staples of contemporary cinema, filmmakers have now persuaded themselves that every time they show somebody puking, they are doing something really, really daring and really kewl--even though everyone else is doing it, too.

It's enough to make you puke.

The Golden Age of Vomiting is generally thought to have begun in 1996, when Nicholas Cage purged himself in The Rock, a film so revered and so well-circulated among young men that they have literally watched Cage puking dozens of times, and have probably been inspired to imitate him in real life. Yet to understand why vomiting has become so prevalent, one must bear in mind that Hollywood is almost equally divided between cretins and thieves. Some directors--the morons--include an upchucking scene because they think they are being iconoclastic and original, while others--the plagiarizing hacks--do it because the film they are ripping off includes copious vomiting, and they figure: If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Whatever the motivation, the scene is always designed in such a way as to make the manipulated audience exclaim, "Oh, my God! He's puking! I can't believe what I'm seeing with my very own eyes!" This ability to pass off the tired, the predictable, and the ubiquitous as something shockingly original--and do it with an air of smug self-satisfaction--is referred to in journalistic circles as "giving them the full Quindlen."

Personally, I have no objection to celluloid puking, provided it is done tastefully and is used primarily to adumbrate the lofty themes of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed Jamie Foxx's vomiting in Any Given Sunday and Denzel Washington's upchucking in both Remember the Titans and He Got Game because the puking was consistent with the films' messages: Sports make you sick. But I draw the line at gratuitous upchucking. Thus, I was dismayed by the serial prepubescent puking in Steve Martin's Cheaper by the Dozen, because it did not advance the heartwarming plot, and I was appalled at the vomit-by-numbers scene in The Rock's latest bomb Doom, because the craven psychopath doing the puking did not seem to have his heart in it.

Two things baffle me about cinematic regurgitation. One, why is it so often missing from films where you would most expect it, like Braveheart or The Passion of the Christ, or anything starring Madonna? Two, why don't vomitative films contain more than one puking scene? If the objective is to illustrate that things have gotten so bad that one of the characters has to puke his guts out, why doesn't he do it twice? Or five or six times? And why don't the other characters puke as well? Are they lacking emotion?

A case in point: When Rachel Weisz's duplicitous lover peels back the shroud to examine her charred, mutilated corpse early in The Constant Gardener, it is entirely appropriate that he pukes his guts out. On the most obvious level, it apprises the audience that something absolutely terrible has happened, while sparing them the trauma of having actually to gaze upon the mutilated corpse.

Yet in the end there is something unsettling about this scene. If loverboy gets sick after seeing her brutalized corpse, why doesn't Ralph Fiennes, who plays her sensitive husband and who seems like a chap with a delicate tummy, not puke as well? And why in a motion picture that features both a disembowelment and a crucifixion is there no subsequent puking? It is as if the director were using some sort of gastrointestinal shorthand: I want to establish early in the film that our subject is nauseating, but once that's out of the way, I want you to all stow the barf bags.

Frankly, I find this prissy attitude unfair to upchuck aficionados. When a movie starts with a scene involving vomiting, the viewer has a right to expect things to get progressively more disgusting as the film goes on. But when people are disemboweled, crucified, or have their tongues ripped out without any subsequent concomitant vomiting by victims, participants, or even innocent bystanders, it suggests a certain moral laxity on the part of the filmmaker, as though we should all just get used to this mayhem and simply gorge ourselves on Milk Duds and popcorn.

Cognizant of the public's burgeoning affection for upchuck, directors increasingly get the spewing and heaving out of the way as soon as possible. The vomiting in The Constant Gardener occurs almost right off the bat. The extraneous puking in Doom takes place about 25 minutes into the film. And in the very strange movie Max, which deals with a one-armed, Berlin-based Jewish art dealer who unadvisedly befriends a struggling young painter named Adolf Hitler, the painter George Grosz vomits in the very first scene in the film. Since Hitler doesn't even have the Nazi party up and running by this point, this seems like a clear-cut case of premature, perfunctory puking. Which brings me to my criticism: Since there will be plenty of nauseating incidents later in the film, why not save the best puking scene for last?

Purists may object that this entire subject is disgusting. I agree. But then again, so is Hollywood. Ultimately, I am not calling for less puking on the big screen. What I would like to see is a more concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to integrate puking into a coherent dramatic model, and to make less use of vomiting as a cheap stunt. Sad to say, at this point in the history of motion pictures, the regurgitative arts serve an almost entirely ornamental function in mainstream cinema. Worse, from the perspective of hard-core barf buffs, once that pivotal puking scene is over (and there will obviously be no more spewing for the remainder of the film), what's the point of hanging around?

It calls to mind Mercutio's untimely death in Romeo and Juliet: Thanks, Immortal Bard, now you've gone and spoiled everything. Henry Miller once said, "If you're going to start with the cannons, you've got to finish with TNT." I honestly believe that if you're going to start with queasiness, you've got to finish with nausea. Otherwise, you're shortchanging Mr. John Q. Public.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.