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This is How You Ruin Things
By Sam Carrigan
Man versus society. Man versus self. Man versus nature. Man versus room. These are the great conflicts that give shape to the stories that shape us.
The last of those may not be as formally recognized as the others, but it occupies a place in the pantheon of events in movies we’ve all seen, even if we can’t put our finger right on an example at a given time. You get the idea right away: someone in the film gets some bad news, and alone in a room full of valuables, they start smashing everything that isn’t bolted down. Tables are upended, fine china is shattered, and mementos are unceremoniously destroyed in a whirlwind of kinetic, gotta-get-it-all-in-one-shot fury. While seeing action fill the frame is entertaining in its own right, perhaps part of the thrill is seeing society’s standard relationship of people to commodities—“accumulate as many as possible”—go, along with the television set, out the window. What does it mean to trash a room? Is it really a simple love of destruction, or is there some joy in defying the burden of holding onto material things? How does it change a scene to depict a character smashing their own possessions, rather than the possessions of others? Above all else, what separates a good room trashing scene from a bad one? The following examples may serve as a lesson: when it comes to being a human wrecking ball, originality counts.
Orson Welles gave us one of the most influential examples of this scene in Citizen Kane. The superrich Charles Kane had to this point proven as hell-bent on success as he was capable of achieving it. His second wife, Susan, has finally chosen to leave him after she could no longer stand being in a painful, manipulative relationship with Kane. As she bids him a final farewell, Kane is left alone in his stately pleasure palace, Xanadu, and immediately turns his wrath on his possessions. The destruction is thorough and convincingly the work of an enraged old man, stumbling from table to table, clearing shelves, struggling to tear fixtures from walls. It seems as though nothing will stop Kane until he finds the famous snowglobe from the opening sequence—the one that evokes in him the elusive ideal of “Rosebud.” Welles accomplishes two things: first, he shows that this pathological hoarder of wealth has realized the emptiness of his position, and second, that whatever “Rosebud” is, it’s important enough to be the one thing he’ll spare. Given what the audience eventually learns of its meaning, it makes sense that he would destroy his tainted “adult” possessions and save only the thing that reminded him of his lost, innocent childhood. Concisely showing what does and doesn’t matter to a mysterious, dynamic character makes this depiction of room-trashing the textbook example.
The Godfather also features a variation on smashing everything you can touch. Don Corleone’s daughter, Connie, whose wedding opened the film, reaches a breaking point in the unhappy marriage with her abusive, philandering husband. As he’s about to skip the dinner she just prepared to presumably go see his mistress, she upends the table and wrecks all of the china. Her husband cruelly insults Connie and challenges her to wreck everything as she shatters anything that’s fragile enough to produce a satisfying crash. The scene ends with her husband viciously beating her once again. Connie lashes out against the trappings of her confinement out of desperation. For a woman of her traditional background—violence aside, the mob family paid its respects to a religion that still frowns on divorces—destroying the home she’s “made” may as well mean destroying one’s life work. Connie is revealed to be the powerless victim of abuse and manipulation at the hands of gangsters and her deceitful husband. The movie (the series, really) does not feature any particularly empowering depictions of women. Rather, showing Connie as a “damsel in distress” encourages the viewer to empathize with the hot-tempered Sonny Corleone, her brother and acting mob boss, as he rushes to avenge her and falls right into a rival mafia’s trap.
Unfortunately, the room-trashing scene has fallen on hard times as of late. Because it automatically places one on the same spectrum as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, productions that have aspirations of greatness and excessive self-seriousness are the most likely to use room-trashing to represent a strangely nihilistic wrath that passes for depth these days. Netflix’s House of Cards isn’t a film, per se, but it clearly aspires to big-screen levels of quality, prestige, and respect. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright spend a lot of time brooding in their austere home, affecting an air of seriousness as they throw plates on the ground or, in a clunky metaphor for dealing with a meddling journalist, smash a leaking faucet that “wouldn’t shut up.” They have big, dramatic emotions, and they show this by acting out against their things. It insists upon being taken seriously, and yet there’s nothing novel about what we’re seeing. Netflix’s algorithm-driven writing simply says that this is what the viewers like and respect, so there’s no need to ruin a winning formula by gambling with originality.
House of Cards’ pretentiousness, and how this impacts the characterization imparted by wanton destruction, can be a matter of disagreement. There is less debate surrounding the self-seriousness of Tommy Wiseau’s modern masterpiece, The Room. Now advertised as a ‘black comedy,’ the bizarre dramatic effort of Wiseau (he produced, wrote, directed, and starred) shows, under the clunky dialogue, choppy editing, and entirely original pacing, a desire to be taken seriously. The main plot is simple, even if not exactly the stuff of Greek tragedy: a man learns that his fiancee and best friend have been having an affair and commits suicide. Before shooting himself in the titular location, he smashes everything in The Room. Johnny (Wiseau) lumbers around, smashing little glass items and having bon mots such as “you bitch” or just “why” drowned out by the melodramatic score. The director Wiseau undercuts the actor Wiseau’s performance by following a shot of a television being thrown out of a window with a shot of a television hitting a sidewalk from an impossible angle given the trajectory of the toss. The obvious discontinuity strikes many viewers as jarring. Perhaps this was a masterstroke, the same way Coppola’s high-energy sequence with Connie was meant to manipulate the viewer into desiring swift, irrational retribution just like Sonny. Wiseau forced his audience to remember that what they are seeing is fiction, an unreal story where even the laws of physics are only applicable at the whim of the artist. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt there, “great man smashing stuff after romantic failure” does not bring anything new to the table, especially when you have a Wiseau’s weirdly muscular ass in the director’s chair in place of a capable and corpulent Welles.
One can find original, smaller acts of spontaneous property damage used memorably in many modern comedies. In Office Space, taking a hated printer into a field and beating it with baseball bats is a fantasy fulfilled. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s pathetic attempt to smash the decorations at her friend-rival’s bridal shower in front of uncomfortable onlookers shows us the humor of a fantasy deferred. Arguably the finest subversion of this appeared in the Coen Brothers’ actual black comedy, Fargo. Perpetual loser William H. Macy plays a frustrated car salesman and scumbag whose criminal embezzling and kidnapping schemes fatally, stupidly backfire. In his first tantrum, he angrily throws papers around his office, only to sheepishly pick them back up shortly. In his second, his frustration is unleashed when he throws the ice scraper he was using on his windshield, only to have to go over, pick it up, and continue scraping. Again, two things are accomplished: one, the audience is shown how frustrated Macy’s character is, and two, they see that he’s also laughably impotent. The subtlety of these events lets the audience in on the joke that Macy is doomed to lose in the end, while still hiding how exactly it happens. Much like knowing a joke has an unknown punchline at the end doesn’t make it less funny, knowing his fate gives one a stronger investment and appreciation of his eventual downfall.
Our last stop on this whirlwind tour of rampage is Harmony Korine’s divisive art drama, Gummo. Set in Xenia, Ohio and comprised of loosely related vignettes and a handful of unscripted scenes featuring impoverished non-actors, the film depicts a town that was recently hit by a tornado and clearly never recovered. Some characters are semi-homeless and have nearly nothing to call their own, and accordingly have a lot of reasons to feel frustrated and angry. They lash out at fences, roadkill, garbage heaps, and cheap chairs abandoned by the road. Their homes seem stuffed full of trash not too dissimilar from the junk they smash outdoors, and may remind one of pathological hoarders, but there is far more to it than that. Just as we know that drug addicts make rational decisions with what little money they have, the homes of poor characters are cluttered because every last thing they acquire is too precious to throw away. They don’t have the luxury, like the wealthy “minimalist,” to go out and buy a replacement of whatever they lose. They live among the logical consequences of a capitalist economy that inevitably charts a course towards crises of overproduction - after the storm has cleared, you’re stuck surrounded by whatever useless trash was generated in the boom times. Smashing the clutter around you while cherishing your few possessions is as natural as treading water instead of drowning. In a way, lashing out at the encroaching garbage is taking a stand against the global malfeasance that makes landfills a necessity and survival a luxury. Wide-scale litter is a sort of colonization side-project of late capitalism, cramming brands into the natural environment and filling up even the mundane corners that are otherwise the only place they can't stick an advertisement. The true cause for concern would be if people gave up attempting to alter their environment and shape it to suit their wishes. Passive acceptance of the growing mountain of trash is a slow road to suffocation.
In an age that shows no signs of reversing the descent into Gilded Age levels of inequality, there will continue to be vast Xenias for every one Charles Kane. A tragic billionaire will not be able to fulfill his tremendous emotional capacity without also generating small islands of garbage to clog and choke the infrastructure below them. Those people on the same precipice as William H. Macy may shuffle their papers out of frustration, but in their cowardice refuse to reject the system that’s about to swallow them whole. Let’s not imagine that we can act out the same repetitive melodrama of a fading age, smashing all of our crystal at the height of fortunes we’ll never have (as John Steinbeck says, thinking of yourself as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire will get you nowhere). The next time you get the urge to smash something to show your frustration, remember, if only for the sake of your audience: originality counts.
#Real #Movies #Film #Destruction #Ruin #Entropy #PopCulture #CitizenKane #TheGodfather #Garbage #CheapChairs
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