watching the wheels

Come on baby, don't do the twist


As I write this, I haven't seen the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby. Some of my friends have and they say it's very good. After they say they like it, they shut up, because there is a big twist in the plot that people who have seen it don't talk about, out of politeness to those of us who haven't seen it.

How do I know there is a big plot twist if I haven't seen the movie and my friends aren't talking about it? Because other blabbermouths are talking about it. Among them are pundit Rush Limbaugh, who is apparently complaining that the plot twist--whatever it is--represents loose morals and is one more example of the depravity of Hollywood.

Maybe I'm not as big an expert on loose morals as some people, but here is my feeling about depravity and the movies: it is the highest form of depravity to go around giving away plot twists and surprise endings of movies. It's impolite. It spoils the fun for others. Why would you want to do that?

And in this time of media saturation, with one medium writing columns that cover the doings of other media, the fact that Rush Limbaugh has attacked Clint Eastwood naturally becomes news, which means that as a byproduct of covering the manufactured "controversy," the plot twist is written about in news stories. And then these news stories become the basis for opinion columns, which means that the secret is written about in still other places.

By the time all this is over, to most people who follow the news, the original satisfying experience of a good movie--sitting in the dark and being told a story--has turned into some unsatisfying postmodern meta exercise in deconstructing what the pundit said as reported in the news stories that the columnists were writing about.

(And I know--this is a column that complains about the columns about the news stories about the radio complaints about the plot of the movie. And if you write a letter objecting to this column it will be a letter about the column about the columns about...well, you know. As the Allman Brothers Band said in "Midnight Rider," "The road goes on forever.")

Some of the best movies of all time--Taxi Driver, Diabolique, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, even my all time favorite Citizen Kane--have plot twists or surprise endings that we don't need anybody to give away. The Crying Game is another good movie with a jumbo plot twist. Shut up about it.

Some movies throw off viewers by having characters who appear to be alive but are actually dead, or who appear to be dead but are actually alive. Sometimes an apparent hero is reveled actually to be a villain, or vice versa. Sometimes the butler did it. Whatever--if you have seen a movie with a plot twist and are talking to people who have not, shut up about it.

Director M. Night Shyamalan, who made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village, has gained such a reputation for putting a big twist into all his movies that the trickiest thing he could do now would be to make a straight narrative with no twist. That would be the ultimate twist. The lights would come up and everybody would say, "Whoa--I didn't see THAT coming!"

Of course, some plot twists are so well known that they are beyond help at this point. In Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the fact that the title characters are different aspects of the same man is not revealed until late in the book. But the book has become such a part of the culture that its power as an icon has outstripped its ability to surprise us with a plot twist.

Same thing with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, for two reasons. Of course it's a big surprise at the end when the audience learns the truth about Norman's mother (and for those who haven't seen the movie, that's all I'm saying).

But for audiences in 1960, a bigger shock was the killing of Marion Crane in that shower at the Bates Motel. Janet Leigh, who played Marion, was the biggest star in the movie and the whole story to that point had been about her. And then, out of nowhere, she is killed about a third of the way into the movie. Hitchcock calculated this as a major surprise--and it was until the brilliance of the filmmaking led so many people to talk about the shower scene that there are now people who have never seen a shower who know that Marion Crane gets killed in a shower. I'll bet there are Amazonian tribespeople who know about this plot twist. The audience is no longer shocked by Marion's death--we're waiting for it and when it comes and we sit back and admire the filmmaking. Hitchcock's brilliance is still there, but the surprise, which was part of the experience he meant audiences to have, is gone forever.

Sooner or later, either at the theater or on DVD, I'll see Million Dollar Baby. And if the reviews are any indication, I'll probably think it's a good movie. But I won't have the same experience I would have had if radio gumflappers and op-ed opiners had just bee been polite and given us poor potential viewers a chance to see the movie before making it a political football.

And now, to end this column with a shocking twist, I have only this to say: "IT'S A COOKBOOK!"

(Wood is editor of House Organ, Director of Publications for VUMC, and author of Watching the Wheels: Cheap Irony, Righetous Indignation, and Semi-Enlighted Opinion, which is a collection of past columns.)


March 2005


Triple Play

How do you deal with triplets? For pediatricians Chris and Nicci Greeley, it's "Zen and the art of letting go"


Up, up, and Valet

Vanderbilt Valet continues to add services and customers. Here's a rundown of what's new.

Radiology Awards

Photo coverage of the biggest day of the year in Radiology–award day.

Employee Discount Program

Here's the new list of merchants who will give you a deal.



21st Annual House Organ Writing Contest

Call for entries • Deadline May 13

For the 21st year, the July House Organ will be the Summer reading Issue, filled with winners of the House Organ Writing Contest–poems, short stories, and nonfiction pieces contributed by staff, faculty, and students of VUMC.

Send entries to or to House Organ Writing Contest
CCC-3312 Medical Center North 2390

Checklist for entries:
Author name, departement or school, address and phone number

Category: Poetry, fiction or non-fiction under 4,000 words

E-mail entries must be submitted by cut-and-paste into the body of e-mail, or sent as RTF file

Must arrive by Friday. May 13





Vanderbilt Medical Center | Eskind Main | Eskind Digital Library | VUMC Search | VUMC Help | VU
Copyright © 2003, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Editorial tool created by the Eskind Biomedical Library Web Team © 2002