Steve Daly on an unbearable moment in ”Da Vinci”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Money Shot is Steve Daly’s periodic column about cool shots in the season’s blockbusters (including Poseidon and Mission: Impossible III). Not scenes, not sequences — just single, individual shots.
I don’t consider myself a movie-violence wimp. Whacked-off heads, exploding guts, airborne severed limbs — none of these bother me a whit, usually. It’s a movie, I’ve always been able to say to myself. Somebody made it using Karo syrup and latex. But there are certain moments of movie violence I wish I’d never seen. Scalding moments that, once they went rippling through my cerebral cortex, stayed in there, simmering, for years, resurfacing from time to time in nightmares or in waking dreams at moments of stress or exhaustion. (Call it CPTSS: cinematic post-traumatic stress syndrome. Maybe Pfizer will invent a pill for it.)
What pushed my buttons and didn’t stop pushing them? Stuff involving injured animals, for some reason. Numero uno: that bloody horse head in the bed in The Godfather. (I saw it at age 15 or so. I looked right into the decapitated creature’s blank eyes just as the movie producer’s screams really let rip on the soundtrack — or so I recall it — and it completely flipped me out. Couldn’t sleep much that night. It still makes my palms sweat a little to think about it.) Even worse? In college, I watched a razor blade slicing what appeared to be a human eyeball as if it were a yolky egg in the renowned 1929 surrealist short Un Chien Andalou (directed by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel). I’d seen a still photograph of the super-sickening moment years before, and it looked so unreal it never bothered me. But in motion, up on a big screen? Oh, wow. Woefully huge mistake to have watched it. This short was banned in Finland on its release. Smart Finns. Once I heedlessly watched what they banned, it was too late. The hottest Finnish sauna will never sweat that wretched image out of my mind. Years later, I read accounts saying it was actually a dead calf’s eye they used. I also heard that the act of slicing it made Buñuel feel physically nauseated. These stories did not comfort or inoculate me, the way my Karo-syrup mantra always does. If I ever find a doctor like the one in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the horse-head memory and the calf-eye memory are the first memories I’m getting wiped out.
Which brings me to the inspiration for this ranty, bloggy discourse: a particularly disgusting shot in Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code that instantly entered my hall of fame of shots I wish I’d never seen. As much as the examples above have troubled me, I still respect the warped ingeniousness that went into them. They’re artful. They’re cinematically sophisticated — put over with great editing, framing, music, all that. But not so this shot from Da Vinci that I’m about to slice and dice. Unlike previous iterations of this column, which have celebrated great shots, this entry is an exercise in antithesis: a takedown of an un-money shot. A misbegotten, rude, clumsy, artless shot.
It’s in the scene where we get our first good look at the nutbag Silas, the albino monk (played by Paul Bettany with big bags under his eyes). Silas wears a sort of metal belt clamped around his thigh, a chain-link-ish thing with sharp hooks in it to mortify his own flesh. And how does director Ron Howard choose to let the audience in on this? With a huge, extended, screen-filling close-up of this garter-ish torture device — called a cilice — as Silas pulls its little metal teeth slowly, and ever so painfully, out of the milky flesh of his own thigh. Oh, the sickening detail of it — the exactness of the physiognomy as metal spike after metal spike yanks forth and rends tender skin. On the soundtrack, the thoughtful technicians have laid in a really yucky, squishy sound (which obviously must have been something else — maybe a fork stabbing in and out of a melon). And Hans Zimmer’s music pounds loudly, both before and after the moments of ickiness, so you know something unpleasant is coming.
Where’s the ingenuity or suspense in rubbing the audience’s face in a repellent moment like this? Well-done movie violence is like a doctor distracting you from some momentary poking or prodding through misdirection. This is so four-square and heavy-handed it’s ineffective. Quentin Tarantino would never have done it this way. David Lynch wouldn’t, either. They’d have maybe kept the camera across the room, so you’d have to lean in and squint to figure out what disgusting, depraved thing Silas was doing. Or they might merely have suggested it. (You never do see any ears being sliced in Reservoir Dogs or in Blue Velvet, but boy, you see the result.) Ron Howard opts to play the moment in an uninspired, literal-minded way, with a claustrophobically tight close-up. (How was the injury actually simulated? Was it CG, or a prosthetic thigh with actual fake blood squished through it? There’s not much fun in knowing, since the moment has no sense of cinematic playfulness. It’s earnest, obvious, and ugly-looking, like so much of the rest of the film.) On and on through the rest of the overdone meet-freaky-Silas scene, Howard compounds his directorial mistake. Silas whips his own back and we see it in close-up. Silas reapplies his torture implement and squeezes it until blood runs out, again, in huge close-up. Okay, okay — I get it already. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I wish I’d never seen it. If I liked the movie enough to ever see it again — which I didn’t — I’d want to cut these shots out.
And now, dear readers, if you haven’t fled screaming yet, let’s hear your own take on all this. Did you freak when Silas yanked off his heavy-metal Band-Aid? Was it no big deal for you? Did you think maybe it was, in fact, good filmmaking, since here I am blabbing on about it? What other moments of movie violence do you think were either great and artful or inept and pathetically gratuitous — or maybe all those things? C’mon, weigh in with your own money and so-not-money shots of a violent nature. We can take it. Probably.