Thursday, July 3, 2008

Spoiling in a Good Way

I want to warn you now that this article is full of spoilers.
What? Some of you are unclear on the term “spoilers”? You haven’t been reading your internet movie reviews. At a variety of movie sites you can read reviews of movies that are seen before the films are released. Sometimes you can read reviews of scripts before a film is even produced. Often the reviewers will warn *minor spoilers* or *major spoilers*, depending on whether they plan on giving away minor plot details or every twist and turn in the story.
Some people like spoilers, some don’t.
I prefer not to know what’s going to happen in the movies I watch and the books I read; I want to be surprised. On the other hand, my wife Mindy often reads the ends of novels before deciding if she wants to go on reading. She does this with mysteries. This is a mystery to me.
Some people like spoilers, some don’t.
*Major Spoilers*! I plan on giving away the whole plot of a certain film, and not only that, but some major spoilers about life itself.
So if you were planning on rushing out to rent F.W. Murau’s silent German Expressionist classic The Last Laugh, and you don’t want to know how it ends, quit reading now!
Emil Jannings plays the doorman (or porter) of an elite German hotel. He is proud of his job and especially proud of his gaudy uniform. When he returns from work to his dilapidated tenement, his neighbors treat him with deference and respect because of his big lapels and shiny buttons.
But the doorman is getting on in years, and when the manager of the hotel sees him take a long break after struggling with heavy luggage, the manager demotes him to restroom attendant.
The new job does not have the status of doorman and does not have a uniform.
So the former doorman decides to steal a uniform so he can still wear it when he’s back in his neighborhood. But when a neighbor spies him at work in the restroom, he becomes the laughing stock of the neighborhood.
The man breaks down in tears when he returns the uniform to the hotel security guard. And then the film makers show one of the most amazing title cards in silent films.
I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the card says something like this: “In real life, the porter would have little to look forward to, except his own death. However, the writer took pity upon the man and added this unexpected epilogue.”
The film then shows guests in the hotel laughing as they read a newspaper article. The article tells about a millionaire who died in the arms of a hotel restroom attendant. The millionaire’s last will and testament specified that his entire fortune would go to the person who held him as he died.
The final minutes of the film show the former doorman of the hotel enjoying the hotel’s luxuries, along with his friend the security guard. The film ends with the new millionaire tipping all of the bell staff before riding off in a convertible.
The title card that changes the doorman’s fortune is a classic “Deus ex machine” device (or ‘God from the machine’). This is a phrase that originated in Greek drama, when the writer would paint his characters into such a difficult situation that the only solution was an arbitrary plot intervention by one of the many Greek gods.
It is usually quite an annoying device in a play, book or film.
If an ordinary Western story concludes with a UFO blasting the bad guy with lasers in the climatic gun fight or a parent’s objection to the love match in a Victorian romance resolved by having Dr. Phil enter in and give counsel, the audience is understandably upset.
But somehow, this device works in The Last Laugh, because the film makers are so transparent about its use. A (slightly) more recent use of blatant “Deus ex machine” is found in Wayne’s World. The film appears to be ending with our hero Wayne losing the girl and the villain triumphant. But Wayne speaks to the camera and suggests a different ending. They first try the Scooby Doo ending (“I would have succeeded, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids”) and then finish with the mega-happy ending.
I think the “God from the machine” device works because there is an acknowledgement of a creator outside of the fictional world. Of course, we get ourselves into impossible situations. Particularly, we’ve got the problem of sin (Romans 6:23 – “The wages of sin is death”), and we need help to get us out of our predicament.
Fortunately, help did come from out of our world, when Jesus came to save us (John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us.”)
I don’t mind that “Deus ex machine” at all. And when I said before that I don’t like spoilers -- well, Jesus perhaps gave away the biggest spoiler of all when He said in John 14:3, “I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
I don’t mind that spoiler at all.

The Last Laugh (1924) (original German title, Der Letzte Mann) directed by F.W. Murau, written by Carl Mayer, starring Emil Jannings. No objectionable content.

Wayne’s World (1992) directed by Penelope Spheeris, written and starring Mike Myers. Some offensive language and humor, and a gratuitous sex scene clearly marked with subtitles as “GRATUITOUS SEX SCENE”

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