In gentler times characters suffering from ‘biliousness’ in films were seen to dash to an off-screen bathroom, cough politely, flush and then return looking pale. Not any more. Barely does a new film go by without the obligatory projectile vomiting scene. What’s changed? How come the censors are untroubled by it? And, most importantly, what do the effects guys use to make the puke?
A very good friend of mine is quite phobic about scenes involving vomiting in films. Despite his aversion he’s able to recount a long list of instances in movies that he’s seen where characters are shown graphically parting with their breakfast, almost as though, despite his phobia, he’s magnetically drawn to these instances. Maybe he’s compiling a mental catalogue so as to avoid seeing them in the future, or maybe he’s trying out some kind of self-imposed systematic desensitization. Whatever the explanation he really doesn’t like it, and he’d like a trigger warning from the censors please.
I doubt he’s on his own. Those viewers with an aversion to blood and gore are wrapped up in cotton wool by the censors. The recent fashion for qualifying a film’s certificate with a rambling ‘contains strong, bloody violence including gore, blood, entrails, blood, innards, blood and a bit more blood’ leaves one able to avoid such things as might displease the eye or mind. If on the other hand, like my friend, you happen to have a hang-up about chunder, you’re stuffed. There isn’t much to forewarn you of impending scenes of gastric evacuation in movies. It doesn’t help that blowing chunks is now regarded as a sure fire money shot in most modern comedies. My friend seems genuinely shocked that audiences aren’t shocked by such sights. How can they watch somebody bring their ring up on the screen and happily continue stuffing popcorn and pick ‘n’ mix down their own throats? At least one renowned critic is in full agreement.
I guess my friend’s thinking is: if it was coming out the other end people wouldn’t be laughing (well, actually, maybe they would) but the change in audience tolerance for this kind of thing is interesting. Perhaps it reflects wider changes in the behaviour of youth audiences; the cast of binge-drink Britain are arguably much more used to the sight of somebody publicly spewing than previous generations would have been. In the good old days one simply kept it down old chap. Neuroses aside, the depiction of vomiting has undoubtedly become an easily exploded sacred cow for the lazy film maker, a laziness carried over into TV productions seeking an easy shock. Look no further than David Walliams’ emetic racist WI lady in Little Britain. Why bother writing an engaging scene exploring social mores through the medium of dialogue when you can film a guy regurgitating his lunch in order to make your audience sit up and take notice?
Effects technology has helped directors push the puke envelope down the years. The Exorcist‘s pea-souper set the benchmark in the 70s and the emptying of Mr. Creosote’s capacious guts in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life meant that the olden days of low-tech ‘mouthful of minestrone’ offerings just didn’t cut the mustard any more. Vomit could no longer simply dribble or be spat out as an afterthought, it had to erupt with the force of Old Faithful, practically showering the audience with all manner of matter (have we had a puking scene in a 3D movie yet?) and, once they figured out how to fire gallons of stunt sick out of an actor’s mouth, seemingly nothing less would satisfy.
Sometimes the fun is in trying to spot just how they did it. I’m guessing they used some kind of sleeve-located tube for the ‘Jim’ll Fix‘ It boy scout-inspired rollercoaster scene in The Parole Officer (Ten out of ten for protein spill realism with that one. by the way.) It looks just like the sort of stomach contents that the school caretaker used to get his bucket of sawdust out for. Nice.
Just occasionally (well, maybe once) vomiting scenes have reached the level of art form. To my mind there is a curious poetry to the pie-eating scene in Stand By Me. the torrent of undigested fruit filling unleashed by Lardass and its knock-on effect through the crowd of onlookers is in my opinion rather beautifully choreographed.
It took a Trey Parker offering to hold the new formality of projectilism up to the light and send it up to hilarious effect. The small lake of bile produced by puppet Gary after a heavy drinking session in Team America: World Police deserves to have the last word on the matter. Quality: check. Quantity: triple check.
I think I’d better stop right there. There may be one or two of these examples that my friend hasn’t seen yet and I don’t really want to provide him with more reasons to get up in arms about the lack of protection the censors are providing for his sensibilities. Besides, I’m not feeling too well myself. Somebody pass the bucket…
[A version of this post first appeared on the Spectator Arts Blog on 16 June 2010]