Of 2014’s Dumb and Dumber sequel, Manohla Dargis quipped, “The Farrellys are still not much interested in film as a visual medium…you might as well be listening to a radio play.” Surely there’s some truth here, but there’s also a touch of Bourdieu: gross-out comedy is too low a form for serious aesthetic attention. By way of counterexample let us consider the painstaking formal logic hidden in plain sight amid the unsubtle, wincing rhythms of one of Peter and Bobby’s more infamous gags: the zipper scene of There's Something About Mary.
Visual evidence of Ted’s ensnared genitalia is the scene’s structuring absence: the lack of corresponding eyeline matches as the adults pile in, A Night at the Opera-style, to be simultaneously repulsed and fascinated, instills a false sense of security, much like the graphic match of a cloud bisecting the moon that replaces the razor blade hovering over an eyeball in Buñuel’s Un chien andalou. But then the eyeball is sliced, and so, too, is the viewer subjected to an extreme close-up of Ted’s compromised “frank and beans” to match the fireman’s look.
This is a textbook instance of a “shock cut,” that is, the sudden insertion of a graphic image into a film scene’s established editing scheme. This sort of tactic is most closely associated with horror films, but then, the kinship between horror and comedy has been long been noted, by William Paul and Noël Carroll among others. Tension, rhythm, and surprise are vital components of both genres, and gross-out comedy in particular shares an affinity with horror’s more lurid forays for testing gag reflexes.
David Scott Diffrient contends that the rhythmic and visual excess of shock cuts take us momentarily outside the text.1 If the first order of laughter would be directed at the compromised phallus (and with the fireman, who finds humor where others see only horror), the second is extra-diegetic, directed at the Farrellys' masterful bait-and-switch: only once visual evidence has been rendered thoroughly unnecessary, through sound effects, descriptive dialogue, and expressive performance – not unlike a radio play – do they finally shove our noses in it.
1 David Scott Diffrient, "A Film is Being Beaten: Notes on the Shock Cut and the Material Violence of Horror," ed. Steffen Hantke, Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 52-81.
Something about memory
What an interesting take on the shock cut and its horror parallel. I wonder what you might make of the fact that I haven’t seen this scene in years, and my memory of the close up was one much more graphic and repellent. Maybe because of the timing of the cut, all the build-up, it was frozen in my mind as something horrific? Or because of the moviegoer chatter about the scene (this one and the famous hair gel scene, too!) when the film first came out and all the references to the image. (Or something else about me that might be better not to speculate on?) I wonder how this memory issue plays out in similar horror shock cuts.
Great analysis of the scene, you really capture the mechanics of why we're surprised when we finally, and unexpectedly, see the image of Ted's zipped genitals, and I appreciate the parallel you draw between this technique and horror film editing. I also have to agree with Kathleen that my memory of the scene from seeing it when the movie first came out was of something more graphic. I remembered laughing a lot at this scene then, and found I still wanted to laugh now. But I'm wondering why? What are all of the signals that take something that could be horrific and disfiguring, and allow us to laugh? We are laughing, after all, at someone's pain. Certainly the fireman's reaction helps to give us permission to laugh, but Keith David's reaction to bring in Markie Post (as well as the clear set up for W. Earl Brown's misunderstanding about masturbation) have already clearly signaled to us that this is a spectacle worthy of an audience. Is that sufficient to translate a moment of private trauma into public comedy?
This post has shown me new
This post has shown me new connections between comedy and horror. I initially thought of the 5-minute scene as quintessential tension and relief. It's not until about 4 minutes into the scene that we see the frank and beans. Even in a movie, that's a long time to spend on one gag. Benjamin's shock cut analysis is very insightful. And the temporality would match horror, too. Are there other genres that will tolerate, support, or encourage such a long period of tension before the grotesque shot?
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