To kick off this blog, I thought I would write a post related to my current research on the function of voice and sonority in narratives of prophecy. The clip below is the opening segment of “In Case of Rapture,” an episode (S4E2) from HBO’s television series Six Feet Under. The series’s trademark was to start each episode with a minor or incidental character’s death, which then influenced the main characters’ interactions.
Evidently, the writer of the episode, Rick Cleveland, is playing on our expectations in different ways. As the series portrays the lives of a family of undertakers mainly through the opposing poles of sexuality and morality, we might expect the pornographic distraction to become an issue in the accidental death du jour. But the near accident with the skateboarder is at once a lure and a feint, or a dummy-move if you like, which can be interpreted in many ways and which seems to ask: who are the real dummies here?
This question and the next shot lead us to a middle-aged Christian woman who is driving out of a parking lot. Of course, she sees the inflatable dolls floating up from behind the buildings across the street. Her vision seems to fail her, as she sees the dolls dressed in white flowing gowns, flying towards the sun. She gets out of her car, runs into traffic, shouting her thanks to Jesus for eternal salvation. We don’t see the accident, but instead we hear the sound of a fast moving vehicle hitting her body. Only then is the cliché given a name: Dorothy Sheedy.
The function of irony, or what I’m calling a dummy-move, in this scene is twofold. First, the inflatable sex dolls play on our expectations that the skateboarder (a slacker, a teenager, a counter-cultural figure, an alternative consumer?) will die. Second, they turn into rapture dummies for Dorothy (the moral citizen, the responsible consumer, the contributor to society?). Because she doesn’t identify the dummies for what they are, she’s represented in the end as the real dummy, since her lack of judgment and perception are held responsible for her accidental death.
In this well-crafted scene, every detail counts. As the action unfolds, we try to keep up with the events and details. Since we’re expecting the skateboarder to die, the launching of the dolls surprises us, and we at once wonder why they would be filled with helium: are they a delivery to a porn convention, where they will be attached to some display like birthday balloons? The answer doesn’t really matter, as long as we answer for ourselves why the dolls are floating away. In the very next shot, Dorothy’s car backs up in the parking lot, turning towards a low-placed camera, as the lens gradually focuses on the bumper sticker: “I brake for the rapture.” We know where this is going: the righteous and their morality are in for a bumpy ride. Previously tricked by the sex-doll dummy-move, we now become co-tricksters in the rapture-doll dummy-move, as our knowledge of the accident with the pick-up truck puts us in on the gag that will inevitably end this time with Dorothy’s demise.
The whole point of this mise-en-scène is to problematize belief in undisclosed sources. Dorothy hasn’t seen the pick-up truck, since the accident happened in the back alley behind the street-front buildings opposite the parking lot. Unlike the viewer, who is constantly aware of bumpers getting dangerously close–first to a body, then to the camera– Dorothy cannot see the source of the dolls’ flight, nor make the connection with helium (a connection we hadn’t initially made either). The difference being driven home here is that Dorothy is ready to believe in something she doesn’t see. Why? Because she also believes in stories she has only heard, just like she agrees with the moral views on sex she hears over the radio. Not having seen the accident with the truck, but believing that the floating dummies are real bodies, she attributes the cause of their rise to stories previously heard and, in consequence, totally abandons herself to ecstasy’s dislocation of body and soul.
So the co-trickster viewer is finally satisfied at being on the right side of irony or of the dummy-move, as it were. But we haven’t seen Dorothy’s accident, have we? We only heard the sound of a crash. Yet, because of the events of our story leading up to that point, we still believe that she died. Especially as the black writing on the white screen confirms what we didn’t see…
Part of my research explores how the removal of a story’s point of origin or point of ending organizes various disclosures of representation. Such strategies allow for the presentation of certain people as credulous or knowing and, in turn, as marginal or central to social life. In subsequent posts, I want to have a look at disaster films to see how they use prophetic visions or voices. In what can be thought as revisions and inversions of Dorothy’s plight, such prophetic narratives of disaster determine who should be included and excluded in the human race’s survival—a topic of interest as converging global problems (climate change, dwindling food, water and energy supplies) contribute on a daily basis to our feeling of living in the end times.
[c][y] Jason R. D’Aoust. All rights reserved.