That Look

The other night Lili and I watched a movie called “Nebraska”, a delightful one-pop movie (the kind that would never have a sequel) whose strength was the story it told. The acting and directing were both first-class, and the black-and-white cinematography gave it just the right amount of authenticity.

There was one scene in the movie that reminded me of a situation I’ve been in many times in my life, and I believe I can safely discuss it without giving away any spoilers. If this situation sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably found yourself there before. I know I have.

The background is: A son (David) is driving his father (Woody) to Nebraska, and due to some unforeseen circumstances, they decide to stop off in the little town the father grew up in to see some of the extended family. David (in his mid-30’s) hasn’t seen any of them since he was a young child. He knows they are very back-woods folks, but he’s resolved to make the most of it. When they arrive at his aunt’s house, he meets a couple of his cousins (we’ll call them “Thing 1 and Thing 2”), and they are exactly what you’d expect a couple of corn-fed, small-midwestern-town, good-ol’ boy, churchgoing, Garth Brooks listening, NASCAR loving, mayonnaise sandwich eating, flag-waving, 5th grade educated, god-fearing republican country bumpkins to be. They’re entirely uninterested in meeting their cousin, but David tries his hardest to strike up conversation and be cordial.

So here’s the scene – Thing 1 and Thing 2, realizing that David isn’t going away, decide they’re going to shift the conversation to what interests them the most. They begin interrogating him about what car he drives, what car his brother drives, what the specs on his car are, etc. David politely answers their questions, although it’s clearly not anything he has ever cared much about. He and his family drive efficient, practical cars, and there is absolutely nothing impressive about them. But Thing 1 and Thing 2 continue on…

Eventually, they ask David how long it took him to drive to their house from his. He explains to them that he didn’t drive straight there, that they had stopped at the hospital for a while, that he hadn’t even intended to go there to begin with… but Thing 1 persists, “But how long total did it take you to get here?”

“Oh, about two days”, David says.

Their smug little faces immediately light up. “What is that, about 200 miles? It took you two days to go 200 miles?”

“Yeah” he says. “Yeah, I guess it did.”

Little by little, they start giggling like schoolboys, commenting over and over that it took him 2 days to go 200 miles, laughing derisively each time. They begin bragging about how one of them went 850 miles in 8 hours, and how funny it was that it took David 2 days to go 200 miles (as though they never heard a word he said about why it took that amount of time).

So now, the point – as soon as they started giggling and laughing at him, a very specific expression came over his face, and it was a look I immediately recognized. If you’ve ever seen a dog eat its own turd, you’ve probably had this expression on your face as well – that expression of simultaneous fascination and horror borne from the realization that not only are these individuals behaving this way, but that they actually enjoy it.

It reminded me of some specific instances in my life where some friends of mine have gone out of their way to “gross me out”, and it always follows a predictable formula – Friend 1 does something that is intended to evoke a “gross-out” reflex (shows me a picture of something nasty, for example). Then, upon seeing the expression on my face that I’ve described above, Friend 1 and Friend 2 shriek in delight that they have successfully grossed me out. And the expression on my face, I assume, is all the reward they require. Because my expression betrays how truly embarrassed I am at my fragility, how humiliated I am by their fortitude, and how – oh how! – I wished I could un-see or un-hear whatever dastardly thing they’ve presented my delicate eyes and ears with. Or at least, that’s no-doubt how they interpret it.

In the movie, David, upon realizing the depths of depravity he was witnessing, just sat there staring at them in complete disbelief. He didn’t speak a word in his own defense. He didn’t remind them that he had already explained why it took the amount of time it did. He didn’t ask them why it was important to get somewhere fast. He didn’t point out that the ability to drive fast is not exactly a rational measure of an individual’s value. He realized that pointing out such things was futile, and there really was nothing he could do other than stare in fascination at the two humanoids before him – at what they found amusing, and at what they apparently valued most. He knew that they wouldn’t be able to understand that his blank expression of horror was directed at *their behavior*, rather than they the great embarrassment they presumed he felt at how it took him to drive to their house, how he wished he had a car as fast as theirs, and how – oh how! – he wished he could cover ground as quickly as they could.

That expression… I’ve so, so been there. 🙂

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5 responses to “That Look

  1. Would those two individuals have bullied just anyone in that manner? Why were they so bored by him, and why did they feel so comfortable laying into him? What was it about the target specifically that triggered the bullying behavior?

  2. I don’t think it’s any deep psychology there. It’s the predictable behavior of small minds formed in an encapsulated environment, where value is established via comparison of shallow, easily measured material objects or abilities, and the establishment of superiority is indicated by ones ability to mock the other with impunity. Kinda like you’d see in a sandbox – the kids with the biggest toy firetruck laughs at the kid who only has a bucket to play with, and the bigger kid pushes down the smaller one.

    • I haven’t seen the movie, but from what you describe, it sounds like the purpose of the two yokels was to establish the protagonist as a milquetoast but sympathetic character who has trouble asserting himself and finding his place. Hence my focus on his alienating qualities instead of the two throwaway characters.

      • No… the David character wasn’t exactly a pushover. Several times during the movie he stands face-to-face with people who are trying to intimidate him. At the end, he socks a guy straight in the jaw for humiliating his father.

        No, there were no alienating qualities. David was going out of his way to try to connect with Thing 1 and Thing 2. They responded by flaring their peacock feathers. It was that simple.

        • I’m hesitant to make too many assumptions about the movie without having seen it, but after reading a full synopsis and watching some clips online, I’m inclined to stick with my initial theory. David could have been any profession, but they deliberately made him a stereo salesman. He could have been single or happily married, but they instead had his girlfriend leave him as he begged her to stay. All of this sets up a character who screams drifter in need of serious development, which is generally the underlying theme with these road trip movies: going from point A to point B emotionally. He was definitely a pushover in the “how long” scene, sitting hunched over and meekly stammering his responses to the abusers – again, these directorial choices are all deliberate. The punch at the end of the film is consistent with having found strength from his journey and taking more of an active role in life and with his father.

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