Forever seeking the “oh shit” moment
It’s a rare but transcendent sight in professional wrestling: the slow epiphany. Here’s how it works (or did when I watched wrestling, anyway – a period of my life that ended roughly 25 years ago):
Two wrestlers have teamed up to be on the “bad” side. Often, one of them is “foreign,” representing the enemy du jour (today, it might be a BP exec). A tag team match ensues, and after much drama and cheating, the bad guys have knocked out the ref and are mercilessly pummeling the good guys. Only…something’s wrong. One of the guys – the “foreign” one – is breaking the rules, the bond, whatever bound them in the first place. And then the crowd senses it. Something big. Something wonderful. One of the bad guys is just standing there, watching the other as he pummels his hapless opponent. He’s…troubled. He’s thinking. He looks around the arena – the crowd is building to a fury. The pummeling continues. He looks at his partner. The crowd sounds like a Concorde. We see it in his face…”this wasn’t part of the deal. This isn’t right. I’m…I’m better than this.” And then…it happens. He approaches his partner. He taps him timidly on the back. The partner ignores him. He does it again, more forcefully. The partner pushes him away. The crowd has never known bliss like this. Their throats will be sore for a week. They don’t care. The guy does it a third time. The partner stops the pummeling and faces him. Our man smacks his partner with the fist of a thousand furies. The partner is stunned, but doesn’t go down, so our man performs his signature move – preferably, a jump-kick to the chest – and his partner is out cold. The crowd will need to do laundry when they get home.
I write all this not just for the juicy (and not a little guilty) nostalgia, but because it occurred to me that the slow epiphany is a rare thing in entertainment. Instead, when we’re lucky we get something just as sweet: the sudden realization, an event I like to call the “oh shit” moment. Raymond Carver used to keep a 3” x 5” card on his wall with a quote from a Chekhov story: “And suddenly, everything became clear to him.” Carver liked the mystery behind the phrase, but I like visualizing that moment, when in a flash the subject saw the big picture clearly and it changed his life. Such a rich visual – he stops mid-speech, his eyes widen, his mouth opens a touch, and maybe, if we’re lucky, he even drops his coffee cup and it falls in slow motion, breaking as it hits the floor and Keyser gets away. Oh shit.
Does this ever happen in real life? We cling to our worldviews so tightly, we fight against anything that contradicts what we have chosen to believe, we barely listen to other points of view. We brag that we have friends with different political views, but we are careful to counter their arguments without really thinking about them, lest they dent our belief system. Perhaps we allow a change of heart now and then, but it’s a slow process. So here’s a case where professional wrestling is actually pretty true to life. Let THAT sink in for a bit. Still, even wrestling can’t afford to let things take a truly natural course. It would take too long to watch someone truly deliberate in real time – the audience would never stand for it. “Is he gonna turn on ‘The Libyan Liberator’ or not? Cause NASCAR is on in an hour.”
I yearn for one of these. Not cheap shots at wrestling fans – I already feel bad about that. No, it’s the epiphany I seek. The slow ones might be great for riling up the crowd, but I want one of the fast ones. I want to suddenly “get it,” to drop my glass (not if it’s full of Smithwicks, Samuel Smith’s, or anything that begins with “Glen”) and freeze for a moment while the implications of what I’ve just figured out wash over me.
In short: I want everything to suddenly become clear.
I don’t think that will ever happen. I’m too slow on the uptake, too careful, too considerate, too damn stubborn. Even if I did figure out in a flash that Verbal had just made up his whole story, I’d probably have another sip of coffee and say “Say, I just thought of something…you don’t think…nah.” Maybe eventually, in bed that night, I’d get as far as “Huh…that fellow may have snowed me.” But even then I’d fight it.
I know I’m not alone here. I’m sure I try to load my plays with epiphanies and “oh shit” moments to make up for the lack of them in my life. And why not? Some of the best moments of true drama are based on the Sudden Realization that Changes Everything. (Side note: I’m not talking about those movies where a clue is discovered and the killer’s identity is revealed. Those moments are supposed to happen, and while they’re generally fun, they’re not nearly as satisfying as the bombshell that rocks our hero’s world.) It’s a cliché, maybe, but when it comes about honestly, there’s nothing as jaw-droppingly satisfying as a great “oh shit.” (Yes, you can remove the “oh” from that last sentence and it still makes sense, maybe even more sense, but seriously…try to stay with me, people.)
But man, are they hard to do. They only work when the timing is just right – when the audience catches on just seconds after the character does. I’ve been successful once or twice – one of my favorites comes in The Trophy Wife, one of my early dramas. A couple – a man and his mistress – has plotted the death of the man’s wife, and the man lets something slip that allows the mistress to figure out that he has killed before. It happens as she’s talking – her sentence just stops midway, her mouth opens in horror, she drops her coffee cup in slow-motion (just kidding about that last part…I think). He starts talking again, she cuts him off and asks him a very direct question – and, hopefully, the audience figures out the answer at the same time she does and has to catch its collective breath.
So that one kinda works, but I’ve failed far more often than I’ve succeeded. For every successful “oh shit,” there are a dozen that fall flat, usually because the audience is already ahead of the character. Nothing more excruciating than waiting for the hero to catch up. Sometimes, the opposite is true – our hero suddenly “gets it,” but…gets what? Watch the movie of A Few Good Men and you’ll see Cruise suddenly figure something out, leave his meeting, drive to the victim’s place, look in the closet, and – EGAD! His clothes are still there. This clearly Means Something, but damned if can figure out what it is. He explains it to us later, but frustration has already set in: if we don’t get to share in the moment, what’s the point?
I’ll continue to seek the perfect moment of epiphany – in story, and in life. Since I no longer watch wrestling, I’m hoping to go the Chekhov route and experience a full-on, shameless “oh shit.” There have been some great ones in movies: “All’s you’d need is a target tracking system and a big spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target from space!” “Johnny Ola knows these places like the back of his hand.” “(looks at penis of the girl he was just making out with).” Those moments are as iconic as they are rare, so naturally I long to create one – almost as much as I long to live one. (Well, maybe not that last one.)
Either way, once it happens, I hope I can actually act on it. Playscripts may not always reflect real life, but I think both need a jolt of cheap, impulsive drama now and then.
Besides, I have enough coffee mugs. I can afford to drop one.
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