Consider the yin-yang, that ancient symbol of duality. Now consider its dots, symbols that everything contains at least a trace of its opposite. Pure darkness and pure light: The yin-yang dismisses these ideas, insisting instead that we acknowledge the light within the darkness and the darkness within the light.
So it is with movies. Look hard enough at even the most perfect-seeming film, and the flaws will present themselves. They may be miniscule, or they may be vast. Skimming the dregs yields the same results, calling attention to moments of greatness in even the sorriest material. Here, The Onion A.V. Club presents some of the results of its recent research project: Finding the worst scenes in the greatest movies, and rescuing some terrific scenes from the awful films around them.
1. Psycho (1960)
Scene: Wrapped up with a ribbon
Alfred Hitchcock is widely considered among the most psychologically perceptive of the great directors, but the more overtly psychological aspects of his films today often look cheesy and dated. This is especially true of Psycho's post-climactic wrap-up, in which Simon Oakland's savvy head-shrinker turns into a walking psychology textbook as he explainsin the patient, vaguely condescending tone he might use on a particularly slow childthe peculiar relationship between the creepy proprietor of the Bates Motel (Anthony Perkins) and his ever-lovin' mama. Oakland's stiff speech has the unfortunate effect of explaining away and diminishing the madness of Perkins' character, replacing the archetypal power of evil with the muddled logic of dime-store Freudianism.
2. The Great Escape (1963)
Scene: Steve McQueen flees the Nazis on a motorcycle
Yes, it's thrilling. Yes, it's on the poster. Yes, it's probably the most iconic moment in McQueen's career. But there's no understating the ridiculousness of McQueen racing his Nazi captors across the countryside and attempting to pop a Dukes Of Hazzard wheelie over two barbed-wire fences leading into Switzerland. The scene owes everything to McQueen's contract and nothing to history: He only agreed to star in the movie on the condition that he'd have a chance to show off his motorcycle skills. Meanwhile, in a more sobering (and true-to-life) development, the Germans round up all but three of the 72 Allied escapees from a POW camp and later gun down 50 of them in cold blood. So why does McQueen's derring-do make it seem like a happy ending?
3. Lost In Translation (2003)
Scene: "Hey! Lip my stocking!"
For the most part, Sofia Coppola keeps the isolation and melancholy culture shock of Lost In Translation at a sweetly low-key ebb. But she breaks the tone entirely for the thoroughly embarrassing scene where Bill Murray deals with a well-aged "premium fantasy" call girl, a Japanese woman who enters his hotel room to give him the baffling order "Lip my stockings, prease, prease, prease!" When he politely tries to get rid of her, she falls on her back, makes bicycling motions with her legs, howls "Oh no! Help, prease!" and attempts to wrap herself around him. Highly awkward physical comedy ensues. Murray's discomfort and distaste certainly extends to the audience, which is no doubt what Coppola had in mind, but the scene's crassness is vast and overbearing, particularly compared with the restrained sorrow of the rest of the film.
4. An American In Paris (1951)
Scene: The ballet
In the '50s, MGM tried to class up the musical by inserting ballet interludes, to show that the studio's contract players were capable of more than just gauche hoofing. In An American In Paris, Gene Kelly pursues the unattainable Leslie Caron while ducking his amorous patron Nina Foch, and just when the story reaches its critical point, the movie breaks into an 18-minute George Gershwin-scored dance sequence that relates everything that's gone before, in abstract, symbolic form. It's simultaneously wondrous and tedious, but it makes this list for what happens next: nothing. The movie just ends, with the ballet apparently having resolved all the problems that the audience spent 90 pre-ballet minutes caring about.
5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Scene: Hilary Swank's family visits her hospital bed
The recent controversy over Million Dollar Baby afforded the surreal spectacle of conservatives attacking the ostensibly liberal messages of a movie made by one of film's pre-eminent conservatives. And while the film is fairly progressive overall, it's downright reactionary in its depiction of Swank's family, a white-trash brood of hillbilly monsters dominated by the worst cinematic matriarch (Margo Martindale) this side of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Million Dollar Baby traffics largely in shades of gray, but Martindale's welfare queen is a grotesque caricature of entitlement run amok, especially in the scene where she tries to convince her bedridden daughter to sign away her assets. Martindale doesn't flat-out say she's going to sell the house Swank bought her and spend the proceeds on malt liquor, lottery tickets, and a closet full of "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts, but that's clearly implied. It's hard to say which is more surprising: that even Swank's saintly pugilist calls Martindale a fat, lazy hillbilly, or that she waits until late into the film.
6. Network (1976)
Scene: A weekend getaway with Faye Dunaway
Director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Cheyefsky might have been prescient with Network, their acclaimed satire on the state of television news, but it doesn't tread lightly, especially in the unlikely (and purely symbolic) relationship between wizened old newsman William Holden and ratings-hungry sexpot Faye Dunaway. In the worst of several scenes designed to establish Dunaway's subhuman narcissism, Holden and Dunaway enjoy a brief lovemaking session in which she climaxes somewhere between talking about entertainment law and choice time slots. Afterward, she gently coos, "What's really bugging me now is daytime programming."
7. Malcolm X (1992)
Scene: "I am Malcolm X!"
When Spike Lee needs to get a point across, the phrase "by any means necessary" often applies: He ended School Daze with a character exhorting the audience to "wake up" as an alarm bell rings, and closed Jungle Fever with a man placing a smoking gun on the Bible. After closing his stately biopic Malcolm X with Ossie Davis' stirring eulogy, Lee overreaches again with a scene set in contemporary South Africa, where young students in a classroom celebrate Malcolm X Day. Lee then cuts to a montage of the kids leaping out of their chairs and chiming "I am Malcolm X," just in case anyone doubted after 200 minutes that X's legacy lives on.
8. Bull Durham (1988)
Scene: The big speech
Even writer-director Ron Shelton admits that Bull Durham's most famous sceneKevin Costner's "what I believe" speechdoesn't ring true. Shelton wrote it to attract actors to the project, and though Costner brings a lot of conviction to the lines, the litany of pleasures sounds forced. "I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy... I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone"? That's an e-mail rant, not a timeless monologue.
9. A Night At The Opera (1935)
Scene: The endless trans-Atlantic musical voyage
Justly revered as one of the Marx brothers' best comedies, A Night At The Opera opens and closes brilliantly, but beware the dusty middle that hits around the 42-minute mark. Most Marx films take a few moments for Harpo and Chico to show off their musical chops, but the musical sequence in Night At The Opera just keeps going, eventually exploding into a full-on production number of "ethnic" pageantry. Meanwhile, singing straight-man Allan Jones proves he's no Zeppo. It's a blip in the midst of brilliance, but it sadly set the pattern for the brothers' subsequent overstuffed MGM films.
10. Elephant (2002)
Scene: Teen-killer homoerotica
Gus Van Sant's tender, hypnotic day-in-the-life portrait of a high school just before a Columbine-style massacre goes to some length to show its teen murderers and their targets as humans, rather than angels or demons; for the most part, the film avoids easy answers and obnoxious stereotypes. At least until the murderers climb into the shower together and start making out, in a faux-erotic moment that rings both false and exploitative. Van Sant sticks so closely to the actual Columbine story otherwise that it's hard not to see this little bit of poetic license as cheap theorizing and cheaper pop psychology: "I've never even kissed anybody, have you?" one asks the other before the naked necking starts. Shades of early Brian De Palma...
11. Casualties Of War (1989)
Scene: The coda on the train
With Citizen Kane as the grand exception, framing devices are almost always killers, and Brian De Palma's otherwise wrenching tragedy Casualties Of War is hampered by a doozy. The only reason to put Vietnam vet Michael J. Fox on a MUNI train in present-day San Francisco is to show how haunted he remains by his experience in the war, where he saw his unit enslave, repeatedly rape, and later slaughter a young female villager. At the end, he shares a moment on the train with a pretty Asian student, who just happens to be played by the same actress (Thuy Thu Lee) victimized in the Vietnam scenes. The spookily perceptive woman comments that he must have had a bad dream, but it's over now.
12. Short Cuts (1993)
Scene: "Goddamn yew!"
Andie MacDowell has been the weak link in countless movies, dating back to her breakthrough film sex, lies, and videotape, where her blankness and her character's timidity become indistinguishable. Aside from the clunker finale of Four Weddings And A Funeralwhere MacDowell offers noncommittal praises for rainher most poisonous performance comes toward the end of Robert Altman's Raymond Carver pastiche Short Cuts. She confronts baker Lyle Lovett, who's been tormenting her with prank calls, but the best she can manage is a shrill curse delivered in a pinched Southern accent. She quickly deflates the movie's tensest moment.
13. Schindler's List (1993)
Scene: Liam Neeson does some Oscar-baiting breast-beating
Steven Spielberg rarely does anything small any more, and he certainly wasn't trying for restraint with his three-hour-plus, Oscar-sweeping black-and-white biopic about Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner whose risky machinations saved more than a thousand Jews from the death camps during World War II. But the film's material is powerful and the performances are profound, and when Spielberg sticks to personal human drama, Schindler's List is deeply moving. Still, things break down during a climactic scene, as Schindler prepares to flee after the war. In front of a massive symbolic audience of the people he saved, Schindler breaks down sobbing, babbling about the additional lives he could have saved by selling his car, or his Nazi pin. His rescuees, whom he ignores in his hysteria, silently move in to hug and pat him, validating his mawkish drama-queening and placing it on a level with their own tragedy. "Look at that man's emotion and sensitivity!" their worn, iconic, emotionally exploited faces seem to say. "Surely the Academy wouldn't dishonor our lost families by denying him an Oscar!"
14. Last Tango In Paris (1972)
Scene: Marlon Brando's dirty talk
Brando's Last Tango In Paris performance is so searing because he plays his charactera depressed American recovering from his wife's suicideas an extension of himself, with mannerisms and preoccupations that are quintessentially Brando. Which is all well and good, until Brando and his anonymous sex partner (Maria Schneider) start getting playfully naughty with each other. When she says "What big claws you have!", he responds "The better to squeeze a fart out of you!", puncturing the film's intense erotic despair with improv sprung from a notoriously scatological mind.
15. Showgirls (1995)
Scene: Gang rape
It's hard to criticize a scene for going too far in a movie whose whole glitzy aesthetic revolves around mind-numbing excess. But whether it's embraced as a gonzo, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls-style satire of American excess or the ultimate in so-good-it's-bad camp, one scene in Showgirls brings the fun and games screaming to a halt: the brutal gang rape of Elizabeth Berkley's best friend by her favorite singer and his entourage. The rest of the film qualifies as transcendently, brilliantly cheesy, but this scene merely feels sleazy, wrong, and sordid, not to mention devoid of the trademark psychotic wit and humor of director Paul Verhoeven. Granted, Showgirls' revenge finale hinges on Berkley having something to avenge, but the filmmakers didn't have to resort to an ugly, disturbing sexual assault to raise the stakes.