Favorite scenes of birth and creation
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The past year and a half has seen a wave of AVC babies, including one born just last weekend (congratulations, Kyle!), so we feel we owe them an acknowledgement in the form of an AVQA about favorite birth or creation scenes. Interpret that as liberally as you want: It doesn’t have to be the birth of a baby, it could be the birth of an art scene or a new kind of music, Birth Of A Nation, or even a favorite sequence involving a creepy baby—anything that feels like an origin story, or a case of something new coming into the world.
Sadly, the first thing that came to my mind was the “Circle Of Life” sequence from The Lion King, where baby Simba is born and presented to all the animals on the veldt. I have a fondness for that sequence that’s entirely divorced from the rest of the film, because of the way Disney cleverly separated it and presented it as the film trailer, building up expectations for an animation tour de force. I still get chills watching it. Equally sadly, I still enjoy the Genesis effect from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, where the new blue planet is born out of a rocky, lifeless moon-like planet. I remember being so stunned watching that on the big screen, thinking I was seeing the pinnacle of what CGI could do in a movie. Little did I know.
Oddly enough, I just experienced one, in Jeff Lemire’s new graphic novel The Underwater Welder. At the end of the book, the protagonist’s first child is born, and all the anxiety he’s felt over the course of the story—about becoming a parent, and about his unresolved feelings toward his own dad—dissolve into one great well of emotion. Nothing is resolved, per se; the hero still has some pretty big issues to work through after the story is done. But there’s a primal pull to The Underwater Welder’s closing pages: a sense that a lot of parents feel overwhelmed and inadequate, and yet compelled to carry on because there’s this beautiful ball of need that demands (and ultimately rewards) our attention. It’s just a lovely piece of cartooning from Lemire, simultaneously nerve-wracking and poignant.
There’s no specific moment that’s stuck with me (unless you count the groovy easy-listening theme song that plays over the credits, which remains embedded in my skull to this day), but any time the topic of having a baby comes up, from my own daughter all the way down the line, I always instantly think of the classic ABC Afterschool Special, “My Mom’s Having A Baby.” I was only 7 when it originally aired, but I already had a little sister by that point, so I’m sure I thought, “Well, obviously, I don’t need to watch this, because I’ve already lived it.” How wrong I was. Until I found the below clip on YouTube, I hadn’t seen so much as a moment of the show since it originally aired in 1977, but I’ve never forgotten it, as it managed to steadfastly capture my attention through its blend of live action and animation, with the former portion including actual footage of a baby being born. I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as graphic as what you’d see on a reality show nowadays, but damned if it wasn’t illuminating for 7-year-old me. I couldn’t tell you a thing about what I learned in Sex Ed (possibly because my hormones were already raging out of control by that point), but I’ll never forget “My Mom’s Having A Baby.”
While the recent Breaking Dawn and Prometheus did their darnedest to explore new horizons in terms of nightmarish twists on birth scenarios, I’d say the most Cronenbergian of them all still belongs to David Cronenberg and The Fly. When Geena Davis finds out she’s pregnant by hubristic scientist (hubrientist?) Jeff Goldblum, she isn’t sure whether the baby’s fully human or if it owes its conception to the post-teleported half-insect mutant her boyfriend’s slowly becoming. The dream sequence in which she imagines giving birth to a giant, writhing maggot has got to be one of film’s most awesomely dark visualizations of prenatal anxiety, and it also works as an exaggerated metaphor for the fear that you don’t really know the person with whom you’re having a child.
Plenty of birth scenes leave me terrified to someday become a parent (Eraserhead and Rosemary’s Baby just about cover it), but I’m feeling celebratory, so I’ll choose something with a little more levity. I like The 40-Year-Old Virgin a great deal, but Knocked Up is the Judd Apatow film that sticks with me most. It helps that the cast is stacked with Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Leslie Mann, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, Ken Jeong, and Adam Scott—seriously, it’s like Apatow uses Carnac as a casting director. Even Katherine Heigl at the height of Grey’s Anatomy’s popularity is mind-bogglingly decent as her best-laid birth plans crumble around her. Heigl screaming at Baruchel, Segel winking at Mann, and Rudd saying Starr looks like Matisyahu with his hideous beard are all great bits, but the disarmingly genuine emotion once the baby arrives seals it.
I’ve been thinking about Lost a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. So when this question arose, naturally my mind turned toward Aaron’s birth in the first season of that show. It’s powerful for a variety of reasons. Twinning this event with the show’s first major character death pointed to the fragility of life both on and off the island. Later events demonstrate just how special this birth is. But more than anything, it embodies the show’s spirit, addressing the power of the community vs. the individual. Lost’s “live together, die alone” ethos wasn’t just a fun catchphrase, it was the moral backbone of the entire series. Claire needed Kate to be there, just as Charlie needed Jin by his side during the birth. All four were strangers mere weeks before, but eventually turned into the most important people any of them would ever know. One can quibble with the minutiae of the show every 108 minutes until the end of time. But moments like this are why I keep returning to the show.
I don’t know what it says about me—quite possibly that I am a bad person—but when I think of creation or origin stories, the first one that pops to mind is not some earnest, heart-tugging birth scene or tender introduction, but rather the riotous parody of show-business creation mythology found in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The scene begins with its hilariously oblivious hero (John C. Reilly) horrifying a Sam Phillips-like producer (Christopher Guest fixture and ace improviser John Michael Higgins) by performing a cheesy version of “That’s Amore,” complete with silly hand gestures. Mortified, Higgins tells Reilly he’ll need to create “something so personal and so new that the entire world takes notice and that your life is never the same again” in order to redeem himself and the wasted session. Cox rises to the occasion, of course, and with the 15 seconds Higgins generously gives him to prove his genius (only because he trusts the instincts of the Hasidic Jews who brought Reilly in), performs the title song to the rapturous applause of everyone in a three-mile radius. In a glorious spoof of the hilariously condensed time-frame favored by show-business melodramas, Cox becomes a huge star within the same hour he first performs the song for Higgins. The scene is a wonderful riff on the heavy-handed historical irony of biographies that can’t help but elevate to ridiculously mythic proportions the magical moment when their modest heroes become bona fide superstars.
In college, I took a class on “The Documentary Tradition.” One night was devoted to movies that examined the process of childbirth. First up: Stan Brakhage’s silent 1959 record of his wife giving birth, “Window Water Baby Moving.” As a 19-year-old who’d never actually seen this miracle of nature beforehand, I didn’t know the process was so bloody or fluid-filled. I’d known abstractly, of course, but watching it was a whole other thing, and clearly I wasn’t the only one: when the placenta plopped out, the classroom gasped like we were watching Alien. With that in mind, my appreciation for the infamous hospital scene in Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered increased even more. This is the scene where Green’s in a hospital and “assists” in giving birth, severing the umbilical cord with his teeth, then chomping down and swinging the baby around while blood and fluids fly all over the place. Gratuitously disgusting? Not one bit.
When I think of origin stories, the one that sticks with me was the episode of The Simpsons where Homer and Marge tell the kids the story of their first kiss. The second-season episode, “The Way We Was” sets their kiss in 1974, and it’s a sweet tale of the doofy Homer Simpson meeting and falling for the lovely, educated Marge Bouvier, with her book-smarts and long, flowing blue locks. He even joins the debate team to get close to her. But Marge is enamored with the annoying Artie Ziff. Homer plans to ask Marge to the prom by pretending he needs help with his French. After he’s found out, Marge goes to the prom with Artie instead, and a crushed Homer goes to the prom on his own. It turns out, though, that Artie is as handsy as he is smart, and on her angry drive back home, Marge sees Homer sitting on the curb, and realizes who she liked all along. Sure, The Simpsons has shifted timelines and rewritten Homer and Marge’s meeting story a number of times, but this first telling of the story was the best in terms of pure storytelling, and it gave us a chance to see the goof get the girl. My favorite line: Marge saying “Maybe I’ll wear my hair… up” for the prom. The tower of hair she constructed hasn’t come down many times since.
How about the alien birth in Alien? Three sequels and a prequel of sorts (Prometheus) down the line, the aliens on LV-426 have multiplied in myth and number, but it’s worth remembering that Ridley Scott’s original 1979 classic was about a single creature on the commercial towing ship Nostromo and the devastation it wrought onboard. The “birth” scene is presaged by a disturbing mystery: The creature that attaches itself to John Hurt’s face and resists all removal attempts suddenly disappears. From that unsettling quiet comes the dinner scene where a jovial Hurt suddenly begins to convulse as the alien moves around his torso like a squirrel in a sack, bursts through his chest, and scampers off to points unknown in this vast, defenseless vessel. The spectacle of a man “giving birth” is uniquely horrifying, but the scene epitomizes the film’s brilliant strategy of puncturing the tranquility and quiet of deep space with moments of white-knuckle horror. After all, as the tagline goes, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Kevin already mentioned it in passing, but I’m a sucker for Rosemary’s Baby. I’m never going to be pregnant myself (unless the Dystopian future of Junior finally comes to pass), but Ira Levin’s novel, and the terrific Roman Polanski adaptation it inspired, do a great job of sharing expectant mothers’ joy, dread, and periodic paranoid realization that nearly everyone in their lives is engaged in a secret cabal against them. There’s poor Rosemary’s inexplicable physical agonies—sharp stomach pains, general nausea, a strange craving for raw meat—her husband’s hollow efforts of support, as he spends more and more time getting chummy with the neighbors; and the discovery that the young doctor she trusted to save her from all this madness considers her emotionally and mentally unstable, putting her directly back into the hands of the grinning assholes who caused all her troubles. Both the book and the movie find a perfect balance of justified paranoia and empathetic black comedy (because hey, just about every biological process is as grotesque as it is weirdly hilarious—had sex recently?), and both find their climax in a final scene which is as nightmarish and heartwarming as anything I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. It represents, to my ignorant, sheltered experience, what it must be like to bring a new life into the world: He may be the antichrist, but he’s still your son, dammit—claws, evil eyes and all.
It would have to be the scene in The Odd Life Of Timothy Green where the titular Timothy Green comes climbing out of the garden in the middle… Well, maybe not. You know what comes to mind first? The scene in One Hundred And One Dalmatians where Perdita gives birth. The scene takes place offscreen, with Pongo, her dog husband, and his owner, Roger, waiting in the other room, like proper ‘60s dads, while Roger’s maid, Nanny, announces the birth of 11, no 13, no 15 puppies. Then she comes back sadly noting that the count dropped to 14 because “we lost one, the poor little thing” and hands Roger the apparently stillborn pup wrapped in a blanket. Roger then—and I’m pretty sure the medical science here is dubious—gently rubs the pup until it revives, emerging from the blanket looking weak and confused but very much alive. It’s a kind way to ease kids into understanding what it means for new life to enter the world, and the possible heartbreak that might come with it (while also illustrating that movies are often kinder than life).
For those who haven’t seen the climax of David Cronenberg’s The Brood, Samantha Egger plays a patient of radical psychotherapist Oliver Reed, who schools people to release their pent-up anger in ways that physically manifest on their bodies. Egger, who’s going through an ugly divorce, takes to the therapy so well that she actually gives birth to murderous creatures that scoot off to kill the people she’s sore at. The makeup effects on the creatures themselves aren’t great—a number of scenes just look as if people are being violently attacked by gangs of Droog dwarves—but really, the one thing most people will remember after seeing this movie is the image of Egger revealing her bare, pregnant belly and producing another little monster. (Once it’s in her arms, she licks it clean. In a great tradition of horror movies being altered by the thought police in ways that inadvertently make them even worse, Canadian censors originally trimmed this scene in such a way that, as Cronenberg has pointed out, it looked as if she were eating the thing.) Cronenberg, who was going through a bad divorce while writing the script, has referred to this movie as his Kramer Vs. Kramer.
The scene I always come back to is the shot of the hands holding the newborn baby in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, which is Anderson’s most problematic film, but gets a lot of leeway from me for the fairly stunning section set in the small village that the film’s main characters happen upon. There’s so many ways this shot of the baby could be trite or cliché, could just be there to remind the troubled characters of their own youths, when they held such promise. And even I’ll admit the sequence, which occasionally dances up to the edge of having the underprivileged, poor, rural Indians exist to remind the hyper-privileged, rich, urban Americans that plenty of people in the world have problems worse than theirs. That theme is simply hard to do right. But the sequence where a villager gives birth, and then the baby is seen, shot from above with such love and grace, is such a terrific moment that it encapsulates so much of what makes Anderson’s filmography essential to me. (Someone—I think it was Armond White, of all people—mentioned that he didn’t think he’d seen a baby shot with such love onscreen before, and I’m inclined to agree.) The characters might be overwhelmed by their own petty concerns, but they’re also part of a giant cycle they can only ever briefly glimpse. And so it goes.
I know I just answered an AVQ&A with Craig Thompson’s excellent graphic novel Habibi, but since it covers the lives of two people plus a culture, I don’t feel too bad about picking it again. The book is full of births, but the one that sticks most is the literal birth of the protagonist’s son, a baby she does not want from a father she did not choose. In a handful of pages, Thompson captures just about everything women fear about pregnancy. Dodola has no say in the conception of the baby, and the baby itself takes away any remaining control she has over her body. For her, having a baby is like carrying a giant parasite that transforms her so much that when he’s born, she is incapable of loving him and doesn’t recognize him as hers. It’s an irrational fear, but it sits behind most of the culture on this list. Creators mine this scenario constantly, albeit with varying degrees of exaggeration, because it works. We react to the idea of an alien/vampire/maggot baby because there’s a little truth to it, truth that Thompson captures in Dodola’s reluctant motherhood. Her baby doesn’t sprout from her stomach, but he’s just as alien, and his birth makes me just as uncomfortable.