By The Power of Grayskull.Posted: January 27, 2011
During a press junket for How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, Simon Pegg spoke about a moment in E.T. when a child dressed up as Yoda comes onscreen, and John William’s score briefly hints at themes from Empire. This was his light bulb moment. A moment wherein he first grasped one of a million possible reasons why movie-watching is so fun: references.
They’re usually not explained or pointed out in any dramatic fashion, but when you see them they are as obvious as Beatrix Kiddo sitting in a fourth grade classroom during roll call. It feels satisfying when you, as a viewer, both see a reference and diagnose it as such. Like you’ve cracked a secret code with a decoder pin or found the film’s Rosetta Stone, and can now key in to a meaning hidden deep within the confines of the movie’s own unique language.
References are powerful tools because what’s seen onscreen is not the whole of what’s intended. The filmmaker trusts his or her audience to supply the missing piece, and then ask the most important question in any film analyzer’s toolbox: why? Why reference The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, QT? Why reference Star Wars, E.T.? Why reference Last Crusade, Dogma?
Sometimes references are simply in jest, comedy for comedy’s sake. Sometimes they are steeped in sarcasm, or are in simple homage to a film the director may have grown up loving. But some (my favorite) suggest a theme that unites films that may otherwise be separated by time, by genre, or by everything else.
Such is the case with The Right Stuff and Ocean’s 11.
Preceding the dénouement in Ocean’s, the rag tag group of thieving misfits, having just pulled off the perfect heist involving three casino’s, a pair of drained batteries, and (gag) Julia Roberts, stand around the Fountains of Bellagio reflecting on the night’s frivolities as the Claire de Lune plays them off-screen one by one. It’s a touching scene that holds a ride-off-into-the-sunset level of romanticism. But what were the character’s thinking about? Were they mentally toasting they’re success in the desert? Was it simply a curtain call, each player bowing out to the audience one at a time? Was it E. All of the above?
My perception of that scene changed dramatically after watching Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff.
A very similar scene takes place at a very similar point in the script. Our seven astronaut heroes, all but one having made successful ventures into space and back, are guests of honor at a grandiose BBQ hosted by their boss, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, in Houston, Texas. He takes the stage to introduce the evening’s main attraction: the lovely Sally Rand, a dancer duel wielding feather fans that cover her almost head to toe, which is convenient as her outfit reveals about the same.
As Ms. Rand begins her routine, intoxicating the crowd, the Claire de Lune fades up on the soundtrack. The pilots, each in turn, look to one another in a state of what seems to be embarrassment – the “what the hell are we doing here” kind.
At this point, Kaufman begins juxtaposing the event in Houston with test pilot Chuck Yeager pushing for yet another air speed record. A record that the American public cares little about now that the space race is in full swing.
As Yeager climbs higher and higher, vying to get a look at the demon once thought to be hiding behind mock one, the looks exchanged by the seven men in Houston evolve, moving from embarrassment of an event that highlights the individual, to pride in a courage that has united them – that has made them brothers. They are linked by an unspoken and uncommon bond. That same bond is what Kaufman suggests by splicing in images of Yeager’s harrowing flight. A feeling that even though they are separated by hundreds of miles, the seven can almost feel Yeager chasing that demon, just as they have and just as they will continue to do.
That feeling of brotherhood is what Ocean’s 11 is referencing.
Surrounded by the sparkle and excess of Las Vegas, represented here by a gaudy fountain (in place of a gaudy feather dancer), this crew is united in their chase of the impossible. The true reward laid in the challenge, not the in the reward. And only a team who truly believed such an absurd thing would be capable of pulling off a heist as high risk and “impossible” as Danny’s was.
Look at what happens to the team at the start of Ocean’s 12. The money splits them, it creates a focal point that distracts from their demon, and brings them nothing but suffering. If money was the true reward of Ocean’s 11, the movie could almost be considered a tragedy.
Without “getting” the reference between the two films, I may very well have never given that fountain scene a second though. But the Claire de Lune unites them. The power of a reference is the power of suggestion. It’s the power to suggest a line of thought the viewer may never have otherwise stumbled across.
And that’s worth keeping your decoder ring handy for, even if you end up with an Ovaltine commercial every once and a while.