Show and Tell

Yesterday, I saw “Crimson Peak” and “The Last Witch Hunter” back to back. I enjoyed them both very much – for completely separate reasons. I wouldn’t dare compare or rank them, but seeing them so close together, I noticed that one of them did a particular thing a lot better than the other.

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

A scene in “Crimson Peak,” which is set around the year 1900, shows a character opening a door to a pantry, where she discovers a box of wax cylinders. We know that they are wax cylinders not just because we get to see a close-up of the objects, but because upon seeing them the character says the words “Wax cylinders!” out loud. She is not speaking to another person in the scene, as she is completely by herself. The out-loud-description is solely for our benefit. And I can understand the motivation behind that. Wax cylinders are hardly household items these days, so not every viewer can be expected to immediately recognize them.

But there’s more. Later in the film, the same character makes another discovery: “A phonograph!,” she exclaims to no one, as she and we see just such a thing. I always cringe at moments like these. Not only do they undermine the character speaking the exposition, they pull me right out of the movie by blatantly reminding me that this is a movie, and I the audience, apparently presumed too dumb to figure out things for myself – or too fragile to be content with leaving some things unknown.

Even watching the movie in the theater, my immediate thought was, If they want to me know what these objects are, why don’t they just show me how they are used? Instead of “Wax cylinders!” and “Phonograph!” just give me a scene where she actually plays the cylinders on the phonograph!

And then exactly this happens. We do see her play the records. Which made the earlier exposition even more furious to me. Oh, so you couldn’t let the audience live with the excruciating angst of possibly not knowing what these things were for ten minutes?

Rose Leslie in The Last Witch Hunter

A different scene in a different movie: Early in “The Last Witch Hunter,” a character is introduced who we quickly learn to be magically inclined. A witch! Upon meeting her, another character notices a small vial of potion and recognizes it as (and I’m going off of memory here, I’m sure the actual words were slightly more elegant) “anti-fear serum.”

“What are you afraid of?” he quips. I can’t remember her exact response but it’s something quick-witted, like “Rent control” or “dying alone” or something. It’s a quick, funny back and forth. The film doesn’t dwell on it, but the attentive viewer gets some information out of it, without knowing (or needing to know) its context, yet.

In a later scene, we see the character asleep in her apartment. It’s night time, but it’s not dark inside. Some dim lamps are softly lighting the room. When she is woken up by a sudden noise, the first thing she does is turn on a large light fixture. Amazingly, she does so without stating out loud, “Oh, no, I better make sure it’s bright in here, as I am afraid of the dark, you know” while winking to the audience.

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