(Cut from a grant application.)
In my favourite scene in any film, the camera has been set close to the floor and pointed through a kitchen doorway. Off-screen, a sack of groceries is dropped with a crash and a cabbage rolls into the frame, bumping across the linoleum and into the hallway before coming to rest. I can’t for the life of me remember what the movie is called. It’s a black and white movie; I want to say Polanski or Hitchcock directed it. I’ve never forgotten the scene because—at that exact point in the story, and because the black and white palette delays the viewer’s ability to identify out-of-place objects—the cabbage rolling into the room is, for a moment, a severed human head.
It’s not the gruesome nature of this image that thrills me (though it certainly heightens the anxiety of the scene). What thrills me is that the cabbage rolling into the room and convincing the tense viewer, even for a second, that a violent act has been committed fulfils exactly the same dramatic purpose as a decapitation would have. It says the same things about the plot as it has built thus far and the characters off-screen, and makes an actual violent act wholly superfluous in the film.
The rolling cabbage accomplishes all this by tripping some buried associative wire in the viewer’s mind. Further elaboration on the film maker’s part is unneeded; this simple, incongruous, mundane image has done all the subtle work of creating horror and pathos in a single shot. The effect is all the more profound because the viewer has to make the irresistible leap herself.
The rolling head of cabbage is (more or less) what I have always strived to do with words and images in my own work.