Today I come to you on the event of what might prove to be the final episode ever of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, a series conceived six years ago by Nathaniel R of the Film Experience and dedicated to the proposition that all movies tell stories through their images. Participants selected a shot that they believed to be in some manner “the best”, or at least the worthiest of discussion, and wrote a short passage explaining why. I have loved it greatly, and if this is to be the end of it, I’m pleased to have been a part of the most entertaining group blog project in all of the history of the film internet.
Our subject for the night is Splash, the 1984 hit film that simultaneously debuted Touchstone Pictures, the Walt Disney Company’s “adult, but not like adult” distribution label; proved that television actor Ron Howard had the right stuff to make it as a crowd-pleasing film director; and the film that gently but decisively redirected the career of Tom Hanks, Sitcom Actor to Tom Hanks, Hollywood Megastar. And it’s a charming enough film, albeit a monumentally chauvinistic one. It’s a curlicuing wish-fulfillment fantasy: Allen Bauer (Hanks) had a close encounter with what appears to have been a mermaid when he was eight years old, and the experience has left him incapable of falling in love with a human woman ever since. The mermaid (Daryl Hannah), for her part, has left the sea for a week to explore New York, ready to know what the people know, and under the desperate, made-up name of Madison – and you can directly trace that name’s current ubiquity right back to this film’s popularity – falls into a love affair with Allen, though he can’t quite figure out what’s up with this mysterious, deeply charming woman, and so on, and so forth.
Truth be told, Howard’s direction and Don Peterman’s cinematography don’t do a whole lot to add visual pizzazz to the movie: it mostly gets by on Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which for all its lapses of character depth commits with admirable conviction to the fantastic scenario, concluding accurately that grown-ups like fairy tales too, thanks very much; and of course it gets by on the strength of its stars. Hannah was never before or since handed a role that thrived so much on her limitations as a performer, and Hanks, while playing an essentially shallow protagonist in an essentially silly movie, is pure radiant boyish charisma, bringing just enough of his yet-to-be-honed Everyman persona to the role that he grounds the whole film in his swerves of romantic feeling, while also letting his sitcom training ensure that the material never makes a tonally-unwanted swerve into anything but candy-coated pleasurable frivolity.
But an imagistic coup de cinéma, no, it’s not. Still, it has its share of moments that effectively draw out the fantasy and sweetness and magical realism of it all using a slightly otherworldly image, and my favorite of those moments was easily this:
Allen has just introduced Madison to the mermaid statue that has exerted such a pull on him ever since his youthful experience; we quickly grasp, even if he doesn’t even know how to put it into words, that the statue embodies all his wishes and hopes about the storybook love that he wants without being able to consciously embrace the arch-sentimentalism of that attitude. It is the symbol of his repressed romantic urges, the figure upon which he places all of his affections in lieu of giving them to another human. It is also out of focus.
And what is in focus? Why, nothing else but the actual mermaid who actually inspired Allen’s ardor, and who is real flesh-and-blood and not his unattainable, unlivable fantasy. There’s the obvious meta-joke of the “real” mermaid disguised as a human being shown the false image of a mermaid, but I don’t think that’s even the main thrust of the moment. It really is mostly about the confluence of fantasy and reality, and the man who isn’t quite aware yet that his life could contain so much more in reality than the safely inhuman fantasy object that the cinematography is quietly shoving away on his behalf (and all of that within an unabashed fantasy, which adds maybe another meta-joke). It’s a delicate little suggestion of how what we can have might be much truer and better than what we think we want, and it’s at the center of what might be the sweetest, most humanising moment in the whole of Splash.
As part of my “farewell, maybe?” to Hit Me with Your Best Shot, I’ve added a page to the index with links to all 105 posts I’ve written as part of this series. You can check it out here!