If you watch enough arthouse dramas, you begin to notice that they have at least as many narrative tropes and visual clichés as your average CGI blockbuster or discount children’s cartoon. Only arthouse tropes are worse somehow, because they’re not even means to exciting plot points or action set pieces. They’re more like emotional substitutes, aspartame introspection we’re just meant to marinate in while pondering their depth. “My gosh, these emotions, they’re so… emotional.”
But I’m not here to speak in generalities. I’m here to talk about one shot specifically that I never need to see again. That’s right, I’m talking about Car Breeze Head Window. That’s the shot where a character is so “in the moment,” so overcome with life’s rich tapestry, that they stick their head outside a moving vehicle like a doggy and just close their eyes to enjoy the breeze — ignoring the sage advice of generations of bus drivers and a major plot point in Hereditary.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when we first saw this shot, or even where it shows up. It’s hard to find specifics for something so generally ubiquitous. Certainly, it showed up in The Dark Knight.
The Joker, he was just enjoying life, man. You’re smiling because he’s different, he’s smiling because you’re all the same…
Lately, it’s shown up in a slew of indies — seeing Waves and Queen & Slim back to back partially inspired this article — but in a way that feels derivative, like a shot we’ve seen a million times before but can’t quite source.
(Queen & Slim):
(My Name Is Emily, 2016)
I had to check the Wikipedia page for this one to see if it was about someone with a mental disability. You can only be so beatific before it becomes a medical affliction.
(The Miseducation of Cameron Post, 2018):
In my mind, the movie The Perks Of Being A Wallflower consists almost entirely of Car Breeze Head Window:
Technically, that’s Emma Watson hanging out of a sunroof (“don’t worry, she does it all the time,” another character says during the scene from the trailer). And she appears to be doing the Titanic “I’m king of the world!” pose. Is James Cameron actually to blame for this?
Did the bow of the Titanic somehow get transposed to the car window for thousands of indie dramas?
More importantly, what are filmmakers trying to tell us with this shot? It seems to be a kind of visual shorthand for characters stealing a moment of simple pleasure from a complex world. And yet with each reuse, its meaning gets shallower and shallower. It is essentially the movie telling us to “dance like no one’s watching,” or wearing a t-shirt that says “live laugh love.” If a picture normally says a thousand words, this shot says about three. It’s pictorial word art. Something about it feels very motivational Christian poster. Yet my gut says it probably also showed up in a Spin Doctors video from the early 90s, with knit hats and Volkswagon vans, all Coexist bumper sticker like. Everything’s connected, man!
It’s easy to imagine it as a stock photo on the cover of a magazine called “Mindfulness” that you’d see near the checkout counter at Whole Foods, or as one of the shots in a montage near the end of a commercial for an eczema drug. In a word? Catharsis.
It’s a shot that feels like it exists more for the trailer than for the movie, something designed to have pull quotes and festival laurels superimposed on its margins, preferably with abundant lens flare. Mostly it says… well, nothing. That’s the problem. “You are watching an important scene!” And nothing makes me resent a scene like being told that it’s very important. Nothing makes me resent characters like them being depicted as dreamily at peace with the universe. It’s enforced catharsis, the same way Friday’s uniform flair is enforced cheer.
The existence of this shot doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie you’re watching is bad, but it becomes easy evidence for a movie’s badness in the event that it is, or at best a shot you willingly overlook in a(n otherwise) good movie. So… can we stop this? If your movie has this shot, we at least want to know that you took a second to question why, and that you came up with a good answer. That probably goes for all shots, but especially this one.