I missed posting last week. This is because, if you believe Hollywood, I’m dying. You see, I have a cough.
Oh, I mean, it comes with a bit of a fever—not enough to be dangerous, but enough so that I’ve been a bit loopy. Fatigue. Like that. But mostly, I’ve been coughing a lot, and to someone who’s seen a lot of movies, this clearly means death. To the point that I once expressed astonishment at seeing a character in a movie cough and then survive the picture. The Gipper? Coughed before he died. Women in movies like Les Miserables and Moulin Rouge! managed to belt out some pretty impressive songs while dying of tuberculosis, but it’s okay—you can tell they’re really sick, because they’re coughing. Now and again. Maybe while spitting a dainty, ladylike drop of blood onto a lacy handkerchief.
I get it. Coughing is a way to show illness onscreen at all, and I admit that there aren’t too many of those. Running noses are really gross, and it’s probably true that you get some really weird continuity errors out of it. Fever can be complicated. Mostly, you see people looking sweaty and kind of pale, and that’s got different connotations. And . . . what else is there? Sneezing? Surprisingly hard to fake well. My boyfriend points out spontaneous bleeding from random places, which is both popular and creepy, but that’s also not a symptom of many survivable real-world illnesses.
I think the bigger problem is how seldom people actually survive movie illnesses. No one in the movies ever just has the sniffles because people sometimes get the sniffles. If you feel like you have to go lie down for a while, you’re delaying the plot, not establishing character. Though it’s interesting to contemplate—a movie cop who wants to solve the crime, but first, can we stop at the drug store for some Sudafed? I got allergies, man.
The movies, of course, are not really about showing us the human experience. Rear Window would not have been as interesting if Jimmy Stewart had been trapped in his house by a cold instead of a broken leg, because instead of looking out the window, he would have been lying in bed, surrounded by tissues and moaning. Or hopped up on antihistamines and sound asleep. Instead of gourmet dinners, Grace Kelly would bring him chicken soup. It’s a funny brief parody sketch, I guess, but not much of a feature.
Doc Holliday falling off his horse while coughing up blood is drama. Me fending off a seventeen-month-old who is full of energy while coughing phlegm into a tissue? That’s farce. Mild illness is an inconvenience. Oh, a major one, especially in a culture that doesn’t offer a lot in the way of sick time and expects far too many people to go to work (and, helpfully, spread their illness further) or else lose their jobs. It’s just not the sort of thing we tend to be interested in seeing on the big screen. Especially not in most genres, where the story isn’t really about what’s going on in the characters’ personal lives anyway.
I might watch a comedy about someone with a cold, though. Not a gross-out one where the whole point is buckets and buckets of phlegm, but a situational one where the person is dealing with all the stupid, petty annoyances of being sick. Going to the drug store at two AM and trying to determine which cough medicine you want. Running out of tissue and soup and either having to go back to the store, again, or else beg a roommate to go for you when your roommate is trying to stay out of the contagion zone. Having things that need to get done anyway; you have to do dishes or else you run out of things to eat chicken soup out of, right? All this assuming you can get the sick time. And, of course, there’s figuring out if you’re sick enough to call a doctor, who probably won’t be able to do anything for you anyway, because you have a cold and it’ll get better on its own.
Actually, I called mine, because I thought it might be a sinus infection. It isn’t. My sinuses are fine. She doesn’t know what’s wrong with me. She wrote me a scrip for a hard-core cough suppressant and sent me home to bed. But she did listen to my lungs, and they’re clear, so sorry, Hollywood—this time, it isn’t tuberculosis.