In Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland’s grieving architect John Baxter mutters ‘I haven’t thrown up for 20 years’. His being sick is not only a marker of his increasing lack of control – he has a drinking session waiting for his wife to emerge from a pair of clairvoyant sisters – it is also of a piece with the general queasiness of the film. The world is a dirty place, full of spilled food and rubbish. Everything tilts in Venice, a disorientating confusion of memory and vision, with the past, present and future bleeding into each other.
Vomit comes up every now and again. Usually it arrives in expected contexts: a shocking murder scene will see a weak-livered deputy losing his lunch while the hardened investigator pries with a pen. But of late regurgitation rates have gone up. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), the sight of soldiers vomiting from a combination of seasickness and fear over the sides of the landing boats was as shocking as the violence and gore to come. It made the war dirtier than we are used to it. The same year, The Thin Red Line similarly has a soldier dribbling bile and complaining to being ‘sick in his stomach’.
Vomit as a physiological reaction to fear, pregnancy or horrific disgust is one thing. In The Exorcist and The Fly vomit becomes a weapon; in the former as a sign of repellent disrespect and in the latter an acidic leg-melting mess. Peter Jackson – in his earlier incarnation as a master of cheap sicko horror movies – rivalled John Waters in his strategic use of puke. See the appropriately titled Bad Taste (1989), or Meet the Feebles (1989). However, nowadays vomit has become so profligately used that it almost feels like a box to be ticked. The very fact that ‘gross out’ has become a comedy subgenre in some ways has robbed vomit of its shocking, subversive effect. Paul Rudd can blow chunks in I Love You Man (2009) without any fear of alienating the audience. Hot Tub Time Machine (2011), Date Night (2010) and Bridesmaids (2011) all have comedy vomit scenes and the Jackass series features several sequences where vomit is induced and delivered. The reminder that we are bodies, and the humiliation and social embarrassment that can sometimes cause, comes as a cathartic release: if we all admit to it then there is less shame, less embarrassment. Whereas John Baxter is slightly wondering at his loss of control, vomiting for Steve Carell is something that he can literally take in his stride. Team America: World Police makes the point with brilliant aplomb. When having drowned his sorrows in a bar and reached his clichéd low point, the puppet hero vomits prodigiously in the street, he does so to rousing music. Hitting the lowest point is indicative of overcoming it, so following the reductio ad absurdum, the lower the depth, the more heroic the inevitable recovery.
The over-the-top grossness of the comedy risks becoming humdrum via repetition and lacks the savagery of what must be the vomit scene to beat all vomit scenes: Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). It’s not only the shock of the vomit, the meaning of projectile, or the explosive ending, it’s the context: the restaurant of refined diners, Eric Idle’s Noel Coward impresario and John Cleese’s officious maître d’, and most of all food. Creosote introduces the ‘Autumn Years’ section of the film and behind the hilarity and Gargantuan humour, there is also something genuinely and savagely disturbing. The film recognises this threat, with Creosote introduced to something like the Jaws theme. He is greed personified, an accelerated cycle of self-destructive overconsumption and waste disposal. His spewing is the death wish, hilarious and fucking disgusting.