You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Gurney Shot: A Film Critic Goes Behind the Camera—In a Hospital

My report of seeing and being seen is a little out of the ordinary this week, and it comes without apologies. Indeed, I am happy to have the report. Explanations to follow.

The Gurney Shot is one more addition to the great cavalry charge of tracking shots: on roller-skates, or a bicycle, in a wheelchair, or a studio dolly, in a car, with a Steadicam operated by Dan Gurney (no, probably not, wasn’t he a motor-racing driver?). All right, here’s the giveaway: The Gurney Shot is what you see of whiter and ever colder corridors, from a position flat on your back and the only other things you can see are the looming life-support systems (“IV towers” my wife called them) as you are being wheeled into the operating room.

You are afraid. I don’t see how you can’t fail to be, especially if, like me, you’ve waited 70 years for your first general anesthetic and your first overnight in a hospital as more than support for someone else. Before I go any further, may I smite those carping readers who are already asking is this really film commentary? Let me reassure you that in many ops—and many other essential functions of life today—there is another perpetual IV called video. And if you’re being filmed, you’re on.

You don’t want all the details (and neither do I). but three herniated discs in my neck needed attention. This was “anterior” surgery—you could call it cut-throat. So you’re alert and begging not to be alert. As I took in oxygen, I heard my surgeon tell my anesthesiologist that I wrote travel books. I bubbled out a correction, and I think it registered. “Good job I’m here,” I gasped. It was the last of me for some time.

General anesthesia has three main functions: It is analgesic—you feel no pain; it is amnesiac—you have no memory of the procedure, or no clue to where the surgeon is going sailing next weekend; and it is hypnotic—the sleep is unconsciousness. So something glorious happens, and it is worth whatever risk you have taken. It is the renewal of your Gurney Shot, for your camera begins to take in a new white ceiling with more subdued lighting, and there are a few people in blue moving around. What can this be? What camera is filming? Why do you feel so elated? The answer sinks in. The fear that is all you recall on the first Gurney Shot has been rewarded. You are your camera! 

For 20 minutes, it was like swimming in adrenaline and immense hope. The people in blue talked to me. They listened patiently as I told a long story, and they laughed. I asked for my wife, and they brought Lucy in and she had my spectacles—with which she crowned me. Not just a very touching moment, but better than having to help her find her spectacles. So what I’m saying is that post-operative recovery is like being born again with a moderately mature mindset. It’s better not to have to try it maybe, but it sure wakes your eyes up.

In case you cineastes are still hung up on this being overly personal, let me add that, soon thereafter, I heard that Lucian Freud had died. So many of his images flashed across my screen, and I knew that Freud would not have been the painter he was without the movies and the passion they have raised in us for looking. I am too tired to explain it now—later.

But, to be more rigorously cinematic (a fading pressure in my neck), I was reminded of Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way. This is not a movie for which I have had the warmest feelings, but it does have a Gurney Shot. I can recall three other great things in the film. There’s the scene where Carlito (Al Pacino) breaks down a door to get at Penelope Ann Miller, a ballet-dancer who does striptease; there is also Sean Penn off his head on coke as a scared, reckless lawyer; and, finally, there’s a superb Viggo Mortensen as a hood who needs a chair now and has humiliated himself by carrying a wire. 

Then, there is The Gurney Shot. I have to tell you that I am at present a laid-up film critic, having to remember everything. I can’t check this for detail. Carlito gets himself shot (you feel it could have happened much earlier), and he is on his gurney being wheeled into the emergency room. He knows he’s done for, and he dreams he’s seeing a travel poster come to life with Penelope Ann Miller dancing. It’s the upturned gaze that is so full of emotional amazement—is it rescue looking in at you, or gravediggers?

And that brought back a moment in De Palma’s The Untouchables, a baroque set piece, where a babe in a pram looks up at a weapon waved, or is it tossed, above him? And that’s when I remembered that Brian De Palma is the son of a surgeon.

Anyway, I want to thank everyone who touched me and looked at me at Davies Campus of CPMC in San Francisco. I should add that recovering in hospital can be more of an ordeal than surgery. That is not the fault of the superb nursing staff. But they don’t have general anesthesiology on their side.

This column may be a little shorter than usual—but so am I.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.