Archive for April, 2013


Doubt: A McGuffin in an Unlikely Place

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’, and the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a McGuffin.’ The first one asks, ‘What’s a McGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well, then that’s no McGuffin!’ So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

And so, during a 1966 interview with French director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock explained just what a McGuffin (sometimes spelled “MacGuffin”) is. In other words, it’s something, usually a physical object, that seems at first glance to be important to a film’s plot but is really just a pretense for the wider themes and character relationships.

Of course, Hitchcock’s films are rife with McGuffins. For example, in North by Northwest, everyone wants a statue that contains microfilm (what’s on the microfilm, we never find out). The Lady Vanishes’ McGuffin is a secret code embedded in a musical tune, while uranium in wine bottles is on everyone’s mind in Notorious.

McGuffins also appear outside the Hitchcock universe. What other purpose does the sled in Citizen Kane or the suitcase in Pulp Fiction serve?

But sometimes, the McGuffin isn’t an object at all, which is what I considered as I watched the film Doubt for the second time a couple of weeks ago. To give a very rough sketch of Doubt (the movie is similar to the play but on a larger scale), a very strict, disciplined nun (Meryl Streep) believes that a progressive, humane priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has sexually abused one of his male students.

While watching Doubt on stage and then the movie for the first time, my mind was jumping back and forth between “did he” or “didn’t he” as each new development arose. By the end, I didn’t know which way to think.

On my second viewing of the film, I had come to my own 95%-certain conclusion about the priest’s guilt or innocence (which might have been influenced by the fact that Hoffman, an actor I like, played the priest). However, does it really matter what I thought, or what other audience members thought? (However, Doubt playwright/screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley did tell Hoffman and his New York stage counterpart the truth.) What does matter is the how the McGuffin brings up themes as well as character nuances and interactions in the midst of the situation at hand.

Or maybe as Hitchcock said, “It’s only a movie.”

Thanks to the members of my DVD discussion group (within a larger Charlottesville movie meetup group) for helping spark ideas for this post during our recent discussion of Doubt.


Whatever Happened to… Nuwanda and Spot?


Gale Hansen in Dead Poets Society

After watching Dead Poets Society this past weekend (as an English-literature nerd in school, I can’t get enough of it!), I got to thinking about two of my favorite “whatever happened to” actors.

So, whatever happened to…Gale Hansen, who played Charlie Dalton (AKA “Nuwanda”) in Dead Poets Society? Charlie was the smug rebel in his group of friends at Hilton, the private school at which Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating challenges his students with his non-traditional take on poetry (“Carpe diem, boys,” “Yawp!”). Some of DPS’ other more well-known alums, including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Josh Charles were teenagers at the time, but Hansen was already in his late twenties. According to Wikipedia, after DPS, Hansen did some television work, including Murder She Wrote; he also had a bit part in Woody Allen’s Zelig. states that Hansen serves as a creative executive at Film Finance Company in Beverly Hills. However, after further googling, I found that Hansen, who is actually a vice president of creative affairs at Relativity Media in L.A., is alive and well, tweeting with fans about Dead Poets Society at

Gabriel Damon in Newsies

Gabriel Damon in Newsies

Which got me thinking…whatever happened to Gabriel Damon, Newsies’ very own Brooklyn representative, Spot Conlon? I remember seeing him on an episode of ER from the 90s, but that was it. On the Newsies’ DVD commentary, director Kenny Ortega says that he is out of touch with Damon and would love to hear from him again. In addition to a film role in RoboCop 2, his other television credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation and Baywatch. According to Wikipedia, Damon currently works as a producer, while says he works in post-production and would like to pursue acting again. In my dream world, Kenny Ortega would direct a film version of Gilmore Girls (he directed some of the show’s episodes after all), and Gabriel Damon would show up as a possible love interest for Rory. And Gale Hansen could be Lauren Graham’s leading man (not sure what happened to Luke).


Roger Ebert

roger-ebert-500To say that I was sad to hear about Roger Ebert’s passing yesterday would be an understatement.

I wish I had met Ebert or gotten the chance to hear him speak, but bad timing prevented that. Every other year, he would conduct a shot-by-shot analysis of a film at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. However, the year I started volunteering for the festival (one of the years he was scheduled to come), Ebert learned that another film festival was giving him an award, so he had to postpone until next year. That next year, he was diagnosed with cancer and was never able to come back to the Virginia Film Festival.

Roger Ebert is a hero, not only because of his intelligent, accessible writing (his zero-star reviews are especially creative) and his deep, passionate cinephilia, but because he was doing what he loved up until the very end. And that’s a not a bad life to have led.