Catching the glass

There is a by now familiar scene in the overall genre of pop magical realism in which our hero, who only we know is secretly a superhero, or an alien, or a vampire, or a slayer of vampires, or maybe is just cyber-enhanced by a neurologically-linked titanium alloy nanowire endoskeleton, finds his or herself at a social gathering, perhaps a cocktail party.

As a rule, this party must be the antithesis of the heroic. Rather than flying through the air to head off a fiery atomic missile mere minutes from downtown Chicago, or stoically enduring a lone vigil in outer space, or perhaps just fighting off a swarm of hideous flesh eating daemons spawned in the very bowels of Hell, our hero must do something truly frightening — make small talk.

And then it happens. Amid the uncomfortable ties and the little black dresses and the unidentifiable canapés, somebody drops a glass. Normally this would result in shattered glass everywhere, but not this time.

In a movement far too rapid to be tracked by the unaided eye, our hero reaches out a hand and snatches said glass deftly in mid-fall. The undamaged crystaline container is thereupon handed nonchalantly to its former possessor, a fetching young person of opposite gender, who inevitably gapes at our hero with astonished admiration, while mentally rearranging her/his plans for the end of the evening.

The problem with this picture is that if you were actually a super being mingling incognito with the cocktail crowd, you would never catch the glass. Of course you could catch the glass, but that would blow your cover.

In a truly enlightened moment of pop culture, our hero would — in elegant slo-mo — start to catch the glass, then think better of it, then deliberately miss the glass, allowing it to shatter uselessly to the floor. This is clearly the only way to avoid detection by that sinister looking bald headed gentleman at the punch bowl who even now is plotting world domination and/or destruction.

I mean, this is obvious, right? And yet you never see this. Now why is that, can somebody please tell me?

4 thoughts on “Catching the glass”

  1. Has anybody looked at the physics of actually snatching a glass in mid-fall?

    Depending on how far down (and how fragile the glass) the act of snatching it may still cause it to break. Leaving the hero with bloody hands (assuming s/he’s capable of bleeding…)

    Somebody should set Randall Munroe on the case ( ).

  2. Hero films are escapist fantasies. We are supposed to identify with the protagonist. I would guess that the target audience of hero films are geeky teenage boys, who find small-talk horrifying. You’re right, it’s the antithesis of superheroics, to have that unmatched physical power (fantasy, remember) but be incapable of using it to defeat small-talk.

    An attractive person drops a glass. In real life, we never see it in time and merely watch as it crashes. We wish we could have been the hero there, and caught the glass. So of course the escapist fantasy must play out that scenario; that we are so quick with our reflexes (geeks tend to be slow to react) that we catch it automatically.

    In fact I have seen many films where the protagonist catches the glass without thinking, but then a split second later lets it fall, so only we the audience know that the drop was a corrective step to maintain cover, rather than a failure to catch the glass. This is Shakespearean irony, that we know but the characters on screen do not.

    The hero movie must tread a fine line; over-do the competence (a la Bond films), and the geeky audience will struggle to identify with them. Yet it must still be fantasy. So the protagonist catches the glass, and we identify with him that this was a moment of prowess, rewarded by the admiring glance of the girl, yet also a moment of mistake by risking discovery.

    The protagonist, then, must always react with our impulse; to be scared when confronted by a great height or a gun, to want to catch the glass, or save the girl, or be awkward at a social gathering. The fantasy is not to be someone else but to be yourself yet escape the limits you face every day. The reason such a narrative is important is that it tells you that you can succeed; from Bond films we only discover that Bond can succeed.

  3. So, I was just watching the pilot episode of Angel the other day and it has pretty much this scene, but set in a cheap restaurant, with a mug of coffee substituting for the glass. Angel catches the coffee cup after the waitress, who he is trying to meet, accidentally knocks it off the table (without spilling even a drop of coffee, of course). Her response is “wow, good reflexes” but then she is still pretty reticent to talk to him. Joss Whedon was a co-writer in this episode. He is too clever for this to be just a cliche. Angel is full of cliches with self-aware, often self-deprecating twists. Maybe the twist here is that the waitress does not in fact respond to Angel in the typical way at this point.

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