The elevator, like so many brilliant inventions, has become so commonplace today that most people just find them annoying. Or claustrophobic and terrifying, if you’ve watched too many movies. But chances are you, like me, ride in an elevator every day. Multiple times. While the elevator itself can be a vessel of annoyance, impatience, and a carrier of unpleasant odors, we must remember that being hurled vertically through time and space is quite impressive.
Even more impressive then, is that the origins of the elevator can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, to the noted mathematician and inventor Archimedes who, according to the Roman architect Vitruvius, built his first elevator in 236 B.C. These early elevators are rumored to have been run on hemp rope and powered by slaves and animals, but thankfully, by the time Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator in 1852, this was no longer the case. The rest, as they say, is history — until January 10, 2011, when Ronnie Brewer connected with Derrick Rose for a monstrous alley-oop against the Detroit Pistons, introducing (by way of Bulls broadcasters Neil Funk and Stacey King) the “ELEVATOR DUNK” to both the NBA and world at large.
Now you might be asking yourself, what exactly makes Rose’s dunk an elevator, and what does it all mean? First, you must consider the magnificent speed of Derrick Rose, perhaps his greatest asset, which allows him to travel great distances on the court in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, due to the physical restrictions of gravity, human speed is (regrettably) land based, and inertia’s a bitch too. But the key to any elevator dunk, as seen above, is a strict adherence to vertical movement, thus imitating the movement of an elevator. Consider Rose’s speed as previously discussed, and notice how once he dishes to Brewer, he calls (for) the elevator, cuts behind T-Mac, and gathers to a complete stop before thrusting upwards with hydraulic ferocity. This transfer of energy is the key, and while being completely dictated by Brewer’s ill-timed and shoddily aimed pass, really illuminates Rose’s transformation from the smelly, tardy kid trying to make the elevator on time so he’s not late for Sociology 101 to being a high powered elevator himself. Once he gathers, or rather, gets into the elevator, he skyrockets quickly and powerfully to the top floor, which is known around basketball circles and 2Pac fans as being above the rim. Once he’s there, his transformation to elevator is almost complete, but not before he deposits his passenger, Mr. Spaulding, into the mesh penthouse available only to the NBA’s highest of fliers (and Yao Ming). Having achieved his goal as an elevator, Derrick then makes a swift decline back to the ground level. Any questions?
So now that we’ve covered the emergence and usage of the elevator in hoops, we can turn our attentions to the cinema, who has a long and involved history with elevators. From serving as the mechanical instrument for early crane shots to being major set pieces in action and horror films, the elevator has a wide variety of uses and implications, but it’s objective always remains the same: to move up or down vertically while delivering passengers or freight. It is this simplicity that has allowed countless directors and films over the years to take on the elevator in a variety of creative directions, from being a place to have sex with your ex-girlfriend (Mallrats) to being a place where a stoic police officer made of liquid metal pries open the doors in an attempt to kill your totally buff mom (Terminator 2: Judgement Day). Below, in efforts to synergize, esteemed S/10 editor Theodore Harwood and and myself examine more specific cinematic uses of the elevator in relation to Derrick Rose’s showstopping elevator dunk.
[Ed.'s note -- some of these clips might contain what some people call "spoilers", so if that offends you or your sensibility, make good judgments.]
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Danny Torrance, the boy who can Shine, at this point in the film, is having visions. These visions involve sheets of blood sluicing out of sealed elevator doors and the ghosts of twin girls. The only thing that this sequence really tells us about elevators is that they’re not watertight. What this has to do with Chris Wilcox in some kind of analogous way isn’t entirely clear, but the juxtaposition of Rose’s dunk, waves of blood covering the hallway and our field of vision, Danny’s silent scream of horror, and staring twins in blue (T-Mac and Wilcox?) somehow makes perfect sense on an ecstatic level. (TH)
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)
The elevator, especially in certain residential circumstances, is often a place of isolation. Being alone in an elevator, where there’s nothing to do but stand and wait, can often be a introspective time of reflection. Take for instance, poor Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), who’s just discovered she’s contracted a sexually transmitted disease. On top of that, she’s left her wedding ring in the apartment of Mr. STD, which thrusts her into an internal panic she tries to conceal since there’s some creepy child staring at her. But alas, she has nowhere to go, and meets a horrific fate at the hands of a mysteriously androgynous, switch-blade wielding murderer who slashes her to bits, turning the elevator into coffin, crime scene, and vehicle of violence caused by massive sexual repression and confusion. Dickinson’s face, full of horror, is most likely what McGrady’s face looked like when he inadvertently stepped onto Rose’s elevator, just before being cut to pieces. If only De Palma had been on hand at the United Center to shoot the entire incident reflected off of a security mirror. (EM)
Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975)
Elevators are confined spaces, as Sydney Pollack’s use of close-ups and framings make clear. Note how Max von Sydow’s face eats up fully half the image, pressing Redford’s face against the edges, and vice versa. Yet so much can happen in a confined space; one man can be pressed up against another man who may be there to kill him, a “grandpa” can have a cake, a kid can be an asshole, Derrick Rose can go upstairs. There’s almost no motion aside from the vertical in his dunk; it could conceivably occur not only in an elevator shaft, but inside the confines of an elevator car. (TH)
Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
In Die Hard, the elevator and its shaft are featured frequently, serving as not only a means of communication (“Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho”), refuge, and transportation, but as its very own bomb testing site. Rogue police officer John McClane, under heavy pressure from faux-terrorist bank robbers, uses not the elevator per se, but the narrow and incredibly tall shaft inside Nakatomi Plaza to act out a defiant message against Euros and PCs alike. What’s important here is not the elevator itself, but that the shaft itself is an equally important component of the elevator experience, and can be used for explosions. Rose knows this, which explains the one-handed explosion he unleashes on the rim and the Pistons. While it’s not as explicit as Die Hard in its anti-Euro overtones, we really can’t be sure that Derrick didn’t intend for this to serve as a message to the Pistons lone European player, the very injured and very Swedish Jonas Jerebko. (EM)
The Departed (Martin Scorcese, 2006)
The elevator door, as shown here, can operate as a gateway to complete surprise. Unless one is Superman, there’s no telling what’s going to be on the other side. There’s just enough time to see what doom awaits as they slide open but not enough time to stop it from happening. This is probably what Tracy McGrady is experiencing as he’s spinning between Brewer and Rose on the break. And once the doors open, the violence is immediate and forceful.
And “It’s just you and me, now” might as well have been what Brewer said to Rose on their way to the basket. (TH)
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
Given the average NBA player’s propensity for ice, the bloody climax of Dario Argento’s horror mystery Deep Red serves as a warning about wearing jewelry in or around elevators, especially the old timey kind found in swank Italian apartment buildings. Here, the elevator becomes a relentless guillotine, beheading anyone who dare try and get away with murder while wearing such a lavish necklace. Unfortunately, NBA players aren’t allowed to wear jewelry on the court the way NFL players can sport studded earrings inside their helmets, but before calling foul on Stern’s strict policies, you’ll have to ask yourself how you like your T-Mac: with the head or without. (EM)
Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
To this day, I still have a minor fear of elevators suddenly dropping and slicing me in half length-wise between the car and the edge of the shaft. Modern elevators have numerous redundant safety features to prevent this from happening in all but the most dire and freakish of circumstances. In the future, though, if Total Recall is to be believed, these features have been sacrificed in the name of some kind of fascist cost-reduction. It’s a pity that Richter (Michael Ironside) is a part of whatever passes for the Establishment on Mars, yet he couldn’t see his way to getting some kind of budget allocation for safer construction equipment. It’s a pity, too, that the Pistons couldn’t see their way towards not being stuck in a situation where the dangerously sleepy T-Mac is their point guard. One hopes that Carlos Boozer, resident Bulls talker, screamed the fateful “party” line towards the vanquished Motown guards post-dunk, as the kid with the round sweat-mop thingies stooped to pick up and discard McGrady’s forearms. (TH)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)
To think that poor Charlie and Grandpa Joe almost never rode in an elevator is almost too painful to deal with, but they did violate section 37b of a contract that states quite clearly that it’s not alright to steal fizzy lifting drinks or fuck up poor Wonka’s ceiling, which now has to be washed and sterilized. Thanks to Charlie’s good nature however, every one’s able to take a ride in the much vaunted glass Wonkavator, which can go sideways and slantways and longways and backways and squareways and frontways and any other ways you can think of. While this may seem appealing at first, floating high above in the sky in a world of pure imagination, it isn’t long before Wonka himself takes advantage of the close quarters and divulges his secret plan to use an innocent child (i.e. Charlie) to push his oppressive chocolate agenda and keep the Oompa-Loompas enslaved forever. In a sense, the Wonkavator is Willy’s own propaganda machine, where he works over poor Charlie and Grandpa Joe into believing his fascist nonsense. Wonka’s political and personal agenda aside, Willy Wonkia & the Chocolate Factory nevertheless introduces the original concept of a limitless elevator that can move every which way, which is probably more suitable to the angular game of Monta Ellis, but can definitely apply to Rose as well, who’s not only capable of moving in a wide range of directions, but has his own custom made Skittles machine and used to routinely eat two pounds of candy in a single day. (EM)