The top five: Toothache

Reviews and essays on films, series, comics and more

February 9th, 2018

The top five: Toothache

You’ll be a dentist! You have a talent for causing things pain.(Little Shop of Horrors)

To show someone your teeth is to resist, colloquially. Perhaps this saying goes back to Saint Apollonia of Alexandria. In the year 249 A.D. the virgin is said to have been attacked during the persecution of Christians. She was knocked out of her teeth and threatened to be burned at the stake if she did not renounce her Christian faith. Apollonia chose martyrdom and has been the patron saint of dentists ever since. Today, February 9, marks the anniversary of her death and is also the official day of toothache. Those who suffer from such pain should address their prayers to Saint Apollonia for pain relief – Pope John XXI allegedly already advised this.

The relationship between people and dentists is a difficult one. The German Society for Dental Phobia suspects that two thirds of the population are regularly afraid of visiting a dentist. According to the Technical Health Insurance, every fifth German is afraid of treatment. The reason for dental phobia often lies in traumatic experiences as a child, such as drilling. Consequently, many people postpone visiting the doctor as long as possible if they have dental problems. Toothaches are a sign of problems that should be corrected immediately. Otherwise, the consequences could be much worse and more difficult to repair.

Damaged teeth can cause the most pain. This is due to the pronounced nerve cords of the individual teeth. These are connected to the nerve tracts of the facial nerve, which is why toothache can radiate to the ears, neck and head. The causes are periodontitis, lack of enamel or, most often, caries. Dental problems in this country are constantly declining. Between 1997 and 2005 alone, the number of caries-free children almost doubled from 42 to 70 percent. As far as the caries infestation in children is concerned, Germany, along with Denmark, is one of the best in an international comparison – twice as good as France, Spain or Austria.

In Park Chan-wooks Oldboy the hero tries his hand as a hobby dentologist. The number of periodontal diseases is also declining among young adults and young seniors. Nevertheless, the fear of visiting the dental practice in Germany is great, for example every second person is afraid of the drill. Because sometimes short-term pain is necessary to correct odontalgia, the feeling of pain emanating from the tooth. “You’ll be a dentist! You have a talent for causing things pain”, sings Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors about his mother’s professional prognosis. So it’s not surprising that toothaches are often used as an effective means of torture in movies. Be it to punish for a previous behavior or to get information.

Jason Isaac’s spa doctor in Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness has Dane DeHaan’s Wall Street broker drill into a healthy tooth, while Choi Min-sik’s protagonist in Park Chan-wooks Oldboy hammers his opponent’s teeth for clues. The loss of teeth is humorously staged in comedies, whether it’s in Home Alone Joe Pesci’s gold tooth or in The Hangover Ed Helms’ dentist himself. Rather subtle and a sign of different problems, Darren Aronofsy’s Requiem for a Dream features the teeth grinding of diet pills addict Ellen Burstyn or Essie Davis’ dental problems in Jennifer Kent’s psycho-horror film The Babadook.

Teeth can of course play other roles in movies. As an apparent cry for help in a Rabbi anecdote in A Serious Man by the Coen brothers or as the trigger for the encounter of two married couples in Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. The fact that our identity can be proven through the individual characteristics of our teeth, ante and post mortem dentition matching and ante and post mortem teeth matching, was integrated into both John McTiernan’s thriller Wild Things and Jonathan Lynn’s comedy The Whole Nine Yards. Of course, pain can also be caused to others by teeth, as in Jess Weixler’s vagina-dentata figure in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s horror film Teeth from 2007.

Teeth grinding as in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream can lead to pain. In general, however, teeth and toothache play a lesser role in movies. Perhaps also because the association with one’s own fears is considered too great. For some people, dental phobia is so pronounced that they no longer dare to join the 71,500 dentists employed in Germany. For example, the Barmer health insurance company states that in Saarland and Bremen a third of the population does not go to the dentist regularly. Nationwide, every fourth person also saves the annual visit recommended by the health insurance companies. As already mentioned, it can often be too late if a doctor is only consulted after a long period of odontalgia.

Sometimes, in addition to traumas from childhood, the feeling of shame towards one’s own mouth area is also cited as a reason for dental abstinence. In other words, people do not want to show their teeth to others. Instead, they prefer to say a prayer to Saint Apollonia. At the end of this issue of Top 5, five films, which in a certain way exemplify the different representations and meanings of odontalgia within the medium, will now be put to the test. The whole thing, of course – as always – is highly subjective. In this case, those who disagree will have to accept this with a gritted teeth. And before one throws himself into the fire:

5th The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, UK 1977) : On the way with his KGB colleague Triple X (Barbara Bach) James Bond is attacked in The Spy Who Loved Me on a train ride through Egypt by henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel). Physically inferior to him, 007 has nothing left to do but electrify the metal teeth of his adversary with a lamp foot before Jaws can break his neck. Toothaches as a last resort for self-defense are rather rare.

4th Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, USA 1976) : One of the most penetrating dental torture scenes in film history can be found in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man. There, the former concentration camp dentist Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) literally gets his teeth into history student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) – more precisely: his nerves (“Is it safe?”). Szell lives on diamonds, which he once took from concentration camp prisoners. In search of these, however, he finds no helpful informant in Babe.

3rd Kynodontas (Giorgos Lanthimos, GR 2009): Locked up at home and raised away from society, three children in Kynodontas are not allowed to leave their parents’ house until they lose their canines as a sign of maturity, according to their father (Christos Stergioglou). The eldest daughter (Angeliki Papoulia) helps out with a dumbbell – and with the knocking out of her canine she gains legitimacy for the escape from home. Here, toothache represents the attainment of freedom.

2nd Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, USA 2000) : Sometimes you wish you had a dentist, like Chuck (Tom Hanks) stranded on a lonely island in Cast Away. A tooth infected with caries causes an infection of its gums, which leaves the survivor of an airplane crash no choice but to get rid of the diseased tooth with the help of an ice skate. You can see how important it is to brush your teeth twice a day.

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Christina Cherry
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