Wednesday, September 8, 2010

“Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick.” - Part 3 "Beware the Jabberwock, my son!"

Peter Jackson's, Lord of The Rings (2001)
(Return to Part 2)Despite the fact that I was never a Tolken fan - or even much into fantasy, I saw Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, on opening night in in Imax. I went because a couple of my close friends at the time were long time fans of the books. For the most part I had great time, although I remember thinking that if they didn't leave Rivendale soon I might puke celtic knots, and I could have done with a few less tears (those Hobbits love a good cry). Clearly a lot of the film was not aimed at my hard-edged scifi self. My Tolken fan-boy friends meanwhile were hugely pleased, and after the film wanted only to discuss Jackson's fidelity to the source material. I caused no end of annoyance when I hijacked the post-cinema conversation by insisting that the elephantine Cave Troll had been rendered with an enormous swinging cock: "How could you miss it?" I wanted to know, "It was as big as a God damn Hobbit!"

Turns out I was mistaken. What I was seeing was a loin cloth that swings very much like tube and not very much at all like a flap (curious). Not only did I manage to completely derail more serious discussions of Tolken marginalia that evening (dang), I was unwilling to concede that I had been wrong until after the DVD came out and I was confronted by a paused image of the monster’s enormous swinging loin cloth (actual dang). After a year of insisting I was right and EVERYONE else was wrong I had some serious crow to eat. I like believe that I handled this reversal gracefully, but I didn't. I was guilty of having projected a bit of Robert Mapplethorp's impropriety onto Jackson's blockbuster - but I was still right. The Cave Troll should have had a cock. 

My regard for Jackson's fantasy film was not unlike Edward Perry Warren's faith in Rodin's modern art. Even though it turned out I was wrong about the Troll's dick, I did see something real: Jackson's readiness to invest the crude culture of the spectacle with a greater breadth and depth of actual human interests - even those vulgar unseemly ones that make the more prim and proper among us squirm - like the prurient desire to see the giant monster's cock.
Ridley Scott's Alien (1979); David Lynch's Dune (1984)

My friends teased me relentlessly about my unseemly interest in Cave Troll cock. I totally deserved it, but while I was happy to concede that I had been wrong, I still maintain that I should have been right. To my mind a penis appearing - as itself - as a part of the visual program of a big budget blockbuster film was (or would have been) a significant cultural breakthrough. Hollywood films are loaded with penis imagery - but they are usually deeply veiled, and if anything, horrific - the special effects guys responsible for the dick-like monsters in Alien and Dune knew exactly what they were up to. But showing an actual dick, matter-of-factly swinging in the wind, was still delegated to the ghetto of pornographic films. 

My father is a psychologist. When it came time to discuss sex for the first time, that is exactly what we did, and in completely unvarnished terms. He didn't hide behind metaphor or coded terms. Less "The Birds and the Bees" and more "Your penis and their vaginas." Which is to say, he spoke to me in plain adult language. I was still pretty young at the time, and was a bit embarrassed but I remember him telling me that I should beware of anyone who is embarrassed to express what they want in a straightforward language. He used the example of Lewis Carroll who loaded his writings with childish nonsense words designed to disguise the author's a sexual interest in little girls.It was great advice and a good measure to apply to both life and art.

Hollywood's sexuality is arrested and twisted. The sexual imagery it regularly serves up is so lacking in sophistication it can hardly be called adolescent. But unfortunately the majority of what squeezes past the studio gatekeepers and censors is a guiltier and far sadder brand of weirdness than any adolescent could possibly dream up. At one end of the scale are the horrifically sexualized rape monsters of the Alien films, at the other are twee winks served up with an embarrassed titter - George Cloony and Chris O'Donnell's turn as Batman and Robin comes to mind. The already tortured and repressed sexuality of the dynamic duo was expressed in the most lame-brained of terms: Bat-nipples and latex butt-cracks.
Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin (1997); Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The anxiety against being clear runs deep in Hollywood - when studio executives saw early rushes of Star Wars they asked Lucas to put pants on Chewbacca. Even films that intended for an entirely adult audience seem to come to a screeching halt around sexual imagery. The infamous glimpse of Sharon Stone’s “beaver” (jabberwocky) in Basic Instinct made it through the studio machine almost as a frieze - the characters seemed to actually be collectively holding their breath. I'm a Verhoeven fan, but have never been sure what the shot was suposed to mean. Was Stone supposed to be communicating confidence? Challenge? The only times I have been flashed by women I didn't know the circumstances were playful and the act was clearly invitational. (A better example of a woman challenging and disarming a man was Peggy Olsen's show down with her belligerent "nudist" co-worker in Mad Man. With all the visual coyness of broadcast TV, Peggy was still able to called the guys bluff, and put him in his place - by pointing out how small his erection was.) I can't remember any instance of a vagina being shown to me or any of my friends (male or female) in anger. The same is cannot be said for penises.

Years ago I introduced two friends who I thought would get along famously. Both were full on Don Juans - the kind of guys who are great fun to be friends with, but you wouldn't want dating your sister. I had imagined they would have lots to talk about, and had looked forward to their meeting, but as it turned out they hated each other on sight. I still remember being totally stunned when; after a long tense evening of verbally sparing, the older one unzipped his fly and showed his cock to the younger guy. The meaning was perfectly clear, he was calling him out exactly the same Peggy called out her co-worker. The challenge was so animal, and completely unambiguous - these guys weren't flirting. Imagine the fuss it would have cause if Jack Nicholson character in Wolf had flashed James Spader and the audience his cock instead of peeing on his shoes out of sight of the camera.
Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992); Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994)
  Art house films aren't much better than Hollywood when it comes to penises. The "shocking" reveal that Jaye Davidson's character in The Crying Game was no swinging cock - it was a brief, carefully composed, and almost totally still frontal presentation. He could have been selling aftershave. Unlike Sharon Stone's meaningless crotch flash, seeing Davidson's cock it actually had meaning within the story. And unlike an angry flash of challenge this was a dangerous and charged moment between lovers - Davidson may not have been challenging his IRA bo, but all the same men have been beaten to death for this kind of invitation. Its too bad the filmmakers didn't have the conviction to show Davidson aroused - and immediately defused the moment by having Davidson's would-be lover vomit. I remember sharing Davidson's confusion: Dude, how could you not know?

A few years later an equally brief and motionless glimpse of Ewan McGregor's cock in Peter Greenaway's film The Pillow Book caused another small stir. Greenaway is not a Hollywood director and his films in no way suffer from it's visual culture of self-loathing and nervous giggling that dominates American film. McGregor says that he had not agreed to appear nude in the film, but when he saw how small his body double's cock was he decided he would rather show his own. As Jared Diamond makes clear, we are a strange brand of primate, while our species' large penis size may not serve any biological necessity, it is a spectacle at the core of what makes us human. (It is interesting to note that unlike all other apes, humans - the approaching male or even the female in question - cannot tell when a female is in estrus. Additionally, human pre-pregnancy breasts are as as hilariously out of scale compared to other apes as our penises are in comparison to our primate cousins. Even if they in no way signal monthly cycles of fertility, their value for attracting males is pretty obvious (at least to me). Having dated a few woman with very large breasts I have been struck by the ways breast size is a display among woman very similar to the way that Diamond believes that penis size is a display among men - I have definitely seen boobs used to communicate confidence and even as a challenge.) We are animals of spectacle - these vulgar excessive biological displays aren't the least authentic thing we do, they are central to being human. (Continue readin Part 4)
Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992); Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book (1996)

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