STATS: MOVIES / DE PALMA ET AL / 80’S
The first time I could tell how seriously and forever sex and violence were intertwined I was 4 and I got taken into this big Ninja Turtles Museum they used to have in my hometown by some kind of babysitter. We looked at all the Turtles stuff and then we got separated. I lost track of her, or she of me, and I ended up wandering into one of the Special Exhibits on the 3rd Floor. I was so short at the time I walked right under the saloon-style swinging doors that blocked the area off, and too young to read the sign that probably said something to the effect of Adults Only.
I began to swim so soon upon entering that the actual pornography barely registered — I don’t, per se, remember any of the images from that particular spread of sex cartoons.
What I sort of remember is the vertigo. The feeling of panic and everything warping around me, the ground melting and the walls, yup, closing in, and, most importantly, the all-too-easy-to-enter-by entrance becoming all-at-once-nowhere-to-be-found. I couldn’t stop spinning, looking for a way out and instead only threatening my ability to go on standing upright.
What I really remember is the fear. It wasn’t fear of getting caught and reprimanded, called out for being a kid at-large in a zone marked Adults Only. It was more immediate than that: the fear of being attacked. As I spun and spun, trying and failing to remember the difference between a wall and a door, I feared a hammer or mallet coming down on my head. I pictured it as a rubber mallet but swung hard and recklessly enough to do real damage. It wasn’t even that someone — anyone in particular — was going to wield it against me in any deliberate way. It was just the definite feeling that, because of where I was, I was about to get hurt.
And I remember that I liked the feeling. It woke me up, forced me to live.
In the thousands of hours I spent roaming the Action, Sci-Fi, and Horror sections of Pleasant St. Video in Northampton, MA where I grew up (as much in that video store as in the town, if not more), I fetishized the boxes of a lot of videos I wasn’t allowed to see.
I’d hold them close to my chest like dangerous holy relics, artifacts from religions that the powers that be had tried to shut down in favor of blander things, but that still held their potency, all the more so because of the effort made by adults to deny and suppress them. I’d stare at those outlined R ratings on the backs of the boxes, beside the running times (which I memorized), and feel their rage and energy burning and shaping my hands.
I sometimes almost passed out from my desire to see things like Natural Born Killers (119 mins.). I’d look at the pictures of people all bloody and flustered on the back and close my eyes and try to imagine how they’d gotten that way.
A lot of the boxes I fetishized turned out to be genre-members of what’s known as the Erotic Thriller, which got going in the late 70’s and mostly fizzled by the early 90’s, when yet another wave of mainstream conservatism blew in. Without being able to articulate it to myself then, I could tell that the sexual element of these films, when combined with their violence, lent them a power and intrigue that purely-violent films like Speed and True Lies (which I was allowed to see much sooner and thus quickly lost all hold on me) lacked.
It wasn’t just that they were doubly-forbidden; it was that they promised the same swoony synthesis as that day in the Ninja Turtles Museum, which I knew enough to recognize as important, a brand of fear well worth feeling. They weren’t just cool and hyper-making like Con Air; they were somehow (though I was still a long way from seeing any of them) personal, shameful, tempting, touching a part of me that I knew — or insisted on believing — real movies could and should touch, but that few actually did. Short of NC-17 — so holy I could hardly bear to contemplate it — these films felt doubly R-rated and thus deserving of special time and reverence.
Some boxes I remember serially fondling and worrying over between the ages of 4 and 11:
Single White Female
and, of course, Fatal Attraction
THE thing is, by the time I was a teenager and man enough to rent and watch whatever I wanted, I’d discovered Lynch and Cronenberg, twin idols for basically the rest of my life. They upped the ante by combining sex and violence with realms of fantasy, monstrosity, the surreal and the bizarre in ways so intoxicating that something like 9 1/2 Weeks looked pretty dull and inert by comparison, mired on the near side of transcendence. It was like, in Lynch and Cronenberg, sex and violence became the ground over which psychic monsters could freely roam, on missions whose nature was always palpable but never knowable. It didn’t take long for this to become my thing.
There were places, both unreal and realer than real, that a film like Blue Velvet
or Dead Ringers
could go, and take me to, that left the adulterous big city waking world of the Erotic Thriller substantially far behind. I found I didn’t care anymore, at least not when I could watch some clown-mime sing Roy Orbison into a lightbulb instead. And plus I was maybe probably kind of a snob by then, aware that Lynch and Cronenberg meant High Art and were worth talking and seriously knowing about in a way that the work of a guy like Paul Verhoeven or even Brian de Palma probably was not and could never be.
Lynch and Cronenberg led to Bergman, Fellini, Almodovar, Jodorowsky, and Tarkovsky, and by then I was deep enough into the company of what I was proud to consider My Guys that I ended up not watching almost any of the Erotic Thrillers I’d so long begged the Universe to allow me to watch. So I might say that I was forged equally by imagining myself seeing one thing, and by actually seeing another, though the two are related.
Of course, like every high schooler eventually, I got stoned with my friends and watched Showgirls late one night
but it was shortly after we’d discovered early 2000’s irony, with which we barricaded ourselves against any genuine response anywhere on our persons.
And I admire Friedkin’s Cruising a great deal
but I think its relation to what I mean here is, though definitely real, tangential enough to not exactly figure in. Cool movie though, showcasing an amazing assortment of 100’s sweaty, beefy dudes who look almost exactly like Al Pacino, most of which keep getting killed and one of which is the killer.
THEN recently, in a motel room in Asheville, I happened or decided to watch De Palma’s Body Double.
It vindicated my initial infatuation with all of these movies in ways beyond the literal satisfaction of finally watching something whose video box I’d logged so much time with in my hands. Its take on voyeurism, infatuation at a distance, and the ever-oscillating play of realness and fakeness of on- and offscreen sexuality — those acts which are performed privately and watched unbeknownst to those performing them vs. those acts performed deliberately for an audience with the express goal of making that audience forget this fact long enough to get off — all in the seedy nighttime sprawl of 80’s Hollywood, resonated in a direct if meta way with my own fixation on the film itself, down in the basement of a small-town video store in the early 90’s, staring at it, imagining it, being rebuffed at its outer edges, forced to settle for the cardboard box stuffed with styrofoam, the actual video hidden away behind the desk upstairs.
And something about the way the violence figured into all of this, like a desperate but somehow never-effective last stage in every bout of lecherous attention, a necessary recourse but never one that resolves anything, satisfied the part of me that’s never been satisfied with the meatheady theatrics of Speed and True Lies … that’s never felt that blowing everything up actually ever clears the air.
But I think the thing with De Palma — and Verhoeven, and probably all of these Erotic Thriller dudes — is that he’s basically uncomfortable. He has an essential macho-ness that flirts with overcoming itself in favor of the lastingly strange and menacing and gender-ambiguous, but never does. That’s the engine that drives his films, the play of desires straining to burn down the human shells that contain them, but never quite making it. Everything reverts to basic hetero standardness by the end, like we’ve had our fun and that’s that.
Maybe the conservative quality of these films is a fear of their own trajectories, a desire to go toward something but not actually reach it, which Lynch and Cronenberg are just way, way beyond.
I mean, Lost Highway
I don’t know … I love that movie for where it’s willing to go into the boonies of monster-populated sex and violence in a way that I don’t think I could ever love anything else.