Monday, November 17, 2008

I was sitting on the toilet today at the dojo. The bathroom there is a spacious room with a shower in one corner and an aquarium burbling in another. It's a friendly place with a lot of natural light and a few exposed pipes and I got to thinking about toilets in movies.

Psycho broke new ground by showing a toilet. The Production Code censors had always been against showing toilets let alone flushing ones and they asked Hitch to take it out, that and the word "transvestite", but their power was on the wane in 1960 and Hitch left both offensive items in.

Fourteen years after Psycho, The Conversation took that flushing toilet to a nightmarish extreme. Toilets are the stuff disturbing dreams are made of and I used to have nightmares about them all the time. Not so much since my trip to Honduras this past spring.

I had to use a bathroom one scorchingly hot, beer drinking day and it turned out to be one of those ones from my nightmares. We were on the tiny cay of Bonacca which is built on a coral reef. Its buildings are all ramshackle and jammed together, many on stilts suspended above small canals or the vast ocean itself. I'd just downed a cool beer in a makeshift cafe/bar and I had to pee.

This bathroom was a tiny dark room and I hardly remember the actual toilet but I do remember that I could see the ocean through the floor boards. In one corner of the tiny room there was a pipe that drizzled water into a bucket. This freaked me out, all those dripping drizzling gurgling water sounds and a pipe from nowhere slowly filling a bucket up with water or... what?

It's precisely this fear of the unknown - especailly this damp, metalic, deep, winding unknown - that JK Rowling tapped into when she created the regurgitating toilet in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think that if the movie had been around when I was a kid it would have helped me get over my loo dread.

But sitting there in that john in Bonacca that day I made major headway with my fear. I stared down the bucket and the pipe as I sat on the toilet till they became just what they were rather than the apparatus of a grotesquely moist Beelzebub. And then I noticed above me the most enchanting little window. Just a little square opening with no glass and a yellow curtain fluttering in the breeze and beyond it an extraordinary blue sky. Suddenly the pail and the pipe were my friends.

But the Hayes office did not view toilets as friends! And they could no more be shown in movies than a double bed for a married couple could be.

For twenty-five years Louis B Mayer ruled over MGM and he demanded only family pictures. No dark stuff for Louis and his public, no crime films, no gangster films, no film noir. Of all the films that were made at MGM while Louis was studio head the Andy Hardy series was most dear to his heart and it is those movies that he thought would go down in history. Not Singin' in the Rain, not An American in Paris, not Mrs Miniver. And certainly not John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle.

Louis B Mayer confronted Huston one day: "Tell me, John," the old man began, "does your wife go to the bathroom? Does she pee, does she sit on the toilet and take a crap?" Huston had to answer in the affirmative. "Does she lock the door, John, when she goes to the bathroom? Tell me, does she lock the door? Why does she lock the door, John? Why does she do that? Why doesn't she open the door and say come in everybody, come in look, I'm taking a pee! That's realism, John! So why doesn't she do that? I'll tell you why she doesn't, John. Because it's ugly, it's not pretty, it's not exciting, it's not glamorous to see a woman sitting on a toilet with her dress pulled up and her private parts naked, taking a pee or a crap!"

(Vargas' aside: if you google "toilets in movies" a lot of porn sites come up).

Louis continued: "It's disgusting. But it's realism, John. It happens many times a day with every woman. And she locks the door, she keeps them out. That's what we do in our pictures. When something is ugly we lock the door, we keep it out, because we don't want our customers to look at things that ugly and say 'Ugh!'"

Mayer's days were numbered at MGM. Huston went on to make his realistic films. I don't know whether he ever showed a woman on a toilet (Reflections in a Golden Eye perhaps?) but he certainly tore down Mayer's metaphor and showed us a darker side of life.

I have to go pee now.



The Snoot said...

Meyer had a point, as I love being transported by a film into new realms of experience, to be enchanted by a waking dream, beyond the mundane and over the rainbow. But sadly as a defining caveat he shows himself to be a foolhardy dictator in desperate and changing times. In his ivory tower, prescribing placebos and proscribing life.

Sadly graphic realism has been overused as padding for many a thin script, just consider any of the 'earnestly' made Death Wish sequels for that sort of pointlessness. Incidently, I lament the decimation of the imagination within the horror genre by 'gritty realism'.

But in the loving hands of the real masters we see realism often used as counterpoint to our fantastic experience, e.g Tarkovsky, Wenders, etc.

The importance of story is key. Therefor use of the appropriate tools and methods are fundamental to the telling. For instance, I think The Conversation is a way way more interesting film than Apocalypse Now in that it is taught and fully realised, not dilute and overwrought (an ironic contradiction which is so prevalent in Apocalyse Now) Both show range and commitment from Coppola, but only one truly convinces for me.

Incidently I think Herzog manages to create epic realism in Fitzcaraldo etc.

It just goes on and on like I could really...but I won't as typing is always so tiring.

So I say adieu to your 'discomfort station' overture (a bowel 'Movement'I believe), with my toilet horror crescendo...I present to you the master of filth and degradation himself, Irvine Welsh. Who was faithfully adapted by Boyle in Trainspotting....and that indelible scene is about all that Ewan McGregor is good my least humble opinion.

Vargas said...

Dear The Snoot, Thanks for the good read. I take your point about Mayer having a point. I love watching old MGM flicks! I'd take Clark Gable any day over Ewan McGregor. To your toilet horror crescendo (that's the ultimate alright - I couldn't even make myself watch it again on youtube) I offer my toilet comedy crescendo: Dumb and Dumber. This makes me laugh.

The Snoot said...

Aha that gem.....and a film with perhaps my favourite sequel title of all time...Dumb and dumberer, inspired.

Can you recall a better one I wonder?

Vargas said...

I've been wracking my brain but there is no better sequel title in existence than Dumb and Dumberer. Therefore I decided to make up a few:

Sequel to Grease: Greasier.

Rocky has had so many sequels but there should be a final one where he sits in front of the TV eating ice cream and getting fat: Rocky Road.

Last Tango in Paris. First Polka in Poughkeepsie (also starring Marlon Brando)

Okay, okay, I'm just warming up here!

How about movies already made that should be sequels to other movies already made (but weren't):

Born Free. Sequel: Bringing up Baby.

Night of the Iguana. Sequel: Day of the Locust.

Sequel to Dial M for Murder is Sorry Wrong Number

Now you try!

aaronschwartz said...


Lawrence of Arabia:
Sequel -- Lawrence of Dubai

Night of the Iguana:
Sequel -- My Dinner with Jorge

The Apartment:
Sequel -- The Time Share

Bad Day at Black Rock:
Sequel -- Really Bad Night at Black Rock

Sequel -- The Deer Hunter

Beauty and the Beast:
Sequel -- Chainsaw Beauty Pageant

Being John Malkovich:
Sequel -- Trying to Get Over Being John Malkovich

The Birds:
Sequel -- Guano!

Cries and Whispers:
Sequel -- Gruntzenfartz (Ger.)

David Copperfield:
Sequel -- David Copperfield Plays Vegas

Sequel -- Bringing Up Baby

All About Eve:
Sequel -- East of Eden

Sequel -- W

Sequel -- Z

please stop me

The Snoot said...

Southern Comfort
- Beer chaser

Oliver Twist
- 21

Lost in translation
- jnfvn nif iniswpa

The Snoot said...

All the presidents men
- All the president's father's men

- Casaobama

Vargas said...

Bam! You guys are good! If I were the studio head I would green light Guano! and jnfvn nif iniswpa. Now that's box office!