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.