Monday, May 09, 2005

Irreversible Meets Rat Pfink A Boo Boo in the Rectum

There's a rather legendary cult film called Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, directed by Ray Dennis Steckler, shown to me once awhile back by my friend Blake, who is hereby invited (he probably won't post but we might as well issue the invitation) to comment on the film at greater length by clicking "Add a Comment," below, since I defer to him in all things Steckler (he can run rings around me about Herschell Gordon Lewis, too, and can truly enhance one's appreciation of Forbidden Planet, particularly the soundtrack, if given the opportunity). The film, as I recall, was initially going to be a sort of sadistic rape-revenge film or such, and begins with really rather nasty (and surprisingly skillfully crafted) sequences in which evil male characters stalk women. We get lots of creepy voyeuristic stalker's-eye-view shots of sexy women and the film builds considerable tension as we wait for a seemingly inevitable rape sequence. Apparently, however, at midpoint, just before the rape was about to occur, Steckler got bored of making this movie, and decided to shift his narrative focus just slightly. Two of his "good" male characters, being menaced by bad guys, leap into a closet to hide, or such; when they emerge -- they've transformed into fully costumed superheroes, Rat Pfink and Boo Boo (this was supposed to be the original title, but an error in the titling had the "and" rendered as "a" and Steckler decided to go with that, too: one senses something of a coherent aesthetic at work). The film takes a lighthearted tone as the two happy-go-lucky superheroes whisk about the city, righting wrongs and having fun. What I added to our viewing of the film, when Blake showed it to a small selected audience out in the suburbs, was the reading that the whole film had something to do with a kind of heterosexual panic, and that the first half of the film and second were more significantly related than one might suppose: clearly the sexual menace and anxiety generated by the first half of the film got too intense, and Steckler decided, perhaps unknowingly, to have his male characters REJECT said heterosexuality and GO GAY. Yes, I'm convinced, folks: Rat Pfink and Boo Boo were gay -- they veritably leap out of the closet, transformed (and dressed in far more feminine/sexy superhero garb, with flowing capes and tights and such); consider their names, even -- what straight superhero would call himself Boo Boo? There is no reason to think Steckler intended this reading, of course, but once it's applied to the film it's very difficult to not see the movie this way. The two men have escaped the uncomfortable tensions and anxieties of straight life, formed a pair, and are thus transformed. (One wonders about homoerotic aspects of Batman's relations to Robin... I'm sure there's been a gay porn take on it by now -- maybe something along the lines of those Star Trek erotic stories that have Kirk and Spock as lovers.) (My link only leads to a small sample of such material, so feel free to suggest more, folks -- searching for "Star Trek" +erotica or +porn leads to a staggering number of sites, many of which are scams. So I'll stick with the sample I've found. I like the one where Kirk and Spock discuss Kirk's masturbation).

Thing is, I'm watching Gaspar Noe's really upsetting but rewarding film Irreversible at the moment, and I'm wondering if there isn't a Rat Pfink a Boo Boo aspect to it that isn't quite as apparent. Part of this is obscured by the film's backwards structure -- we see episodes in reverse order, a la Memento, but I think this is not in fact as thematically significant as some would have it. Some critics have talked about the film as having profound insights into time and experience, taking the structure as thematically relevant. It's certainly an angle worth considering but it doesn't really get at any of the aspects of the film that interest me, which concern the characters relation to each other and the somehow glaring but transparent homophobia of the film (exactly one IMDB reviewer writes about this, seeing the film in light of Leo Bersani's excellent article "Is the Rectum a Grave?," which considers homophobia and cultural construction of the ass as a source of pleasure and desire -- more on this below). It's interesting that a film could be this overtly homophobic without it being one of the first things people would comment on...

I suppose I should recount a bit of the story of the film; I'll try to avoid spoilers, tho' I don't think knowing what the film deals with will interfere all that much in the experience. The "climax" of the movie, which occurs close to the beginning, shows two men entering a gay bar, The Rectum, where, amidst intense, dark, S&M inflected scenes of sex and invitations to suck and fist the male clients, they seek out a character known as La Tenia, for reasons unknown -- clearly revenge is on their mind (La Tenia means "the Tapeworm," by the way -- they're looking for the Tapeworm in the Rectum, dig?). One, Marcus, is more passionate than the other, Pierre, who tries to convince his friend to abandon his quest and leave. Marcus plows on, finally bullying and abusing one of the gays into telling him where La Tenia is. He momentarily loses Pierre in the heat of the hunt. Confronting the men he believes might be La Tenia, Marcus, alone, finds himself overpowered and forced to the ground, where his arm is broken and one of the men he'd been questioning prepares to anally rape him. Just as he gets his fly open, Pierre appears wielding a fire extinguisher, and batters the man's head into a pulp, rescuing Marcus through this act of brutal murder.

There's actually a lot I don't want to say about the film, in case anyone out there hasn't seen it, but what interests me is this: having seen it twice, I am absolutely certain that the actual murder is not entirely as revenge-driven as it appears to be: that Pierre's burst of rage is not about protecting his friend or avenging the crime that they'd entered the Rectum to right, but rather is about both expressing and suppressing his own homosexuality. Seeing Marcus fucked up the ass would be too close to his own inexpressible, repressed desire; he has to subordinate this desire with a burst of violence, which is what, ultimately, the point of Irreversible seems to me to be. I mean: the two men throughout call each other fags and insult each other, and Pierre, the softer-spoken and more civilized of the two, is shown as having a less than fulsome sexual life, unable to give women orgasms, unwilling to surrender to the animal in himself. Both men are also bound in an oddly-framed triangle of sorts (Pierre is the former lover of Marcus' current girlfriend, whose rape is what motivates the drive for revenge). Pierre is sensitive enough to be horrified by the violent, brutalizing aspects of heterosexual intercourse, as symbolized the rape; like Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, he is forced into previously uncharacteristic behaviour, tho' he chooses to murder his newly discovered homosexual self, in the symbol of the would-be rapist he batters, rather than joyously express it. (Too bad; he would have looked cute in a superhero costume). The battering's violence is the violence of homosexual panic, directly confronted, but much obscured by the film, which forbids us from understanding the action in light of what comes before it -- it's like Noe is hiding something in the film he himself is scared to face. But he's consciously hiding it, if so; unlike Steckler, there seems some indication that Noe intends at least some of this reading, as, after the murder (but actually "seen" beforehand, given the backwards structure of the film), two mercenary-types they'd previously encountered (though we don't know this at the time) stand at the door of the Rectum, yelling homophobic insults at the two men (even though said mercenary figures know that Marcus and Pierre are allegedly straight). There would be no reason to call Pierre and Marcus gay, unless it somehow related to the events of the film. The sheer number of homophobic epithets in the film further argues for the centrality of homoeroticism/homophobia to the film's "real" theme; plus there's another scene where Marcus threatens a transsexual, and the rapist himself is depicted as mostly gay, with the the rape being explicitly made anal...

Anyhow, I'm watching the movie yet again -- it's a fascinating thing. I wonder if the disturbing sound design of the movie has anything to do with how unsettled physically I feel these last couple of days, having seen the movie twice? (The movie uses low frequency sounds sometimes employed by riot police to disperse crowds, which have an apparently negative effect on the human body -- I believe that's discussed in the Salon interview with Noe, which you may need to view an ad to be permitted to read).

Need to see I Stand Alone, next, Noe's previous film about a man who has sex with his daughter...


Addendum: I can't link to "Is the Rectum a Grave?" because it's not on the internet. It's one of the few works of theory that actually have had a direct impact on my life -- for about a year, I attempted to overcome what I decided, based on Bersani's theories, were enculturated anti-anal attitudes and "claim" my rectum as a source of erotic pleasure (without having gay sex, that is: but why should only gay men get to enjoy their assholes?). Anyhow, I hope that I'm allowed to do this by fair use laws, because I'm going to provide a brief encapsulization of Bersani's article as it appears in a gender studies journal:

The essay begins with angry reflections on the intense homophobic mobilization against gay men that attended the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (it is helpful to remember that people seriously proposed "chemical castration" and quarantine of gay men to protect "the general population" from the virus) and finds both in them and in gay male sexual desire a homophobic and misogynist association of gay male anal receptivity with female sexual subordination. Bersani is interested to show that, in misogyny, in anti-gay-male homophobia, and in gay male erotic longing, the vagina and the anus are figured as sexually insatiable and as animated erotically by a desire for annihilation.

How exactly that relates to Irreversible I can't quite manage at the moment (there's a lot of annihilation of one sort or another that occurs in the film), but I thought it would be useful to offer a quote.

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