Editor's Note: By now you may have noticed Evan Harold's writing voice in your morning links and comments of the week posts these past few months. But whether he's new to you or you've already gotten to know him through those, this latest piece should expose you to a whole new side of him. Either way, I'm proud to present this to you now, perhaps the most high-minded piece about fecal matters in cinema I've ever read. This is an important work. Enjoy. -Vince
Sh*tting—the build-up, the restraint, the anxiety, the release—is the very structure of a joke. And like all great jokes, a great on-screen dump should go beyond the laughs. It should be poignant, surprising, subversive, maybe horrifying; it takes love and preparation (whether it's cauliflower or candy). This list aims to capture that Doo Doo Essence. With seven films (inspired by the Bristol Stool Scale) I intend to define what it means to be a great poop scene. Welcome, and I apologize in advance.
By the time Pink Flamingos is nearly over, and we've seen homicide, cannibalism, a mother-on-son blowjob, rape, castration, male gaping, and that scene with the people having sex while crushing a chicken, John Waters comes back with his hick Bawlmer accent to announce that Divine will have the film's last filthy word. She's going to eat dog poop.
"What you are about to see… is a real thing!" Waters announces in proto-Jackass fashion. Patti Page's "The Doggie in the Window" starts, and Divine crawls down to scoop the sh*t into her mouth. Divine gags, we gag, but like a champ she eventually gets it down. That's all that happens in the scene, if it's even fair to call it that. Waters has it so removed from the rest of the film, it's more of an appendix. Arranged like a blooper or an after-credits tidbit, this scene is the best and worst things about Exploitation film. It's political, an opening salvo in Waters' Snobs v. Slobs aesthetic, but there isn't a lot beyond that low-brow protest. The displacement of the scene turns the aggressive style into a shock schtick, which ironically relegates Sh*t back to the place of senseless body humor. Except, the scene isn't funny. Sure it's funny to recognize that you're in a theater—the same place that might have screened The Godfather or Jesus Christ Superstar earlier that night—watching a transvestite eat moist dog sh*t, it's funny to see audiences squirm, but nothing funny is happening in the scene.
Earlier in the movie, there's a moment where Divine's rivals mail her a human turd, wrapped as a gift. Compared to the adolescent you-dare-me-to-eat-that-poop-ness of the final scene, the mailing of the turd is a funnier, more nuanced, and more mature sh*t scene. It lacks the filth of coprophagia, but sometimes eating poop isn't the most important thing. To judge the mark (or smear) of a sh*t scene, ask: how much is the scene changed when feces is replaced by another abjectly gross thing? If Divine ate another animal's waste, if she ate vomit, or hair, or blood or motor oil? Not much of a difference for the audience of snobs. But WHO CARES because ultimately it's still pretty metal to dress up like a diva and eat dog sh*t… Right, guys? No? Ahh, I guess I'll just clean up.
There are so many bits to choose from the Jackass crew, they could support their own list—from Steve-O's fart-turned-sh*t helmet, to the near poetry of Dave England's model bathroom dump. I'm going with Dave England's Volcano because it's far and away the most original. (A close second is the Sh*t Cocktail bunjee cord portapotty thing, but that's more about scale than invention.) Incorporating models once again, the Volcano bit doesn't feel like a sh*t scene. There's scenery, a train, a plane, a triumphant toy scout on a hillside, and the ass looks pretty much like a hill. Even once you notice the movement, and maaayybe you think it's a human body, are you thinking ass? Are you expecting a fountain of watery buttmud to rooster tail all over the miniature paradise? PROBABLY NOT, RIGHT? Which is weird, considering pooping is supposed to happen in pretty places like bathrooms and not wild places like in public or the woods or your neighbor's pool. The scene lampoons the billboard ideas of ~The Beauty of the Natural World~ seemingly in favor of the "hahmony uff ovarwhelmink und collectiff murder" that Herzog sees in the jungle: "ovarwhelmink faurnication, ovarwhelmink gröwth, and ovarwhelmink lack of oarder." Sh*t happens in nature, and it's ridiculous to try replace that with a tailored vacation spot.
The great thing about this scene, and Jackass in general, is the infectious profanity. You watch a Jackass episode or movie and you're sort of primed to look for the weak spots in nice things, to see where Sh*t—the universal stand-in for the profane—can make things funnier, or at least less solemn. Where John Waters' was full of angst and violent rebellion, Jackass plays with sh*t, and uses the highly orchestrated one-time jokes we see in Jackass 3D to get us to think about scatology as an essential component to humor and playfulness. Compared to Pink Flamingos, where Divine actually reinforces the status of sh*t as unacceptable, Jackass is a step further in the evolution of sh*t scenes. Most are genuinely funny and lack the inflated "I DARE YOU TO WATCH THIS, YOU BOURGEOIS PHILISTINE" tone seen in other stunt-based exploitation.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Vince has covered this quite a bit, and for good reason: it's a horror movie about HAVING YOUR MOUTH SEWN TO A STRANGER'S BUTTHOLE. But, it was kiiiiiiinda disappointing. I was expecting a lot of gross stuff in this movie, but then the most cringe-worthy scene was just where that girl gets her vein ripped out the length of her arm. Okay, yes I almost vomited just typing that, but when your movie is called The Human Centipede, there's an implicit promise of almost too much sh*t (cf. The Human Centipede II). Instead, First Sequence goes for the power of the unseen.
When the Japanese guy (I can't remember any of their names despite the fact that the two white chicks say each others' names well over ten thousand times) starts passing his bowels, simply knowing is enough. We don't need the visual to be horrified. In a very gothic way, the cartoon diagrams and muffled digestive noises illicit more visceral audience responses than the carnage seen in Full Sequence. The unseen forces us to imagine the disgust, to intensify and mythologize it. We are the ones who render it monstrous. I wasn't so much grossed out as I was existentially horrified by the dehumanization.
Before its Human Centipede parody, South Park did an episode about eating with your butts and sh*tting out of your mouths. D'uh it's funny because that's a funny idea, and there's some comedy around the premise of The Human Centipede, too. Even so, there's a slapstickiness to South Park's complete gastric inversion. No identity is lost; it's a cartoonish reversal, farfetched but direct. The most horrifying thing about linked digestive systems (where your orifices are The Same rather than The Opposite) is the dilution of identity. Incapable of speech and mobility, the members are defined by their inability to privatize their sh*t.
So it makes sense that when the leader and the caboose die, you're just like FFFUUUUU– because you know the middle one is toast. She doesn't have a life of her own. It is the ultimate abjection, the ultimate horror, to outlive the anus attached to your face AND the face attached to your anus. :-(
The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)
I recommend all the movies in this collection, but especially this (unless you have experienced sexual violence, in that case I sincerely advise neither seeing the film nor reading this). What's the most f*cked up movie you've seen? This tops it. As Vince has already mentioned, the film was banned in the UK for its sexually violent and potentially obscene nature. There's sandpaper masturbation, barbed wire rape, infant skull crushing, elderly skull crushing, teeth hammering, coprophagia, and more. It's not a good movie. It will make you gag. But enduring it will make you feel like a triathlete of disgust.
For all of the unseen horror of Human Centipede I, the sequel replaces tenfold with explicit filth. By the third or fourth scene soundtracked by what sounds like several arms fishing through a barrel of wet scabs, the movie steps out of horror and into hardcore gornography. Forget suspense, it's about revulsion. The movie is obsessed with appearances, adopting Depravity as a style instead of a subject. Not once was I scared or tense, just grossed out. It's as if they heard the complaints about the first movie and slapped us in the face with over-corrections. "Oh not enough sh*t for you? How 'bout the whole movie's black and white, and the only color is the brown of sh*t? Sound good?" So that's what we get: Martin the protagonist—a reservoir of disturbing life experiences—injects the centipede with laxatives while he blows raspberries at them, demanding the sh*t scene he fetishizes from Human Centipede I. It backfires (literally, diarrhea leaks out of the stapled ass-mouths). The spectacle is over. Martin rapes the centipede (in the poop chute judging from his fantasies) with a DIY barbed wire cock ring. The film derails. I close my laptop and brush my teeth a few times.
Dumb and Dumber
Everyone I know has seen Dumb & Dumber too many times, for a couple reasons: I'm pretty sure this is on TBS or Comedy Central at least twice a week, and it's a good movie. This scene is better suited under Poop Jokes for Kidz, but if you can't share a good laugh with a toddler over some slapstick fart sounds, have you no heart?
Aside from the comedy, I chose this scene because of its interesting take on the Sh*t as Weapon scene (cf. We Need to Talk About Kevin, and a much more cathartic example on Breaking Bad, when Hector substitutes sh*t for speech during an interrogation). Only, the weapon is controlled by someone else. Kind of a terrifying idea behind a simple prank, especially coupled with the romantic anxiety that surrounds this gobsmacking dump. We all share the experience: trapped in the bathroom of someone we're trying to impress, condemned to thin doors, no fan, and a raucously trumpeting ass. It is man at his most socially hostile, because in that moment you're fully aware that everyone poops and that there's nothing wrong with making noise because every one does. At the same time, you refuse. Bound by taboos, you know you'll never get a blowjob if Stacey and her roommates have to turn up True Blood to compete with your butt-thunder. Yet the withholding just makes the inevitable release all the worse (but also strangely satisfying? I mean, look at the gratification on Jeff Daniels' face). Kicking his legs, howling, and contorting in perfect harmony with the sound effects—he's is going for classic slapstick style. Weird how those very fart sounds are all I can hear when I watch The Newsroom. Top tier body humor.
A Short Film About Killing
Here's the requisite slow European film, Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing (or Krótki film o zabijaniu for the Polish readers). It's only 85 minutes and available on YouTube with decent subtitles so you can easily watch it or read on for "spoilers." There's not much to spoil though, because like most slow and nearly speechless European films, it's less about action and plot than it is about emotions, composition, execution, cigarettes, berets, scarves, art, pointy nipples, etc.
In the film, a young man, Jacek, murders a nice taxi driver seemingly just to see what it's like. He is sentenced to death. Jacek's execution is the sh*t scene in question, but we'll start with the taxi murder because the two are thematically paired and it is one of the most tense things I've ever seen. Dreadful feels like a word no one says unless they're imitating British theater critics but seriously this scene is 100% full of dread. The strangling starts around 36:30, and then it takes seven minutes for the cab driver to die. No music, just the random sounds of physical struggle, the distant quiet of nature, and the stretching drone of a car horn holding a corpse. The strangling itself is botched. Jacek is forced to bludgeon and re-bludgeon the driver. After enough blood and spit and mud, the polite cabe driver is dead and you probably feel like an ass for being as relieved as Jacek.
Jump to 1:12:00 when Jacek is being hustled to the gallows, and the arduous violence in the back of a cheap cab is replaced by the cold bureaucracy of institutionalized killing. Each step in the routine is handled by a gaggle of personnel, so it seems at once streamlined and clumsy. The curtain guy can't get the curtains unstuck—a Franz Kafka-meets-Monty Python "joke" in which yeah, totalitarianism is a farce, but it's still blindfolding you in a noose. Jacek's sh*t drips into the basin. Is defecation his last act before death, or the first thing his dead body does? It's gross, but why is it unsettling? Once a healthy regularity, here the sh*t is an undead substance, invading the living world and marking the permanence of mortality. The scene is as bodily as the taxi murder, as intense and meaningless. It's a pretty dark movie, you guys.
The first time I saw Brazil, I hated it. I hated it so much I had to watch it again so I could know exactly what bothered me. Then I ended up watching it literally a dozen times before realizing that I loved all the things I hated and that it's a pretty f*cking weird movie. This scene's got everything: humor, abjection, pranks, Robert De Niro, ironic plays on inside vs. outside, architectural horror, and catharsis. (If you've seen the movie and don't immediately know what I'm talking about, it's probably because this crazy sh*tsplosion isn't even the most absurd thing in Brazil.) Again we find sh*t as a means to attack. Bob Hoskins (anticipating his role as Mario in 1993's Super Mario Bros.) and his crony are government engineers, sent to repair the heating and cooling systems in hero Sam's flat. They use the heinous tornado of paperwork (metaphorical, literal one to follow) to take ownership of the apartment, and as Sam (played by Jonathan Pryce or Pope Francis) is kicked out he finds a rogue handyman named Harry/Robert De Niro. Just watch the movie.
The government officials are in special government suits made to protect them from the messiness of repair work. The suits need air, and so they are tied to the a fresh air supply. Maybe it's the air conditioner, but whatever it doesn't matter. Everything about the building's concealed infrastructure is supposed to look dumb. Harry, the outlaw genius he is, opens the precise panel to find two main components: air supply and sewage. As an enemy of the state, Harry is doing in so many ways exactly what the satirized government doesn't want: democratizing spaces, discovering sh*t, and utilizing sh*t. He switches the opposites to fill the operators' suits with sewage. It's unclear whether they drown in poop, die in the explosion, or live. Either way, Sam's quite happy and you should be too.
I end with this scene not because it's the "best," but because of the deliberation. The sewage and the fresh air supply are linked as opposites, as if sh*t is the nemesis to life. Hoskins and his pal are bested by someone who his better at manipulating the underbelly of dystopia, proving that the biggest threat to such a government is uncovering the hidden parts. Just as the two workers redefine interiority and exteriority with their suits, so Harry dedefines when he opens the forbidden space between walls, the interior of a boundary. It's a dark, unnavigable, horrifying place, like the space between you and a plastic membrane quickly filling with diarrhea. But Harry knows the space. He dismisses the fascist idea that if you hide the dirty parts, if you get rid of the ugly things, life is better (recall the opening scene: terrorists interrupting a commercial about beautifying your ducts). And of course, the scene is funny, another threat to the Super Serious establishment. Imagine the fear of inappropriate laughter at a brunch with Stalin. That is the power of sh*t.
Any Given Sunday
The Last Emperor
Melancholia + Eyes Wide Shut
It's only natural that I include Hammersmith Is Out. Thanks to Vince's recent coverage, I can bemoan the fact that only in the golden days did actors really fart on each other. Not this hack CGI farting that's plagued Hollywood for DECADES.
German art (of course the flatulent Hammersmith Is Out is based on the legend of Faust).