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In the early 1990s, my sister dated K___, whom my parents hated.  They’d gotten over their Oh my goodness, he’s white phase and moved onto their Oh my goodness, he’s a loser phase.  Maybe this is true of over-protective parents everywhere:  no one is good enough.  For Vietnamese parents particularly, the ideal mate is an asymptote; though people can approach good enough, they never quite make it.

That’s not to say that K___ was good enough.  He was tall, thin, and blond, with the air of someone who’d just finished second in a regatta.  He worked waiting tables at the then-recently opened Spinnakers in the Cherry Creek Mall.  My sister had met him at the nightclub she frequented, the 23rd Parish; K___ was best friends with the DJ there, a gay black man named Tracy Jones.

K___ also fancied himself a DJ but had appalling taste in music.  Granted, electronic music was still in its infancy, but K___ preferred songs that sounded like that had come off a Commodore Amiga (long before chiptunes were hip, obviously).  He gave my sister mix tapes, and she passed them on to me, and I listened with an equal mixture of befuddlement and antipathy.

At the end of one of his tapes, he put the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  But stripped of its context, the song seemed odd to me.  K___ explained:  it’s funny because it’s sung by a group of men on crucifixes.  Okay then.  He pressed:  Haven’t you ever seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian?

(Growing up, I was only ever a moderate Monty Python fan.  It came on late night weekends on PBS, after The Benny Hill Show.  I remember segments like the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ but much of its free-associative surrealism escaped me.   Even as a youngster, I demanded narrative cohesion.)

Under the guise of being a good little brother, I lent K___ music that I thought was great.  The Orb’s first album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraverse.  The 4-disc This Mortal Coil boxset.   The Future Sound of London’s Accelerator.  But our tastes never converged.  And anyway, K___ soon joined the Navy and shipped off for training, and my sister found that an opportune time to break up with him.  Alas, I never got my CDs back.

I ran into K___ again, years later, after I had finished grad school and was working in a movie theater.  He came in with a redhead sporting the librarian-by-day/roller-derby-by-night look.  I recognized him immediately (confirmed I saw his credit card), but he didn’t recognize me.  I wanted to say, “Hey, give me back my This Mortal Coil boxset” — but didn’t.  Part of it was pride:  since we met last, I had accomplished what exactly besides making lattes and slinging popcorn?  The other part of it was:  why bother?  What would I say?  ‘Hey, thanks for ruining the ending of The Life of Brian for me’?

Instead, I poured him a glass of wine and let him see his movie in peace.  It goes without saying what song I hummed all night long.


Actual question from the 2008 All Souls College (Oxford) entrance exam: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

I reply:  Yes, it does.  (Though, really, why are they wearing anything at all if it’s an orgy?)

Simply because a person is libertine in his sexuality does not mean that he exhibits moral turpitude in other aspects of his life.  This includes the ability to be offended by Nazi uniforms.  Let’s rephrase the question this way:  does the moral character of a “native and colonial” costume party change when Prince Harry shows up with a swastika armband?

Speaking strictly of the orgy, Nazi uniforms introduce an unsettling power structure.  The ‘conceit’ behind an orgy, if you will, is that everyone gets some.  Since the question overlooks the specifics of the orgy (round robin?  Roman free-for-all?  bukkake?  Wheel of Fortune?), one must assume that everyone approaches the orgy on equal footing.  Nazi uniforms introduce a master/submissive dynamic, which necessarily upsets this balance.

(One could argue, of course, that Nazi uniforms are role-playing, akin to ‘stern professor/naughty student’ or ‘football coach/star quarterback’ scenarios.  But Nazism is acknowledged to be beyond the pale.  Case in point:  many years ago, I rented a — oh, how shall I put this? — a ‘romantic comedy’ called Honorable Discharge.  In one scene, two men cycled through various military uniforms.  “Sailors suck,” the costume aficionado says to the other.  “Soldiers fuck.”  After their encounter, the costumier asks the jejune Lejeune [played by Chuck Barron], “Which would you like to be next?  The Nazi or the Jew?”  Barron, the viewer’s stand-in, gapes in disbelief.)

Which brings us to The Night Porter.  (Corollary question:  does watching the Night Porter the day after Yom Kippur make one a bad Jew? Answer:  Don’t ask me.  I’m not Jewish.)  While I can’t say that I enjoyed the film — the way one does not ‘enjoy’ Salò; or the 120 Days of Sodom — I will say that it’s provocative in examining not only the psychology of Nazi perpetrators, but of its victims too.  I do wonder the film errs in placing too much emphasis on Dirk Bogarde’s suave, murderous SS officer Max and not enough on Charlotte Rampling’s suffering Lucia.  Her psychosexual journey — concentration camp victim to survivor, respected citizen to masochistic prisoner — is the moral heart of the film.

(Here, I’d like to point out my fondness for ‘Naziploitation’ films [Love Camp 7, the Ilsa series], though I haven’t yet had a chance to read any Israeli Stalags.)

Does the moral character of The Night Porter change when Lucia takes charge of her sexuality while performing topless, in Nazi regalia, for a group of SS officers?  Or when she reclaims that sexuality when voluntarily chained in Max’s apartment?  Director Liliana Cavani doesn’t offer answers.  In this way, she’s like the Oxford test-givers, showing how there’s no easy entrance into this world.

I’ve struggled with what to say about Flesh for Frankenstein for several days now.  Should I talk about how I once taught The Bride of Frankenstein in a film class?  Or about gay adoption?  My interactions with tall, lumbering men with “abby normal” brains (or, for that matter, my love of Young Frankenstein)?  None of these seemed to work.

Now, I realize why:  in the classic monsters of Hollywood pantheon, Frankenstein runs dead last.  Behind vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and zombies.  Behind the mummy, for God’s sake.  All the other creatures have had recent spates of popularity.  Zombies, for instance, seem to rule the direct-to-DVD horror movie market lately; vampires see their fortunes come and go but are, for better or worse, omnipresent.  And both werewolves and the mummy have had big-name remakes, as well as mini-resurgences here and there.  But Frankenstein?  Frankenstein is the red-headed step-child, sitting quietly in the corner, waiting to be picked to dance.

This is why I have to go way back to Bride of Frankenstein to find a Frankenstein movie that has stuck with me.  The Bride nearly killed Jennifer Beals’ career (what a feeling!… but somehow Sting continues to find work?).  Frankenstein Unbound veers towards the ridiculous.  Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version is, much like Coppola’s Dracula, too pretentious and overwrought for its own good.  Certainly, films deploy the Frankenstein tropes often:  the  mad scientist meddling with God’s law, genetic overreach, the creature escaping from its master’s plans.  Any movie in which the government creates the perfect bio-engineered killing machine tips its hat to poor, doomed Victor.

Part of the reason might be that other subgenres are packed with symbolic possibility.  Vampires are, of course, all about seduction, while werewolves struggle to contain the beast within.  Zombies nowadays can represent almost anything (and those who argue that zombies aren’t erotic merely haven’t watched the right films).  But Frankenstein is and will always be a creation myth — Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein is, after all, A Modern Prometheus).  The horror of Frankenstein isn’t the fact that the doctor created life out of death, but that he created life outside out sexual activity.

Flesh for Frankenstein gleefully tosses all this aside and instead introduces scopophilia, nymphomania, scar tissue fetishism, necrophilia, and — I’m not sure what the psychological term for an untoward sexual attraction for gallbladders is, but there it is.  Our poor Slavic Frankenstein makes longing eyes at lusty peasant Joe Dallesandro — possibly the gayest Frankenstein movie since Dr. Pretorius pranced across the screen in The Bride of Frankenstein.  All of which is to say that Paul Morrissey has somehow stitched together this movie from numerous spare parts.  And it lives!  It lives!

My avoidance of grading papers stems much from the same place as my avoidance of watching Pasolini’s Salò; or The 120 Days of Sodom.  First, they’re both something I feel very much that I should do, but don’t feel particularly compelled to do.  And while I don’t equate reading composition papers with sexual degradation and Fascist violations, I have to say that sometimes those papers leave a shitty taste in my mouth.

I’m a self-professed horror movie aficionado (admittedly, I’m mostly agnostic towards the recent “torture porn” phase, which seems to have thankfully passed), but Salò makes me react the way horror movies should.  I wince, I hide behind my fingers, I recoil.  Hostel and the Saw series don’t elicit anywhere near the same reaction.  Indeed the torture porn filmmakers seem to issue a challenge:  oh, think I can’t top that?  Try to watch this.  And I do.  And I go, Meh.  (Fingernail trauma, however, does make me cringe.)

This is where the “porn” designation of “torture porn” come in.  Pornography is meant to titillate; as you watch it, you imagine yourself as one of the participants.  Same with torture porn — it’s effective because you imagine yourself enduring the same bodily dis-integration as the victim (or, for the sociopathic, inflicting bodily harm).  But the tortures in Salò are too detached, too aesthetic, too farcical to allow any audience identification. Never before have handsome young Italian boys engaging in gay sex seemed less erotic.  The power dynamics that invigorate pornography and “torture porn” are carried to an unbearable extreme.

The DVD version of Salò has its own storied history.  It was originally released in 1998 for a short time before it had to be withdrawn for copyright reasons.  And, until its re-release, it was the hottest commodity on the Criterion eBay racket, fetching prices of hundreds of dollars.  One of the first editions sat on my shelf for the longest times, begging to be watched.  The cover featured a still featuring a boy getting his tongue cut off.  The movie that dare not speak its name.

Then the re-release came out, and prices tanked.  This is why I don’t play the stock market.

This is the only film I’ve seen that suggests a reading list in its opening credits.  And not just any reading list, but one that includes Roland Barthes and Simone de Beauvoir.  Cliff Notes knowledge of the Marquis de Sade and Dante help as well.  As Jean-Pierre Gorin mentions in his interview, this is the opposite of a research paper, where the bibliography comes at the end.  (And yet, my yearly entreaties of ‘MLA style parentheticals will save your soul’ go unheard.)  Here, the film pushes its influences at you before the first scene has unspooled.  But book learning does little to prepare you for what follows:  dog collars and spiked cheese (or, alternately, meandering paragraphs and unattributed quotations).

But here’s where avoiding Salò and avoiding grading papers most resemble each other:  even though I’ve reached the end of a grueling ordeal, I don’t feel triumphant.  Instead, I feel tired, demoralized, and despairing at the state of humanity.

One of the reasons I like watching movies with Matthew at home is that he’s one of the few people I know who reacts viscerally to what he watches.  Case-in-point:  at certain moments during The Silence of the Lambs, Matthew spoke directly to the screen.  “Don’t go in there!  Look behind you!”  At other times, he turned to me with a murderous look in his eyes:  I can’t believe you’re making me watch this.

But this is also the guy who talks back to voice mails, so I’m not sure what to make of that.

The person who first alerted me to Silence of the Lambs was my sister, who saw it on the big screen when it came out.  “How was it?” I asked.

“Great!” she said.  “The best part is where she’s stumbling around in the dark while the killer watches her through night vision goggles.  You can see her gun shaking and everything!”

My sister has never held back the ending of a movie just in case I wanted to see it myself.

After Silence of the Lambs won the Academy Award for Best Picture, that meant it was perfectly acceptable for me to watch it.  For goodness’ sake, my parents made me sit through Gandhi and Out of Africa, so Silence of the Lambs was, in a sense, a reward.  And even though I knew that scene was coming, and even though I had steeled myself for it, I remember still freaking out uncontrollably.  Only silently, to myself.

The reason the scene is so effective, I think, is because of how it plays on horror movie tropes.  Everyone’s familiar with the “killer cam” — scenes filmed from the killer’s point of view, ogling nubile teens from the bushes or peering into dusty windows.  (Carol Clover points out how those shots are the moments when the audience identifies with the male tormentor.)  It’s become such a cliché that you have to wonder if it’s even effective as a technique anymore.  It’s dramatic irony on the cheap.

But in Jonathan Demme’s hands, an overused movie trope becomes potent once again.  When Buffalo Bill turns on his green seeing-eye glasses, and the audience sees Clarice Starling stumbling in the dark (yes, her gun shakes), Demme taps into the deep well of feeling the audience has built up for Starling, the soundtrack silent except for her panicked breaths.  Everyone, I imagine, has had a moment when they’ve been disoriented by darkness — crawling, perhaps, on their hands and knees, discovering solid walls where before there had been none, knocking their shins on sharp corners.  In that scenes, our own memories of getting lost in the pitch black fire the synapses, and we’re all tense, straining for a stray sound, a whisper of light, and we’re all a girl with a gun, trembling in the dark.  Matthew’s the only one with the sense to yell out, “Shoot your gun!  Shoot him!”

Denver doesn’t offer anything as particularly spectacular as the Australian outback for rites-of-passage, but that’s for the better, since I probably wouldn’t have survived, despite the best intentions of Aboriginal passers-by.  But it does have some lovely brick walls, and judging from the opening and closing shots of Walkabout, I think Nicholas Roeg would appreciate them.

To each his own journey of self-discovery, though.  Mine was the discovering of the 15L, the bus that ran down Colfax, the nominal heart of Denver.  At my end of Colfax, the tail section of a long, straight snake, was innumerable motels, including the infamous Mon Chalet, which is a well-known “adult lifestyle” motel.  Yes, where swingers go to meet.  I didn’t realize this when I was 13, but I did like the Swiss chalet-style bungalows, with whitewashed walls and dark wood beams.

The 15L (L for limited) took me downtown, where my mother worked at the Federal Reserve Bank.  But I was less interested in the actual downtown (up to and including tourist-grabbing landmarks such as the 16th Street Mall and the glass mall of the Tabor Center) than the nearby environs of Capitol Hill.  There, just a stone’s throw from the gold-leaf dome of the Capitol itself was my two early haunts:  Capitol Hill Books and Colorado Comics — only the former of which still exist.

On sunny days, I had lunch with my mother in the cafeteria of the Federal Reserve Bank, where she introduced me to her co-workers.  I never knew exactly what her job was — but she was able to collect stamps from around the world for my quickly-adopted and just-as-quickly-abandoned stab at philately.  I gave it up because I realized I would never be able to collect all the stamps in the world — there were just too many of them (unlike, for example, a discrete and handily-numbered series of DVDs).  Plus, steaming and drying stamps seemed awfully onerous.  No, comics were much easier.

So I hung out at Colorado Comics, which was run by a curmudgeonly middle-aged guy, who would be played by Danny DeVito in my biopic.  He had poorly-spaced teeth and wispy black hair which circled around his bald spot.  I must have spent hundreds of dollars there over the years, and yet when I became enthralled by the deluxe collected editions of Tales from the Crypt, he yelled, “If you want to read, go to a library.”  There’s a scene near the end of Walkabout, where the girl and boy, having finally “re-discovered” civilization, come across a gentleman who waves them dismissively, the way civilized gentlemen do.   He doesn’t stop to hear their entreaties or care about their story; there are rules, dammit, and they’re to be followed.  The guy at Colorado Comics was sort of like that, except crabbier.

I should have bought those Tales from the Crypt books.  They resell for a fortune now.