Wherein I Think Too Hard About Your Highness

Your Highness is dazzling in its array of reviews: they swing from ultimate disgust ( Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir calls it possibly the worst movie ever made) to a gleeful delight, NPR’s David Edelstein refers to it as a pinnacle of low comedy.  I’m not sure it is either of these, but it is a fine example of a wispy trend developing in comedy: the joke of the American male.

I offer it as an offshoot of Apatow’s bromances, burgeoning with the Apatow produced Pineapple Express, and fully embraced by Danny McBride and his usual crew of makers (David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Ben Best), we see it living large in most of McBride’s blustery roles.  The closest kin these movies have might be the genre takedowns of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead), or the early work of Kevin Smith, which does the same kind of nostalgia spin and masculinity slam that these movies do.  What I mean by this is that instead of looking at how hard it is to grow up and be a good dude, especially if unequipped in modern times (the Apatow catalogue), this new branch celebrates adolescent nostalgia while reveling in the failed response of masculine ego. Whereas the joke is never on Paul Rudd, the joke is always on Danny McBride (and even Seth Rogen when he shows up in Hill’s Observe and Report).

We see this super clearly in Eastbound and Down, the same happens with McBride’s lead in Foot Fist Way, and most of his roles where he portrays a signature mix of ignorance and enthusiasm (Fireworks dude in Tropic Thunder, Bustass in All the Real Girls, Drug dealer fellow in Pineapple Express).  He is very good at bombast, skewing redneck, and quickly showing the fear and soft bits of an insecure soul.  These guys are fascinated by this trope, and have repeated it in most of their work.  They love portraying the unattractive man who is not winning, who is steeped in laziness and failure, and who tells himself a self-narrative of the gods. They love the comedy of such a known tragedy. And they get away with a lot because of it. The racism, misogyny, and general obscenity is always framed so that they are calling out the same errors that they are gleefully getting to say.  Apatow’s crudeness is an attempt at realism. This new branch uses obscenity as part of the bluster it is unpinning.  At one point in Your Highness, a squire says to Prince Thaddeous (McBride) something like “I know you rely on your vulgarity as a defense for your insecurity.” This is either right before or after both Thaddeous and his page have mimed ejaculating onto the squire’s head.

This look at the narcissist American male (I say American because the accessories are always American, with the joke extending to America, its blind faith in itself, and how comfortable it is letting itself get away with everything), in these movies is also usually partnered with a deep love for markers of boyhood joy, and the genres that sparked this love way back when.  Foot Fist Way is basically a filthy Karate Kid remake filled with props from what meant good living in the eighties according to video games and action movies (red corvettes, big haired blondes, gold necklaces). It is filled with the boy version of what the good life of the future was. If we did the girl version of this from that same time, we would have a movie littered with Kit n’ Kaboodles, fuschia satin camisoles, Virginia Slims, and stretch limos.  The same nostalgia, and it’s failure in an adult life, pops up in Observe and Report, especially with Seth Rogen’s date sweater.  He is wearing on his date what he also probably wore to 7th grade graduation. In 7th grade, it was the flyest.

The same happens in Pineapple Express (and ode to Cheech and Chong movies), and Your Highness (deep homage to Krull and all of its kin).  These are the films that made a generation, and while I do think girls have a different set of cultural texts (Teen Witch, Labyrinth, She’s Out of Control, Crybaby, Troop Beverly Hills, Maid to Order, etc.), both sexes share the imprint of what these movies were, and what they told us the future would be.

Your Highness is a deeply affectionate critique of a generation of fantasy movies. It commends the good stuff (the puzzles, the mysticism, the camp), and calls out the weak and ridiculous (the pat formulas, bad special effects, etc.). It especially notes the sexual undertones that were always present (do you remember Jennifer Connelly eating that peach in the Labyrinth?) by grotesquely calling them out.  In Your Highness, all the characters are questing to keep “The Fuckening” from taking place, where a virgin wizard will rape and impregnate a virgin princess. The fuckening will logically produce a dragon. Which is genius, because Natalie Portman gets to say with a straight face “it is my quest to keep people from fucking dragons into the world.”  Your Highness also calls out the way women are usually reduced to crones, princesses or women in leather thongs in all these movies (Krull has an amazing spider crone, and Red Sonja is the icon of leather sex warrior). At one point in the rescue of the princess, Thaddeous tells the baddie wizard “She’s not your virgin, she’s my brother’s virgin,” and earlier asks his brother if he would still marry the princess if the wizard had indeed deflowered her, or even buttfucked her.  Just as the joke is often on the grotesque male and his inadequacies of self-narrative, the joke here is also on the genre itself.

And the smartest part of it all is that we get to see it back through the adolescent lens, and witness the juxtaposition of those hopes and weird feelings against a real adult backdrop (or, realer adult backdrop).  It is like we get to watch Krull and get hear what McBride and Green and Hill were thinking when they were 13 watching it.  They are going back to their youthful expectations of adulthood, manhood, and showing how those scripts, or at least their earlier innocent readings of them, maneuver in the adult problems of failure, lack, and finding oneself to be an unmythic character in an unmythic world. It’s a look at the busted dreams of our kidselves, with a good dose of follow-up on the adults that we have become. For the fellows here, it is one long dick joke, and that makes sense. It’s a boomerang of a dick-joke, one started 20 years ago, initially about expectation and wonder, and now about insecurity and failure.

This batch of movies takes on the headiness of  those movies we watched a thousand times at sleepovers, where we began deciding what the world really is.  Your Highness is one more of the grown boy version, with tons of dicks and dragons, looking at how those old scripts manage to both fail and delight.

I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but it is an interesting one,

So, there’s that,

Yours,

CF

Christian Boys on How Girls Can Stop Making Them “Stumble”: (Hint: Don’t Move. And Make Sure You’re Not-Moving On Purpose.)

I love the smell of sexism in the evening. Are you ready for “The Rebelution“? Where teenagers “rebel against low expectations”? Sociological Images published the results of a survey of 1600 Christians on how “modest” they consider various articles of clothing and behavior (and the corresponding “value” of the wearer/actor). Boys and girls took the survey and the behaviors of both genders were up for discussion. It was a productive conversation wherein both sides got to express their points of view and their spiritual and physical struggles with desire.

Ha. I kid.

Here’s what really happened: the only gender subjected to the “Modest or Not” test? Women. (Sorry, “girls.”) The 1600 respondents invited to minutely inspect and judge every aspect of female behavior, attire and deportment? Men. (Correction: “guys.”) The theological dimension? None—unless you count “stumbling,” an undefined expression the survey uses to describe a temporary lapse, always by a male in response to female lures.

The “Modesty Survey” got its start when a young woman suggested an “anonymous discussion on modesty” between boys and girls. The survey counts itself a rousing success at achieving this (potentially quite useful) goal. The number of female respondents? Zero. Girls were apparently encouraged to ask questions, just not answer them.

Respondents were given statements with which they could agree or disagree. The good part: the Christian boys often seemed to be quite a bit more thoughtful than whoever put this survey together. The bad part? Whoever designed it seems to have wilfully ignored two truths—boys have self-control, girls feel desire—and one claim: neither sex has any business policing the movements of the other.

Here are some sample statements boys are invited to have an opinion about. They can Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral [not a verb, that always bugs me], Disagree, or Strongly Disagree:

  • Playing with jewelry, such as a necklace, is a stumbling block.” (Result: 58% “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” Phew!)
  • A purse with the strap diagonally across the chest draws too much attention to the bust.” (Result: 47% of respondents “Agree” or “Strongly Agree.” According to that bunch, messenger bags are  for whores.) To be fair, some guys were a little more sensible. One comments: “This is a case where if the guy is staring then he should check himself on that. I wear a messenger bag myself, so I can’t hold a double standard. I can, however, hold myself to a higher standard and just not look.”
  • Others had detailed procedures; some were ready to break out the measuring cups:

    “Depends upon how heavy the bag is. If the strap pushes on the shirt such that the breasts are separated as one looks down, it’s immodest.”

  • “Playing with hair is not a stumbling block.” 61% agree! Girls can play with their hair, but by gum, THERE ARE LIMITS:

    “Not in of itself, but if you spend a lot of time playing with your hair it makes a guy wonder if you aren’t trying to attract attention.”

    And if a guy is [count the qualifiers] wondering whether you might be trying to attract attention, you are conclusively IMMODEST. Someone else offers the following clarification:

    “Technically, it’s a flirting technique.”

    According to this young man, “flirting techniques” are not “stumbling blocks” in the pursuit of Christianity. An 18-year old respondent, however, does “find it hard to imagine a beautiful and modest woman doing it. It does perhaps exceed the bounds of propriety.”

Try this one on for size:

  • It is a stumbling block to see a girl lying down, even if she’s just hanging out on the floor or on a couch with her friends.” (22% agreed.)

Or this one!

  • Seeing a girl’s chest bounce when she is walking or running is a stumbling block. No running, ladies. Or walking, unless you have strapped your boobs down like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. In sum, cross-dressing might be best.

How about this?

  • The lines of undergarments, visible under clothing, cause guys to stumble.” (72% Agree or Strongly Agree). As this is virtually impossible with the majority of bras, you may want to dispense with them altogether. Or cross-dress (see above).
  • Seeing a girl take off a pullover (i.e. a shirt that must be pulled over the head) is a stumbling block, even if she is wearing a modest shirt underneath.” Here’s a fascinating comment:

    “It kind of depends, if she is careful it is not a problem, but most girls don’t think about it and so it becomes one. It’s not that they don’t care, it just isn’t something they think usually think of.”

“It isn’t something they think usually of.” Amazing how much real understanding that shows, and how radically it goes off-track. That statement says something true about a basically “modest” existence—a perspective so pure  it doesn’t even suspect that the behavior in question might provoke lust—yet contains within it the injunction that she should “think of” the lust she is always in danger of provoking.  In other words, it’s not enough for her to be innocent. She needs to be intentional about her refusal to arouse. But not too much, because if she shows she understands too well, she’s in danger of (oh devilry!) abusing that knowledge to “get attention.” Not to court attention is insufficient: she should “be careful” when she takes a sweater off.  She needs to actively, deliberately not-arouse. She should become self-conscious, limit her movements, regard herself not as a thing that exists and sees, but as a terrible catalyst that can at any moment tempt men to their eternal damnation.

That’s not enough, of course. In order to understand how not to arouse her Christian brothers, she must first understand what does. (Like messenger bags.) To protect them properly, she has to become not just conversant but fluent in all possible masculine sexual fantasies. She has to learn their origin and derivation. She has to study how men can possibly convert an innocent movement (like walking) into an erotic stimulus. In fact, she has to become a virtual Ph.D. on masculine sexuality; she has to become a fantasizing male-by-proxy in order to avoid tempting any such male. She must call on all her resources, her empathy, her understanding, to imagine what it is like to be male and incorrigibly sexual. And she should perform these empathic acrobatics without having any sexual thoughts of her own.

Now, this is all ostensibly to protect the souls of her “Christian brothers.” What about her soul? From a Christian point of view, can there be a better recipe for temptation than to force a human being to become a theoretical expert in precisely the imaginary prurient scenarios that ostensibly jeopardize the souls of men?

Back to the survey. To state the obvious, here’s what all this teaches boys: All that matters is your reaction. The difference between a modest behavior and an immodest one is the desire it stirs or doesn’t stir in you. Ideally, a woman will fully understand her awful power and control it responsibly; if not, it’s her fault. But since a woman’s (I’m sorry, “girl’s”) intent is unknowable, what determines her success or failure at “modesty” is the effect she produces on you. Moreover, Christian boys, your subjective state of arousal at a particular moment trumps a “girl’s” liberty to exist freely (the way you do). Women should actively police their behaviors, their movements, their clothing and their faces so you don’t have to spend the occasional (and unavoidable) tempted minute staring into your own soul. And rest assured: girls feel no desire or temptation themselves, so you are free to be as attractive and flirtatious as you like without feeling a moment’s guilt. Your relationship to your body can be joyous. It doesn’t fall to you to labor under the metaphysical mindfuck of being told that your body—YOUR body! the one you were born in, the thing you are!—shares in the guilt it provokes in others the minute it takes any pleasure in its God-given beauty. Boys, you needn’t know that your beauty is also your disease (as a result of which you may end up among the damned; in the absence of which you may end up alone).

To state something equally obvious: none of this disaster of a philosophy is the boys’ fault. I have no doubt the Modesty Survey respondents have good hearts. They’re grappling with one of the great human problems: how to deal with the fact that you live in and through a body, and how to understand the complicated dance between desire and its fulfillment or diffusion. These are all large and complex issues of personhood and it is certainly not the boys’ fault that this survey invites toxic answers. (By virtue of its structure, the survey excludes any other kind). The fault lies with the pernicious idiots who invent “tools” like this one, tools that claim to measure but actually perpetuate the dehumanizing idea that one gender gets to dictate what the other one does.

Here is the real image for the survey. I wish I were kidding:

Maybe when Christians adopt the veil we’ll finally have world peace.

Or maybe, instead of turning girls into stones by making them feel guilty for the physics of their bodies when they walk, we can teach each sex not to blame the other when it “stumbles.” We could all work on getting better balance.

M

There is A Joke In Here About A Certain Kind of Great American Novelist …

… who leaves home to see the world and writes about what he sees.

From Bumbumbum.me:

‘In den Zillertaler Alpen’ is a series of paintings by Hank Schmidt in der Beek, where he  stands in nature surrounded by mountain scenery and paints the pattern of his shirt on canvas.

Norman Mailer, Whose Sorrow Lay Its Protection Over Him Like a Shawl on the Bones of an Arthritic

In our last installment of “Prisoner of Sex,” Mailer (played by Psycho-Pirate sans black leather jacket) was “attuning” to his secretary and the media to see if he’d get the Nobel Prize.

He doesn’t get the Nobel Prize, which he never wanted anyway, and starts thinking of himself not as the Famous Nobel Prize Winner but as “the Prizewinner” or the “Prisoner of Wedlock” or just “the Prisoner.”  (You see where this is headed? ‘Cuz prizewinner sounds like prisoner, see?) His fourth marriage having ended, he goes to Maine with five of his children and an “old love.”

He grows.

He understands what a woman means when she says her hair smelled of grease.

He learns the value of the cliches he’d always dismissed, like “The children almost drove me mad!” He learns that these cliches are also “paving blocks at the crossroads of existence.”

“While the Prizewinner was packing lunches this picknicking summer, the particular part of his ghost-phallus which remained in New York—his very reputation in residence—had not only been ambushed but was apparently being chewed half to death by a squadron of enraged Amazons, an honor guard of revolutionary (if we would only see them) vaginas.”

The attack was masterminded by his old nemesis, Time. Mailer thought he had won; after all, he once “captured the mistress of a Potentate of Time,” thereby vanquishing the Evil Empire once and for all. (WARNING: this might give you flashbacks of You’ve Got Mail).

If, in a story, he had once written called “The Time of Her Time,” the protagonist had been fond of referring to his sexual instrument as the Avenger, now the Prizewinner whammed nothing less than a Retaliator in and out of Vengeance Mews (thereby collecting a good share of the poisons the Potentate had certainly left behind) and was so intent on retribution it took him months to recognize that the dear pudding of a lady in whom he was inserting his fast-thrusting barb was a remarkable girl, almost as interesting, complex, Machiavellian, and spirited as himself.