6/29/10

Spielberg's Hook, psychosexual smorgasbord

I Baited that Hook

In 1991 I attended a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch concert in southern Massachusetts. Mr. Wahlberg rapped, stiffly but not without enthusiasm, while a pan-ethnic cadre of backup dancers broke their parents' hearts behind him. He took off his pants -- remember how that used to be one of our now most recognizable living actor's gimmicks, taking off his pants and rapping about being "drug free, so put the crack up"? -- and stalked the stage, flexing his jagged abs provocatively. After a wardrobe intermission, Wahlberg retook the stage wearing a bathrobe. He took it off and revealed himself to be wearing only... his boxers. Underage girls screamed. I left feeling perplexed -- why, if he'd already taken off his pants, did he have to put on new clothes only to take them off again? -- but having had a mighty fine time. I felt the vibrations. Come on, come on.

Outside the civic center was a booth organized by a local radio station. They were giving away promotional items to shill for the launch of one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters: Spielberg's Hook. The bulbous, haggard DJ threw a t-shirt to me, rolled and taped. I opened it immediately, and was crestfallen to find it was an adult medium. Puny as I was -- the shortest kid in my class, girls included, until grade 8 -- when I put it on, I looked like a refugee in a muumuu. I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that I would never be able to walk around, impressing my friends by billboarding for the all-the-rage motion picture event of the season.

That shirt is now my oldest possession. As far as I can tell, I've had it for several years longer than anything else I own.
It's survived 4 states, 13 moves, an accidental bleaching (thanks a lot, mom), and being used as a painting smock. It was with me that next year, 1992, when I went on my first date -- to Aladdin and then Big Boy, who I thought had the best hot dogs on the market -- with a girl named Sam (and my parents). It was with me on my last date, to a cupcake store for my ex-girlfriend's birthday, where I told her "I can't take you anywhere" after she was rude to the clerk, thereby precipitating the weeks-long fight that would end with a perfunctory breakup. It now fits me almost preternaturally well -- every gaunt angle, every malnourished crevice, every worrying mole, stretch mark, and superfluous third nipple on my torso is swaddled tight in its cotton embrace, as if I've grown to fit its shape as it has shrunk to fit mine. Like a Venom symbiot.

Perhaps it's just a cheap coincidence. Perhaps its a cosmic confluence of taste and happenstance. Perhaps this shirt is responsible for the man I've become -- but sometimes it seems like I'm the only person in the world who likes Hook.

It has a 22% "fresh" rating on rottentomatoes, and the positives range from condescending ("muddled but fascinating," or "It's worth a look. But overall, Hook feels like an exercise in cynicism") to milquetoast inanity ("The movie is a strong reminder of the freedom of youth and the quest for pure adventure, one that looks to the stars and sees the possibilities are as bright as a child's own imagination"). Gag.

I've seen it perhaps 15 times -- just enough to be able to annoyingly recite pretty much every significant line of dialog a second before it's uttered onscreen. I love Hook. I really do. But I never realized what a fucked up movie it is until last night.

Peter Pan and the Women Who Love Him
"I don't ever want to become a man. Yuck!"

Three characters are in love with Peter: his wife Moira, Moira's grandmother Wendy, and Tinkerbell.

When she first appears in the movie, Tinkerbell pummels Peter with a rolled up magazine until he falls onto a baby's bed and then stands, triumphant, on his crotch. It's all fairly infantilizing and emasculating, innit?
"If less is more, there's no end to me, Peter Pan."

Peter explains her appearance this way: "You're a complex Freudian hallucination having something to do with my mother, and I don't know why you have wings. But you have very lovely legs, and you're a very nice tiny person, and what am I saying, I don't know who my mother was and I'm an orphan, and I've never taken drugs because I missed the sixties. I was an accountant." It takes a while for the irony of the invocation of Oedipus -- and the creepily incestuous vibe in Tinkerbell's brand of pedophilia -- to come into focus.

About halfway through the movie, Peter has a torrent of remembrances that begins with an image of his birth-mother discussing her plans to send Peter to attend Whitehall and Oxford before ascending to "the highest court" as an attorney, all the while saving time for "a marriage, and family, and all of that." Meanwhile, she forgets to watch her pram, freighted though it is with precious future-barrister cargo, and it rolls away.
So her priorities kind of suck.

Peter explains, in a kind of voiceover that supposed to be directed to Tinkerbell, but is really just hammy exposition for our benefit, that at that moment he realized that he didn't want to grow up -- this must have been a fucking smart baby -- because "everyone who grows up has to die some day." So instead he "ran away." Ran away in his baby carriage. By making it roll down a hill. Until apparently it tipped over in the rain? And he fell out into the middle of a spiral on the pavement in a suspiciously well-framed shot?
Like, how did the baby get from the pram to the middle of the spiral on its back?

So Tinkerbell finds and rescues baby Peter -- and he's thrilled about it, clearly.
Tinkerbell absconds with the little dude, in what would look suspiciously like kidnapping if baby Peter hadn't had a preternaturally sharp baby intellect capable of high-level practical reasoning, awareness of his own inexorable mortality, and the amazing ability to navigate a baby carriage of which he is inside.
He explains: "You came and you saved me. You brought me to Neverland. You taught me to fly." So Tinkerbell is, at the very least, on the cusp of felonious babynapping. But she also raises Peter, provides him succor and care and nourishment, for the first twelve years of his life in Neverland.

At which point we run upon the rock of an insuperable problem. Isn't the whole point of Neverland that you stop aging when you're in Neverland? If I didn't know better, I'd be tempted to call it shoddy filmmaking.

Fortunately, it's a problem with a payoff: without this loophole, Tinkerbell couldn't be simultaneously Peter's mother-figure, nursing him to manhood from his first days on earth, and want to jump his bones.

If Peter doesn't want Tinkerbell -- his surrogate mother -- he doesn't want Wendy -- his foster-grandmother -- either. But, of course, this movie has a moral responsibility to us to creep us out with quasi-incest as much as it possibly can. So, the now ninety-something year old Wendy Darling, who still calls the now middle-aged Peter "boy," is also still in love with him, eighty years after the fun summers in Neverland. Only one problem: Peter married her granddaughter, Moira. Imagine getting left for your thirteen year old grandchild. That would sting a little bit.

In his initial visits to her open window, Peter resists the advances of the young Wendy -- who looks strikingly like a young Gwyneth Paltrow -- because he's a fucking idiot, apparently.
And, in the immortal words of Michael Bluth, "you gotta lock that down," because this asshole has the gall to be surprised when young, hot Gwyneth Paltrow turns into old-ass Dame Maggie Smith.
I mean, she's hot for an old lady, but... come on.

In a genuinely affecting scene early in the movie, Wendy explains to Peter that she has always been in love with him: "When I was young, no other girl held your favor the way I did. I half-expected you to alight on the church and forbid my vows on my wedding day. I wore a pink satin sash... but you didn't come."
Peter, taken aback by her bedroom eyes and her clumsy groping, responds, "Grandmom?"

And this is where we find out what kind of chap the young Peter Pan really was. Wendy says, "Yes, I was an old lady when I wrapped you in blankets. A grandmother, my thirteen year old granddaughter asleep in the bed. Moira. And when you saw her, that was when you decided not to go back to Neverland." It will take an hour and a half of screen-time to learn the rest of this story.

Not only does Peter decide to stay; he decides to give the sleeping girl a kiss. Wendy begs him not to -- "I couldn't bear for Moira's heart to be broken when she finds out she can't keep you!" -- but Peter is adamant. He hawks in and plants one right on her pie-hole. In one fell swoop, Peter devastates the woman who has served the role of mother for, and who is in love with, him;
he terrorizes the woman who will become his grandmother, and who is in love with him, thereby consigning her to decades of torture in providing for him financially and emotionally while watching him seduce her descendant right in front of her;
and he commits something that looks eerily like sexual assault on a minor incapable of consent.
We should remember that this is Britain, and the laws might be different there -- after all, if they locked up every pervert and pedo on the street there wouldn't be a whole lot left over. But no matter where you are on the globe, this is big-league dickweed stuff. The kid's a world-class asshat.

Happy Thoughts

This whole cavalcade of reminiscence is triggered by Peter finding an old teddy bear his bio-mom put in his perambulator to keep him company while she talked about his future with her shrew-friends.

After he describes the aforementioned gray-rape incident to Tinkerbell, she responds, "I can see why you have trouble finding a happy thought. So many sad memories, Peter." Because you totally dicked me over, you son of a bitch, she continues silently.
Fortunately for Peter -- and pace Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life -- "teddy" sounds kinda like "daddy."
And lo, Peter has his happy thought, and he can fly -- which is one of the three important things, along with fighting and (for some reason) crowing, and blah blah blah.

The "happy thought" is, of course, an important, if borderline-nonsensical, theme in the movie. Peter's happy thought is Jack, his son; later, Jack's happy thought will be Peter; Peter's daughter Maggie's happy thought will be her mother Moira. Only two Lost Boys are allowed to have happy thoughts: Tootles and Thud Butt (more on him in a minute). Tootles's happy thought is somehow literally manifested in his marbles, because, as Foucault has convincingly argued, crazy people cannot be happy. When Tootles gets his marbles back at the end of the movie, he flies to Neverland, the doddering old bastard.
He's in for a rough go of it when he gets there and remembers the Lost Boys think "all grown-ups are pirates," let alone that "we kill pirates."

Also, Moira seems surprisingly placid when a senile old man starts flying.

Wishes

Happy thoughts aren't for everybody. Only for the fulfilled. The Lost Boys can't fly, and no wonder -- just look at the ridiculous shit they suggest to Peter when they're trying to coax him skyward.
Man cannot fly on gum alone.

Two disappointed characters, Tinkerbell and Rufio, have the bummer obverse of a happy thought -- both have, instead, a "wish."

Tink's wish is expressed in one of the movie's most perplexing scenes. Peter has found his mojo again -- he can fly, fight, and crow, and is a full-on, raging, rock-hard Pan. But he's also regressed emotionally: He thinks he's in Neverland "to always be a little boy and to have fun," and he doesn't remember that he has kids. Tinkerbell has to make a melancholy choice between brainwashing the man she loves into being a little boy again so he might love her back, or reminding him of what he truly wants.

And so she does the clearly wrong thing and chooses to try to seduce Peter and make him forget about his life.

The people in this movie are pretty shady.

Some monumentally cheesy special effects erupt and Tinkerbell becomes as tall as Julia Roberts for some reason. "I did it," she says. "You're humongous," says Peter.
"This is the only wish I ever wished for myself. Oh Peter, this is the biggest feeling I've ever, ever felt, this is the biggest feeling I've ever had and this is the first time I've been big enough to have it."

Did I mention Carrie Fisher was brought in to rewrite Tinkerbell's dialog?

"Peter, I want to give you a kiss." He reaches out his hand for a thimble. "No, I mean a real kiss."

Did I mention that Julia Roberts was nominated for a worst supporting actress Razzie for this performance? (She lost to Sean Young in A Kiss Before Dying. I haven't seen it, but that performance must have been something special, because Ms. Young won both the worst actress AND worst supporting actress Razzies for it.)
They kiss. Tinkerbell says, "I love you, Peter Pan."

At this point I wonder, do you think Tinkerbell breast-fed the infant Peter? Or did she feed him neverberries and roots from the neverforest?

Fortunately, at this moment of ethical crisis -- and, let's call it like we see it, fairly brazen sexual manipulation -- the ol' word-association trick kicks in again, and when Peter asks Tink to kiss him "more," it makes him think of "Moira," which is the name of his wife. It's a good thing she wasn't named like Agatha or Isabel or something -- the movie's second moment of soft adultery could have turned pretty explicit. This is, after all, one of Julia Roberts's best-looking movies.

The second disappointed character, Rufio -- the interim leader of the Lost Boys in Peter's absence -- conspicuously doesn't have a happy thought. He's got authority -- "Ru-fi-oooooo!" -- but he seems insecure. He growls, "I've got Pan's sword. I'm the Pan now!" But, in the justly famous dozens/food fight scene ("Bangarang!"), Peter reminds Rufio that he's "a one-celled critter with no brain that can't fly," and that he's "suffering from Peter Pan envy."

The two trade insults (including two of my favorite from Robin Williams: "prison barber" and "nearsighted gynecologist"), and then move on to imagining delicious frostings into existence and hurling them at each other.
No homo.
No homo.
No homo.
No homo.
No homo.
Even Tink gets hit with some splashback.
By the end, it looks like Chan-Wook Park tried to direct a grindhouse bukkake flick and it went horribly, horribly wrong.

Peter wins, of course, and in vanquishing his rival he also becomes a fairly clear father-figure to Rufio as the film progresses -- both in the sense that Peter gives him someone to look up to, and in the sense that Rufio is continually placed in conspicuous proximity to Peter's crotch.
I mean, if the story doesn't make it fairly explicit, the camera angles do a pretty good job.
"You are the Pan," Rufio says.
But Peter isn't satisfied until he has totally humiliated the pretender. Even though Rufio has just abdicated his station of his own volition, Peter still feels the need to draw a literal line in the sand, forcing the Lost Boys to desert Rufio and join Pan's side, even though it's strictly pro-forma.
Also, I don't know if you picked up on this, but the sword is, like, some kind of symbol for a dick or something.

So anyway, Rufio's wish is expressed in the wake of the scene that broke ten-thousand hearts -- "looky, looky, I got Hooky."
Dying in the arms of the man who usurped him, disrespected him, forced all his friends and allies to betray him, and didn't save him because he was busy saving someone else, Rufio says, "Do you know what I wish?"
"I wish I had a dad..."
"...like you."

Captain Jack

Rufio, we must remember, is an orphan with no history, and therefore a sacrificial lamb whose only role is to make young Jack, Peter's son, realize what an ungrateful little prat he has been to his father.
Even though, let's not forget, his dad's kind of a cocksucker.

Though God knows I haven't got the energy to tease out the Oedipal threads of this thing, at the beginning of the movie, Peter misses Jack's baseball game. So the son wishes the father dead.
"Where's my parachute?"

Then, when Peter remembers his happy thought he says, "I know why I grew up. I wanted to be a father." So it's an old, evo-bio inflected story, really. Boy wants to be boy in perpetuity; boy meets girl; boy realizes girl is exemplary candidate to bear seed forth into the world; boy feels irresistible caveman urge to possess girl as sexual object by any means necessary; boy renounces bid for immortality to spawn son who resents him; boy-as-father shames son for resenting him, even though the resentment is well-founded and justified.

Thud Butt

The only other Lost Boy with a happy thought is the aforementioned Thud Butt.
I'm serious. That's his name. You can tell because it's inexplicably embossed on a wheel of cheese.
Thud Butt is the kid Peter implausibly leaves in charge when he leaves Neverland at the end of the movie. Thud Butt's happy thought is his mother.

It's a mean-spirited touch -- only characters with "happy thoughts" can fly, and in nearly every case, "happy thoughts" are mothers, fathers, or children. Tootles can fly, in spite of the fact that he's a Lost Boy -- but his happy thoughts are marbles, god knows why. Thud Butt can't fly (yet), but he's got the Pan's sword and a nuclear family-based happy thought, and that seems to be all you need. The movie actually has this weirdly sinister anti-orphan undercurrent -- it seems to say that unless you're connected to the world by lineage and legacy, you're adrift, cut off from happy thoughts that empower you not only to make magic, but to lead men. Rufio was a tragic accident, and order was restored when he was relegated.

However, Thud Butt seems by all accounts ill-equipped to fill the role that Pan and Rufio held in Neverland. He's fat and unathletic. In battle, the Lost Boys display their characteristic whimsy by shooting pirates with guns full of eggs and paint and marbles that trip them. They also stab the pirates to death with swords. It's a pretty heavy-duty contrast. Thud Butt, on the other hand, is effete and weirdly feminine -- he rolls down gangplanks and bowls people out of the way, and stomps on boards so they hit guys in the nuts. He's not a stabber. No one seems to respect him or take him particularly seriously. When Peter leaves him in charge, he even hits him with a fat joke: "I want you to take care of everyone smaller than you."
Yet, on the merit of this one happy thought of a time long past, he's given responsibility and sovereignty over the whole tribe of boys.

The Hook Appendix

Plenty could be said about Captain James Hook, but I'll limit myself to my two favorite bits.

First, his attempt at suicide. "I hate living in this flawed body... I've just had a sublime vision. All the jagged parts of my life have come together to form a complete and mystical whole. An epiphany... My life is over."
"I want to die."

The second bit includes my favorite line and my favorite sight-gag in the movie. The Lost Boys are having a game to "steal Hook's hook as fast as you can. It'll make you proud. Then you'll crow like Pan." Hook is sitting in the bleachers, waiting for his pirates to indulge master Jack in a game of baseball.

He says, "Confound it, Druscilla, glove me! The game's about to start."

Gets me every time.

The Shadow Addendum

Early in the film, Peter is haunted by the literal shadows of two things Captain Hook reminds him of in the final fight scene. He says, "You know you're not really Peter Pan, don't you? This is only a dream. When you wake up, you'll just be Peter Banning -- a cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children."
His son.
Booze.

The Weaver Affidavit

Is it just me, or does this kid look like Sigourney Weaver if she was really, really sick?

Love Disinterest

Soon after he gets to Neverland, Peter falls into the water with his hands bound. Tinkerbell screams after him, terrified that he's going to drown. He's saved by some mermaids, who make out with him, presumably thereby blowing air into his lungs. The first of the movie's soft marital infidelities.
Peter is taken back to shore, and he bumbles his way through Neverland for a few seconds until he steps on a trap and is hoisted up to Tinkerbell's house. Now, in the time it takes all this to happen -- about a minute, which the movie portrays as if it were real-time -- Tinkerbell has already flown from the pirate ship back to her little clock-house...

...and fallen asleep.
Sure, she wakes up and she whoops and hollers and seems pleased that Peter's alive. But I mean... come on, girl, damn. You're his mom and his mistress. The least you could do is grieve for a little while.

6/9/10

Purple Impact, or, I am ready to lead with my face into the foot that fate has in store for me.

There are two things I have known since childhood.

First, I can be arrogant. It's only too easy.

Next, I can take a beating. A sound, knuckle-scraping, face-stomping beating. I can walk into a buzz-saw of limbs and digits, joints and extremities, and welcome the pulverizing, tenderizing impact. In the end, I will be doubled over in agony, writhing and mewling like a cur, but I'll still be there. And tomorrow, I'll come back for more.

Yes, these two things always came easy to me. But something was always missing. Some essential tertiary term haunted me, kept me from feeling complete, made sure I was always one-third phantom, only ever almost whole.

Today, I am whole.

One of my favorite movies -- both for sentimental reasons and because it is, without hyperbole, easily the greatest film ever made -- is the 1991 Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Double Impact (imdb.com rating: 4.7/10). In it, Van Damme plays dual roles: twins named Alex, a streetwise tuff from Hong Kong who smuggles and steals and beats ass, and Chad, an effete Los Angeles karateka and dance instructor who wears salmon short-shorts and black silk underwear (the last of which details is an important plot point). Implausibly enough, they have the same accent, and Alex Van Damme calls Chad Van Damme a "faggot" more than once. It's as good as it sounds.

In an early scene, Chad Van Damme is teaching what appears to be a class on sexual innuendo to some ladies who probably seemed pretty in the late 80s but are now terrifying.

"Because of my big legs and karate, I can do the splits no problem."

Uncle Frank -- who, spoiler alert, isn't really his uncle -- calls him away to take over the karate class downstairs. "Dressed like this?" Van Damme asks.

I think he looks good. Uncle Frank checks out his package.

Keeping with the theme of peculiar couture, for some reason, the karate class is dressed like this.

An unruly Australian, identified as "the new guy," is picking on some poor kid, and Van Damme, following the Bushido code of honor, has to step in and defend the weak in his samurai spandex.

"Are you the ballet teacher or what?" the Aussie asks. "Dancing, yeah, dancing... also some, ah, karate," Van Damme responds nonchalantly. And so the web is laid -- the trap is set. It's all over but the pain and humiliation.

(You could do worse, at this point, than to notice that the Aussie is wearing barrettes in his hair.)

"Show me one of your special kicks," Van Damme enjoins, pointing somewhere off-screen. This moment has always puzzled me. JCVD seems to be suggesting that the bully is well-known for his kicks, indeed that his kicks are perhaps even advertised at JCVD's own karate studio. Yet the bully is referred to only as the "new guy," and his belt matches his gi, which would normally mean he's a white belt -- and being a white belt in karate usually just means you haven't paid the first month's gym fees. On the other hand, perhaps the movie is trying to suggest that he's a light-pink belt, a rank so formidable it doesn't even exist.

At any rate, the Aussie obliges.

And bitch, that's a mistake

because

you're

gonna

get

KNOCKEDTHEFUCKOUT.




Ahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahaha!

For some obscure reason, this Aussie became something of a hero to me. Something about his verve, his pomposity, the way he plowed headlong into the intractable foot of justice, appealed to me. He owned what an asshole he was -- he didn't pussyfoot or tiptoe. He laid it all out there, and he took what was coming to him. He showed his true face to the world -- and then Van Damme kicked him in it.

Perhaps it's as simple as this: I admired his style.

As the years wore on, it became clear what I couldn't do. The dullness of karate's katas doomed me to wash out early, far before I would ever develop any "special kicks" of my own. My hair thinned, and was summarily shaved clean, ensuring that barrettes would never be my calling card. No matter how hard I tried to sound suave and sunkissed, my accent remained a resolutely Midwestern twang, only undertoned by the last remaining evidence of my first decade in California and Massachusetts.

But there were three things -- the three most important things -- left over. We already know I can be arrogant. We know I can take a beating. But what about sartorial flamboyance?

Well, this morning, I dumped a package of Rit dye and 3 gallons of water into an empty garbage can, dropped in my spare jiu jitsu gi, and kneaded it until my fingers were blistered, cracked, and stained a regal hue.

Behold, mortals, the wages of my labor!

I see this as having two related practical benefits. First, if you kick my ass in jiu jitsu class, of course you kicked my ass, I'm wearing purple -- you're supposed to kick my ass. Second, if I kick your ass -- dude, you just got your ass kicked by a guy wearing purple.

But far more important than this is that I am finally ready to become my destiny. I am ready to lead with my face into the foot that fate has in store for me. I am a new man.

I am the new guy!