Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dirty Talk

I went to see Lincoln at the weekend. It was a pretty good film, although it was also the kind of film that doesn't leave much of an impression in your mind besides, "Gee, that was a pretty good film".

I saw it in the Santry Omniplex, my cinematic Mecca. It was showing in Screen One, which is a cavernous auditorium. (By the way, what is the correct term for the individual screening rooms within a cinema? I've found myself struggling with this a dozen times at least. "Auditorium" sounds awkward, as does "screening room", "theatre", and "cinema" itself.)

Screen One is the only auditorium in the Omniplex that doesn't open onto the lobby of the cinema. Instead, you enter through a long recessed corridor. This actually adds an extra sense of occasion to the sort of big films that would be showing on Screen One. The walls of this corridor are lined with movie posters, mostly for upcoming movies, and I like to stroll along this corridor when I am waiting for a movie to start. (I am chronically early for everything.)

I love movie posters. Many movie posters are genuine works of art. Even the less inspired ones are usually pleasing to look at, since they usually seek to convey excitement, awe, grandeur and other stirring emotions.

This time, however, I was brought up short in my pleasant little survey when I came to the poster of a film called This is 40. Obviously seeking to convey the disillusionment of middle age and a marriage in the doldrums, it shows a bathroom in which a woman is in the foreground brushing her teeth, while a sullen-looking man is pictured behind her-- sitting on the toilet, his trousers around his ankles.

Maybe I am very repressed and overly-squeamish about bodily functions. But I find this kind of thing highly offensive.

Human nature is a funny thing. It's well known that toilets did not appear on the television screen until very recently. (In the nineteen-fifties the American comedy show Leave it to Beaver was pushing the boat out by even showing a toilet cistern.) Shakespeare and Chaucer were quite happy to indulge their scatalogical tendencies, but by the time television and cinema had been invented, it seemed the English-speaking world had decided our eliminative functions were taboo. (I'm no cultural historian, but this seems a fair enough summary to me.) The point I'm trying to make is that I don't think television and movies would have eschewed all reference to toilets or using toilets for such a long time unless there was a general social agreement that this was good manners. My guess is that people didn't want this aspect of human nature dwelt upon, or even mentioned, in their entertainments.

Obviously, that has changed now. I fervently wish it hadn't, and I wonder why it did. Some taboos make a lot of sense.

Everybody finds the eliminative functions unpleasant. That is why they are performed in private. As well as this, there is very little dramatic potential in them. You can tell 99.9999 per cent of stories without any reference to the "smallest room". After all, story-telling is always selective and it nearly always leaves out the duller, more routine, less remarkable aspects of life. We spend a third of our existence sleeping but this colossal slice of life is all but ignored when it comes to movies, novels, biographies and histories.

Now, leaving aside the matter of the "fine" arts-- which seem increasingly devoted to shocking and unsettling and disturbing those who purvey them-- I think it is fair to say that entertainment is supposed to give us pleasure. Movies are supposed to please us, at minimum, and hopefully to inspire and instruct us as well. And movie posters, surely, should do the same.

So why make a movie poster that makes me gag?

Nor do I understand why so many people, today, are willing to use curse-words and slang-words that refer to defecation-- and not only in the heat of emotion, or in earthy company, but in the most casual fashion and in almost any social situation. Anthony Burgess, in his book A Mouthful of Air, admitted that this widespread practice made him wince, and guessed that users of the "sh-word" and "cr-word" simply no longer retained any mental association between those expletives and what they originally described.

I'm not so sure of that. But either way, it seems a very odd thing to do.

Look at it this way. Most people spend a lot of time and energy making themselves presentable. They shower, wash, launder, spray, comb, pluck, brush and trim. Sometimes they even wax and exfoliate. The list of creams, ointments, gels and other products to assist us look as clean and neat as possible seem to grow all the time-- as do the anxieties (assisted by advertisers) that we might have overlooked something, that we might have White Marks on our clothes, that our skin might be shining (in a bad way) or that our hair might looked "tired".

And yet, after going to all this trouble to present an impression of impeccable cleanliness, people are willing to use language that conjures up the foulest associations possible. Why not make the tiny amount of effort needed to keep one's language clean, too? Do they want others to be put in mind of excreta when they listen to their conversation?

Call me prissy, but I don't get it. Just like I don't get that nauseating movie poster, or why someone thought it was a good idea, and somebody else gave it the green light.

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