Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hangover Part Two, Part Two: Treatment of LGBT Issues

A few days ago, an alert reader asked me about the treatment of GLBT themes in The Hangover II, prompting me to see the film. I would have sent a bill to the alert reader for the cost of the film and a pack of peanut M&Ms, except that the astute reader turned out to be right that this is a tremendously rich subject of study, quite possibly dissertation-worthy. Any fledgling queer-theorists (or "thinks" as I call them) should read the following analysis closely.

Over the past week, distracted only occasionally from the task at hand, I've attempted to track concepts of comedy, reality, and consequence through a pair of films. The world these films create and inhabit is extraordinarily self-contained, exemplified by the laughter of the characters, which ensures safety and protects the films against breaches in their surfaces. The movies promise to take us wild places but they never go there, making only small incursions into the unknown and then retreating quickly to the familiar and the pat, epitomised by two destinations rich with history, glamour, anthropological interest, and narrative opportunity, Las Vegas and Thailand, and yet what we get is """Vegas""" and """Thailand"""; and when the films do slide into wildness, they uncomfortably rein themselves back in (Tyson); or else they forget about where they were going (pedophilia) as the reassuring backdrop of the status quo is re-established.

So what about GLBT issues? Well, I'm going to make two arguments, both of which are, I'm sure, obvious. Just in case they are not, I've bolded each one.

1) This is not a film geared towards making GLBT youth feel good about themselves.

Just as we got to enjoy the now-classic "Paging Dr Faggot" scene in The Hangover, so we hear "gay" flung around as a modifying slur in the sequel. Watching these movies, one has the slightly sickly feeling that the auteurs are indulging in the post-ironic, post-identity transmission of: Of course we're not homophobic, that's why we can make gay jokes, like Chow saying "niggaz" isn't racist, because we're not racist either.

But this transmission is invariably accompanied by episodes of good old-fashioned gay panic, just to ensure the following simultaneous transmission: of course we're not homophobic, that's why we can make gay jokes, but look, we'll also experience some gay panic, because we don't want you to think we're actually gay.

And so when Ed Helms discovers that he has been penetrated by a she-male, we get run-of-the-mill gay panic: wide-eyed babbling, shivering, clawing for sanity while struggling for breath, the desperate search for a moral shower that can wash away the sins of the flesh and even, in what I do not think is a parody of The Crying Game, wretching. Seeing a penis on the object of desire results in horror, shock, and vomiting - not unrelated responses. The horror and the shock come from finding alien desire in oneself, vomiting is expelling that alien desire, barfing it out. In The Hangover II, the episode of panic is followed by a discussion of the obligation and capacity to forget. The message is clear: a male should be panicked to discover a penis as his object of desire; he must purge this or, most conveniently, repress it.

On the other hand, it would be unfair to fail to note that it does not deny Ed Helms' pleasure in being anally penetrated. This is oddly resolved at the end of the film. The "demon in me" is confused with the "semen in me", a rhyme of unmitigated castigation, and yet Stu seems to claim that demon; he demands recognition and, one might detect the stirrings of a political consciousness: it's about time that randy straight white men are freed from centuries of moral stricture and condescension and even downright prejudice. Sadly, there is very little to suggest that his unearthed desire and his newfound pride is going to find fruition in the marriage. That his wife might "get used" to his demonic side and his tattoo is promising, but, as I have said, these films promise more than they deliver. She insists on switching sides with him for the wedding ceremony itself so that as she marries him, she has the blank, untattooed side of his face to look at. So, maybe she'll accommodate him later? Maybe? Either way, there is only the promise of affirmation, the retreat into the safety of the "normal", and the punch is pulled. (Imagine if she whispered to him as they stood in front of the altar, "I have a strap-on", and Stu's expression turned to delight>? But that would be a very different film with a very different message).

Now, let's address a glaring issue. I started talking about LGBT themes. While this film disparages "gay" and puts the "trans" into sex work, we must not get confused. The Hangover oeuvre is about the kinds of guys who are shocked and disgusted by being anally-penetrated, the kinds of guys who end up with women (we are guaranteed a shot in the credit sequence of Phil and Alan with proper, vagina-toting women). The crucial point is this: Gay and Trans themes come up here not as "gay" or "trans" per se but as ways of conveying penis-horror.

The central scene in the movie is, of course, the discovery of Chow through his penis, poking up through fabrics in their Bangkok hotel room. "What is that?" "A spider's nest?" An ugly, dangerous thing spewing mites. Alan tastes it: "Shitake". This moment, as I know you know, specifically recalls the shower-room scene in Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, but I hardly need point out to you how different The Hangover's and Hollinghurst's narrator's approaches to the penis are? No, I don't.

The only figure in the film without penis horror is the monkey. The monkey licks Chow's penis, the first of many gags about the "gay monkey" and its fondness for putting its mouth on penises. Once again, we should hesitate before calling this mere gay-bashing (or monkey-bashing, for that matter). It's something more. The comic-disgusting actis replicated when the monkey licks the dismembered finger. It's an important point, because it's not just a visual rhyme playing on the similarity of the dismembered finger and a dick; the monkey is a Virgilian guide leading the men through the psychosexual hell that is The Hangover. Confusing the dismembered finger for a dismembered member is no accident made by a stupid, gay monkey; it's a crucial point: Teddy has, in a way, cut off a dick when he cuts off his finger. The dismembered finger is not a symbol of Teddy castrating himself, but rather castrating his father who lived on in the phallic image of his perfect son.

So, we have a film that, in every way, encourages forgetting and repression, and has a compelling, convincing, and consistent message: the penis is revolting, even when appended to a woman. Gays and Trans aren't evil or moral reprobates, they just have a disgusting relationship with a disgusting object. Arguably, as Stallybrass and White famously said, "disgust bears the imprint of desire", but a film like The Hangover is too formally committed to its retreats, too immersed in the convenience of disgust, and too uninterested to allow that concept any room to breath (in just the same way that it suffocates the possibility of any good Asian jokes with jaw-droppingly obvious ones; in just the same way as it stifles Tyson, particularly in his return in this film).

2) So, the first point is obvious: the auteurs have no real interest in gay or trans issues, gays and transgendered people aren't targetted per se, they're just collateral damage; the real point is penis horror.

The more confusing issue hearkens back to Part One, Part One.

Once again, we are invited to see Alan as a pederast, this time with 16 year old Teddy. Um, even his name gives it away: Teddy to the Bear.

When he first meets Teddy and learns he is "pre-med", Alan asks him about Doogie Howser and then points out that the actor was gay. He says he learned this in Teen People. His immediate associations are sexual and, shall we say, age-inappropriate?

Alan quickly explains his antagonism towards Teddy. Teddy would disrupt the "wolf-pack", i.e. his friendship with the other lads. But is that entirely convincing? Is that why he stares at Teddy with such lingering intensity? Is that why he blurts out "in your face", or why he says to the boy: "It's illegal. It'd be a shame if anybody reported you"?

The subtext is barely sub at all. Once again, there is the implication that Alan is a pedo. But when Alan's head is shaved, he is effectively neutered, Samson-like, and the Alan-as-pedo routine is dropped, at which point pederasty becomes an explicit, instead of an implicit, topic. The tattoo artist tells the 9-year old he's tattooing to show them his balls. When the wolf-pack enter a bar, one of them says they're looking for a little kid. The owner answers, "Okay. $2000."

What does any of this mean?

I trust that you will have picked up two themes in these postings about The Hangovers. One, my attempt to find some meaning in the comedy; two, my acceptance of my failure to do so. Not everything has to be clever. Not everything has to be heavy. Yes, there are very interesting undercurrents suggesting that the only lovable weird character in the films is a pedo; yes, Mike Tyson has quite an interesting role in the first film; yes, there's one of the few parodies I've seen of the photograph of Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner; yes, there is a Virgilian monkey leading the characters through the psychosexual symbolism of penile hell; but ultimately the film works to forget these problemata, to erase them.

One fascinating possibility is that these films are arguing that the reconstruction of memory can only take place with the forced repression of memory; or, even better, the reconstruction of a narrative memory can only take place with the forced repression of certain memories. It's not just a matter of simplification, but rather the formed story needs to be a linear, coherent, normatively-paced substitute for the ambiguous, haphazardly-beating pulse of life itself, and must silence, or forget, the off-tempo beats that dysregulate it. As each Hangover moves towards the reconstructed narrative, it sheds the confusion, it forgets what it needs to forget; it presents us with violence, pederasty, sodomy, and then demonstrates how these must be shed to reconstitute the "normal", with the recuperation of the status quo, where the remainders - the hangover - is no longer real, but only a symptom.

A second fascinating possibility is that these films are intentional enactments of the forgetting of obscenity, running through a formidable array of obscenities - the history of colonialism in the United States (Vegas as the ultimate symbol of a freedom for rich, white males purchased cheap) and globally (Thailand as a site occupied by Western sex tourists, foreign criminals, and importers of corporate goods), which is a history of the obscenity of power; the history of sex, which is a history of exploitation and the obscenity of the penis; the history of violence, which is also a history of cross-racial encounters and the obscenity of human difference. The films promises the reconstruction of obscenity as the characters piece together the violence and destruction and violations of the night before, but this reconstruction is accompanied by active forgetting, repression, justifications, and the construction of a normative narrative that will permit the final return to the status quo, where remainders and reminders are no longer threatening, they are symptoms of recovery. This is a crucial point: a hangover is a lingering weariness and suffering but is also a physical path back into sobriety, tinged with regret and recuperation.

Were you at all surprised that nobody was hurt when Alan ran the motorboat into the wedding reception? How much better would the film have been if Alan had run the motorboat into the wedding reception and run over and killed Doug? Why Doug? Doug is the excluded member of the wolf-pack, the facilitator, but ultimately the most castrated member of the group, the one without an ugly penis, but who is, like Teddy's finger, therefore a dismembered penis? There is no consequence other than regret, which is a form of moral reconstitution after-the-fact, and acceptance of physical punishment. Doug survives, Teddy is unmolested, the wedding goes on.

And we can add one more point: these films are enactments of forgetting, and it is precisely as such that they are compulsively repetitive. "It happened again . . ." There can be a Hangover III, Hangover IV, this series can go on forever, convulsively, repetitively, regenerating and forgetting and then repeating. If you want to take this theory seriously, then you must face the following: in a rejection of psychoanalysis (which would be odd, because this film seems to be so undeterred in making a psychoanalytically-derived theme its only sustained theme), the fundamental trauma is not the trauma of castration, but the trauma of having a penis in the first place. The fundamental obligation to forget is because you desire the penis you have. It is only through forgetting that you can reconstitute yourself narratively. And if this is true, then all psychopathology resides not in developmental regression or conflict, but in the constitutive ideal of heteronormative masculinity.

A third possibility is less flattering, but weird and, in my mind at least, ill-formed. What direction does a work of art look? Does it look to the real, whether because it is mimetic, or inspired, or therapeutic, or curious? Or does it look to you, the audience? In Part One of this series on The Hangover, I mentioned this issue: the film is full of guarantees of safety, most obviously in its persistent internal laughter; I am also certain that not a single person, not one, who watched The Hangover II thought that there was going to be the slightest hint of carnage when Alan drove the speedboat over the dock onto dry land, much less that there would be widespread boat-murder of the wedding party, Stu's wife, of the castrated penis, Doug. The film makes a promise to its imaginary "you" that there will be safety; to enjoy the film and to accept this promise makes "you" what exactly? What promises did you accept from this film, and were they delivered? Was it worth the cost of a price of tickets and a packet of peanut M&Ms? What exactly is the hangover from the Hangovers?

I haven't a clue, these films are beyond me, which is why I promise never, ever to write about them again.


Roger said...

Peanut M&Ms? That's just gay.

Otherwise, nice post!

sw said...

Thanks! And it all depends on how you eat them.