All Mouth and No Trousers.
Part 2 of my BodyParts reviews of movies
You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
So anyway, this month we’re asking what significance there might be, if any, to the human mouth in film; the self confessed backwater cousin of the Eye. We want to know what part he has to play in the movies, aside from chewing dialogue and throwing on a bit of chapstick and kissing the leading man. That, dear friends is the focus of this entry and after asking around, after indulging in a little research on my part, the main response seems to be this- that the human mouth on celluloid is, more than anything else A SOURCE.
Let me explain that. Just like on a first date (and you know this is true), in movies we stare at the mouth because we use it as a jumping off point to tell us the basics about the situation in front of us. Effectively it’s a foundation or a starting point in determining what these images are and who these strangers dancing before our eyes might be.
In fact in the most obvious way possible, it’s always been a source of intrigue and media jazz for the movie business. Starting with old school stars like Clara Bow and continuing through the years on to modern celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson, the mouth of the movie star has always been a selling point. And that’s not just restricted to women either. Consider the well worn pictures of a grizzled Eastwood chin chewing on a cheroot or the lantern jawed heroes of the fifties. These natural assets somehow became synonymous with image, with explaining definitive styles/genre in a pure single illustration. It became part of the national consciousness.
And it wasn’t merely about aesthetics either. Certain movie stars over the years have been known as much for being political mouthpieces as they are acting legends. People like Susan Sarandon. Tim Robbins. Charlton Heston. Jane Fonda. It’s the forcefulness of their opinions that have set them apart from their contemporaries of the time and that distinction, that separation has arguably come courtesy of that grand old dame the Mouth.
But what about the mouths actually appearing on the silver screen? Well guys, those little orifices are all about the multi function as you’ll see…
• First off, they can be hurtful, vitriolic- the source of harsh words and insults the like of which will never be wiped from the mind. As in…“You’re an emotional fucking cripple. Your soul is dogshit. Every single fucking thing about you is ugly.”- Bad Santa. That’s some quality potty mouth, right there and no-one ever forgets the quality zingers that have spewed out over the years.
• But then on the flipside, they can also be a source of comfort and serenity. If you want an example of this feel free to check out the brief but seemingly real relationship sparked between Evey and Valerie in the cell next to her in James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta. It’s a life-saving friendship conducted solely through whispers and watching them trying to put their faces close to the wall that keeps them apart, gives a perfect image of this need for consolation.
• Even more importantly- they can be the first representative of a person’s identity. Seriously, consider this for a moment. Visuals aside, an actor’s bad accent can completely ruin the illusion of a film (my own personal favourite being Josh Hartnett in Blow Dry- truly excruciating) while a good one can draw you in almost instantly. The tone of a riotous comedy can be conveyed through the presence of an outlandish overbite a la Austin Powers while drama-wise someone’s social status can be shown through something as trivial and obscure as poor dentistry)
• Finally, the mouth can also be a source of pleasure (see any Porno ever made)
• And a source of pain (see any gorno ever made!)
What I’m trying to say is that the mouth reveals all those little things about us that we couldn’t put into words even if we may want to. But that’s not all the mouth can do for us, oh no! It doesn’t just reveal. It can also inspire/instigate deeper emotions in us, more primitive instinctual sentiments than we ever would have thought.
I’ll let you think about that for a second, and try to picture the following five infamous scenes that are burned into our brains.
See if I can convince you….
1. So we’ll start with the dentist torture scene in Marathon Man. (1976) You remember it, I’m sure. Opening up on a relatively mundane room awash with browns and beige, the only speech we’re witness to is lacklustre and benign- ‘You should take better care of your teeth, you’ve got quite a cavity here.’ What’s more interesting though is that Olivier’s Szell barely opens his mouth at all during the whole scene, even when he shows his true malevolent nature. He is closed off, unwilling to reveal anything of his own monstrous truths even through such a subtle means. This is in total contrast to Hoffman’s Babe who has his mouth forced wide open, whilst a series of fingers and instruments are forced inside, in a rudimentary act of violation. These men are searching him for information, searching for answers and crude as they are, they know the fastest way to do that is through the mouth. Even the camera seems to recognise this. From moving around the room in a fluid motion, as soon as Hoffman’s predicament becomes clear, it stops and turns static just before it begins to pan closer and closer towards Hoffman’s gaping mouth. The build up of tension in the scene, the sly movement from tight-lipped drab pleasantries to full on open-mouthed T forces us to empathise with the terror, the abject horror and outrage that Babe obviously feels. And as the lens pans again from a final close up of his open jaw up into the surgical spotlight, that instinctive sense of dread and repulsion is left lingering in the mind of the movie watcher as well as the character.
2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)- and I think we can safely say Andy Warhol would have had a feel day with this opening scene. Released only a year later than Marathon Man and the screen lights up as usual, – first there’s a beat, a background drum kick. Then the screen glows black. Except there’s something there; something that’s moving closer, that’s growing redder and redder the closer it gets. Until you can see that it’s a pair of lips- real live human lips that begin to sing a ditty, a homage called Science Fiction Double Feature.’ Again, from this unsettling opening, a mouth (or in this instance a pair of fetishist lips) light up the screen in close up, this time coated in slick whorish lipstick, giving us an unasked for window into someone’s intimate world. The fact that there are no other colours, no other background images or signifiers offered up to help us to understand the situation, makes the whole scene alien and uncomfortably unfamiliar. The idea that the lips are sexual (the shade of lipstick practically screams it), androgynous and completely separate from any helpful human context basically hits us like a visual sledgehammer and this combined with the lyrics they’re singing about (a world made up of fantasy figures and icons) wraps around the screen to bemuse even the most focused of minds. The simplicity of the image brings to mind all the peculiarities and disquieting elements of human desire …better than a thousand skimpy costumes ever could (although they make an appearance later on don’t worry!)
3. The Brown Bunny (2003) – this middle entry comes with a caveat I’m afraid. Now I don’t know if this is just an urban legend, just some rumour spread around the gutters of Hollywood but this down and dirty skin flick caused a tornado of controversy when it was alleged that Chloe Sevigny actually performed real-live fellatio on Vincent Gallo. Not rated or noticeable for any other reason, this film is acknowledged for one single intimate act rarely seen on the silver screen. The interesting thing about this whole scene however is the way it’s filmed. Lensed with close up of the actor’s body parts, it’s a mess of fingernails, fringes and facial angles without revealing a whole countenance at any one time. It’s basically the anonymous factor at play again, leaving the viewer with no outside clues to go on other than the mouths and intimate gestures burned onto the screen. And again just like the Rocky Horror Picture Show, there’s no distractions to take attention away from the act being performed, no music in this case, no sounds other than the characters breathing and moaning. In fact the sound and camerawork actually seem quite amateurish at times, supposedly cementing the realism of the encounter no doubt. As a result of all this, when the climax (sorry) of the image hits, with an eerier close up shot of what does indeed appear to be a genuine blow job, the tight focus on Chloe Sevigny’s mouth is shocking, unsettling and inspires a myriad of disconcerting, desirous physical responses in both her and the audience. And all of this from an image of the human mouth.
4. The Exorcist (1973)- Ok so, leaving aside the whole ‘Your mother sucks cocks in hell’ exchange, which if you ask me is one of the best lines ever uttered by an underage actress, everyone always seems to remember one other thing from this William Friedkin adaptation. I’m talking of course about the pea soup scene, when the good priests are knee deep in their battle with the force possessing young Reagan. What’s significant about this encounter is the moment where Pazuzu gives manipulation and wordplay a rest after taunting Father Karras that his mother resides in Hell and starts vomiting up the good stuff. And schlocky, obvious and blunt as the action may be, this still stands as cinematic gold because it involves something inexplicable and disgusting pouring out of the mouth of a child- a mouth that’s supposed to be innocent and untainted by filth of any kind. The juxtaposition of the two things magnifies the horror and instinctive dread inherent in the situation. Again, there’s a lot of camera focus on the faces of the two adversaries, very little movement to take the attention away but the truly fascinating part about this entry is that the demon only vomits once Karras offers him a challenge regarding his mother’s maiden name. Tied down, and unable to launch a verbal attack, he spews up directly at the priest, aiming it so that the liquid hits his face and mouth. If you watch closely, the concoction actually goes right into his mouth and it’s this invasion, this violation that can’t help but stir disgust and revulsion in both the character and the watcher simultaneously.
5. And so…finally we’re going to move onto something lighter you’ll be glad to know- namely Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990)- and I actually kind of hate this film, I have to admit. It’s perky and frivolous no doubt, style over substance for sure but in terms of our theme today, there is one thing that does stick in my mind from the block-busting romcom. And that’s the idea that hookers (and I use the term lightly for Julia Robert’s character) don’t ever kiss their clients on the mouth. It’s a rule that cannot be broken. Unless you’re kind of moonlighting. Or dating a rich, nubile businessman. Whose friends may or may not be a little bit rapey. Apologies, I’m losing my thread… My point is that when Vivian finally kisses Edward on the mouth despite knowing the rules, it proves that she is in that one moment, putting her heart before her head. She chooses emotion/romance over everything else including money and reputation, and more importantly, she uses her mouth to prove it. In point of fact, in that scene, unusually Edward is very much the passive individual; he is asleep sitting up in bed. As a result, there’s no speech to soften the act, to explain its significance; there’s just Julia Roberts’ hesitation before kissing her client’s cheek, his face then finally his mouth. It’s only at this point that he begins to respond, allowing her to keep all the power, to be the instigator. Her mouth appears to be her way of creating real intimacy with Gere when words aren’t enough and the sense of attraction/emotional depth inherent in that mouth to mouth connection is transferred and shared by the people watching.
And…breathe. You still with me?
It’s quite a strange combination of examples I’ve listed there I know- I’m sure I could think of a whole bunch of better ones given a little more time. But what strikes me about those five scenes in particular is this- that the human mouth on celluloid seems to draw out two emotions in us more strongly than any others- the disturbing and the intimate. Which is not so strange I guess considering what we do with our own mouths. And don’t look at me like that, you know what I’m talking about…
Anyway, this has been part II of the BodyShocks series so keep an eye out for part III coming soon and please feel free to let me know if you agree/disagree with anything I’ve said or if you wanna add your own (probably better) scenes to the list above.