1 i have
2 a flush of guilt
3 baptisms in blood
and deadly sin
5 freudian jokes
for the john
6 exploring interiors
7 the naked truth
8 dirty bits
and naughty bits
She kisses him.
As Barton tentatively responds, we pan away.
We frame up on the door to the bathroom and
track in toward the sink. We can hear the creak of bedsprings and Audry and Barton's
breath becoming labored.
The continuing track brings us up to and over
the lip of the sink to frame up its drain, a perfect black circle in the porcelain white.
We track up to the drain and are eveloped by it
as the sound of lovemaking mixes into the groaning of pipes.
from the Barton Fink screenplay by Joel
& Ethan Coen
and naughty bitswe're
so vulnerable in the tub -- whether we realize it or
not. A high-minded intellectual like Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, in Otto
Preminger's Laura, 1944), who dwells only in the rarified realm of wit and
newsprint, may appear to be oblivious to modesty when allowing detective Dana Andrews to
interview him while sitting (and writing, like Jean Paul Marat) in his bath. He
doesn't notice -- or chooses not to -- the wry look Andrews gives his anatomy when he
stands up and arrogantly asks to be handed his robe. Jeff Bridges, in Hearts
of the West (1975), finally has to rise from the tub (he keeps his hat on) and his
nakedness to save the day like the Hollywood hero he hopes to be. And then, 23 years later
in a similar L.A. apartment in Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski (1998),
Bridges is again helpless in the tub when two thuggish "Nihilists" (Flea and
Peter Stormare) break into his place and threaten him by dropping a marmot into his
bathwater. Talk about feeling vulnerable.
the water closet
(as the name suggests) is, as we've noted, a private forbidden zone, where people both
indulge their secret liquid pleasures, and hide their juicy, shameful secrets. It's the
place for private functions of all sorts -- where homosexuals go for a sexual pick up
(Frank Riploh's Taxi Zum Klo [Taxi to the Toilet], 1980; Stephen Frear's
Prick Up Your Ears, 1987, etc.), where junkies in search of a vein/pipe go to
shoot up (Mean Streets, Sid & Nancy, etc.), where bulimics go to
throw up (Heathers, Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, etc.), and where
teenage boys go to jerk off (as in the aforementioned Fast Times at Ridgemont High
and Spanking the Monkey). In Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), a young
London gentleman named Tony (James Fox) considers it a most shocking and humiliating
invasion of privacy when he discovers the "sister'' of his vaguely malevolent
manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) -- who, not-so-incidentally, emerges from a Thomas
Crapper office at the beginning -- soaking in his master bath!
Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), brutish villain of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife &
Her Lover, observes that, the way human beings are plumbed, the sensual gratification
of sex is "more private... than stuffing the mouth and feeding the sewers, although
the pleasures are related. Because the naughty bits [sex organs] and the dirty bits
[orofices of elimination] are so close together that it just goes to show how eating and
sex are related.'' Shortly thereafter, his abused wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) puts his
theory to the test, by slipping off into the restaurant restroom (and kitchen and pantry)
for sexual rendezvous with Michael (Alan Howard), her lover. The restaurant feeds one end
of the digestive tract, the lavatory provides an outlet for the other -- but while in
there, Georgie and Michael also takes the opportunity to satisfy carnal urges.
charmingly in some circles as "laying pipe'') and plumbing are often linked. Alan
Rudolph makes an extended joke out of plumbing double entendres early in Afterglow
(1997) as roving handyman Nick Nolte tinkers with a female client's pipes. When plumber's
niece Jennifer Jones shows up at the door and apparently propositions man of the house
("Good afternoon. Well, shall we have a go at it?'') in Lubitsch's Cluny Brown,
refugee Charles Boyer steps in with, "I have a well idea that this has something to
do with plumbing.'' Indeed it does. As Jones takes off her stockings and prepares to climb
under the sink, Boyer salaciously observes, "You see, she's not dressed for plumbing
-- but what woman is?'' The kind of plumbing he's thinking of requires no wardrobe
steamy shower fantasies are a movie staple -- like Angie Dickinson's shower nuzzle in the opening of Dressed
to Kill (Brian DePalma, 1980), or Tom Cruise's girl in the mist in Risky
Business (Paul Brickman, 1983). In Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas mounts
Glenn Close in the kitchen sink -- the contents of his faucet inevitably filling her
drain. And in The Servant, James Fox and Wendy Craig play out a seduction scene
to the sound of a rapidly dripping kitchen fixture. The phallic faucet represents the
temptation of Fox's libido: He attempts to turn it off, but the dripping sound is replaced
by a ticking clock elsewhere in the house, and he just can't fight the rhythm. In Weir's The
Plumber, one of the all-time great plumbing movies, the burly title figure represents
not only an invasion of privacy but poses an explicitly sexual threat to the aloof,
repressed, academic woman whose bathroom he rips apart -- along with her air of
intellectual detachment and superiority.
the bathtub is a
place for luxurious, underwater sexual gratification in countless movies -- among them,
the cozy bubble-bath scenes in which chubby Marianne Sagebrecht pampers herself and her
lover in Percy Adlon's Sugarbaby (1985); the candle-lit aqua passion pit for
Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in Bull Durham (1987); and the moist encounter
with a plastic sea-diver in Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990). In
Henry Jaglom's sticky-saccharine Always (But Not Forever) (1985), a woman soaks
in a tub filled with cocoa because she's heard that chocolate can chemically simulate the
warm sensation of being in love.
assumes more sinister overtones when women are threatened with sexual violation in scenes
such as the aforementioned snake-in-the-suds from Craven's Deadly Blessing,
JoBeth Williams' aborted bath in Poltergeist and Barbara Steele's vaginal
penetration by an out-of-the-drain parasite in They Came From Within. Steele
later passes the critter to her lesbian lover in a romantic kiss. No, that's not her
tongue. In Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988), Jeremy Iron's mentally deteriorating
twin gynecologists treat the female anatomy itself as plumbing -- with both their medical
and biological instruments. And (in one of the all-time great plumbing moments) in Joel
and Ethan Coen's Barton Fink (1991), the camera
does not pan discreetly to the blazing fireplace when John Turturro's sexually frustrated
and repressed playwright/screenwriter finally gets laid; instead, it creeps into the
bathroom and goes down the drain, the moans of lovemaking mixing with sounds of creaking
pipes and, perhaps, murderous screams as Barton finally
leaves the "life of the mind" and gets down to biological basics.
sin, guilt, repression, biology, sex... It's a good thing the movies didn't come along until after
indoor plumbing. Otherwise the cinema would have had to invent it!
says Ethan Coen. "Can't beat it. Helps any movie.''
For Kathleen Murphy, with love, respect, and
Special thanks to Julia Sweeney for generously
sharing her Catholic education over the years.
And thanks again to my interviewees --
David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, Joel & Ethan Coen, and Peter Greenaway -- for sharing
the joys of plumbing with me over the years. (All filmmaker quotes from interviews
with the author, 1991-1997.)
Fragment of an
early stag film.
Sex as plumbing -- or plumbing as sex -- in Cronenberg's
early film, Stereo.
Sex and plumbing: Good clean fun -- and, biologically
speaking, you can't have one without the other.