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Joe Queenan takes a historical approach to solving the mystery of why so many contemporary American films contain scenes in which the private parts of the hero or villain are threatened, damaged or altogether done away with.
One night this past spring, I rented White Men Can't jump, that elegant, understated plea for racial harmony starring Wesley Snipes, from my local video store. Toward the end of the film, in which Woody Harrelson quite convincingly portrays a Caucasian basketball player who isn't very smart, the flaxen-haired "Cheers" veteran is apprehended by a pair of vicious-looking gamblers he has been eluding for most of the movie. Dragged to a deserted area and stripped to his Marky Mark undershorts, Harrelson kneels helplessly at the feet of the sinister Stucci brothers as they prepare to do him irreparable bodily harm.
Begging for one last chance to come up with the thousands of dollars he owes them because of his failure to tank a basketball game, Harrelson looks on in dismay as one of the Stucci brothers inserts a shotgun into his underpants and warns him what will happen to him if he fails to come up with the money.
Shortly thereafter, the gamblers get their money.
The very next night, I rented Honeymoon in Vegas, the quirky 1992 comedy in which Nicolas Cage quite convincingly plays a Caucasian who isn't very smart. Warned what will happen to him if he does not come up with the many thousands of dollars that he owes sinister gambler James Caan after an ill-advised poker game, Cage persuades his fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker) to spend a weekend with the odious dirtball in exchange for the complete cancellation of his debts. In a winking aside to the audience, apprising them of what might happen to Cage should he fail to live up to his part of the bargain, Caan very early in the movie grabs the testicles of a hotel manager who has been foolish enough to tell him that his usual suite is not available, and proceeds to squeeze them with great dexterity, force and, apparently, delight.
Shortly thereafter, Caan gets his room.
The very next day, I went out and saw El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez's quirky, elegantly understated $7,000 movie, in which the unknown Carlos Gallardo quite convincingly plays a Mexican who isn't very smart. About halfway through the film, the nightclub proprietress in whose bathtub Gallardo finds himself plunges a sharp letter opener into the water between his spread legs and tells him to take out his guitar and perform a traditional mariachi song. If he plays the song with the gusto and panache one has long associated with practitioners of this colorful idiom, it will prove that he is a harmless mariachi musician and deserves to live. If he does not play the song with traditional elan, it will prove that he is the hit man who's known to conceal his weapons in a guitar case. In that case, she will cut off his balls.
Shortly thereafter, the woman gets her serenade.
Robert Rodriguez has garnered a lot of kudos in the past few months, first by winning the coveted Audience Award at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, then by getting signed to a two-year "first look" deal with Columbia. Much of the media attention has focused on the director's maverick road to stardom. But the bald truth about El Mariachi is that it is just a low-budget, formulaic comedy about a dimwitted male who keeps getting himself into trouble and then at a certain point gets threatened with having his nuts disabled or removed.
I think Hollywood will suit Mr. Rodriguez just fine.
The fact that it was possible for an ordinary moviegoer like me, a person with no ax to grind, no hidden agenda to promote, no soapbox to fulminate from, to view three films on three consecutive days that all dealt in graphic fashion with a direct threat to the male reproductive organs suggests that there is something disturbing going on in the national Zeitgeist that we should all be paying attention to. Or at least that all men should be paying attention to.
My suspicion that testicular paranoia was loose in the American subconscious was further strengthened in the next few weeks, when I noticed that there was a direct threat to the organ that I hold most dear in every single movie I attended, with the single exception of Howards End. In The Dark Half, a man's balls are cut off and stuffed into his mouth--the last place anyone would think of looking for them. In Three of Hearts, Tony Amendola threatens to cut off Billy Baldwin's nuts and use them for a necklace. (Actually, given that the rodent-faced Baldwin is sharing an apartment with Kelly Lynch, who plays an unsuccessful lesbian, this is not such a bad idea, since Lynch obviously has no use for Baldwinic balls.)
The final vindication of my theory about balls on the brain occurred when I saw the trailer for Lost in Yonkers and realized that even in a hopeless morass of ethnic hokum like this, there is nevertheless a groin-threatening scene: Richard Dreyfuss stuffs a revolver down his trousers and then jokes that if it should accidentally go off, he'd be turned into a ballerina.
Tickets are still available for the 9:20 showing.
The idea of depicting penises and testicles getting chopped off, blown into smithereens, pummeled by direct kicks, or transmogrified into offbeat jewelry is not a new concept in the movies, or, for that matter, in life. What is new is the fact that moviegoers are now being exposed to a veritable tidal wave of misfortune involving the male reproductive organ. The simple fact of the matter is this: the menacing of the malleable male member has now become as much a cinematic cliche as the cloying Motown soundtrack and the close-up shot of shoes descending from a parked car. (The generic shot of the 1990s is of somebody named Baldwin or Quaid dropping his feet out of a car and getting kicked in the balls while Aretha sings "Chain of Fools" in the background.)
How did we arrive at a point in our history when virtually every film made in this country contains at least one scene in which the male member is bent, folded, spindled or mutilated, or at least threatened with such indignities? And what does it say about the American psyche that our most popular art form now routinely depicts severe mistreatment of the human cock? And that men have to pay the same price as women to see it? To answer these questions, we must first go back and survey the history of ball-busting films.
Until the 1950s, Hollywood tried to pretend that the penis did not exist. This was, it must be remembered, the postwar era of wholesome entertainment, and the penis, whatever its other charms, can hardly be described as wholesome. Also, it was easier for Americans to forget that penises existed in the era of Pat Boone and Danny Kaye.