Lend Me Your Ears

No on-screen appendage is truly safe in this age of violent cinema. If you think ears are, just listen up!

In the opening sequence of last summer's thriller Speed, mad bomber Dennis Hopper forcefully inserts a small knife in the eardrum of a security guard who has confronted him in the basement of a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. In doing so, Hopper became, as far as I can determine, the first major star in the history of motion pictures to appear in two movies in which he severs, mutilates, pierces or otherwise inflicts irreparable damage on another human being's acoustic apparatus, having already chopped off a man's ear in Blue Velvet. Although it is in some ways disheartening that the man who once embodied the countercultural ethos in renegade films such as Easy Rider and The Last Movie now plies his trade by mutilating other actors' auditory equipment in mainstream summer films such as Speed, it should not come as a huge surprise to the viewing public that Hopper should be the man singled out by the industry as the first recidivist ear mutilator in the rich history of the art form. If somebody has to be a serial ear brutilizer, Dennis Hopper seems like the right man for the job.

The ear-piercing incident in Speed, following so closely upon the scene in which a hired gun blows a hole through Gary Busey's ear in The Firm, and preceding by scant months Robert Downey Jr.'s having part of his ear blown off in Natural Born Killers, shows that we have reached a watershed in the history of cinema, signifying that auscultatory trauma has now become a staple in motion pictures made in this country. In recent years, ears have been severed in films as varied as Blue Velvet, Reservoir Dogs, The Last Temptation of Christ and Vincent & Theo, and ears have been bitten or gnawed upon in The Godfather, Part III and A Perfect World. But none of these films was a huge hit like The Firm or Speed. Godfather III and A Perfect World were commercial disappointments at the box office, Reservoir Dogs, Blue Velvet and Vincent & Theo are cult classics that have garnered far more fame than dollars, and Last Temptation was a marginal hit, nothing more.

Now, however, with the awesome success of Speed, whose very first violent act involves the brutalization of the human ear, and The Firm, we may very well have entered into a new era of cinema--the Ear Era--where tympanic trauma will be perceived by the general public as an acceptable, and perhaps even desirable, component of the moviegoing experience. In years to come, ear-piercing, ear-chopping, ear-slicing, ear-filleting, ear-microwaving and ear-masticating incidents may become so popular that they will replace head butts and kicks to the genitals as the single most popular cliche in the lexicon of popular cinema. Of course, as is often the case with my theories, I could be wrong about this.

The purpose of this essay is fourfold:

1) To discuss the history of auricular atrocity in motion pictures and pay homage to trailblazers in the idiom.

2) To draw attention to the different types of ear mutilation in motion pictures and stress the diverse cinematic objectives for which the savagery is utilized.

3) To draw a crucial distinction between films in which acoustic abuse is a peripheral, secondary element and those films in which the mistreatment of the human ear becomes a centrifugal force so powerful that no one can talk about the movie without mentioning "the ear scene."

4) To discuss the emerging role of children as ear mutilators in American cinema and speculate whether biting another actor's ear at an early age is a good career move.

First, a bit of history. From the time movies were invented until David Lynch hooked up with Dennis Hopper, ears did not play much of a role in the cinema. Actors used them to hear with, and that was about it. Occasionally, somebody would get yanked around by an ear-lobe, or have his or her ear affectionately nibbled on, but for the most part ears, like ulnae and femurs, were left pretty much alone. The single, shining exception to this was Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life, the much admired, albeit atrocious, 1956 film in which Kirk Douglas, playing the tortured Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, chops off his ear after an argument with Anthony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin. This ponderous load of crap, bloated with every cliche about artists ever concocted, features the predictably dimwitted Douglas as a Dutch doofus who spends the entire film smoking a pipe and dashing around, with his forearms akimbo, looking for all the world like van Gogh the Sailor Man. The decision to chop off his ear is precipitated by a huge argument with Quinn about the role of emotion in painting, though there is abundant evidence--Douglas's clutching the sides of his head just before he performs the autoatrocity--that he has in fact been driven to this act of supreme desperation in the foolish hope of escaping from the soaring violin strains of Miklos Rozsa's unbearable score.

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