Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Boys in the Shower (Weird Science and Elephant)

It was Hitchcock, of course, who first identified the shower as a perversely contradictory site of security and vulnerability. The slasher film, in nod to the master, has made homage almost mandatory, and turned the location into one as iconographic as the saloon in the western. (A reasonably thorough look at shower scenes in the films of Brian De Palma is here.)

The other genre to buy wholesale into the shower scene has been the teen movie. In these films (and I’m thinking of John Hughes defined 80s period and beyond) the shower can be a site of both stimulation and dread; the twin poles represented by Porky’s and Carrie respectively. Plenty of savvy filmmakers have productively tapped into the crippling body neurosis that tends to mark our adolescent years by exploiting the fear of communal showing, but it is interesting to note how often initial sexual experiences (fantasised or otherwise) seem to take place in this unsanctified space.

In the opening scene of Hughes’ Weird Science, the two geeks, Gary and Wyatt, watch a female gymnastics class from the sidelines. “Do you know what I’d like to do?” asks Gary, almost rhetorically. “Shower with them” Wyatt responds breathlessly, letting the word roll about in his mouth and mix with his saliva. True to their word, when the two boys create their ideal submissive woman it is the first thing they make her do. The iconic scene of Kelly leBrock lathering her naked body as the boys look on ends with a visual punch line. As their creation exits we see the boys in their sodden pants and trainers, the inspective gaze of their computer generated offspring being too much to bear.

As the film continues so does the linking of showers and sex. Gary and Wyatt hole themselves up in the bathroom as a house party rages downstairs. When their twin desired objects, Deb and Hilly, enter the room, the boys again find refuge in their favourite spot. Later, when Deb and Hilly bump into Lisa she offers the less mature girls some advice: “If you get the chance... shower with them. I did. It’s a mindscrambler...ohhhh...hurts so good.”

In the teenage imagination, the shower is the first port of call for libidinal imaginings. The scenes of Gary and Wyatt in the shower together find an echo in Gus Van Sant’s far darker examination of adolescent frustration, Elephant. Here hormonal urges reach expression in a high school massacre, but not before Van Sant’s two outsiders, Alex and Eric, have had their own shower scene. Van Sant seems to prick at liberal consciousness by having his two killers kiss. The scene is knowingly and frustratingly ambiguous. Perhaps we should see the shower as the only space where the two feel safe enough to express homosexual feelings, or perhaps we should view the kiss merely as the only possible outlet for any physical connection, homosexual or otherwise: “I’ve never kissed anyone before. Have you?” asks Eric.

Whilst in Hughes’ film the shower is a site for lust and voyeurism, Van Sant sees it a place for sad, sexless sexuality. In his later film Paranoid Park, the young skateboarder guilty of a gruesome accidental killing finds the shower as the only place the vent his deep sense of remorse.

The scene ends with the boy (another Alex) slowly sinking to the floor much like Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s infamous scene (and Anne Heche in Van Sant’s own remake). She had paid the ultimate price for her transgression, but Alex can only wish for death.

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