In Take the Money and Run (1969), Woody Allen’s small-time thief Virgil Starkwell is asked by his psychiatrist if he thinks sex is dirty. ‘Yes, if you’re doing it right,’ he replies.
Sex has never been dirtier. With the internet taking porn into the mainstream, such delicacies as facials and cream pies have become, if not exactly household words, certainly much more broadly recognised than when filthy magazines were top shelf or delivered to your home in discrete brown paper bags. Seen as the most degrading act of humiliation by anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, bukkake scenes – in which multiple men ejaculate on a woman – have spread. The Japanese word means spillage and the history of the scene itself is a spillage, an unintended consequence of Japanese censorship which pixelates genitalia but not jizz. The spillage has continued into gay porn and some even argue that even in heterosexual porn, the focus on male genitalia is such that it becomes, well, gay. On one thing porn consumers and anti-porn campaigners can agree: it is one of the dirtiest niches in Pornland.
Custard pie fights are dirty as well. You don’t see them as much anymore. There was a time at the beginning of cinema, in fact, where it seemed difficult to walk past an open window or through a restaurant without getting hit in the kisser by a flan. You could be sitting in a dentist’s chair or talking on the phone. No one was safe. It was an essential part of slapstick comedy, coming from vaudeville routines by the likes of Weber and Fields. Fatty Arbuckle hits Nick Cogley in the kisser in Mack Sennett’s A Noise from the Deep in 1913. They became a patented part of the Keystone comedy armoury. Laurel and Hardy threw hundreds of pies in the Battle of the Century (1927).
Watch the pie fight in Battle of the Century:
Later the custard pie fight would be revived. It featured in the 60s films that harked back nostalgically to the beginning of cinema such as the Tony Curtis movies The Great Race (1965) and Beach Party (1963). Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) was the last great cinematic custard splurge. The nostalgia was all too obvious in a children’s movie that hailed back to the old-style gangster movies of James Cagney and George Raft. Even as a kid I felt queasy about it. It was basically an adult film with the violence and sex replaced with gunk (though Scott Baio and Jodie Foster have a precocious chemistry).
On British television the joy of getting messy continued with Tiswas and the Phantom Flan Flinger who would attack teachers and parents. The sliming of celebrities during the Kid’s Choice Awards on Nickelodeon continues the Lord of Misrule carnival. Kids have their revenge on parents, idols to whom they are usually beholden and adults generally. These anarchic principles have been channelled into the kidulthood world with the more recent political flannings of such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates.
The messiness of the custard pie fight has morphed in mainstream cinema into gross-out comedy, and the clean-to-messy trajectory can be traced in the worlds of porn and horror. Let’s be clear here: I’m suggesting they are analogous rather than identical. We begin fully clothed, intact, civilized, social identities secure, hierarchies in place, in a word, ‘clean’. Then progressively the people on screen, the combatants in the pie shop, the teenagers at the slasher-infested summer camp, the guests at the orgy, become dishevelled. Anarchy ensues, hierarchies are dissolved or reversed, confused, inhibitions lost and in another word everybody gets ‘dirty’.
Custard pie fights, splatter and porn movies have a sense of inevitability written into them. What is under the clothes, or under the skin, or under the surface of social order, is lurking there right from the beginning. Rugby matches are like this too. Watch the players in their bright clean shirts and slicked coiffures transform into muddy, bloody Mugwumps.
And this isn’t purely sadism, or ritual humiliation, although there is undoubtedly some of that. Watching others degraded and getting the same kicks as the kids get seeing their elders being deluged in slime is certainly part of it. But there is a liberating joy in getting messy as well, eating with our hands so to speak, throwing stuff about. Food Fight. Torture porn allows us to voyeuristically engage in other people’s suffering, but we also imagine what it would be like to be the victim. How liberating it would be to be tortured, to endure that kind of total and extreme physical experience. Look at how celebrities jump at the chance to perform the Ice Bucket Challenge – even though they’ve donated money, which means they can forgo the dousing. Likewise, top Hollywood stars like Will Smith and Harrison Ford seem to take an indecent joy in being slimed in front of children.
As a kid, I hated custard pie fights in films. Like many children, I was essentially conservative. I fundamentally distrusted custard pie fights. Something else was at play. They frightened me. I found Bugsy Malone almost unwatchable and despised Tiswas. At the same time, I could watch Nightmare on Elm Street, or Evil Dead with relative ease. Perhaps this was because what was hidden and revealed by custard pie fights seemed sneaky. It was the aggression and sex mixed up in all those flying desserts that set my adolescent nerves a-jangling. This wasn’t just a bit of fun. Porn, or the splatter and slasher films told you straight out what they were. Nowadays, I’ve gone full circle, and when I watch horror films, or accidentally glance at porn (obviously I would never purposefully besmirch myself with filth), I detect the custard pie fight that is hidden in them somewhere down there. At least, if you’re doing it right.