This article contains spoilers on Psycho (1960), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Magic Christian (1969) and Kill Bill: Volume II (2004).
Here’s a question, a Trivial Pursuit, pub quiz level conundrum to confound your friends and impress your colleagues. Which single shot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) caused him the most difficulty with the studio? The shot is thought to be a first of its kind on American screens. Which shot? The knife and the shower? Janet Leigh in her bra and pants? Adultery? The foot-off-the-floor bedroom kiss? The skull? The mummified corpse? The ridiculous backward tracking shot of detective Arbogast falling down the stairs, which always raises a slightly patronising smile in modern day audiences? Of course, rhetoric decrees it can’t be any of these, so before your patience is entirely exhausted I’ll tell you.
Marion Crane flushes the toilet.
Having worked out how much money she has spent of her ill-gotten gains, she tears up the sheet of paper with her calculations and flushes the pieces of paper down the toilet. As Donald Spoto writes in his biography of Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius: ‘This [shot], not the scarcely glimpsed, soft-focus nudity in the shower, was the most iconoclastic image in the picture – more influential than Hitchcock’s killing off of the leading lady almost halfway through the film.’ (Plexus, 1983, p. 420) Neither was this a one-off for a director who was fascinated by the body-ness of the body and whose greatest fear in real life was vomiting. Toilet imagery and allusions to bodily functions ‘mark a recurrent and obsessive motif in his films’, according to Spoto, appearing in North by Northwest, Vertigo and Marnie as well as many others. It makes a cameo as often as Hitchcock himself.
The flushing toilet (the sound is important too) is a reminder of the physical comedy of our existence, in the same way Marion Crane’s soon-to-come wet death plays the same tune but in a tragic minor key. With all our sins, our ambitions, our betrayals, our passions and our complex psychology, we all sit on the toilet, and we are all ultimately extinguished. Even in the disposal of Marion’s body and the car into the sucking bog – which for a moment represents a toilet that won’t flush – there is a combination of both the tragic and the comic.
Hitchcock is not the only great director to be keen on featuring the ceramic throne as a recurrent element in the furniture of his films. Stanley Kubrick puts Nicole Kidman on a toilet in the opening of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), giving us a nice little jolt of normality against the glamour of his star, although some criticised her wiping technique, reminding us of James Stewart’s warning to actors that there’s nothing so difficult to do convincingly as the everyday. The most dehumanising sight in Full Metal Jacket (1987) is the uniform row of toilets in the marine barracks. This is where intimate but creepy conversations take place between the soldiers, who with their bald heads, new names and complete lack of privacy represent stretched infants. This denial of privacy and discretion is so profound that Private Pyle (don’t!) chooses this communal bathroom as the location for the execution of the hated and heartless drill Sergeant Hartman and his own final resting place, sitting on the toilet, brains blown a gruesome red against the white wall.
In The Shining (1980), it’s not so much toilets as bathrooms. Bathrooms are the location of all the significant encounters: Jack Torrance’s long conversation with Grady flanked by urinals, the necrophilia of the bathroom in room 237 and Jack’s wolfman trying to get at Wendy and Danny with an axe. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex takes a nice long piss in A Clockwork Orange (1971). We even have our hero consulting the instructions to a zero gravity toilet in the only joke of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
For Kubrick and Hitchcock both, the toilet is normality, the comic realisation of our physicality undercutting the grandeur of our failed spiritual aspirations. As a reminder of our bodies, it is also an intimation of mortality. The inclusion of the toilet is a sign of the filmmakers’ ambition to seek a totality in their cinema, an embracing of all aspects of life and not just that which is dignified and tasteful. It is an ambition comparable to James Joyce planting Bloom on the toilet in Ulysses, and finding all the toilet paper gone, a universal dilemma, to put side by side with Stephen Dedalus’ angst.
Charles Bukowski once noted that one can go through a long life and never have sex, whereas you can’t go for a week without taking a shit, and yet poetry concerns itself almost exclusively with the former bodily act and not the latter. His entire career could be seen as an attempt to redress the balance. W.H. Auden, in his poem ‘VI The Geography of the House’, which was dedicated to the ‘white tiled cabin’, noted:
Hence, to start the morning
With a satisfactory
Dump is a good omen
All our adult days.
And yet when the toilet does appear on the widescreen, it is very rarely for a ‘satisfactory dump’.
We have now come a long way from the sacrilegious inclusion of a toilet in a black and white thriller. Toilets figure fairly frequently in film. In comedies, we have the gross-out excesses of the Jackass team, and the recent Bridesmaids (2011) features a good poo joke. Perhaps the best antecedent was Jeff Daniels’s self-proclaimed Oscar clip in Dumb and Dumber (1994). For the savagely satirical, you should go back to 1969 and The Magic Christian, which concludes with businessmen swimming in a pool of crap in order to retrieve bank notes, which the Magic Christian and his protégé (played by the slightly hypocritical Peter Sellers and Ringo Star, both freshly returned from their respective tax exiles) have liberally scattered in the cesspit. The cockeyed satire is of a piece with the mixed tone of the film, occasionally brilliant but frequently nasty. Jeff Daniels et al have no such satiric aim, but simply play out the extreme physical jokes that our bodies play on us, via the occasional application of jumbo-sized laxatives.
In more serious contexts the toilet is a symbol of degradation. In Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), the toilet begins as a horrible toilet (true to the novel, ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’), but immediately becomes a surreal portal to some magical undersea drug’s world and the most memorable image of the film, one which, as a poster, graced, bizarrely, many a bedsit wall.
Part one of this vision is replayed in the cinema of Gaspar Noé. The protagonist of Enter the Void (2010) dies curled up like a foetus in a revolting toilet stall. Noé’s use of the toilet is of a piece with his disgust of the world and the body in general. His showing of the toilet is not a grasping of all of life, but rather a rush to the margins, to the extremes, ostentatiously daring, but actually fuelled by the same prejudices that saw Paramount executives so worried at the dailies of Psycho.
Danny Boyle would again use the toilet in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), but now the shit hole is the literal manifestation of life in the Third World. The image of a boy hiding up to his neck in faeces is borrowed from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), who, with his use of light and black and white photography, renders even this degradation oddly beautiful. Perhaps this is a limit of cinema in that we don’t smell what we see, and its strength, when we are viscerally affected by a stench that is somehow evoked. In Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), for instance, the dirty protest of the IRA prisoners kept in the Maze initially conveys an overpowering cinematic whiff. And yet their shit literally becomes an artistic expression. Even as we are revolted, we are fascinated. In breaking with this primal taboo, the prisoners have oddly achieved a kind of freedom, albeit a freedom most of us would perhaps not strive for.
In Hunger, Slumdog Millionaire and Schindler’s List, degradation is something to be overcome paradoxically via the excremental. The willingness to jump into shit pits and smear shit on the walls is a way of surviving. It is literally an escape route – though in Schindler’s List salvation is not guaranteed. Earlier in the film we have seen how several people try to escape the liquidation of the ghetto through the sewers only to meet with their deaths.
In Slumdog Millionaire and Schindler’s List, shit is Shawshank shit: it is the medium through which the protagonist has to be immersed as a Herculean test (remember the cleaning of the Aegean stables was a similarly degrading task) before redemption, purification and survival. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne, who has earlier been the victim of anal rape, has to crawl through ‘five hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness’ before being re-born into the cleansing rain. The cathartic image of a man, arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose, whose clothes are presumably still soaked in shit, being washed in the rain, makes (again) for the strangest of film posters.
The contemporary filmmaker whose toilet sensibilities are closest to Alfred Hitchcock is Quentin Tarantino. His characters casually and frequently refer to bodily functions, calls of nature, or what you will. From Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs (1992), who in the aftermath of the robbery ‘needs to take a squirt’, to the opening of Deathproof (2007), in which Michelle Rodriguez is desperate for a pee, Tarantino is as laconic as John Travolta’s character in the matter of factness of doing what has to be done. ‘I gotta take a shit,’ Vincent Vega tells Samuel L. Jackson, interrupting an argument about eating pork, the pig being an animal that, Jackson argues, ‘roots in shit’. It is a running joke that Vega will constantly interrupt proceedings to go to the toilet, sometimes because he really needs to, and sometimes to meditate on what to do next, as in his date with the boss’s girl, Mia Wallace. Unfortunately, the world does not stop while you are about your business and twice nearly tragic things (a nearly fatal overdose and something close to a shootout) happen while Vega is in the loo. The third time will be a fatal denouement, but Vega, in his own way, and because of Tarantino’s jerky chronology, will, like Andy Dufresne, be resurrected via the toilet.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a toilet is just a toilet. Jackie Brown uses the toilet as a conveniently private place to sort out her smuggling. Mr. Pink and Mr. White will use the bathroom as a quiet place to talk and work out what went wrong, combining strategy with a little male grooming. And Mr. Orange’s story, a scripted story that never happened but that we see, albeit in an obviously unrealistic manner, takes place in a men’s room. The incongruity of all those policemen in the men’s toilet (and this is pre-George Michael), who themselves are listening to another protracted story, represents something of a Chinese box in the middle of the film.
In the Kill Bill films, toilets will appear infrequently, but significantly. In Kill Bill: Volume II (2004), Bill’s brother, Budd, has apparently relinquished his cool suits and hitman ways to live a deceptively humble life, not killing, for instance, the obnoxious asking-for-it owner of the titty bar where he works as a bouncer. Instead of doing jobs, he’s left cleaning them up: here tasked by the strippers to fix the toilet where shitty water is backing up. This might be humiliation but it might also be a grasping after redemption, through the acceptance of the body. Why is shit disgusting to us and blood, violently released, sexy? One bodily fluid is cinematically acceptable and the other not. There is a Saint Francis-like abasement, a patient succumbing to humiliation as a way (although this remains all unsaid) of expiating for past sins.
However, Budd can’t quite make it. He is not a suicide and can’t just let himself be killed. He captures Uma Thurman’s Bride and buries her alive. Her escape will again resemble an Andy Dufresne filth-stained earth birth. She will be the one who is resurrected and Budd will be the one who, having returned to his old bad self, will die.
A toilet appears later in the fight between Elle and the Bride, but toilets appear fairly frequently in fight scenes. James Bond often scraps in the bathroom; it happens in Goldfinger (1964) – ‘shocking… absolutely shocking’ – and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and most recently in the opening scene of Casino Royale (2006), which is significantly his first killing. Miles Mowbray writes in an article (to which I am indebted): ‘We see a blond girl (a pop culture icon and symbol of white capitalist cultural supremacy) that needs to flush in order to breathe. Her life depends on the toilet’s proper function.’ (‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Cool, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 45, August 2004). But this is going too far. The incident is more about the comedy of having a fight that totally destroys a trailer, bathroom included. The toilet is part of the completeness of Budd’s living arrangements and their subsequent destruction. The Dude’s head gets shoved in a toilet in The Big Lebowski (1998) but that isn’t cultural symbolism of capitalism stuff. Or is it? No.
The best emblem of Tarantino’s use of the toilet and toiletry matters can be seen in Christopher Walken’s justly famous monologue, which introduces Butch’s section of Pulp Fiction (1994). The story about the watch that belonged to Butch’s father should really just be infusing a random MacGuffin with value. Instead, the arbitrary becomes meaningful through suffering. This item is not the Ark of the Covenant, the Enigma code machine or some Doomsday device but instead a simple watch, held up for us all to see. ‘This uncomfortable hunk of metal,’ as Walken’s soldier calls it. Uncomfortable because this watch has been stuck up his father’s ass as he hid it from the Japanese prison guards. The watch represents a history of suffering and of war, and that suffering is not always the famous Tarantino cool. It’s also stoicism and bad luck and dysentery. In fact, Tarantino cool is from the very first associated with the least cool aspects of the body, even as it seeks to deny them. ‘But hey, Mr Brown?’ Tarantino complains of his pseudonym in Reservoir Dogs. ‘That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.’
We are, as Leonard Cohen recently reminded us, ‘an elaboration of a tube’, and the toilet is a reminder not just of that, but an effect to cleanse the side effects and erase cause. Pasolini’s coprophagia in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is of course shocking but it happens outside of a toilet context (stripped of all civilisation), and Luis Buñuel’s radical reversal of the infamous dining scene in The Phantom of Liberty (1974) is so overtly surreal that it ceases to be genuinely disturbing. People sitting about a table on toilets is a crazy nightmare, but it is happily contained by the very idea of nightmare. The true horror is when a toilet ceases to function, when it backs up. A perfect example is Francis Ford Coppola’s most Hitchcockian of films, The Conversation (1974). Gene Hackman’s anally retentive sound technician and professional eavesdropper prowls a hotel room in which he believes a crime has taken place. Its very cleanliness is suspicious, evidence that, along with Psycho murder, there is also Batesian thoroughness and calculation. It is only when he flushes the toilet that blood emerges, and the panic is not so much because of the blood as because of the toilet. This machine that is designed as a portal to take filth away reveals itself to be treacherous, a two-way street. From this scene, Slavoj Žižek in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Fiennes, 2006) argues that looking into the toilet to see what comes back is analogous to the very act of watching films itself.