Yesterday, at the age of 87, Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away.
This man remains an adorable, unique paradox. Clumsy director yet a crafty old devil, completely foreign to the elegance of images, who only ever made movies to scrape out a living. A man who unwillingly changed the history of cinema.
His intuition — even slightly accidental, according to the legend — was to understand B-movies had the task of filling, unveiling mainstream cinema’s ellipses: the key was to try and put inside the frame everything that, for moral or conventional reasons, was usually left off-screen.
A first example were nudies, those little flicks featuring ridiculous plots (if any), only meant to show some buttocks and breasts; a kind of rudimental sexploitation, not even aiming to be erotic. H. G. Lewis was the first to realize there was a second taboo besides nudity that was never being shown in “serious” movies, and on which he could try to cash in: violence, or better, its effects. The obscene view of blood, torn flesh, exposed guts.
In 1960 Hitchcock, in order to get Psycho through censorship, had to promise he would change the editing of the shower scene, because someone in the examination board thought he had seen a frame where the knife blade penetrated Janet Leigh’s skin. It doesn’t matter that Hitch never really re-edited the sequence, but presented it again a month later with no actual modification (and this time nobody saw anything outrageous): the story is nonetheless emblematic of Hays Code‘s impositions at the time.
Three years later, Lewis’ Blood Feast came out. An awfully bad movie, poorly directed and even more awkwardly acted. But its opening sequence was a bomb by itself: on the scene, a woman was stabbed in the eye, then the killer proceeded to dismember her in full details… all this, in a bathtub.
In your face, Sir Alfred.
Of course today even Lewis’ most hardcore scenes, heirs to the butcheries of Grand Guignol, seem laughable on the account of their naivety. It’s even hard to imagine splatter films were once a true genre, before they became a language.
Explicit violence is today no more than an additional color in the director’s palette, an available option to knowingly choose among others: we find it anywhere, from crime stories to sci-fi, even in comedies. As blood has entered the cinematic lexicon, it is now a well-thought-out element, pondered and carefully weighed, sometimes aestheticised to the extremes of mannerism (I’m looking at you, Quentin).
But in order to get to this freedom, the gore genre had to be relegated for a long time to second and third-rank movies. To those bad, dirty, ugly films which couldn’t show less concern for the sociology of violence, or its symbolic meanings. Which, for that very same reason, were damn exciting in their own right.
“Blood Feast is like a Walt Whitman poem“, Lewis loved to repeat. “It’s no good, but it was the first of its type“.
Today, with the death of its godfather, we may declare the splatter genre finally filed and historicized.
But still, any time we are shocked by some brutal killing in the latest Game of Thrones episode, we should spare a thankful thought to this man, and that bucket of cheap offal he purchased just to make a bloody film.
Those who have been reading me for some time know my love for unconventional stories, and my stubborn belief that if you dig deep enough into any topic, no matter how apparently inappropriate, it is possible to find some small enlightenments.
In this post we will attempt yet another tightrope walking exercise. Starting from a question that might sound ridiculous at first: can flatulence give us some insight about human nature?
An article appeared on the Petit Journal on May 1st 1894 described “a more or less lyrical artist whose melodies, songs without words, do not come exactly from the heart. To do him justice it must be said that he has pioneered something entirely his own, warbling from the depth of his pants those trills which others, their eyes towards heaven, beam at the ceiling“.
The sensational performer the Parisian newspaper was referring to was Joseph Pujol, famous by his stage name Le Pétomane.
Born in Marseille, and not yet thirty-seven at the time, Pujol had initially brought his act throughout the South of France, in Cette, Béziers, Nîmes, Toulouse and Bordeaux, before eventually landing in Paris, where he performed for several years at the Moulin Rouge.
His very popular show was entirely based on his extraordinary abilities in passing wind: he was able to mimic the sound of different musical instruments, cannon shots, thunders; he could modulate several popular melodies, such as La Marseillese, Au clair de la lune, O sole mio; he could blow out candles with an air blast from 30 centimeters away; he could play flutes and ocarinas through a tube connected with his derriere, with which he was also able to smoke a cigarette.
Enjoying an ever-increasing success between XIX and XX Century, he even performed before the Prince of Whales, and Freud himself attended one of his shows (although he seemed more interested in the audience reactions rather than the act itself).
Pujol had discovered his peculiar talent by chance at the age of thirteen, when he was swimming in the sea of his French Riviera. After sensing a piercing cold in his intestine, he hurried back to the shore and, inside a bathing-hut, he discovered that his anus had, for some reason, taken in a good amount of sea water. Experimenting throughout the following years, Pujol trained himself to suck air into his bottom; he could not hold it for very long, but this bizarre gift guaranteed him a certain notoriety among his peers at first, and later among his fellow soldiers when he joined the army.
Once he had reached stage fame, and was already a celebrated artist, Pujol was examined by several doctors who were interested in studying his anatomy and physiology. Medicine papers are a kind of literature I very much enjoy reading, but few are as delectable as the article penned by Dr. Marcel Badouin and published in 1892 on the Semaine médicale with the title Un cas extraordinaire d’aspiration rectale et d’anus musical (“An extraordinary case of rectal aspiration and musical anus”). If you get by in French, you can read it here.
Among other curiosities, in the article we discover that one of Pujol’s abilities (never included in his acts on grounds of decency) was to sit in a washbowl, sucking in the water and spraying it in a strong gush up to a five-meter distance.
The end of Joseph Pujol’s carreer coincided with the beginning of the First World War. Aware of the unprecedented inhumanity of the conflict, Pujol decided that his ridiculous and slightly shameful art was no longer suitable in front of such a cruel moment, and he retired for good to be a baker, his father’s job, until his death in 1945.
For a long time his figure was removed, as if he was an embarassement for the bougeoisie and those French intellectuals who just a few years earlier were laughing at this strange ham actor’s number. He came back to the spotlight only in the second half of XX Century, namely because of a biography published by Pauvert and of the movie Il Petomane (1983) directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, in which the title character is played by Italian comedian Ugo Tognazzi with his trademark bittersweet acting style (the film on the other hand was never released in France).
Actually Pujol was not the first nor the last “pétomane”. Among his forerunners there was Roland the Farter, who lived in XII-Century England and who earned 30 acres of land and a huge manorfor his services as a buffoon under King Henry II. By contract he went on to perform before the sovereign, at Christmas, “unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” (one jump, one whistle and one fart).
But the earliest professional farter we know about must be a medieval jester called Braigetóir, active in Ireland and depicted in the most famous plate of John Derricke’s The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne (1581).
The only one attempting to repeat Pujol’s exploits in modern times is British performer Paul Oldfield, known as Mr. Methane, who besides appearing on Britain’s Got Talent also recorded an album and launched his own Android app. If you look for some of his videos on YouTube, you will notice how times have unfortunately changed since the distinguished elegance shown by Pujol in the only remaining silent film of his act.
Let’s get back now to our initial question. What does the story of Joseph Pujol, and professional farters in general, tell us? What is the reason of their success? Why does a fart make us laugh?
Flatulence, as all others bodily expressions associated with disgust, is a cultural taboo. This means that the associated prohibition is variable in time and latitude, it is acquired and not “natural”: it is not innate, but rather something we are taught since a very early age (and we all know what kind of filthy behavior kids are capable of).
Anthropologists link this horror for bodily fluids and emissions to the fear of our animal, pre-civilized heritage; the fear that we might become primitive again, the fear of seeing our middle-class ideal of dignity and cleanliness crumble under the pressure of a remainder of bestiality. It is the same reason for which societies progressively ban cruelty, believed to be an “inhuman” trait.
The interesting fact is that the birth of this family of taboos can be historically, albeit conventionally, traced: the process of civilization (and thus the erection of this social barrier or fronteer) is usually dated back to the XVI and XVII Centuries — which not by chance saw the growing popularity of Della Casa’s etiquette treatise Il Galateo.
In this period, right at the end of the Middle Ages, Western culture begins to establish behavioral rules to limit and codify what is considered respectable.
But in time (as Freud asserted) the taboo is perceived as a burden and a constriction. Therefore a society can look for, or create, certain environments that make it acceptable for a brief period to bend the rules, and escape the discipline. This very mechanism was behind the balsphemous inversions taking place in Carnival times, which were accepted only because strictly limited to a specific time of the year.
In much the same way, Pujol’s fart shows were liberating experiences, only possible on a theatrical stage, in the satyrical context of cabaret. By fracturing the idealistic facade of the gentleman for an hour or so, and counterposing the image of the physiological man, the obscenity of the flesh and its embarassements, Pujol on a first level seemed to mock bourgeois conventions (as later did Buñuel in the infamous dinner scene from his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty).
Had this been the case, had Pujol’s act been simply subversive, it would had been perceived as offensive and labeled as despicable; his success, on the other hand, seems to point in another direction.
It’s much more plausible that Pujol, with his contrived and refined manners conflicting with the grotesque intestinal noises, was posing as a sort of stock comic character, a marionette, a harmless jester: thanks to this distance, he could arguably enact a true cathartic ritual. The audience laughed at his lewd feats, but were also secretely able to laugh at themselves, at the indecent nature of their bodies. And maybe to accept a bit more their own repressed flaws.
Perhaps that’s the intuition this brief, improper excursus can give us: each time a fart in a movie or a gross toilet humor joke makes us chuckle, we are actually enacting both a defense and an exorcism against the reality we most struggle to accept: the fact that we still, and anyway, belong to the animal kingdom.
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!