Saturday, September 5, 2009

What Can I Say?: Water Power (1977)

Even when I find Shaun Costello's films hard to watch, I always find something interesting about them, and as a result can call him one of my favorite directors. Costello made Water Power in 1977, reportedly in less than 24 hours (don't be confused by the poster's invokation of Gerard Damiano's name - according to the Grindhouse Cinema Database, the film was funded by the mob, and they used Damiano's name because they thought it would market the film more successfully), which I find really shocking considering how impressive this film is. It certainly feels gritty, low budget, and has that guerrilla feel to it, but it's also artistic, meaningful, and oddly amusing. Costello himself said he thought this was his funniest film. Well, before you go buying this thinking it's a laugh riot, please take the following into consideration, and don't say I didn't warn you.

For those of you who don't know, Water Power depicts the crimes of "The Enema Bandit," played brilliantly by Jamie Gillis, a fairly reclusive man who, at the beginning of the film, seems to be sexually frustrated and seeking a fitting outlet for his perversions. He looks at porn, peeps at his neighbors, and generally seems outraged and disgusted by sexually active women, whom he regards as dirty. He takes a trip to the local brothel, the Garden of Eden (run by the wonderful Gloria Leonard), which caters to all tastes and offers "specials" including "colonics." Gillis is allowed to observe one of these specials, and seems to have a life-altering experience. He returns home, and immediately becomes obsessed with enemas as a way of cleaning out filthy women. A crazy rampage ensues, as Gillis goes around raping and giving enemas to women he deems to be dirty, and "The Enema Bandit" becomes a top priority for the police department. The cop in charge is assigned a female partner, and they try to track down Gillis using the female cop as a decoy.

First I should note that there seem to be several different versions of this film floating around, some of which are cut. I watched the uncut version, and was frankly shocked by the extent of the enemas - I'm talking lots of shit and "brown water." It was all pretty disgusting. Then of course there is the rapes, which while not as disturbing as in Forced Entry, are still unpalatable, and certainly didn't seem intended to arouse. There are a couple of consensual sex scenes, but for the most part the film consists of rape. 

With that out of the way, I found this film compelling in a lot of ways - Gillis is outstanding, and really contributes a lot in terms of artistic merit. The majority of his lines are spoken in the form of diary entries, which he writes consistently throughout the film. Some of these entries are darkly humorous, particularly when he starts talking about the importance of his "life's work," and the necessity to learn his craft and acquire all necessary materials in order to do the job properly. As he puts it, "I can't just shove tubes up their asses and hope for the best." There is a brief montage that accompanies this particular entry, which adds to the absurdity of it all. 

In terms of how they present the narrative, it seems as though, as with Forced Entry, Costello is trying to do something entirely removed from the assumed pornographic goal. Most people assume that porn is, and has always been, solely about arousal of the spectator, but even a cursory overview of some significant films since 1970 would demonstrate that porn has always operated in much more complex ways. I would argue that nowadays porn seems to cater to this common assumption (there are some exceptions, such as Cry Wolf), but during the "Golden Age" in particular, filmmakers seemed to be experimenting in much more radical ways. I can understand why someone might read some of these narratives on paper and be horrified that someone out there is "getting off" to this kind of thing, but watching the films themselves is an entirely different experience from simply "getting off" to something.


Furthermore, in many of these films there seems to be an effort to say something about the sexual inequality between the genders, as well as cultural ideas about female sexuality. It's pretty clear from the outset of Water Power that the film is addressing the way Western culture feels about female sexuality, and how it teaches us individually to feel about female sexuality. Even though the Enema Bandit is the ostensible protagonist, his first victim (the girl he has been peeping on through his telescope) is shown to be entirely innocent. She has a consensual sexual relationship with a male partner, and it is this that disgusts Gillis to the point of "purifying" her; he wants her to be pure, to not desire sex, and once he realises that she is enjoying herself, he is horrified. The subsequent rape and enema demonstrates the irony of the Madonna/whore ideal that patriarchal culture perpetuates - Gillis' character genuinely believes he is doing a service to society, and that his "work" is of the upmost importance.

Of course, there is no denying the exploitation of rape within the movie, but it's worth bearing in mind that all films about rape exploit the trauma of the act within the narrative. Films like The Accused (1988) are regarded as noble, yet I find The Accused more offensive than Water Power or Forced Entry due to structure, and more simply because of the way critics and society at large seem to embrace and reward films such as The Accused, while dismissing films such as Water Power simply because of genre, and the perceived intentions of the film. Water Power is deemed exploitative because it shows penetration and is labeled "pornography," while The Accused is deemed noble, in spite of the fact that it uses the comparatively graphic rape scene as some kind of finale that everything builds up to and we are invited to look forward to in some perverse way, effectively becoming more of a titillating experience than anything in Water Power (not to mention a socially sanctioned titillating experience). 

With all that said, I can understand people's grave reservations about this film, and others like it, and of course it prompts one to wonder what exactly the intention was in making the film. But I tend to think that "intention" is not the only determinant of how works of art are received, and it's more than likely that many films intended to be noble works that treat difficult subject matter with sensitivity and honesty are received by many as arousing. The striking thing about critical reception to these films is how class-based these receptions are.

11 comments:

J. Astro said...

Hm. Class-based or not, porn that involves "brown water" is in a whole other league than where I play. A whole other SPORT, even. Not for me, but I salute you for your fortitude.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Of course, of course! While I stand by my point, it also requires more discussion than the space I allow myself in these posts. Indeed, this film is not for everyone. Some might say this film is not for *anyone* but then that's where the elitism comes in.

I salute your right to not watch brown water Mr. Astro, and to even be repulsed by it (it's really gross).

Rev. Phantom said...

I've read about this one before and have considered checking it out, but like Mr. Astro, I don't think I could handle any film that centers around scat--and not the jazz kind...though I probably couldn't handle a whole movie about jazz scatting either.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Lol! Yeah, it's hard going. You know, there are versions that have the scat cut out. But even then, it's not for the faint of heart. Certainly not something to curl up and watch casually.

Sleazegrinder said...

Coincidentally, "Enema bandit" was my nickname in high school.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

I'm not sure it's possible for that to be a "coincidence"...

CrazySexyMetalChick! said...

Rapes and forced enemas...yeesh! That's not something I hear about in a film every day!

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Yeah, it's certainly unique, and not exactly a "popcorn" movie. Still, worth watching if you "like" that kind of thing...

The Man With No Name said...

Lol wow some crazy stuff. lol Jazz scat aint no thing tho. cmon guys.

Aussiescribbler said...

It is a fascinating film. Some have pointed out similarities to Taxi Driver, a film from which it apparently lifted its score. I think the whole issue of what is acceptable to depict on film depends on whether we see films as lessons on how to live our lives or explorations of our psychology. We can't freely explore the dark elements of our nature on film unless we are mature enough to chose our behaviour independently of what we might see. If we can't do that, then watching Rambo would be potentially dangerous. But I think it is also unwise to assume that just because we can't imagine someone being turned on by something, that noone is. Two Girls One Cup became a phenomenon because people wanted to gross themselves out, but it was made as fetish porn presumably for fans to masturbate to. Also, there is no way to control how someone responds to something. Apparently there is a website somewhere which recommends The Sound of Music as jack off material to foot fetishising paedophiles because the children are often barefoot.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

All excellent points Aussie. Intent and reception should not, in some peoples' view, be taken into account when judging a work (which is often near impossible, I'll admit). But in general, I agree with this position. And I like the way you phrase purpose of film: "I think the whole issue of what is acceptable to depict on film depends on whether we see films as lessons on how to live our lives or explorations of our psychology." This reminds me of Carol Clover's comment, which I can only paraphrase, that film is fantasy, and is therefore not politically correct. That, effectively, we don't watch genre film for political correctness. We watch it to explore the un-acceptable (often unconscious and not recognizably processed nor distinguishable).

Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

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