Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Look At That Bitch Take It!": Smoker (1983)

Thanks to Blacksix, who recommended this after reading my mini-review of Skintight, I checked out this odd little film the other night. If you were to ask me what Smoker is "about" I would likely say "voyeurism, gender, and dildos..." but that's not all. Not by a mile. I have to say, in the best possible sense, this film spoiled my evening of fun as I was left ruminating over the depths of what I had just experienced. It's a dark watch, but not disturbing exactly. It's unsettling, but predominantly because it makes you think...a lot.

Smoker is a film that actively plays with interconnected binaries: spectator/spectacle, subject/object, masculine/feminine. A cursory glance at any recent gender studies or queer theory textbook would reveal the now-standard distinction between sex and gender. While sex is biological, the argument goes, gender is constructed and performed. Masculine and feminine are gender roles that we (males and females) perform, but are arbitrarily and culturally associated with a birth sex, and constantly being revised by those who perform it (us). In this way, traits regarded as "feminine" can be embodied (sometimes literally) by both males and females, but will nevertheless be associated with biological females and typically be taken for granted as naturally so. I'm so familiar with this concept that it routinely surprises me when students respond to this idea with amazement and a realization of its truth, so evident in their everyday life.

With this in mind, it's worth being reminded of Laura Mulvey's concept of the "male gaze" (likely familiar to many of you) first discussed in her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." For Mulvey, classic cinematic narrative utilizes a sadistic framework wherein the woman is object and the male (character and spectator) is subject. The cinematic gaze is presumed to be male, voyeuristic, sadistic, and active. The female object "connotes to-be-looked-at-ness" and is passive. Mulvey would later argue that women spectators are forced into a masculine identificatory position, while male objects of the gaze are feminized. This theory has been argued with and against for decades, yet it remains a dominant idea in film studies and feminist theory, and certainly lends well to a reading of Smoker. Indeed, I would venture to say that Smoker actively and consciously addresses and plays with the male gaze, gender binaries, and generic assumptions to do with pornography spectatorship.

In a nutshell, Sharon Mitchell plays Madame Suque, who is "not a revolutionary out of any sense of altruism," but nevertheless a dungeon mistress intent on blowing up an unnamed mass of people that she hates (likely the masses, comparable to Holden Caulfield's "phonies" and Valerie Solanis's "SCUM"). She aims to do this by replacing the harmless dildos for sale in her shop with bombs, and the film opens with Freddy (Ron Jeremy), her obedient shop worker and all-around Igor, selling one of these bomb-dildos to an unassuming Angie (Troy Lane). She simply wants to get off with her girlfriend/roommate Sophie (Diana Sloan), who are in turn being watched and masturbated to through a one-way mirror by their janitor and next-door neighbour, Howard (David Christopher). Meanwhile, a man in sunglasses (John Leslie) is tracking down the dildo terrorists, and stopping in on various perverts along the way (most memorably, Howard and his wife Phyllis (Joanna Storm) who fuck all over the kitchen while Howard eats some marshmallow cream and berries). Phew! It was a bit tough keeping track of the plot, and often I felt that even though I had a relatively uncut copy, there were bits and pieces missing that perhaps were interfering with narrative coherence. Regardless, for me the film is less about plot, and much more about the gaze - the camera's, the character's, and ours - and all that this implies.

After the hunt for the dildo begins, and Angie has been kidnapped and raped, Howard sneaks into the women' apartment, tries on their lingerie, and performs in front of the two-way mirror that he had been gazing through just moments before. A few different ideas coalesce in this sequence: Howard is watching himself watch himself in a sort of dual-voyeurism, performing for his literal gaze (in the mirror) and his imagined gaze (behind the mirror). Howard's donning of women's clothing also suggests that to embody the gazed-at, it is fitting that you embody the feminine.

As if to emphasize this transgendering, the very next scene involves John Leslie's man-in-sunglasses performing what he imagines to be a woman's experience of sex, verbalizing female arousal for Sophie's arousal. His utterances of how "wet" he is, how big "he" is, and how he wants "him" to "put it in," all while Sophie gazes at him and he caresses himself, confuse gender lines through what Linda Williams has terms "oscillating identification." Rather than a bisexual spectatorial identification (masculine/feminine), the relations of watcher and watched become dizzyingly queer and fluid.

Meanwhile, Howard has regained his position behind his mirror, still in lingerie and fucking himself with the missing dildo while watching Sophie and the man in sunglasses fuck each other in her apartment. The framing again encourages a confusion of spectatorial position, as we see Howard and his reflection, ostensibly watching the couple but from this angle seeming to watch himself as he says in a feminine tone, "Look at that bitch. Look at that bitch take it!" We're prompted to question, "Which bitch?" Which character in this transgendered mass of personas, performances, and reflections is the "bitch"? who is giving it, and who is taking it? And where do we, as viewers, stand in relation to all this?

Later, after Sophie has also been kidnapped, Madame Suque decides to take matters into her own hands and retrieve the dildo herself. Ordering, "Get me my disguise," she is handed a frilly, Victorianesque dress and parasol. Not only does this signify that gender is drag -- a "disguise" -- (emphasized by a prolonged shot of her naked and gradually getting dressed) but it also implicitly asks questions about how rape is gendered, as Suque herself is later attacked and raped by the man in sunglasses, aided by a reluctant Howard.

Suque's futile defense, "You can't do this to me!" is itself suggestive of who can and can't "do" and is and isn't "done," calling to mind Carol J. Clover's analysis of rape-revenge films in Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Clover argues that rape is gendered: to be raped is to be gendered feminine, yet the uneasy truth that emerges from representations of rape is that rape is sexless. In reality, male and female bodies can both be raped, but if you're raped you're "like a woman."

Of course, the defeat of Suque is a typical punishment of the active, inquisitive woman who dares to take on a masculine role, yet this traditional framework seems out of place in an otherwise very queer and subversive film. I was actually quite disappointed by the film's ending, but nevertheless I was left thinking about the film as a whole for hours after watching it. Certainly, this is one of the more interesting and transgressive flicks I've seen in a while.


Nio said...

Whoa, I'm always fascinated by the things you find and the way you dissect them. I'd be really intrigued to watch this one.

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Thanks! I would never have found this if it hadn't been recommended to me - it really is fascinating. Shame there isn't an uncut version available to purchase.


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