Tales from the Anus (Part 1)*
Who would dream of naming a commercial movie S.O.B.? Blake Edwards – an independent within the Hollywood system who has always taken chances – sets up, right from the opening credits, the two levels on which the film unfolds: a surface level, respectable, sellable, conventional; and then a hidden level, which is forever implied in the gaps, the censorship, the slips on the surface level.
So, what the film is about is precisely what its title simultaneously does and does not say it is about: shit (Standard Operational Bullshit, in full). This ain’t no simple Son Of a Bitch!
Looking at widely different film genres in 1981 – comedy (S.O.B.), horror (Friday the 13th Part II), animation (The Missing Link, later retitled and reworked as B.C. Rock for USA release) – it is not that hard to see the traces of a particularly strong anal obsession overtaking Western culture.
It would be very wrong to see this as a merely morbid, vulgar or neurotic fixation. If the various functions and possibilities of the asshole generate an intense, perverse fascination in us today, that is because there is a lot at stake. In our culture, everything to do with the anus is repressed as completely as possible, and given a negative value – the fact that the word shit works as our most powerful put-down of anything whatsoever is evidence enough.
It is as if the human body itself has been divided into two zones: one acceptable, presentable, public; and the other, a sort of private curse that each of us hides as best we can. (A brilliant tale in Italo Calvino’s 1972 Invisible Cities offers an allegory of exactly this division.) S.O.B., at its most profound level, is about the kind of human body a capitalist society (here symbolised by Hollywood) constructs and exploits, to the total detriment of individual need and potential.
What determines the worth, value or beauty of a body, both male and female, is precisely its exchange rate, the extent to which it can be bought or sold. Edwards sees capitalism as a kind of generalised prostitution.
There is a moment in the middle of the film where this reading clicks into place with amazing economy and precision. It has been building up, for a long time, to the scene in which Julie Andrews as Sally Miles, starring in the film-within-the-film, will finally bare her breasts before the camera. This is the pinnacle of the economic exploitation of the body, an individual transformed into an image that will hopefully recoup millions for the bankrupt Hollywood producer (who is also, with characteristic Edwards irony, her husband: Richard Mulligan as Felix Farmer).
The moment this historic event happens, there is a cut to a scene of the studio head (Robert Vaughn as David Blackman), decked out in his private transvestite outfit, sucking off his lover. He is wearing almost exactly what Sally wore, but the difference is that his erotic activity can only be private, secret, furtive; it does not fit the code of exploitable sexiness.
In a Freudian sense, S.O.B. enacts the scenario of a return of the repressed. What keeps forcing its way into the rules and exchanges of a contrived capitalist normality is an awareness of the body (physical pain is dwelt upon in excruciating detail) and particularly of the anus.
What flows from the body – the waste which has no use-value in our culture, up to and including the dead body, the corpse – is the subject of a mad, frenzied celebration by Edwards in the last thirty minutes of the film. The ecstasy of going all the way (the Sinatra song used as a veritable theme tune), beyond repression, is intercut with and compared to the empty, rich, unreal Hollywood funeral spectacular, consecrating a body which is not even there.
There is no doubt that Edwards, in the extraordinary period of creativity inaugurated by 10 (1979), is working from a very intimate, personal set of problems: what does it mean to be a man growing old in a society which valorises and values youth, beauty, energy? There is equally no doubt that – to champion a critical line much derided today – our sense of this real person (as auteur) behind the film, this intimacy we feel with its creator as spectators, is among the most intense pleasures that S.O.B. offers.
Yet, simultaneously, it is not a film that collapses into a mere celebration of individualism. Denying us a central character, it masterfully traces out the relations, exchanges and groupings that structure the dynamics of a social unit. And it exposes the systems of meaning that determine the individuals within that unit.
S.O.B., like 10, is – despite everything you have probably heard or presumed about it – one of the most intelligent films around.
*Note: This review (coupled with that of The Missing Link, under the overall essay title “Tales from the Anus”) was written for the short-lived, early 1980s Australian music newspaper Vox but, oddly enough, never appeared in print there.
© Adrian Martin September 1981