Bugle transcript: The Congressman’s Penis

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Though no longer listed on his Wikipedia page, John Grisham’s controversial debut novella The Congressman’s Penis was serialized in Bugle issues 157, 158, 159, 161, 170, and 178; is available at an exclusive mezzanine tranche of bookshops; and is presented here for the first time in downloadable form.

* * *

1.

It was 4:30 AM. The sound of a dog barking rent the Philadelphia skies. Mickey Stantanio opened a resentment-filled eye. “F***ing dog,” he spat, stretching his arms and throwing his novelty doggie alarm clock at the wall.

The dog barked again. Balls, frouted Stantonio. That was actually a real dog. I’m gonna have to buy myself another alarm clock. Stantonio stood up on his bed and bounced up and down, shouting “Weehee!” until he fell awake.  That’s better, he chundled. Good morning, Mickey Stantanio, P.I., he greeted himself, hugging himself like the long-lost friend he was to himself.

He looked at his bed, his empty, empty bed. “Oh my god, where’s Janet?” he whispered to himself. Oh yeah, he remembered, she left me 12 years ago and emigrated to Namibia.  Stantonio removed and incinerated his pajamas, bedsheets, and teddy bear. No trace of him would be left in this one-star boutique motel.

He put the kettle on; took it off again; and chuckled to himself. That putting-the-kettle-on-my-head joke really works better when someone else has said “put the kettle on” before I put the kettle on my head, he admitted, drinking a cup of cold and unbrewed tea.

Just then he saw something in the middle of the table. He approached it cautiously. “Shit,” he said. “What the f*** is this?” It’s wooden, flat, seemingly with no writing or distinguishing marks on it. No, hang on, that is the middle of the table. But hang on, what’s on it?!

Stantanio, the 48-year-old private investigator, table-tennis aficionado, and erstwhile owner of a five-foot-long iguana, reached out to pick up the unexpectable parcel. “What the f*** is this?” he repeated. He opened the box. His eyes widened each other with amazement at what lay within. “shit on a pineapple tree,” he growled. “It can’t be — can it? It can! It’s a congressman’s penis! But,” he growled, “which congressman? And which of his penises? I’d better take this down to the lab and have it checked out.”

20 minutes later, Mickey Stantanio, P.I., was siting in his favorite cafe. Menopausal Brenda’s, on 13th and Gooch. Before him on the table sat two coffees — and a penis. “So, Mr. Penis — what’s your story?” opened Stantanio, casually flicking a bacon rasher into his mouth. The penis lay motionless on the table.

Stantanio thumped an eggy fist on the dispassionately Formica surface. “That’s your game, is it, penis? I want to know whose penis you are, why you’re not on that person anymore, and how you came to be in my hotel room!”

There was a timbre of desperation in Stantanio’s voice that morning. 48, divorced, broke, lonely, and with a congressman’s penis staring him the face over a plate of grits. This wasn’t the life he signed up for when he joined the force back in ’58. And the last thing he needed, today of all days, was to have to take fingerprints off a congressman’s penis. He finished his breakfast, leaving his solitary sausage understandably untouched on the side of his plate. He had his flaws as a man, did Mickey Stantanio, but he also had a sensitivity to the feelings of his dining companions.

“Come on, penis! We’re gonna get to the bottom of this!” Stantanio winked a flirtatious kiss at the chef, apologized, explained that he thought the waitress was still at the till, and promised it would never happen again. He picked up the penis, and he was just about to put it back in his glasses case when –

“Wait!” said the penis. “There’s something you should know.”

“I’m all ears,” said Stantanio, instantly realizing the biological inaccuracy of his claim, even as the words were still warm and wriggling in his mouth. The penis took a deep breath.

“What I’m about to tell you is gonna make Watergate look like a f***ing Taiwanese kids’ nativity play.”

“Awesome!” said Stantanio. “Wait till I tell Brenda about this. She’s gonna come crawling back to me like a slice of cheese.”

The penis fixed Stantanio in the eye. “I’m not just any congressman’s penis. I’m the penis of Congressman -”

And at that moment, a shot rang out. Stantanio jumped behind the coffee machine and held his hands together to form an imaginary pistol, and prepared to return pretend fire.

Another shot! A door slammed. A car revved. Stantanio emerged. “Kapow! Katwang! Kapow!” he shouted as he gave himself covering fire whilst running back to his table. But the penis – the congressman’s penis – had gone.

“Man, that is seriously annoying!” he said. “Someone knew that penis was here, and they wanted it back. Why?”

* * *

2. The Crotch of Despair

Mickey Stantanio ran out of Menopausal Brenda’s onto the intersection of 13th and Gooch. There was no sign of the congressman’s penis — not so much as a single stray foreskin. “Hey, lady!” he shouted at a passing man. “F*** you, schmuck!” replied the man., “I’m sorry,” apologated Stantanio, “I – I … I just had breakfast?” “That’s no excuse, you mongrel-screwing balstraing,” said the man.

“Fair point,” said Stantanio. “But you are wearing a dress, and you’ve got a cracking set of -”

“Hey, have some respect for a dame!” said the man.

“Sorry, sir. I’m Mickey Stantanio, private investigator. What’s your name?”

“Bridget Paranovskaya.”

“That’s a funny name for a guy ’round these parts.”

“Who says I’m a guy?”

“You did.”

“Oh yeah, I’m always getting them mixed up. No, I’m a gal. That’s the one, gal. You were right the first time. Man, has that little confusion got me into some scrapes.”

Mickey Stantanio, P.I., felt a surge of confidence coursing through his detectives’ veins. He still had it! It might only have been a small thing like telling a guy from a girl, but he still had it. “That’s the old Mickey,” he cuddled himself. “I’m gonna find that penis. And reattach it to the right congressman.”

“What did you say?” asked Bridget, sultrily sucking on a pickled herring.

“Did I say that out loud?” asked Mickey.

“You did. Loud as a fluorescent chicken in a farmyard full of grey ducks. Care to explain?”

“Maybe you’d like to care to explain, lady!” exploded Stantanio. His old confidence had not just come back – it had put its slippers on, helped itself to a beer from the refrigerator, and resoundingly broken wind on the sofa. It had come home to stay. “Lady, tell me straight. Have you seen a congressman’s penis?”

“Why, sure I have.”

“Where was it? Who was it with? Where did it go?”

“I’ll answer those questions in turn,” she said. “One: It was on a congressman. Two: It was with the congressman. And three: Do you want me to draw you a f***ing diagram?”

“Er, no need, lady. I think we might be talking about different congressmen’s penises here. I need to find that penis. I’m gonna split, Miss Paranovskaya. Paranovskaya – what is that? Venezuelan?”

“Russian.”

“Okay. Suremissparanovskayawhatisthat?venezuelan?”

There was an awkward pause in that Philadelphian air.

“Ahem, sorry.” said Mickey Stantanio. “So, the penis. Long story. You got a smoke?”

“Yeah, I got smoke,” said Bridget. “I got this canister of the stuff from a fire at a rubber factory. I was taking it over to my mother’s hospice. She loves the smell of burning tire.”

“Who doesn’t?” said Mickey, breathing in the fumes.  “Apart from old Joey Struber, of course. The late old Joey Struber.”

“Joey Struber’s dead?” asked Bridget.

“Yeah, did you know him?”

“No.”

“Why did you ask if he was dead?”

“Er … in case I ever meet him. How did he die?”

“Well, he was working undercover as the wheel on an illegal dump truck. Driver tried to speed away from the cops at a junction. Wheelspin. Left Joeymarks all over the road. Still, it’s the way he would have wanted to go.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Beats the crap out of being eaten by a Communist in a crocodile outfit. And Joey saw it as an either-or. So he died with a smile on his face.”

“Sounds like he died with a dump truck on his face.”

“That too, sweetcakes. That too. So! The penis. I found it this morning,” said Mickey. It’s a congressman’s penis – no doubt about it.”

“How do you know?” asked the lady, kicking her Wellington boots against a nearby tramp to wear them in for a hard winter’s booting.

“When you’ve been in this game as long as I have,” said Mickey, “you just know. You just know. So lady, where do you think we might find a congressman’s penis round here?”

“I got a suggestion for you,” grunted the lady, extricating her leg from the mouth of an irate tramp. “You ain’t gonna find a penis that small in a city this big. You need to do this by a process of elimination. To work out who is and who isn’t missing a penis, you need to see as many congressman in as trouserless a state as possible.”

“What, you mean go to Idaho? And hang around at bus stops?”

“No, I mean go to congress.”

“I like your thinking, sizzly lips,” he guzzled, arrogantly flicking the ash from her cigarette before her face caught fire again. “But a congressman with no penis – isn’t that just a congresswoman?”

“Um … not necessarily, Mickey Stantanio,” she said. “Not necessarily.”

Anyway, three days and one very long donkey ride later, Mickey Stantanio and Bridget rode into Washington, hotly pursued by an angry donkey-rental salesman shouting, “You only booked it for a f***ing hour, you pair of thieving shitbags!”

“You know more than you’re letting on, don’t you, lady,” said Mickey, realizing he was conversationally remortgaging himself but unsure about the interest rate.

“Sure I do, Mickey. I got a degree in 17th-century French literature. I could tell you all about Moliere, but I didn’t think you’d be interested, so I didn’t let on. Anyway, this can wait. We gotta break into congress and start looking at some penises, or that congressman’s penis is gonna be little more than an unpastried sausage roll for the rest of its life.”

* * *

3.

Mickey Stantonio stood in the vestibule of the congress building, dressed in his athletics kit. “And that, ladies and gentlemen,” he announced to the watching company, “is how you do the triple jump.”

The congressmen and congresswomen nodded their political heads; uttered platitudes to each other about taking the hop phase on board and moving forward to a more holistic approach to triple jumping; and scattered to order some new research sand pits.

“Phew,” extrapoloded Mickey. “Talking my way into congress by claiming I had to do a presentation on triple jumping was high-risk, but it worked – and I managed to set a new U.S. indoor triple jump record in the process, breaking Mike Conley’s long-standing and extremely patriotic distance of 17 meters 76. I just hope they don’t make me take a piss test. I’ve been eating nothing but kangaroo steaks for months to make myself boingier.”

Stantanio knew this was his chance to get into the congress shower block and check out some groins. “I’ve gotta get in there. By the sounds of it, Bridget has been pretty successful at disguising herself as the congress speaker and making inflammatory marks during a debate about the legalization of women, causing a mass wrestle on the congress floor. They’re all going to need to freshen up in the showers after that.”

Stantanio put on his lab coat; picked up his clipboard; and claimed to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientific research assistant from the International Institute of Wangology. He started questioning the congressmen as they filed in to shower.

“Congressman Lambredio, I’m Stantanio from the IIW. Have you got a penis?”

“Sure I have, Mickey, it’s right here in my wallet.”

“Okay,” noted Mickey academically. “Now you, Congressman Platch. Have you got a penis?”

“I sure do. Do you need it now? It’s just I left it in the glove compartment of my car this morning. I didn’t think I’d need it today.”

“Okay, no problem, Congressman,” said Mickey, scratching himself at the implication. It seems, he said internally, that all congressmen have removable penises. That penis that’s on the loose somewhere in the USA could be anyone’s.

Just then Congressman Polcrutchet strode in, in his wrestling kit. “Congressman, Mickey Stantanio, IIW. You got a penis?”

“Yeah … I got one of those. I keep it in a safety deposit box on my ranch. Do you want the code?”

“Wouldn’t that defeat the object of keeping it in a safety deposit box? said Mickey.

“Good point. Anyway, it’s 354175. Man, no wonder it keeps going missing.”

“Did you say it keeps going missing?” said Mickey.

“Sure it does,” said Polcrutchet.

“Congressman,” said Mickey. “When did you last see your penis?”

“Ah – er – oh, I’m not sure. Let me think. I took it out for dinner on our anniversary; that’s my birthday, the same thing really. Since then … I don’t know, I’d say two weeks? Two weeks at least.”

“Congressman,” said Mickey.  “Have you got any enemies? For example, anyone who might want to take your penis hostage?”

Congressman Polcrutchet gulped.

“I knew this day would come. For me — and for my penis. Sit down, Stantanio. We gotta talk.”

* * *

4.

Senator Polcrutchet had dropped a bombshell. And it had landed on his own foot. “Ouch,” he thought. “That would’ve blown my toe off if it hadn’t been metaphorical. The bombshell, not the toe. If my toe had been metaphorical, would the bombshell still have metaphorically blown it off? I guess I’ll leave that kind of philosophy to Malcolm Gladwell,” he chuckled, metaphorically rubbing a soothing mayonnaise balm onto his actual toe just in case.

Mickey Stantanio finished what had become a very physical disagreement with a coffee machine about what constitutes a cappuccino. In which, for the first time in his career as a professional life as a cop, P.I., and freelance trapeze artist, he had uttered the words “That’s just bubbly f***in’ brown milk.”

Anyway, he sat down with his notepad as Senator Polcrutchet prepared to spill the most refried of all possible beans.

“Okay, Senator. Fire away,” said Mickey.

The Senator took a gulp of water, sipped in the air as if he wanted to eat his own destiny with a side order of self-analysis. “So anyway, Mr. Stantanio, I was speaking to Maureen this morning and she said that Deirdre’s been told she can’t do any gardening anymore, what with her back, and of course Dennis is not long for this world anymore, and her Bridget’s been having an affair with the vicar, and it’s not good for her heart, what with him being an escaped Sudanese war criminal, and his wife being a man. And then there’s Enid. Well, if she will joust at her age, she’s going to get hurt. Mind you, if she must do it, she should at least do it on a horse, not a 750cc motorbike, and at the very least put some clothes on as well. And as for Morag, well, I’ve told her cesium and water don’t go together. But would she listen to me? Of course she f***ing wouldn’t. I’ll tell you who I blame for it. Heston Blumenthal and his fancy recipes. And anyway, my Albert’s dead again — that resurrection really didn’t go according to plan. Mind you, it probably wouldn’t’ve worked out for Jesus either, if he’d died with a garden spade smashed into his skull. Might’ve made the iconography a little bit more interesting, mind. And did I tell you about our Abdul? Yeah, he’s got an internship with Hezbollah. We’re ever so proud of him. But his Angela isn’t too happy about it, what with them having just bought a house in the Orkney Islands and her being a Mossad agent and all — very awkward it is, I give them six months. And poor old Agnes can’t walk these days, and she’s worried sick about the Greek economy, and the Americans looking into the Kennedy assassination again, well, that can’t end well for her, can it?

“And did I tell you about my kidneys? Oh, in a terrible state they are. Guess I’m going to have to get some new ones. Completely overcooked, they were. Mind you, the steak and the rest of the pie were first class.”

Mickey carefully took Senator Polcrutchet in a headlock.

“Senator. Can you please get to the f***ing point? Where is your penis? And why?”

* * *

5.

Mickey Stantanio, the man who never prided himself on his ability to slice bread evenly,  but was nonetheless quite good at that underrated skill, stared Senator Polcrutchet in the eyes. He thought to himself, “I need a wee-wee. But before that … Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, hot dickety dang! No, focus, Mickey. Focus. Ya gotta find that penis before it ends up in the wrong hands! Or in Mexico! Or in an extremely distressing and quite disappointing foot-long hot dog!”

But at that moment he felt something cudgel him in the back of the head.

It was a cudgel.

Mickey Stantanio woke up. His hands were tied behind his back. He was blindfolded and his mouth was taped over.

“Bollocks!” he said. Although it sounded like “Rt-rwrft”.

He pulled at the restraints around his oh-so-American wrists. They came loose and fell to the floor. “No use,” he mumbled disconsolately.

“Hang on. On reflection, some use. Those restraints came off quite easily. Almost like … spaghetti!” He shook the blindfold from his face. It was a large slide of taleggio cheese. He bit into the tape around his lower face. It melted into his mouth.

“Mmm! Parma ham! Nice touch. Mmm-mmm, that’s the good stuff too, not some supermarket muck. Mmm, so tasty it’s become kosher. Oh yeah!

“But why? But this has all the hallmarks … of an Italian restaurant!”

Mickey ate through the rest of the ties that bound him, including a couple of unaccountable mozzarella testicles. He muttered, “What’s a guy gotta do to get a glass of Barolo around here?”

He sneaked up to the door. “I wonder what Italian restaurant this could be?” Just then, a familiar voice boomed around the corner.

“Mickey boy! Nice ta see ya!”

“Uncle Vittorio! But … but … have you got the congressman’s penis?”

“Wot mate?” said Uncle Vittorio. “No penis ’round here, other than the regulation ones. All above board, I assure you. Just like everything else in this operation. Right, Franco, Giuseppi, Roberto, Vittorio, Salvatore, Gianluca, and Walter?”

“Right, boss,” said the men.

“Uncle Vittorio!” said Mickey. “Why are you implying members of the 1990 Italian football World Cup squad? And if you don’t have the congressman’s penis, why did you kidnap me like that?”

“Well, I just hadn’t seen you in a while, and you weren’t answering your calls.”

“Man, you are seriously annoying sometimes, Uncle Vittorio. You’ve just wasted a whole f***ing chapter of this book! And you might’ve let the congressman’s penis escape the country! If we’re not careful, there could be an American congressman’s penis out there in whatever the rest of the world is called collectively. Do you realize the instability that could cause? That could spark a third world war!”

“Third?” said Uncle Vittorio. “Don’t you mean second?”

“No, Uncle Vittorio, I mean third. You’re gonna have to start stopping describing your last years in the late thirties and early forties as ‘one hell of a fancy-dress party’.”

“Potayto, potahto.”

“”You were Benito Mussolini’s personal assistant!”

“Officially I still am,” said Uncle Vittorio. “He never actually fired me.”

“It’s pretty f***in’ hard to fire someone when you’re hangin’ upside down from a meat hook!” said Mickey.

“That’s hearsay!” said Uncle Vittorio.

“There’s photographic and video evidence!”

“Potayto, potahto.”

“Quit saying that!”

“Oh, it’s just a new dish we’ve started selling. We just had an order from Table 14.”

“Aw, shit it!” said Mickey. “This trail has gone cold. This was supposed to be the last chapter, Uncle Vittorio.”

“Oh well, it’s very nice to see you too, Mickey.”

“Any chance of some tiramisu before I go?”

“Go f*** yourself!”

* * *

6.

Mickey Stantanio woke up in his all-too-familiar bed. “Home shit home,” he thought, regretting having drunk that flagon of unbranded meths the night before.

“I feel like a slice of lemon in the wrong woman’s gin,” he growled to his own self. “What the f*** am I doin’ with my life? Sure, being a private investigator beats being a professional pig breeder, but is it really so different?”

Just then there was a knock on his door. It was a courier. “Package for Stantanio!” said the courier.

“What is it?” said Mickey Stantanio, rubbing a peanut out of his eye. Another burst pillowcase, he thought to himself. Maybe I should try using a conventional one instead of a packet of peanuts.

The courier replied, “I dunno, but it’s postmarked U.S. Congress.”

Stantanio grabbed the package and incapacitated the courier with a suffocating neck hold. That probably wasn’t necessary, he said to himself. Probably doesn’t mean definitely in this game. If life was a game of probablies, I’d be living in a cave in Delaware and eating snakes.

He carefully opened the package.

There, staring at him like a disappointingly unfinished toy cyclops, was a penis.

“Could this be?” he said to his long-departed wife. She didn’t reply. At that moment she was meeting her friend Lorraine for coffee in a cafe in Portland, Oregon, having left Stantanio several years before, after an unusually contentious game of scissors-paper-stone. “Damn lady. She used to read me like a big-print Mills & Boon,” he recalled.

Stantanio looked the penis in the eye.

“So, my long-lost friend. We meet again. Whose penis are you and why?”

He donned his baseball gloves. Never handle a piece of evidence without gloves, he remembered being taught at cop school.  Along with “Don’t be too obviously corrupt,” and “Evidence is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Which congressman’s penis are you?”

Suddenly the penis sat up in his baseball mitt.

“I’m Newt Gingrich’s penis. Look at the f***ing tattoo. It says so on the … you should have looked at that in Chapter One, you f***ing idiot! You could have saved everyone a lot of heartache.”

Fair point, Li’l Newt, thought Mickey.

“Can you send me back to Mr. Gingrich, please? He thinks the Soviets have got me. Just like they got Lyndon Johnson’s penis.”

“The Soviets have Lyndon Johnson’s penis?” Mickey Stantanio gasped. “Then what the f*** was that thing in my lunch yesterday?”

The end.

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Bugle transcript: Lenin’s arse

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In lieu of original content*, here is a tribute to The Bugle, a true paragon of the entertainment the internet makes possible, in its hour of uncertainty: a transcript of one of its greatest moments, a commentary on this story of vandalism outside St. Petersburg’s Finland Station, from episode 70.1 (the Thanksgiving Day 2009 interstitial special). Andy Zaltzman does the anchorman work here, with John Oliver interrupting.

  • Lenin’s arse news now. And Lenin no longer has an arse. A St. Petersburg statue of the former Soviet big cheese – now, of course, very much a dead man – has had its big bronze butt-cheeks unceremoniously blown off by a bomb. Probably let off by a terrorist, or a prankster – pretty hard to tell the difference these days. Lenin – who used his arse for, among other things, sitting on his chair whilst writing Communist diatribes – will now no longer be best remembered for spearheading one of the most significant political revolutions in human history, or even for his advocacy of mass executions, or even for having a head shaped like an egg, or maybe for his dreamy one-handed backhand. Now he will always be known as the guy who had his arse blown off by a bomb.
    So … what a story, John. Has this been big in America or not?
  • No, it hasn’t, Andy.
  • That’s a shame. You’d have thought they’d have jumped all over this.
  • I’m not sure it’s been big anywhere. I think you’ve just seized upon this because you liked it.
  • Come on! A guy blew Lenin a big new arsehole. I cannot believe that after everything that went down in the Cold War the American media has not been all over this.
  • I think this has hit Sir Mix-a-Lot particularly hard.
  • I think McCarthy would be absolutely slapping his own arse in his grave, in delight.
    The statue originally only showed Lenin’s peachy cheeks well covered with a thick Russian overcoat. But the blast has left what can only be described as a massive arsehole in its place. Historians claim that whilst it is more than likely that Lenin did have a posterior sphincter, it is highly unlikely that it was big enough to be mistaken for a bombsite, but that, had he ever been tricked into sitting on a bomb in one of the assassination attempts periodically made against him, the statue as it now is could easily have been quite graphically realistic.
    Lenin’s arse, of course, lived for 53 years, mostly at the top of the backs of his legs – and his embalmed patoot is still on display in the Lenin Arsoleum in Red Square, Moscow. During Soviet times there was, in fact, an annual ceremony in which the Politburo would kidnap the American ambassador, take him down to the mausoleum in the dead of night, pull the Lenin corpse’s trousers down, and make the preserved Communist moon the U.S. dignitary. Experts claim that if Lenin had still been alive today, he would have without doubt had the perpetrator of the arse blast instantly executed for bringing into disrepute Communism’s most important buttocks.
    Interestingly, John –
  • Yes?
  • On the subject –
  • Yes, Andy?
  • Soviet leaders, throughout the history of the USSR, between them averaged two buttocks a man. But that was only because Andropov and Chernenko had three each and Khrushchev had none.
  • I think you’ve got to really take a long, hard look, Andy, at the stories you’re taking inspiration from.

* * *

* This blog has been most useful in my quest to become a better writer. Now I have to do some real research-based writing for my job, so the new rules around here are as follows:

  1. Stop writing things that require any sustained period of intense thought, unless they’re under 500 words long or are part of the “Baseball Movies” series.
  2. Resurrect the “Baseball Movies” series.

Work smarter, not harder — that’s our motto.

Dogtooth: midnight’s newest movie

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Christos Passalis (son), Mary Tsoni (younger sister), Christos Stergioglou (father), Aggeliki Papoulia (older sister), Yorgos Lanthimos (director)

[I sent some of these thoughts to an esteemed colleague and close associate to see if he wanted to engage in some sparkling repartee on the subject, but he said he needs to watch it again, and also expressed some skepticism about my very premise that Dogtooth is going to be discussed by people like us a decade from now. Nonetheless, here’s my response to some guy who was wrong on a podcast somewhere.]

It’s been interesting to watch Dogtooth gradually attain cult-film status, hasn’t it? This is a film I saw at the 2009 Three Rivers Film Festival and deemed unique and fascinating, but not much more significant than the Greek film from two years previous, Pink [a dreamy story about an artistic youth in his 20s and his friendship with a young girl, starring its director Alexandros Voulgaris, who we see in one Dogtooth scene as the bored dog trainer]. A year later every amateur critic had an opinion about it, the Flashdance-inspired dance sequence had been used for any number of YouTube mashups, and it was the most peculiar Foreign Film Oscar nominee … ever? Since Antonia’s Line in 1996? Maybe since The White Ribbon last year — that category is not as formulaic as it was.

So, my favorite mainstream-nerd-type podcasts are recommending Dogtooth to their listeners, which is good since it’s better as a shared experience than as something you watch by yourself and go to bed satisfied. I hope it’s now required watching for pretentious members of the Pitt class of 2014, like Battle Royale was for us. But often these recommendations are painting the movie as some sort of harrowing exercise in audience torture. Particularly when someone didn’t get anything out of the movie, like one caller to Filmspotting, who can be paraphrased as saying  “I get it, it’s like Funny Games, it made me feel awful, it was supposed to make me feel awful. Congratulations, filmmaker, you made me feel awful, now what exactly was the point.” Or Roger Ebert, whose review concludes with this:

The message I took away was: God help children whose parents insanely demand unquestioning obedience to their deranged standards.

That’s not the message, Roger! It’s certainly not the only message. This of all films you could have expanded on in one of your speculative blog entries, instead of just recounting the plot as if you had watched it with no subtitles. Sometimes I’m embarrassed defending you against the effete and stuffy elitists.

Dogtooth is not just a movie about child abuse or cults. It’s about power but it’s more about control of information, and how that confers power. I thought it was more of an allegory for dictatorship than anything else. What the parents do, they do out of ideology. The father is afraid of his children being corrupted by the outside world, in much the same way the North Korean regime claims to view its people, according to The Cleanest Race. The father trusts nobody and yet he engages in weird compromises with the outside world that are inherently hypocritical, like letting that woman wander around the house unsupervised engaging in acts of commerce, and then claiming that her bringing VHS tapes to his children is an unthinkable betrayal. Obviously he’s unbalanced and destructive, but this doesn’t mean he’s likely to lose his power over others anytime soon.

There is an extreme portrayal of homeschooling here, if you presume that homeschooling is a phenomenon of people who can’t tolerate compromise to their ideology. The parents make the children dependent by spreading myths about dangerous animals and a hidden brother, and their lessons include intentional lies [using the wrong words for things] that have no other effect but to make the children question everything they see in the real world as immediately incompatible with the very basis of their beliefs. This could be compared to an insular religious community, but I tend to think those communities don’t consciously mislead and handicap their children. It’s really more comparable to state-driven propaganda that shifts as the political situation shifts. The world in which the parental authorities decide what a word means, and flatly change that definition once the children get close to appreciating reality, is clearly a microcosm of the world of 1984.

In general I think the film is definitely disturbing, but its disturbingness is more comparable to Brazil than Funny Games or Salo. Nobody in Dogtooth gets any enjoyment from cruelty. And there’s no attempt to implicate the audience in the cruelty. I haven’t seen Salo, I understand it’s a political power allegory as well, but as I understand it, the victims are basically made to perform for the decadent amusement of the villains. As for Funny Games, the idea that Dogtooth is an attempt to make the audience feel bad is way off-base. Haneke is so minimal in his assessment of his own films’ significance that I don’t think he’ll be offended if I say that unlike Dogtooth, Funny Games does in fact have exactly one point, which is that the audience should consider feeling bad for wanting to see people brutally victimized. There’s no audience figure in Dogtooth, and it bears no resemblance to Haneke’s “enact the tropes of a genre you despise, to show how formulaic and worthless they are” approach. It’s more about unpredictability and world-building. Yes, there are protracted scenes of extreme awkwardness, but there’s a lot more scenes that are interesting because their significance is not immediately clear.

What do you think about what Dogtooth is about? Is it in the “grueling endurance test for the audience” category? I don’t think so. Every scene is short. Every scene suggests or resolves a little mystery. It doesn’t force you to look at protracted suffering like Dogville or Bad Guy or  even something like Old Boy.There’s a jumble of ideas it wants to give you. One can easily poke holes in the world-building and point out character inconsistencies. Andy Horbal:

I do not believe that each character represents something, and this is part of what I will tentatively call a “lack of rigor” that is one of the reasons the film does not appeal to me. Another for instance: after years of being given incorrect information about what words mean, shouldn’t these children be speaking a completely garbled and unintelligible language all their own by now?

The lack of rigor is something that Bunuel or especially Lars von Trier can often be accused of.  Do they contradict themself? Very well, they contradict themself. It’s a combination of story-telling and mood-evoking. The films are conversation pieces, something you can have a disagreement about.

In Dogtooth I also don’t think each character represents something [albeit I don’t remember which daughter did what]. The son is — I’m impressed that he wasn’t being brought up in some sort of Spartan military way, he was quite similar to the daughters in personality and body type. With the mother — clearly there we have the culpability of silence. She says little but she never disagrees with the father in public. She could end this by getting the law involved, and probably would take little punishment, but she backs the status quo. Why? It’s not too late to change things, the daughter who gets into the trunk of the car knows that. The mother may make no statements in support of the regime’s policies, but her actions make it clear what side she’s on.

Nottingham [Ridley Scott, 2010]

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Noticing all the movie podcasts out there, and listening to back issues, I’m acutely aware of the consensus about a lot of movies that, say, back in 2003, would have simply come and went without leaving any imprint on me other than “That was a [success / failure], wasn’t it?”.  I saw previews and TV ads for Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, but never felt the need to look into its critical reception once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be an omnipresent cultural phenomenon.  The same is true for The Musketeer, The Four Feathers, and Windtalkers. And Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.

Nottingham (Ridley Scott, 2010)

But now…there’s probably more minutes of conversation recorded and easily available about Daybreakers, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, or even The Kids are All Right or Hunger, than about almost any film from the 1980s.  If you want to, you can hear someone of any personality type trying to describe his feelings about Robin Hood, struggling with whether a brief assessment is possible, and alternating between warm feelings and total disregard in an unscripted way that isn’t found in any of the professionally-crafted reviews of Windtalkers or King Arthur.  The informal conversation about those films is lost to the ages.

In one of Jim Gaffigan’s specials he addresses the pointlessness of seeing a movie years after the opportunity to talk about it with people has passed.  He imagines being scoffed at for having, in the 21st century, just seen Heat.  [Heat is a bad example.] Maybe I’d enjoy watching The Musketeer and seeing what elements might make the film worthy of recommendation.  But why that movie in particular?  Nobody’s talking about it.  I’m not going to hear anyone talking about it.  With Robin Hood I gave it underrated-underdog status from the first frame. I remembered hearing the regret in someone’s voice as he described positive attribute after positive attribute but still classified it a failure, because it met none of his expectations while seeming to try hard to meet them. My expectations would be different.

The common message of every review of Robin Hood is “If this was trying to be a Robin Hood movie, it failed.”  And since it’s difficult for a movie called Robin Hood to deny that it’s trying to be a Robin Hood movie, that’s a straightforward case for a 2-star review.  Hard to argue that a movie is a success if it failed.

The title ruins the movie.  Even as one of the few people who went into it thinking “This will be a prequel to the Robin Hood story.  A PREQUEL”, I couldn’t help but think “Oh my great good god, this really was not a Robin Hood story.  It is honestly pretty laughable that this was called Robin Hood.”  Calling this movie “Robin Hood” is like calling Smallville “Superman: The Legendary Journeys”.  Literally, he is only Robin Hood during the closing narration of the film.

Oscar Isaac's King John, in the "insecure sybarite English king" tradition of Peter O'Toole and Jonathan Rhys Meyers

And it’s a really good movie!  It deserves the sequel that may or may not occur.  The Crusades stuff is good, the King John stuff is good, the Nottingham small-town stuff is good, the war with France stuff is good — it may not hold together perfectly but it’s all well done and it’s expertly leading up to something.  But I can’t recommend the movie to anyone because you can’t convince someone to see something they’ll only enjoy if they ignore the title.

The more I think about this the more annoyed I get.  Literally any other title would have been okay.  Call it Robin Hood Part One, Robin Longstride, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Robin Hood 0: Hypercube.  In fact, it did have a different title for most of its gestation period. At one point Ridley Scott’s Nottingham was supposed to be from the titular Sheriff’s point of view.  At another point it had Sienna Miller instead of Cate Blanchett, which would have been suboptimal.

That source [Jan. 13, 2009]:

Furthermore, Page Six reports that Crowe has demanded significant rewrites to enhance his character. “Originally the movie was about a love triangle between Maid Marian, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham,” says its source. “It is now all about Russell’s Robin Hood. Literally, 40 pages of script were redone and now are just devoted to him and his massive ego. It’s amazing.”

Ironically, the addition of all the heroic stuff for Robin Hood to do, if such a Crowe-coerced alteration did occur, made it into more of a prequel and less of a Robin Hood movie.  It also made it less of a Nottingham movie, since the two other elements of the now-absent love triangle are in Nottingham while Robin is laying siege to French castles and charging out of the English Channel with a sword.  And…Nottingham would still have been a better title.  It promises less, and it doesn’t make us think we know what to expect.

I swear, if this movie was called Nottingham the tómatómeter score would be 20 points higher.  Instead of “If this was trying to be a Robin Hood movie, it failed”, the conventional wisdom would be “Ridley Scott’s Nottingham has whetted appetites for his upcoming actual Robin Hood movie, which is going to be this generation’s defining Robin Hood experience.”  But the title was changed to Robin Hood, whether to help name recognition, to reflect the disappearance of the Sheriff from nearly all of the plot, or to avoid awkwardness of Americans wondering if they should say “Notting Ham” or “Nottingam”, we do not know.  And now…it made $310 million worldwide, but the buzz around a sequel seems limited to Kevin Durand, who played one of the not-yet-Merry proto-Men, talking about how much fun it is to ride a horse on a beach brandishing a mediæval weapon.

Notes:

  • The host of a certain podcast, to kick off a side discussion of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, referred to it as “the Errol Morris Robin Hood“, with no co-hosts seeming to notice.
  • The evil guy played by Mark Strong is even more cartoonish than the evil guy played by Mark Strong in Sherlock Holmes.  That criticism is merited.  What’s unfair is criticism of the lack of romantic chemistry between Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  I like to think both the actors and the characters are aware that no romantic chemistry is necessary.  They have a job to do.  Crowe is 48, Blanchett 40, and they don’t try to look younger than 40.
  • Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, it’s weird as well that that movie is called “Sherlock Holmes” with no subtitle.   But at least it’s not a prequel.  It’s not 90 minutes of a 25-year-old Holmes bare-knuckle boxing, intercut with Dr. Watson serving in the British Army in India and Afghanistan, with them meeting in the final scene as they both look for apartments on Baker Street.
  • Can we get a special edition of the DVD, identical to the version that was just released, only with every instance of the title replaced by Nottingham?  Then I could recommend it to others without mumbling an apology for its ponderosity and lack of Robin Hood antics.
  • Much of the commentary on this film has been comparisons to Kingdom of Heaven, another Ridley Scott movie about the Crusades devoid of sprightliness or scenes involving Robin Hood.  And it seems like some people who thought the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven was 10% of a masterpiece believe that its director’s cut is 90% of a masterpiece.  I’m familiar with a DVD-only director’s cut being the most popular cut of a movie among purists and fans of the director, but for Kingdom of Heaven [and now Watchmen] it seems like the DEFAULT version of the film on DVD is much longer and more complex than the theatrical version.  I thank Ridley Scott for this, just as I thank him for perfecting the art of filming dust particles in shafts of sunlight.

The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977)