November 12th, 2003

Cutting In

I loved In the Cut as much as kdotdammit did. Before heading to bed, she was reading the New York Times Magazine feature on its lead actor, Mark Rufalo.

"It says here that 'in the cut' is slang for 'intercourse.'"

Makes sense. I still recall the arguments that Tim's then-girlfriend Mary had with Mark over his use of the term "gash" in referring to women. It was fraternity slang, but too visceral to write off as merely contextual.

The great thing about the Cockney-style slang phrase "in the cut" -- assuming that Kim and I are understanding the article right, that is -- is that it sounds like someone speaking the word "intercourse" with a mouth full of something, be it bit, gag, or cock.

One thing the film does, more directly than any of those better-sex manuals ever could, is drive home the point that "intercourse" falls short of describing the activities that comprise good sex.

There is a surprisingly drawn out masturbation scene in which we see Meg Ryan's character fantasizing about a man she's seen, dimly, getting a blow job.

It's the emphasis on orality, though, that dominates the film. The ineradicable image of that man, a woman kneeling in front of him, is the subject of both her fantasies and fears.

And the big sex scene between her character and Rufalo's homicide detective begins with her falling face down onto the bed, then writhing as he gives her "oral pleasure" from behind.

Significantly, there's an interlude after that scene in which she asks him who taught him how to do "that." The "that" isn't specified, allowing for speculations the film can't confirm.

Only after this conversation do they return to the bed and have conventional intercourse.

So their mouths get used in multiple ways before their genitals come in contact with each other.

I'm too tired to marshal my thoughts more fully right now, but I'd like to look at the "Lesbian Phallus" chapter from Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter with its discussion of Freud's "On Narcissism." Her discussion of pain and the wounded mouth seems really suited to getting at In The Cut's treatment of orifices.

Incidentally, because Ryan's character teaches what appears to be a college English class -- the students seem too unruly, disinterested to be real. . . wait, I was thinking of Berkeley -- we get to see a blackboard with "To the Lighthouse" written on one side and a bunch of notes on the other, largely impossible to read clearly, but with "Foucault" in the bottom left corner.

The reference seemed a little gratuitous, dorky even. But I'm starting to see how it might not be as off-target as I initially thought. I can't help but think of Foucault in relation to Butler's teaching of Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality. And his Archaeology of Knowledge -- my least favorite of his books -- and The Order of Things both deal with classificatory schemes that divide and recombine.

Since we're dealing with women who have been cut to pieces, in typical movie serial-killer fashion, that sort of conceptual violence does resonate powerfully.

My favorite moment in the film comes in the first scene between Rufalo and Ryan. He's in her apartment, inquiring whether she might know anything about a murder victim. She is distracted, wants him to leave. But she finally asks how the woman was murdered.

"Disarticulated," he replies.

Later, I could swear that we see her writing, not "disarticulated," but "disarticulation" in her journal. The move from a past participle with a specific referent -- the dead woman -- to an abstract noun without one -- assuming that I saw this right -- would represent her attempt to regain the upper hand in a linguistic sense. It's usually she who is collecting words, whether the African-American slang she culls from a student or the poetry she copies down from public service placards on the subway. This time, though, he has given her a word and she has to remake it after her own fashion.

I can't help but think of Walter Benjamin's contrast in the Passagenwerk -- Arcades Project auf Englisch -- between the "collector" and the "allegorist." Superficially opposites, they share the operation of selection, prying things free of their context and resignifying them.

Since In the Cut does something analogous from a formal standpoint, decontextualizing the details from the tried-and-true NYC detective formula and applying them to new ends, it's not much of a stretch to read Ryan's character as a stand-in for director Jane Campion, as she surely must be for author Susanna Moore, who wrote the book.

The theoretical point seems to be that we -- especially, but not exclusively women, that "we" -- need disarticulation in order to free ourselves from the prison of stereotypes, but must remember that there's always the danger of the metaphor becoming literal.

Coming back to the title and the idea that it's slang for "intercourse," it's interesting that there is a shift of emphasis from the "real" term's reference to connecting, bridging -- a "running between" -- to the gap, rift, and yes, gash in which that running occurs.

Flows always seek out the bottom.

Going through one of my old journals, this one from the spring of 1991, I found this long-forgotten entry:
O I am tired of the canyon between us, the bare trickle that streams through parched sandstone. . .
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Body, Wholly Body?

I looked at Judith Butler's "The Lesbian Phallus" this morning. It's an essay dear to my heart, not least because I first encountered her argument under trying circumstances. It was during the eight-week short class that she taught in the UC Berkeley English Department during the spring of 1992. Florence was in the class. I should have been, since my advisor suggested it to me. But my work schedule -- I was still doing the printing for Black Lightning notes and was one of only two readers for Bill Nestrick's massive English 173 Film and Literature class -- and a failure to recognize the importance of the opportunity led me down a different path.

I already knew Butler's work was a very big deal, since Gender Trouble had been one of the two best selling scholarly texts when I worked at University Press Books the previous summer (Perry Anderson' s book Imagined Communities was the other).

She gave three big lectures in the Maude Fife Room that spring. I missed the first, but made a point of planning to see the second, "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary," since it was such a major event.

Some of the more advanced graduate students I'd gotten to know through Annalee, while I was still an undergrad, were planning on going to see the lecture too. Because I'd been a regular at the Politics Collective -- the large, informal English Department discussion group that inspired the creation of Bad Subjects -- that spring, I got invited out with a bunch of them -- Danny, Seth, Greg etc. -- to get a drink upstairs at Larry Blake's before the lecture.

I'd always felt like an outsider with the members of this hip crowd. As an undergrad, I'd often felt like I was "invisible" to them, since they never seemed to acknowledge my presence when I was hanging out with Annalee or at Joe's place. Things were better by this point, but I was still elated to be with them in the absence of both Joe and Annalee. My excitement and, no doubt, nervousness led me to drink more and and drink harder than I normally would have that night. I recall having several straight shots of vodka, among other things.

Anyway, when it was finally time to head back to Wheeler Hall, I was pretty plastered. But I gamely made the trek, only to discover that the Maude Fife Room was completely and totally full. I could barely squeeze in the back door. Once I did, I realized that our Graduate Chair Steve Knapp was standing right next to me and I had only inches in which to maneuver. I couldn't leave, since everyone would see and hear me go, him most of all. I was self-conscious being so clearly under the influence next to him. But he was friendly enough and I forsook my anxiety for the dreamy experience of listening to theory the way that one listens to jazz at a smoky club.

I'm not sure how much I got from the talk, but it at least made the essay a little easier to read later on, if only because I was glad not to be drunk.

Anyway, revisiting the essay this morning, I realized that, while the stuff at the beginning about teeth and pain is great, Butler's extended paraphrasing of early Lacan is more directly applicable to In the Cut. As you read this, note that "morphology" is also a key term in linguistics, which appears to be Meg Ryan's character's hobby:
For Lacan, the body, or rather, morphology is an imaginary formation, but we learn in the second seminar that this percipi or visual production, the body, can be sustained in its phantasmatic integrity only through submitting to language and to a marking by sexual difference: "the percipi of man (sic) can only be sustained within a zone of nomination (C'est par la nomination que l'homme fait subsister les objets dans une certaine consistance)" (Lacan, II, 177/202). Bodies only become whole, i.e. totalities, by the idealizing and totalizing specular image which is sustained through time by the sexually marked name. To have a name is to be positioned within the Symbolic, the idealized domain of kinship, a set of relationships structured through sanction and taboo which is governed by the law of the father and the prohibition against incest. For Lacan, names, which emblematize and institute this paternal law, sustain the integrity of the body. What constitutes the integral body is not a natural boundary or organic telos, but the law of kinship that works through the name. In this sense, the paternal law produces versions of bodily integrity; the name, which installs gender and kinship, works as a politically invested and investing performative. To be named is thus to be inculcated into that law and to be formed, bodily, in accordance with that law.
I'm not good with the names of characters, especially in films. The actors names keep getting in the way. So I wrote "Meg Ryan's character" and "Mark Rufalo's character" yesterday and, in the former case, above. But, clearly, as I reread this passage, that tendency to fall back on the "real" names attached to filmed bodies is a specialized version of the mechanism that Butler outlines in her discussion of Lacan.

Both Kim and I are usually very sensitive to the naming question. We know Carol Clover's argument from Men, Women, and Chainsaws about the "final girl" of slasher films who inevitably seems to have a name that can be interpreted as gender-neutral. And we gave our own daughter a name with final-girl potential with Halloween and its ilk in mind.

I was being careless. But the publicity surrounding the movie -- "good girl" Meg Ryan gets naked for extended steamy sex scenes -- certainly pushed me in the direction of thinking and writing "Meg Ryan's character," with all that the genitive implies, instead of recalling the character's actual name, "Frannie," which I just looked up.

Interestingly, the name of leading male character, played by Rufalo, was easier for me to recall: "Giovanni Malloy." We see it on his NYPD business card in that first encounter between him and Frannie that I mentioned in my previous entry. But the name also works so well at stereotyping a certain version of masculinity -- Catholic, blue-collar, passionate -- that I recalled it much easier than the protagonist's "Frannie"

"Frannie," does have final-girl potential in its longer form "Francis," though the diminutive blunts it. It's hard to imagine the former New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings quarterback being referred to as "Frannie Tarkenton."

BTW, the reviews for In the Cut are incredibly polarized. Both male and female reviewers frequently seem repulsed and/or disdainful. Stephanie Zacharek's one from Salon was particularly cutting.

I wonder if the film's subtitle/tag line got under these dismissive critics' skin: "Everything you know about desire is dead wrong."
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Bad Writing

Steven has an uncharacteristically harsh -- towards me, anyway -- response to my two entries about In the Cut that's worth checking out.

I'm figuring out what I want to say in response, waiting for my heart to slow down.

Right now it will suffice to say that I have the same visceral reaction to arguments that cite those "Bad Writing" contests -- inevitably bestowed on the progressive academics I read for both work and pleasure -- as I do to ones that refer to Erin O'Connor's blog as if she were the only person who noticed that the Emperor has a distinctive mark on his penis.

It's not pleasant.
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