Elections, Erections, Fuzzy Numbers & Falling On Your Face in The Divided States of America
See Dr. Susan Block's
U N C E N S O R E D
ADELPHIA FAMILY CENSORS
Dr. Block's Open Letter
to John J. Rigas
and Stones May Break My Bones,
a review of Philip Kaufman's film
by Dr. Susan Block
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything,
with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic
to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell…
Philip Kaufman's Quills, about the last days of the Marquis de Sade, is deliciously decadent, passionate, witty, sporadically erotic, and one of the most brilliant, powerful explorations of freedom of speech I've ever seen. It's also gross. Really gross.
Of course, the real Marquis de Sade's so-called "erotic" writings are quite gross. Henry Miller, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ice T, Marilyn Manson, even Eminem--all the artists and writers of this century who have been censored or threatened with censorship--are composing nursery rhymes compared to the Marquis de Sade. Moralists of modern times rail about the perversity of today's music, movies and TV. But the writings of de Sade, are more graphic and violent than anything in contemporary literature, music or cinema (certainly wilder than anything on public access TV).
The man whose name has given us "sadism" wouldn't have been welcome in the genteel S/M salons of modern times. He didn't use "safe words." He didn't respect the limits of his submissives. His writings are not just lusty, they're bloody. I'm all for a good consensual orgy and a hearty whipping of a willing slave, but de Sade's "sex partners" are often forcibly raped, mutilated, sometimes murdered. Who knows what de Sade did in real life (the criminal records are spotty, though he seems to have been involved in a murder or two), but his fictional writings are, in a word, gross.
So in keeping with de Sade's spirit, Quills is also gross. Full of murder, mutilation, beheading, torture and blood, blood, blood. And shit. Let us not forget the climactic poop scene! Now do you believe me? It's gross.
I might have forgone seeing Quills at all, had it not been for its director, one of my favorites, Philip Kaufman, not a prolific auteur, but a great one, having stewarded such gems as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the remake) and, my favorite, Henry and June, the story of Anaïs Nin's literary love affair with Henry Miller. Henry and June was cursed with that NC-17 rating (amazingly, Quills is rated R, probably because there's more blood than love juice in this one). A lot of critics turned up their noses at Henry and June, calling it "flawed" for being erotic. I guess most critics are uncomfortable when they get a hard-on or if their panties get wet in one of those intimate screening rooms where other critics might notice.
I'm not a professional critic, and I love it when my panties get wet in the theater. I prefer love juice to blood in real life and in the movies. If a film gets me wet and makes me think deep thoughts and feel strong feelings, I'll follow it anywhere. I saw Henry and June twice (rare for me). The second time I took Max. It was our first date.
Quills is not a first date movie. Though I guess that depends on your date. Horror is not my cup of chamomile, but lots of people love horror movies, especially on dates. Something about all the fear and gore making you clutch at each other, I suppose. I'm not sure how large the market is for this sort of genre, but I would call Quills an intellectual horror movie.
On the intellectual side is Quills' effervescent wit and its message of personal freedom. The story, written by the Yale-educated Douglas Wright whose play by the same name won him an Obie, is a parable of freedom of expression, and what happens when the forces of pious hypocrisy attempt to suppress expression. In other words, the "moral" of the story is: De Sade, incendiary as his prose might be, should be free to write his books and, just as important, to publish them. And we should all be free not to read them. As narcissistic, vicious and downright gross as de Sade is, there is something heroic about him when he refuses to stop his writing, even when his jailers try to cut him off from all expression to the point of cutting out his tongue (yes, they show it)!
It's pretty gross. But it touches me. No, I'm not in prison and my tongue is safely in my mouth. But, as those of you who know me know, in recent months, I've been getting a little "roughed up" by Adelphia, now censoring about 75% of The Dr. Susan Block Show's weekly episodes on public access cable TV, banning us from broadcasting the erotic style of programming that we've been running on public access for almost ten years virtually without any censorship whatsoever. Not only is this illegal according to the 1996 Supreme Court Ruling in Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. et al versus Federal Communications Commission et al, but it's wrong. The parallels are by no means exact, but my right to public access is like de Sade's right to publish.
Perhaps, if my shows had no nudity but included a beheading, then they'd pass Adelphia's censors. That's how Quills begins. We are in the thick of the Reign of Terror, when Marie Antoinette and many others were executed by guillotine. Since it didn't involve physical torture, it was said to be a "humane" form of execution in those days.
It's about as humane as a hole in the head, without the head. The first thing we see filling the screen is the face of a pretty young aristocrat (Diana Morrison, making her feature film debut, of course), tears coursing down her refined cheekbones. The camera moves back to reveal the dirty, burly executioner behind her. He caresses her shoulders just before he rips open her dress (though Ms. Morrison's boobs remain primly covered, thus the R rating), and places her neck on the chopping block below the huge blade dripping with the blood of those who came before her. She looks down to see a large basket filled with the heads of her cousins, aunts, uncles, the king and queen, their freshly hacked-off faces twisted into the final shriek of their lives. She looks up, her last sight being the filthy crowd laughing and crowing as the blade falls down upon her neck.
We're duly horrified by the graphic quality of the guillotine, of course. Ironically, we pass it off as barbaric, that's how "they" were in "those days." As if a so-called "humane" lethal injection execution in 21st century Texas renders its victim any less dead than a guillotine in the French Revolution.
Still it's ghastly . Especially for an opening scene. I mean, I've barely settled into my seat when right before my eyes, a lovely young ingenue has her head chopped off. I thought this was the stuff of Scream 3, not something Oscar-winners get involved in.
Then I see that it's not just my eyes that behold this spectacle of the French Revolution. Sitting in his dank little cell in the Picpus Jail is the Marquis de Sade, scribbling violently with his weapon of choice, his quill. It is here that his most violent fantasies are gestated. "My government imprisonment, with the guillotine before my eyes, did me more harm than all the Bastilles imaginable," said de Sade.
After the guillotine, what is obscene? Not much, according to the Marquis.
The film then skips to a few years later, to find the Marquis comfortably ensconced in Charenton insane asylum, still scribbling nasty prose with his precious quills. Having avoided the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, he is now locked up in this rather benign mental institution, where he enjoys a furnished apartment with a library, wine rack and an erotica collection to rival my own.
The Marquis is given a dazzling tour de force portrayal by Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush. Though the Marquis was said to be rather fat, and Rush is slim and wiry, with a nice dimpled tush (that we get to see a lot of), the actor seems to have been born to play this part. He is seductive as a snake, witty, slyly volcanic, charismatic, arrogant, selfish, and, in the end, courageous as a war hero.
Charenton is filled with a bunch of loonies, including that executioner who I hope got workers comp for going bonkers from all that guillotining. These are the criminally insane of Napoleonic Paris, sweet and silly one moment, frighteningly dangerous the next.
But they all seem to be kept pretty well in hand by a compassionate young priest, Abbé Coulmier, played with great intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, whose philosophy of treating the mentally ill is quite humane. You could call it liberal. He incorporates a form of art therapy that I've used myself, helping his criminally insane wards to let off steam harmlessly through art. He has the inmates put on plays that the townspeople come to see, he has the pyromaniac paint pictures of radiant fires. And he encourages the Marquis to "purge his evil thoughts upon the page."