When You Gotta Go...
The cinematic bathroom isn't as grimy as the bathroom of the cinema, I think.
Back in the 1990s, when peeing was just beginning to become potent film devices, Oliver Stone opened his shock-glock portrait of America as it was then and where it was going - Natural Born Killers - with his two leads peeing in the desert moonlight. Merciless romancers and romantic murderers. How did they reach this start? The desert at night set, with its artificial soundstage-ish beauty, is a place for reminiscing on their youth, when they met, and the birth of their killing spree. Mickey Knox stands with his back to Mallory, as she squats on the ground, both smiling during their moment of dual release.
The most immediate recall to a peeing sequence of significance for me would be when one of the white-collar workers of OCP in Robocop quickly finished relieving himself, zipped up, turned to camera at groin level, and revealed that urine had seeped through to the crotch of his pants. His rush out was to avoid the office wrath of a villain being mocked so openly, having heard it all from his seat on “the throne” in a nearby stall. A mere comedic moment, not just. It did the business of that timid character well, not to mention of the tension in that scene. One can’t avoid a tough conversation by eroding a urinal cake forever, you know?
What is it with going to the bathroom in movies? Maybe it’s a generational thing, as those making pictures now must’ve grown up questioning why their screen heroes never had the time to “go.” Maybe it’s a taboo thing, seeing what we’d rather not talk about in public. Maybe such visions say more about a character and a moment than one would notice.
Of this current generation of filmmakers, and as far as this subject of discussion is willing to go, Janicza Bravo, in just two feature films, is the one with the best-crafted scenes of this nature (Ari Aster comes close though). And of many other natures too, of course. I mean this genuinely, as her work is damn near that of an alchemist - taking anything and making it rain gold. Golden showers, but not… well, you know. Her sense of humor is more twisted than most, grounded on Earth with a clear sense of surroundings - people and places. Every scene she’s conducted, thus far, has been ever so precise in its balance of all available elements and performances.
In a recent group chat, I used “Scorsese-tier” to describe what she had done with Zola. She took the God’s eye view of the climax from Taxi Driver and hung it over two women using a bathroom. A different kind of violence for sure, but perhaps equally provocative.
Her first feature effort Lemon, a comedy of one big error of a man, romped along in my mind for a few years without once reminding me of its sneaky toiletry. But now, having seen Zola and having read some interviews with Bravo, I’m of the suspicious inclination to revisit from the depths of my memory these few but rather special scenes.
Lemon has two, though only one involves pee - and it’s not in a bathroom. But it counts. It’s another opening scene, where the camera spins slowly around a living room, with a tv on in the background. The programming appears to be a foreign interview documentary with a black woman describing violence on screen. Once we settle on our… protagonist… he’s slumped and sleeping in a sitting position on his couch, and has peed himself at some point prior. The tv remains on and indifferent to him, but I am forcefully focused on his wet bed bottoms and the circumstances of his soiled introduction.
There are at least two interpretations that can be had. The first might be that it’s a comment on his insignificance in the universe and the universal disgust most people may eventually feel about him. While more important things are happening (the tv in the scene), he’s peeing in REM. Of course, this disgust turns true throughout the film, as his amplified antics are seen in a string of questionable motivations.
The second is likely more obvious, being a mere “this is who we’re following” scene. For sure, it could be just a Farrelly Bros-type gag, but if we’re to think of unzipping the fly and unleashing the subsequent torrent as a means of understanding character, then this can’t just be that. It can’t. It can’t. Especially since nothing was open, and there was no fly.
Where Lemon rested on its urinal relations, Zola excelled with about three of them. The one mentioned briefly above had the two lead women sitting in their side-by-side stalls, passing toilet paper to one another, before revealing the color of their fluids when they got up. According to Bravo:
I thought there was no clearer way to paint a picture of who these two women were than by seeing their urine and what their hygiene was in a bathroom. You see their piss and their relationship to how they use a toilet, and you know everything you need to know.
Let’s peek in on the mysterious pimp character, known as “X.”
X has two quickies at the John, both times done loudly, both times done with moaning and grunting. Still, he sounds pleasured and relaxed. The color of his pee is to be speculated on, but he does have one discolored eye throughout the film - sometimes yellow-ish, sometimes green-ish. Is he harshly holding in water? Does he not have time to go? No. He runs and races around, making money and staying hydrated I assume, only relieving himself when nearby his women, door open and all, loudly going and more.
Here, it’s not just character, but overall mood and atmosphere. X likely uses the open door policy as an intimidation tactic, insecurely executing it as a means of asserting whatever power he thinks he has. The character Zola sees right through it, of course, being our observer. It could also be a sloppy quirk of his, as it’s established that he’s not necessarily the most connected or proficient pimp in Florida - Zola even up shines him at one point, impressing and demeaning him.
For Zola, this just adds to the overall road trip of gross mystique. She never gets too attached to anyone or anything during the events, just seeing and assuming. This detached observance, when encountering X’s peeing, makes for both awkward tension and uncomfortable imaginations. What’s really going on? Who are these people? Why is he peeing that way?
Having meaning behind a bathroom action (or any action) - pretentious or no? F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, while not about peeing at all, takes its proud protagonist into the tortured position of bathroom attendant, where he is to work in for the rest of his life. In that classic silent, a bathroom is considered a taboo place, and being its servant, being assigned to it, says much about someone’s lowly status, now becoming an outcast and laughing stock. Why else would you be hired for such a role? Filth. Disgust. Foulness.
The setting of a bathroom is not necessarily one of dirt and impotence. After all, in toilet humor romantic comedy Deuce Bigelow, the titular character’s father is an attendant, and seems to be quite happy and at peace. Almost a century after Last Laugh, we’ve gone from the bathroom as a place of limbo and near death to being just a place to do “business.” Now, we’re focused on this business. From outside the stall to between the walls, things have gotten more personal and intimate seemingly, though it can only go as deep as the director can see.
Murnau saw much depth in this place, and Stone saw some in the act. Bravo sees this place, adds space, and makes more out of the act than something needing to be flushed. In a way, Last Laugh was a sound effect away from being Duece Bigelow - thankfully it was made when it was. Lemon and Zola both include a noise or two, and they fit right in, without undercutting anything.
Her stories feature taboos among various kinds of disgust and distaste, but her films are never gross or dependent on the low-brow. Both Lemon and Zola take the high roads, especially when getting most uncomfortable and downright sick. Her films involve mystery and mystique in the strangest and unexpected of places. That includes places of “business.”
Harmony Korine once expressed interest in screening his film Trash Humpers into the bowl of a toilet.