Sex Acts, Part II
Cynthia J. Fuchs, Film Studies Program, George Mason University
The question of multiple audiences (and victims) is taken up again in China de Sade, an explicit parody of Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) which reimagines Colonel Kurtz's violent excess as a Colonel Krieg's voyeuristic s/m. The film opens with an arty sex scene between Lt. Ware and Ming Lee (another Vietnamese prostitute), set "Somewhere in Southeast Asia, 1968." With "primitive" drums on the soundtrack, Ming Lee lies on a bed as she holds a snake over her face; a blond woman with sunglasses and a rifle then forces Ware to straddle Ming so that she can perform fellatio on him. (It's difficult not to notice the recurrence of this scene as an opening gambit in Vietnam War porn, alluding as it does to specific power positions.) Here the blond woman joins the couple as the drumbeat becomes more frenzied. Sexual fascism is figured as phallic aggression: just as the blond woman pulls a knife from her waistband, we see Ware's face as he appears to climax, his pleasure registered in a typically "feminine" shot, as opposed to the more familiar sign of masculinity, the "money shot."
Ironically, Ware is supplanted further as center of authority when he begins to narrate. The scene shifts to "San Francisco, the Present," and his voice-over recalls Captain Willard's always-imminent passivity: "How well I remember the day it all started, bright and sunny, sailboats on the bay, bikinis on the beaches. Certainly not a day you'd call nightmarish. Certainly not a day you'd expect a horror to begin." What Ware describes is Krieg's story. And the film begins again, with Krieg, who is introduced while watching his neighbors have sex on their gazebo (his obsession with watching suggests his own perversity and impotence). They decide to give him "a show" (after noticing his telescope in the distance). As they perform, Krieg's voice-over undermines their smug exhibitionism: "It's always best when they know they're being watched."
The intercutting of this sex scene with Ware's recruitment scene makes both the couple and the Lieutenant appear to be victims of dishonest power-brokers. Two men in a small room review Ware's record of wartime assassinations (which, like Coppola's Willard, he refuses to acknowledge) and ask him to terminate Krieg and rescue his sexual prisoners. The movie also reveals a dark humor: just as the men say, Krieg "started doing what cannibals do.... It seems he had a nasty habit of shrinking heads and leaving them around on poles," the couple climaxes, such that the ejaculate and shrinking penis can seen from below through a glass floor.
It should come as no surprise that Ming Lee is one of Krieg's prisoners. Her punishment includes being forced to seduce the now kidnapped woman neighbor, using a frankly extraordinary dildo hanging from a g-string (the dildo looks well over three feet long). Her display of "Asian" dominance over the white woman reinforces and ridicules racist stereotypes: they all perform for Krieg, after all.
This scene also looks forward to the following one, when Ware infiltrates Krieg's house. Inside, he is apparently knocked out by Max, Krieg's Black Pantheresque flunkey (he has a big `fro, a big gun, and wears a black beret). However, Ware wakes in time to see Max's ferocious rape of Krieg's wifty blond daughter Laura. After several minutes of this ugly scene (with Max yelling, "I'll show you what pain is!"), it becomes clear when Laura laughs that it's all a show for Ware's benefit (clearly aligning him with Krieg). Afterwards, as Max drags Ware's limp body away, Ware dryly observes in voice-over, "I was beginning to realize that there was a lot more going on here than I'd imagined. I figured the best thing to do now was to play dead."
Once revived, the still-passive Ware suffers through sex in bamboo cages, sex under physical beatings, and sex in a variety of positions approximating "pain." Briefly troubled, he observes, "I knew that I loved Ming Lee, but why did it thrill me when they hurt her?" The film does not explore this question, but seems to offer it as a way to induce potential viewer anxiety over similar reactions. When Krieg shoots Ming Lee, an enraged Ware escapes and kills everyone, reborn a vicious sadist. Krieg's dying words (mimicking Kurtz's famous "the horror, the horror") are "the pleasure, the pain. The pleasure, the pain..." When Ware returns to headquarters, he learns that the episode has been a performance for which he has been the duped and seduced audience. Now initiated, he is invited to join the happy sadomasochistic group.
Ware's naive spectatorship and induction hardly suggest that his voyeurism connotes power; rather, he appears to be victimized by a company that conflates sex and violence and then asserts that it has not done so by pulling back from its premise: making the s/m a test for him makes it "unreal," a performance of pain and pleasure. It becomes impossible to ascertain the authenticity of either. If ejaculation is supposed to signal a confession of pleasure and enact power, how is a reaction to pain also a measure of bodily response, and how is it related to power positioning? Foucault writes that pornography is a machinery of power which delimits and constrains bodies and their pleasures (Foucault 12). In s/m these limitations are often coded as pain. Ware--as audience to his own pain and humiliation--remains ungrounded at film's end, walking offscreen after the group, but never articulating his answer to their invitation.
The paradox of s/m is exactly this: in the name of "sexual freedom," the viewer becomes a victim and emblem of representation. As Richard B. Miller notes, violent pornography eliminates discursive differences through overwhelming repetition and routine (Miller 150). As China de Sade collapses differences between sex and death, victim and viewer, and performance and real (even within the narrative proper), it destabilizes its external viewers' positions as well.
The Platoon also disrupts normative gender and sex distinctions. Specifically, the gay sex in the film displaces gender as the differentiating factor between performing subjects and objects. But the film also represents a series of white male bodies that all look alike, sequential sex scenes that all look alike, and bits of combat footage that all look alike (with emphasis on discharging weapons). At the same time, it destabilizes distinctions between reality and illusion by intercutting this footage with almost comically staged sex scenes, all under a male narrator's deadpan voice-over. Its hyperbolic construction on the "brotherhood" instigated by combat suggests an ironic attitude toward both hardcore male discipline and hardcore sex.
The film's curious politics emerge in its opening crawl, which blurs boundaries between fact and fiction at the same time that it avers a right wing stance and a gay focus:
The characters in this film, as well as the war itself, are purely and decidedly hypothetical... Heroes all, this film salutes our champion military forces, our own freedom fighters...
Next we see a sexual encounter between two men, not in Vietnam, but in a room where a television displays battle footage mediated and finally overcome by static, accompanied by the same voice-over describing a fantasy of two "brothers" having sex. Because it is unclear if this is the scene we watch, the film immediately sets up a disjunction between perception and representation. The rest of the film continues to problematize the relation between memory and experience (the real War which is denied by the crawl) by underlining the narrative's pretense: we see men wounded in the footage ("It was serious shit, real serious") and covered with obviously fake (not so serious) blood. Then we see men strip down for sex in the dangerous "jungle" which is obviously an indoor set, far from the battle footage.
Throughout, the film approximates this odd division of performative space, where sex is at once real and unreal, staged for no apparent audience but introduced as if it were, the images transformed by repetitive, monotonic narration. This speaker rewrites the outcome of the War itself: "I made it back before the final barrage. We really tore up that country. But we won that battle. We won that war." Subjectivity in this context becomes a specific type of performance, where viewers and actors are joined through the narrator's "we." Whatever war "we've" won, it is not Vietnam.
For the narrator, the point of this subjective position is ejaculation, not emotion or insight (all the men are terrible actors). Unlike most straight porn, which recovers the woman's unrepresentable pleasure in her expression (her believable act), in the gay film, ejaculation is repeatedly the sign of "real" pleasure (an act which is no act; it confesses the "truth" of sexual pleasure without mediation). If, as Williams writes, hardcore het porn is a "speculation that begins... from a phallic perspective" and then contemplates the possibility of other (female) sexuality, the desire for knowledge expressed in gay porn is an ostensible affirmation of that phallic origin, a return to what is visibly the same (Williams 279).
Richard Dyer writes that gay porn films are "politically important" in the several ways that they by definition renegotiate masculinity. "Like male homosexuality itself," he writes, "gay porn is always in this very ambiguous relationship to male power and privilege, neither fully within it nor fully outside of it" (Dyer 129). He does suggest, though, that gay porn can also work to reinscribe simplistic gender roles (where submissive equals feminine and dominant equals masculine). He argues that in order to resist such stereotyping, gay porn must enlist humor, irony, complexity, and self-conscious "elaborations" of narrative expectations (Dyer 130). The Platoon challenges the cultural construction of masculinity per se, in its insistence on a variety of wartime "bonding" experiences as well as in its suggestion that men might imagine themselves in a variety of sexual and power positions.
This multiplicity is further demonstrated in The Platoon's excessive melodrama, the dire situations which are simultaneously ignored (during those ludicrous encounters in the stageset "bush") and used to establish the constant emotional need for companionship. Conventional power relationships are inverted, as the officers who command their men to engage in sex are portrayed by the narrator as benevolent suppliers of compassion and physical contact. Aimed as it is at an audience of gay men (who are not often directly addressed by other war films), The Platoon creates a subjective viewpoint that seems at odds with the macho war footage it includes and the military ethos described in its opening paragraphs.
This resistance arises in part through the assumption of military "drag," where masculinity is performed as a kind of campy excess. For, of course, the performative problem that essentially structures The Platoon is not immediately evident in its string of sex scenes. The crucial performance that the crawl implies is that of "passing" for straight in the military. Acting straight means acting in a culturally conditioned, identifiably masculine--dominant, aggressive--way. In The Platoon, illicit sex acts demonstrate an alternative masculinity. Such illicitness is provides a simultaneously conventional and transgressive pornographic thrill. The men in this platoon must beware enemies from all sides.
The potentially homophobic audience within the fictional world of The Platoon recontextualizes the problem of pornographic spectatorship. In all of these films, the question of imagined, expected, and/or addressed audiences remains a profoundly vexed one. For while they would accommodate viewers of both genders, and in the case of The Platoon, gay men, the films also suggest that gender and sexual orientation are at best (or worst) transient, indeterminate definitions for viewing positions (men and women have more strategic options than only "identifying with" the characters most "like" themselves in gender, sexuality, class, or race). The multiple shifts enacted by these films--between subject and object, reality and artifice, violence and sex, sexual prostitution and military service--disturb traditional boundaries of knowing and seeing (and their equation in porn films). The textual circulation of multicultural differences (gay and straight, or black, white, and Asian) dislocates the notion of a unified viewing subject.
The end of pornography, Williams writes, is "the representation of sexual acts, the deployment of power and pleasure" (Williams 177). Structuring subjectivity around these increasingly indistinct sites and activities, Vietnam porn films organize viewer responses to both visceral and unrepresentable experiences of gender, sexuality, race, and violence. However unintentionally, the films chart a crisis of representation by revising sexual performance in the context of obscene war. In so doing, they reveal the increasing inefficacy of traditional power relationships and conventions of realism, in the continuing process of representation called "Vietnam."
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