ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Pimps! The Devil's Auteurs

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Erich Kuersten


There's a deeply buried live wire of uncanny energy in the figure of the pimp, and cinema is appropriately obsessed with him. Freud's dark father of enjoyment, he begs to be slain even as he looms over us with something like love. He is the one with all the bitches; who profits by their exploitation; who keeps them hypnotized via an unfathomable system of intimidation and sweet talk. As a straight male viewer, I'm typically horrified that such a nice girl as sassy and sweet as Jodie Foster's Iris would be hoodwinked by the song and dance shuffling of a character like Harvey Keitel's Sport in TAXI DRIVER.

And yet one can't write Sport off altogether, for like all pimps he's not just in love with pleasure and power, he shares.

Taking a coming-of-age boy to a house of prostitution to "make him a man" was a 19th century custom, lost over the sanitizing of time in western culture, but the initiation ceremony into sexual awareness as such was never replaced, except via raising of hem lines. By the 1960s, the yawning divide of Vietnam had separated the power and the youth forever and lo, in despair they chose one of their number to be the dark father stand-in: and he was called the pimp. The problem is we failed to recover the lost initiation rite along with the tawdry sex.

After Vietnam, there was no longer anyway to fight the pimp because generation gap had widened beyond repair. There was no need to live a double life of repressed surface and louche core, it was all exposed, transparent. The 'anal father' was born. Todd McGowan puts this around the time of Ronald Reagan in his End of Dissatisfaction:
Like Reagan, the anal father is a "teflon" master, one to whom no critique can ever manage to stick. The anal father's weakness has the paradoxical effect of increasing his resistance to critique.... (this is) the predominant feature of power in global capitalism. With the old paternal authority, a critique that unmasked the functioning of its power had the effect of disabling that functioning (54).
McGowan cites the modern TV newsroom, which "lays bare" its back rooms and mechanical devices, as an example. Rather than make the show seem clumsy, showing technicians and reporters running to and fro in the background, or over the credits, heightens the sense of import:
The insight into the functioning of power... has the effect of cementing power's hold over us rather than relaxing it. It does this by cutting off all lines of critique prior to their articulation... the anal father (is) made stronger by its ability to make its weaknesses--potential lines of critique--into additional signs of strength." (54)
The pimp embodies this same strength: you can't outmuscle him because he uses weakness--his comically exaggerated sexual prowess---as strength. He becomes the Other we cannot beat since he never actually tries to win but rather 'acts' as if he already has. He becomes, with his plumed hat and high-steppin' shoes, a burlesque of masculinity, burlesquing our idea of the omnipotent sex machine that we have failed to become. Same with advertising! McGowan lays it down:

... the omnipresent advertisements calling us to enjoy ourselves attest to the anal father's reign... Whereas the old father ruled as a present absence, the new father's presence is suffocating. We can never get away from sensing his enjoyment, even when he is physically absent. And his enjoyment doesn't bar us from enjoying. The presence of his enjoyment instead calls us to enjoy ourselves, and we never feel as if we are doing so adequately enough. (50)
The pimp in cinema embodies aspects of this concept that differ sharply from other abusive dark fathers, such as those in David Lynch (Dennis Hopper's Frank in BLUE VELVET being the most notorious). Unlike the monstrous anal fathers--who seduce via displays of power and terror--as in Frank's "Daddy wants to fuck" ravings--the pimp seduces by flattery and mimetic magic; a snake charmer ability to say the "right things" to beautiful women without stuttering or being shy. The pimp moves right up close and tells them what they want to hear while we stand there, shy and awkward. And we're given a way out of our insecure misery by thinking that women are "solvable" - they are like computers and the pimp just knows their password. This is, at any rate, how it looks to the undersexed, underage male cinemagoer, trapped on the outside of the screen, like Travis at his X-rated movies. The pimp profits on his customer's deep insecurity by enacting the role of the "guy who gets all the girls" and then renting them out by the hour. If the experience is unpleasant, it will at least perhaps let you see the self-defeating cycle of desire and absence that you're trapped in.

That said, we still see through the pimp's sweet talk and superficial little touches (the colored lights and tapestries in Iris's room, for example) and the fact that the girl-victim-hooker refuses to see her pimp as a fraud as well makes us twist masochistically in the wind. But the pimp pre-empts our hatred via his comical, jiving manner; he re-establishes his alpha dog status then tosses us a bone. It's part of the reason we go to movies, this masochistic voyeur thrill of emasculation coupled with a kind of temporary fix... a pseudo-castration that re-enacts the primal scene so we can try and "get it right," and re-win the war. As a country we're hung up this way about Vietnam. Rambo Sweet Rambo, you can't go home and you can't stay here...unless you got fifty dollar.

The pimp's presumed "ownership" of the girl being 'sold' works to alleviate our anxiety; the pimp makes sex into a fiction and then sells it to us like a used paperback novel. Rambo's not going back to "fix" Vietnam, he's in, um, terrorist-torn... um, Pimpistan! The pimp becomes our Lee Marvin, our Nick Nolte. He binds us around the waist with a fixed length of rope and lowers us in -- we have the length of a burning cigarette to get the job done, and the pimp will extract us if we get stuck inside or drowned/gulped down by the vagina Viet dentata-nam quicksand. Under his coaching, issues repressed by consciousness are tricked into sleeping instead of pounding on the ceiling when they get the smell of puss-ay.


Watching Sport and Travis argue in TAXI DRIVER we don't know who to root for because Sport is so fluid and full of life and Travis is so stiff: there can be no doubt who is more "alive" with pleasure. This is Harvey's chance to goof off and make De Niro the straight man stuff, reversing the previous arrangement they had in MEAN STREETS. You can see why Scorsese wanted to just let the camera roll why they riff on each other; they always seem as if they're barely holding back amazed laughter at each other's schtick. Yet there's deep currents of fraternal mirroring, with Keitel as the older brother, the song and dance man who talks even faster around his slow speaking brother, trying to get him to speed up and get in the action. The slow brother acts even slower in an unconsciously passive aggressive cross move. They are locked in the weird eternal dance/fight of fraternal children which brings every conversation and interaction to an eventual polar opposite duality. If we imagine Peter Boyle's cabby as the father in this family, the dysfunction is complete. Boyle also tries to correct Travis' shyness by over-talking and acting "up," all of which is why Travis' warped concept of manhood comes to hinge upon killing Sport and thereby breaking the loop of masochistic dependence on the pimp-provided by-proxy enjoyment. This killing 'solves' the childhood dream of freedom in which the rival sibling (Ho Chi Minh, Osama Bin Laden) is killed in the most elaborately violent way possible, usually daydreamed while on a long car ride or during a punishment time-out or nap. Because just as the prostitute is understood as an automaton (she pretends be "turned on"), so too is the pimp measured solely by his confidence, swagger and peacock puffery. Sane people understand that it's a show but to a deranged loner like Travis every overheard conversation can sound like mocking laughter and when one misses too much sleep, one can mistake people's masks for the real thing. If that happens, the difference between Sport and Satan melts like wax on the wings of Icarus.

Don't think I'm defending those who don the plumes of pimpage, for beyond the exploitative angle is something even more sinister, the command to enjoy is encouraged to become monstrous through exaggeration, promoting beatings, torture, brutality enough to keep whole branches of police departments constantly busy. It's okay to beat on this bitch because the pimp said you could; the father's okayed it and conned your superego into looking the other way. No matter how sleazy and violent you are to Iris, it's all been sanctioned by Sport through his depraved sideshow patter ("You can stick it in her ass! Can you imagine what that's like?")

Where does one go from there if one wishes to be even more depraved? One can't, and thus depravity becomes mundane almost immediately, but if one wishes to be transgressive for transgressive's sake, then comes the actual hurting, and if one isn't a misogynist but rather a decent guy with an anger problem and full-on psychosis, it becomes wholesale slaughter... not of Iris, but of the pimps and the whole rotten stinkin' mess of humanity, but not Iris. 



De Niro gets to revisit his outsider-masochist role a decade or so later in CASINO (1991), when his trophy wife (Sharon Stone) can't let go of her coke-headed ex-boyfriend pimp/two-bit hustler Lester (James Woods, above) who smooths her feathers over the phone whenever De Niro's antsy casino manager isn't looking. Poor De Niro can only buy her jewelry and throw his muscle (other men working for him) around in a dwindling display of power. Like Travis, De Niro's casino manager has no clue how to sweet talk or be fun and spontaneous (his gifts to her are all of high monetary, i.e. impersonal--as opposed to personal--value.)

What does Woods say in his low voice over the phone that gets Stone so wrapped around his finger? We get some inklings: "Where are you right now, are you here with me?" It's all about her, like gentling a rattled mare post-Preakness, or a doggie frightened by the thunder. It's intimate baby talk, pillow-talk--and to an average intelligent guy it's inane. De Niro wants desperately to be loved but wishes merely to use cash as a substitute for his own psychic presence (ala Lionel Atwill in THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN) and so feeds himself into a destructive cycle of compulsive gift giving as a way to buy "trust" in lieu of his ability to sweet-talk like a pimp.

Thus in this outraged fear of the Satanic male other, we straight men devalue the feminine as being child-like and susceptible to petty flattery and "talk" of intimacy rather than the real thing. Championing our own closed-offedness and seeing joy and conversation as immature. We're men of action and softness and love are not action, but mere ruffles and a frilly pointless bow on the box of language. For a lot of us, sex is silent, like a blind man who grows enhanced hearing, so we grow more enhanced sexual sensory perception with eyes closed or in half-focus, not speaking, lost in the alchemical transaction of the moment, but after a certain point this becomes mere rationalization. The anxiety of talking about sex with the person you are having sex or about to have sex with can be incredibly daunting. After all, we made it this far, through countless hurtles to like each other enough to fool around. One wrong word can blow the mood.

Again we can blame the anal father for this, much like the child who grows up with alcoholic, irresponsible parents comes to see fun and play as claustrophobic dead ends for jerks. Instead of preserving the impish openness of childhood, they preserve the dopey anguish of adolescence, as if the freezing ray was jammed and fired too late.

It is through this warped self awareness that we also form low opinions of real-life "Svengalis" like director/photographer John Derek and the Satanic French filmmaker Roger Vadim (above). Is it any wonder we find their films so awful? These men are the Lester/Sports of cinema. You can't create onscreen tension if you've never been tense, and as Keitel says in Pulp Fiction: "Just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character." And cinema without tension and character becomes merely travel footage: girls walking through quaint European streets or ominous hallways, and a lot of sex in it. Vadim has been married to or in bed with: Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve to name just three; John Derek started with Ursula Andress before moving to Linda Evans and then Bo Derek. Most straight boys learn this when they go through their adolescent phase (Derek photographed all three wives for Playboy) and learn to snarl at the very mention of Vadim (his book MEMOIRS OF THE DEVIL is highly recommended) or John Derek. What was their Svengali-like sweet talk power... and how do we get some? The idea is, of course, on a sexual-social level, reprehensible...that there's some "formula" by which any man anywhere can get any woman to do whatever he wants and you too can learn this formula by sending us a certified check for $50, that's $20 off the retail price!

Alpha males are ever trying to prove to their beta and theta underlings that women are "de-codable," that there is a system of codes and magic words that will turn any unapproachable hottie into a passive sex slave. And yet, if women will fall for these alpha male phony sweetbacks they deserve everything they get, as far as we're concerned. We wouldn't want to join a club that would have us for a member, but we're disillusioned to see women are the same way. In our "trying to be feminist" eyes, we see women ask for equality from men, but if we give it to them, they laugh at us and run back to their abusive pimps (ala Fonda in KLITE).


(from top: Vadim with Fonda; Scheider with Fonda in KLUTE, John and Bo Derek;
Hemingway and Roberts in STAR 80)

Most men--no matter how unlaid they are or were--realize at some point in their maturity that most of this "magic word thinking" is purely in their fecund imaginations, but it's the unlaid geek kids that grow up to make the best movies. The oversexed football heroes amount to nothing. It's a no-win situation with repression needed but disastrous wherever it's applied. We try to balance the Jeckyll and Hyde aspects of ourselves, and if we don't see movies about Hyde envying the sober decency of Jekyll, it's only because Hyde and his ilk are too besotted with vice to get up out of their chairs, let alone find time for angst. We observe this from the holier than thou position of Jekyll, a position elevated only in direct relation to the ever-present Hyde figure. In other words, we realize we're finally mature and integrated when we stop trying to champion one side over the other and seek balance (not to destroy Hyde but to incorporate his energy and become less of a bore).

After all, even the Svengali pimps must have had bad days. If you're below a certain age you might not remember the Bo Derek story, or the even grislier Dorothy Stratten story. Watch STAR 80 to see how this Svengali relationship can completely destruct, or on a more meta level just check out the inanities involved in letting the Svengalis direct their leading ladies personally, as in TTARZAN THE APE MAN, BOLERO, ...AND GOD CREATED WOMAN etc. Granted Vadim is a better director than Derek but Vadim's films still suffer with all the clear indications that the director is not "in sync" with the "real" male cinemagoer, the needy hungry lost souls vanishing in the glowing womb screen ovum. Vadim somehow cuts off our voyeur window - he's just too laid. If Hitchcock ever got one of his icy blondes into bed, would his films still resonate so strongly today?

The third world's relative technological infancy is (perhaps falsely) presumed on this same polarity: well-sexed people in hot climates don't feel the need to go invent nuclear arms or cars, or anything else for that matter. They'd rather lie in their hammocks and procreate, have a thousand orgasms and raise a dozen kids, which removes any possibility of thinking beyond the immediate needs of food, water and shelter. Though that's clearly imperialist rationalizing, there is some truth to it: I once had the misfortune of having to cash out traveler's checks at a Citibank in Buenos Aires... it took about two hours of waiting around while two tellers talked and looked at my checks, and did their nails and thought about what to do. My imperialist Anglo impetuousness seethed and fumed and then when we were back on the street I realized I actually had nowhere to go... and the girls at the bank were hot, so what was my problem? I just had to get out of there.

The pimp in his glory is the wheel master of that repression. A lot of people went to see John Derek's TARZAN because they were so turned on by Bo Derek in 10-- they just had to see her wrestle naked with a chimp. They came away angry, sure, at what a terrible movie-- but they got what they paid for. What they learned was that no woman is hot enough to save a bad movie. But John helped them learn that. Without the pimp brokering the deal, they might be carrying torches for poor Bo this day. John Derek showed them the "empty hollow attic" of desire's fulfillment, he set them free to, in the words of Lou Reed, 'find a new illusion.' Alas, art doesn't survive that kind of calamity, for cinema especially, thrives on the power of thwarted desire.

In an age of everyone being commanded to enjoy and finding such enjoyment, ala Sissyphus, ever more out of reach the harder we struggle to reach it, we need directors who split the difference between the laid Vadims and the sexual neurotics like Woody Allen. In fact, I found one recently -- Jody Hill. See OBSERVE AND REPORT (2009) and witness how sexual longing's satisfaction can occur within the context of a film and change nothing. Brave, dark and ahead of its time, the self-sabotage vagueness of its title aside, OBSERVE AND REPORT is a classic waiting to be discovered and appreciated for the howl into the yawning void of prefab mall culture's subliminal sanction of killing that it is. In a cinematic sewer system of pimps and Bickles, Hill finds a common ground, still dry from lack of travel -- where sexual frustration and anal father pyrotechnics are just two sides on a coin that has never stopped spinning for 200 years, and the only way to win the toss is to just walk away. The only path beyond the morass of pimp-punk duality is to adopt the role of "the one who knows," to become a sort of Zen version of the Anal father, wherein you act like you are enjoying more than you are, which indicates that you aren't... only then can real change occur. Someone has to put their gun down first, and it's going to have to be you. BAM! Whatever you used to be, it's dead now. Pay the man.

c. 2009 acidemic / photos considered fair use and c. their owners

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