“Done is the kissing; now all that remains / is to sail forever across the stain”
— Nick Cave, Cabin Fever
This is how it started: I’d seen the preview a few months back, and was about a year into an only-watching-horror-movies thing that had developed as a strange post-trauma coping mechanism. I’d had a fair amount of wine and apparently yelled enthusiastically until my partner paid the $4.99 or whatever Amazon Instant viewing fee, and then we were watching it. Tusk. The Kevin Smith movie that’s basically Human Centipede with a walrus.
A month later, I’m still thinking about this film because of this ridiculous, sad, hilarious, brutal, surprising fact:
Tusk somehow managed to be the most realistic portrayal of the trauma of sexual assault that I have ever seen in cinema.
I’ll back up a bit: there’s no sexual assault in Tusk. It’s actually supposed to be an absurdist parody of the horror porn genre — a man wanders into another man’s home, is drugged, and finds himself being mutilated into the form of a walrus. A leg is amputated and turned into tusks, the remaining stump is fused to create a tail, his skin is a hideous patchwork that traps him within a body he no longer recognizes. It’s supposed to be funny. Not ha-ha funny, exactly, but the kind of funny where you gasp and shriek a little in the theater, elbow your buddies on the way home, and then forget about it entirely.
But this isn’t what happened. Somehow, in his attempt at parodying horror porn, Kevin Smith stripped the genre of its more infuriating conventions. It all takes place in North America, so the “exotic location” helplessness is removed. Both the victim and the psychopath are straight males, so there isn’t any sexualized violence. It’s this last thing that really does it – the lack of sexual violence lets Kevin Smith show what sexual violence and its after-effects feel like.
Men have historically had an inability to portray male-on-female sexual assault in art without making it sexy. I don’t know if it’s the effect of the male gaze, the camera work that lingers too long on breasts, or a complete misunderstanding of what sexual assault actually is, but rape is generally portrayed as violence that arouses. While survivors of sexual assault are complex and varied in their experiences, I feel pretty confident in saying that sexual assault is literally the least sexy thing possible. So you have this experience — an experience unfortunately well-known by so many women — that’s always portrayed inaccurately. We get the bare breasts and the slaps and the screams, sure, but we don’t get the true after-effect: the months or years or lifetime of feeling like your tongue was cut, your limbs deformed, and your body left in this pathetic, inhuman state forever.
A month later, I’m still thinking about this film. My fantastic, brilliant, feminist-ally partner who watched it with me keeps attempting to come at it from a film crit perspective. “Kevin Smith was in Seattle two weeks ago,” he says. “You could have gone and asked him questions.” But, to be quite honest, I don’t give a fuck what Kevin Smith thinks, or what Kevin Smith’s intention was — though the latter we actually have a quote on. Tusk was made directly after the movie Red State, and Kevin Smith “wanted to … [script] something with no religious or sexual politics.”
What interests me here isn’t so much what Kevin Smith aimed for in his heart-of-hearts — it’s that a man trying to do a relatively light-hearted indie parody of torture movies manages to FILM AN EMOTION while turning a guy into a fucking walrus.
Maybe I’m “reading a lot into it.” Projecting, etc. I’ve had a lot of typical misogynistic doubts while ruminating on this piece — I should learn more about film crit, I should see literally every movie about trauma to make sure I’m not discounting some great piece of male art before I shit-talk male art, I should watch this movie again and pay more attention to plot-points that barely registered with me the first time around, I should watch Human Centipede, I should have in my possession every single fact available in this universe before I sit down to write because any hole in my argument invalidates feminism and I might as well just not risk it.
I’m not at all interested in discussing films within the patriarchal construct of film crit, ie let’s take this thing produced within the patriarchy and hold it up to a rubric manufactured by the patriarchy and say some things that are true primarily by the virtue of their being sanctioned by the patriarchy. Crit is boring. Let’s dismantle crit. Let’s look instead at the interesting, hilarious, tragic, eye-opening shit like this that happens when we continue producing art within a suffocating, strange “depoliticized” atmosphere.
And maybe I’m “taking this too seriously.” It’s an indie parody film. It’s by Kevin Smith. But, the thing is, not taking things seriously is kind of a luxury only afforded to a very particular demographic. For a lot of us, there’s just no such thing as a piece of art with no politics, because politics are not something we can separate from our lived experience. We cannot take these things that impact our lives and put them in a box and write about what’s left, and this is something that needs to be recognized in the way that we create, consume, and critique art.
Take Kevin Smith’s film Clerks, which is basically two white men shooting the shit for a really long time. Could Clerks have been acted by people from any other demographic? Could there be a black Clerks? A female clerks? A LGBT Clerks? Would it have been successful? I severely doubt it, because if you’re making a movie about people who are not straight white men shooting the shit, it no longer looks like “shooting the shit” to mainstream culture. It looks like politics.
My identity as a woman within a patriarchal culture is not something I can separate from my being; I literally cannot make something that has any relevance to me as a human and is absent sexual politics; I cannot. I go to the office coffee machine and I shoot the shit about my post-assault sex life. I gossip about the male canon over happy hour tacos. There is no way to de-politicize your art unless you’re the standard against which things are measured “political” — unless you’re the majority, the default perspective, the status-quo.
A month later, I’m still thinking about this film. I’m thinking that I wish it had come out earlier, so that after my assault I could point to it and say “THIS is what it’s like. This is why I get angry and nauseous whenever I see assault sexualized in art, when it’s depicted with the casualness of violence but with fewer clothes. Because THIS is what it’s really like.”
It’s like being turned into a walrus in a stupid movie.
It’s like talking about the stupid walrus movie when you’re supposed to be having fun. It’s questioning your right to your interpretation of the stupid walrus movie. It’s worrying about whether you’re taking a stupid walrus movie too seriously. It’s googling the stupid walrus movie and being disappointed that nobody experienced the stupid walrus movie the way you did, and then talking to a female friend who watched the stupid walrus movie and realizing you’re on the same stupid walrus page. It’s being scared to google the stupid walrus movie because the gifs will make you vomit in a way that’s a completely unreasonable reaction to a stupid walrus movie and you’re filled with stupid walrus embarrassment. It’s a fixation with something everyone else in the universe has already written off, a thing that leaves you in a stupid walrus skin you no longer recognize in a place that doesn’t feel like home, quietly, sadly, for eternity.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised poet and essayist. An introvert, she balances her time between being active in several feminist communities and cooking elaborate five-course dinners for herself, alone, in the dark. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in No Tokens Journal, VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, Maudlin House, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Bone Bouquet, Weird Sister, and elsewhere. Find her online at http://sonyavatomsky.tumblr.com and @coolniceghost.