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about the writer

June Werrett completed her PhD in 2003 on "Satire and Cinema: Tensions and Tendencies in the films of Robert Altman and Blake Edwards."

notes

[1] Andrew Sarris, The Primal Screen: Essays on Film and Related Subjects (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973) p. 189.

[2] See Richard Combs, "Hollywood Lullaby," Sight and Sound, 50.4 198, pp. 279-280.

[3] Adrian Martin, "Blake Edwards' Sad Songs of Love," Undercurrent 7 (January 2011).

[4] Peter Lehman and William Luhr, Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards, Vol.2 (Ohio University Press, 1989), pp. 28-31.

[5] See Lawrence Linderman, "Playboy Interview: Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards," Playboy 29.12 (1982), pp. 77-116. Edwards admits he made The Revenge of the Pink Panther out of "sheer greed; it was a very calculating move" (p. 97).

[6] Linderman, p. 90.

S.O.B.
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In or Out, Dead or Alive?
The Excremental in S.O.B.
By June Werrett

The excremental is a mode of satire that uses the body's functions and its non-functions as a way of criticizing the prevailing culture. Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981), a fine example of the excremental expression in cinematic art, criticizes the prevailing culture of the film world. At the same time, it is also a deeply personal film, using its "waste" elements to evoke both pain and affection. Nevertheless, the parallels between Edwards' personal life and episodes and characters within the film are far from clear, and they work at many different levels.

The anal-phallic and toilet connotations in Edwards' films have received attention. Andrew Sarris considers that, on a certain level, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) is one of the dirtiest films ever made and praises it for its anal-phallic imagery. [1] S.O.B. is particularly noted for its excremental attributes. Richard Combs notes that the final part of S.O.B. "plays on excremental jokes past the point of bad taste to a kind of mathematical or medical refinement." [2] Adrian Martin says that "S.O.B. reminds us that black comedy, in its truest Swiftian form, is a matter of seriously wallowing in the depths: feces, corpses, the works." [3]

The structure of the film pivots on the excremental. It is book-ended with death, and its three main segments have either coprophilia or necrophilia as their turning points. At the beginning of the film, an actor dies on the beach, while, at the same time, Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), a film producer, is found to be in a state of catalepsy. He is in a suicidal state over the financial flop of his film, Night Wind. This segment ends with Felix falling through a hole in the upstairs floor of his bedroom into a sexual orgy below: this passing through into below, into the sordid, is the turning point into the middle section, where Felix becomes "alive" and decides to reshoot his flopped film. The film becomes highly marketable, and the studios take control. Felix is shot in attempting to retrieve his negatives from the malicious Capitol studios. His death is the turning point into the final segment, throughout which he exists as a corpse. His corpse is stolen by his friends who decide to give him a "genuine" funeral, a burial at sea, as opposed to the lavish and hypocritical one attended by studio heads, press agents, and his wife. The film ends with not one, but with two simultaneous funerals.

S.O.B.'s central metaphor is the breaking of wind: something comparable to a pain inside, a passing through, and finally an act of expulsion. The film-within-the-film, Night Wind, exists as a cause of pain and transformation within S.O.B. In the opening sequence, the headlines in Variety announce that Night Wind has flopped, and the subheading reads: "New York Critics Break Wind." Not only is the film's title excremental in its connotations, but also the film's central subject matter concerns the remaking of Night Wind so that what was on the inside and implicit becomes something on the outside and explicit, as the film is changed from a family-friendly musical into a sexually explicit one.

A personal film that embodies the personal in many strange ways, S.O.B. is told in the style of a fairy-tale about Hollywood: it begins with "Once upon a time" and ends with "Until the next movie." Distanced from its author by its fiction, the film is obviously connected to its author in certain ways. Major writers on Edwards, such as Peter Lehman and William Luhr, discuss the contradictions in regard to Edwards' experience with the studios and the relationship it has with the film characters. They note that "one of the most striking features of the film is the distance between the character Felix Farmer and Blake Edwards." [4] Edwards is a part of Hollywood, and he has admitted to making films for money. [5] On the other hand, Edwards' films have severely suffered at the hands of studio heads by being cut to the point of non-recognition. For example, The Carey Treatment (1972) was being cut by the head of MGM before Edwards had finished shooting it. [6] One of the blackest characters in S.O.B. is David Blackman (Robert Vaughn): as head of Capitol Studios, he prides himself on being "a damn good cutter." As soon as he regains control of Night Wind he intends to cut it. Real-life parallels in S.O.B. are so complex that one cannot look upon it as a film of simple revenge against Hollywood greed. Amid its bitterness is tenderness and deeply felt pain, a pain that involves the loss of creative control.

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It seems as if Edwards is speaking from both inside and outside the film; his characters are not merely satirical devices, but they also seem "real" and share certain aspects with him. Felix, the major character, is a producer and not a director. And yet, he is the one who suffers at the hands of the studio heads. The actors seem to speak as much about their own careers as they do about Edwards'. Julie Andrews, who plays Felix's wife, Sally Miles, is Edwards' wife in real life. Moreover, through her changing role in Night Wind, she reflects a change that occurred in her career and one that was influenced by Edwards: one from playing in sweet musicals to more serious acting. The character played by William Holden is a film director and not an actor. Nevertheless, Holden seems to be speaking about his own life when he admits to having enjoyed life's excesses. The common thread Felix's three friends (Holden, Robert Webber, and Robert Preston) share with Edwards is their aging and their old-fashioned kind of "boyish" humor. They act in a sexist, joking manner and are conscious of their aging. Holden's relationship with two young female hitch-hikers played by Jennifer Edwards (Blake Edwards' daughter) and Rosanna Arquette, highlights his age; moreover, the relationship is more fatherly than sexual.

When the topic of satire is film itself, Edwards shows that the excremental can be a very potent ingredient. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, in which an Italian festival becomes a sort of film set by being photographically mistaken for a war battle, involves the swapping of a corpse and a manhole that leads to a labyrinth below. The strength in S.O.B. is this combination of filth and film. A rat motif combines filth, sexuality, and death to show that filmmaking is a dirty business: the gardener pulls a dead rat out of the garage where Felix is attempting to gas himself; Andrews begins her bare-breasted scene with the film cliche "O.K. you dirty rat — roll 'em"; Felix and his three friends behave like dirty rats by drugging her and coercing her to do the scene.

The cultural critique in S.O.B. is more than a matter of simple inversion, the surfacing of a repressed content: the excremental elements of the film work in a more complicated manner. S.O.B. shows us that a return of the repressed is a matter of what is wanted at a particular time in Hollywood history. Hollywood is shown not to simply act upon the masses; rather, it has a vested interest in producing what audiences want at a particular time in history. Felix screams with glee when Sally Miles says "shit"; it will mean another hundred million dollars at the box office. Felix challenges the very notion of civilization by revealing that civilization is a matter of changing tastes and timing: it is more a matter of what is in and what is out than what is pure or what is sordid. In a dark and cavernous studio Felix shouts his realization: "Home and civilization are out."

In S.O.B., it is not only hate and vitriol that are associated with waste, but also love and respect. There is no romance in S.O.B. There appears little love between Felix and his wife, actress and singer, Sally Miles. There is, however, love and respect for Andrews' singing, for the unacknowledged small-time actor who dies at the beginning of the film, and the male bonding between four rascal men. Andrews' singing crosses over from the hypocritical funeral to the genuine one and forms a backdrop. The small-time actor, without the congregation's knowledge, gets the big funeral he seems to deserve. Felix's friends bond through Ben's (Webber's) bodily functions. In this final segment, not only do the friends steal Felix's body out of respect and love for him, but also Ben uses many of his bodily functions in doing so, farting and wetting and messing himself. Ben's ultimate sacrifice is to assist in giving his friend a burial at sea even though he suffers sea sickness.

Tied in with this sense of love is an odd sense of grief. The penultimate scene, in which Felix suddenly dies in a pile of his own film negatives — his own product, his own excrement — would seem to end the film; however, the film lasts for another segment. As with the grieving process, where time is needed to accept a sudden death, Edwards gives more time. This final segment reads as an epilogue to the first two segments. Felix's friends continue to treat him as if he were still alive, and many of the jokes revolve around this premise. The highlight is that Felix is not physically present at his official funeral. The audience knows this, but the congregation does not know this: the sermon becomes a great farce. An Indian guru delivers a sermon made up of quotes from Variety and sums up his life's work: Love on a Pogo Stick, Chicken at the Wheel, The Invasion of the Pickle People, etc., are silly and vulgar films, all praised for making money at the box office.

Even though Edwards is not Felix, it is as if he were writing about his own life and of how people will react and mistakenly think of him when he is dead. Jonathan Swift's Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. enabled him to write his own obituary from the vantage point of being alive. In this way, Swift could expose those who were hypocritical toward him. Edwards seems to be doing a similar thing in S.O.B. He is laughing from the victorious position of his character's death bed: from both outside and inside the film. He is exposing those with a shallow and mistaken view. At the end of S.O.B., the dog that looks lovingly out to sea at what he thinks is his master's funeral, when it is really Felix's funeral, looks at a mistaken presence. Like the dog, we are also looking at someone who is not visually present, but also at someone who is definitely somewhere out there.

June Werrett
© FIPRESCI 2011

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issue #7 (1.2011)


Contents

bullet. Blake Edwards
bullet. Pierre Léon
bullet. Film School
bullet. Takamine Hideko
bullet. Serbis
bullet. The Time That Remains
bullet. Viennale 2010
bullet. Punk Slash! Musicals