If a titty is pretty, it’s dirty, but not if it’s bloody and maimed. — Lenny Bruce
Bob Fosse’s “Lenny” starring Dustin Hoffman was controversial on its release, and morally reprehensible to the two Christian women — my mother and my grandmother — who were responsible for my well being. Though never having seen it, they heard of it, and, like Jane Fonda and marijuana, it was part of litany of threatening, intolerable social ills.
When I asked my mother, “Can I see that movie, ‘Lenny,'” no doubt because of the controversy, the forbidden fruit being irresistible, I was strictly told not to mention it again. “You will never see that piece of filth. You are too young and there is no way that you will ever see it as long as you are living in my house.”
Funny, I thought. How did she know it was “filth,” if she had never seen it, and what exactly was “filth,” anyway.
Filth. It sounded exciting. Much better than National Geographic photos, because usually the guys were covered up — I assumed filth meant I would be able to see naked men as well as women. National Geographic offerings were limited: only on the rare occasion did some remote tribe of men not cover their genitals with a piece of fabric. (Which, by the way, I find the near ubiquitous appearance of phallic insecurity fascinating, but that’s another entry.)
Yes, filth sounded better than National Geographic. I was certain “Lenny” was going to have lots of sex and filth. Filth sounded good.
Eventually, one Saturday afternoon, I managed to sneak in and catch a viewing at the local mall cinema. Well, local is a bit inaccurate. I had to take the bus near an hour long to get to the mall. It was a filth adventure, after all
I’ve since decided, that Lenny would have been proud of me. An eleven (or twelve) year old girl sneaking in to see a biographical movie about the great comic genius who changed the landscape of American social satire, eons ahead of his time, just biding her time, waiting for the security guard to turn his back, so I could slip in and steal a Saturday afternoon matinee movie.
The things I have done for love. Or God. Or knowledge. Or filth.
The movie was beyond my comprehension. I couldn’t grasp the humor. Really didn’t understand most of what was going on, the subtle emotional layers, the social ramifications, or any of the mature, well developed subtexts. Valerie Perrine showed her breasts. Big deal. National Geographic showed lots of breasts. Still not filth.
Watching the movie, though, I understood viscerally that what happened to Lenny was very, very wrong.
I saw the expense his genius exacted. I also got that freedom and choice were important, and that the system was grossly flawed. Fosse romantically portrays the quintessential anti-hero, and I felt it deeply, the artistic black and white cinematography captivating my imagination, even if I was pretty clueless about why it was captivating and important — nominated, by the way, for an Oscar for cinematography.
Finally, at the movie’s end, I saw filth.
Hounded by the police and law enforcement for years, and banned from performing, Bruce’s addiction issues escalated, and he was found dead of a heroin overdose, August 3, 1966. The police, as a final farewell “fuck you,” took official pictures of Lenny, his naked body sprawled out in his bathroom, his arm tied for shooting up, bottles and syringes around him. The photos were released, a deliberate exercise in post-mortem humiliation. Rock and roll bad boy and friend Phil Spector eventually bought all the negatives and photos, in order to prevent the photos from being reproduced ad infinitum. Today, a google search shows up only one or two, at most. Thank you, Mr. Spector.
The filth of “Lenny” has nothing to do with nudity or language: the real filth is the image of Hoffman as Bruce sprawled out, naked and bloated, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, with a police officer smugly looking on Bruce’s dead body, as if to say, “hey, you son of a bitch, we finally got you, and got you good.” We see a filthy system, and a filthy hypocritical way of being whose perversity lies in its superficially constructed values of right and wrong, which have nothing to do with any higher moral ground, but a bully system with a billy club for anyone questioning its arbitrary authority.
Filth is the death of an innocent man hounded by the system until that system broke him.
Now, what exactly is filthy about sex work? The system. Not the women, not the men, not the product. It’s the system that stinks to high heaven.
Filth is women earning less than minimum wage, in a system that stigmatizes them, usually though not exclusively on so-called Christian values, at least here in the U.S. Filth is not banal advertising stating, “let me be your dirty little cum slut.” Filth is earning less than minimum wage with absolutely no social or economic standing in order to protect one’s self, and being completely demoralized in the process because the work breeches an arbitrary divide of what is moral and good.
Filth is a group of stigmatized women, serving the most intimate and sometimes reprehensible needs of men, still believing in a good girl myth, and believing in that good girl myth for themselves, while happily referring to themselves, in emails, as “sluts” — while getting dewey eyed over female sacrifice, as if their lives weren’t already writ in hardship’s extremes.
In other words, filth is the systemic social and economic socialization and its correlative mythologies that keep women stigmatized and dependent on male bad behavior to support themselves, and usually their children: it’s a system rigged to serve male economic and social needs, and too many of the women benefitting from this structure simply don’t care enough to help other women, so long as their own homes remain unsullied from bad behavior. In popular jargon, “De nile isn’t just a river in Egypt, baby.” But let’s be clear, not all men who procure sex are married, and in many marriages, there is intimacy, and the guy simply wants more than he’s getting, or wants it dirtier or nastier, or whatever the backstory. Rather, the filth that I speaking about is an economic social structure in which class insulates and precludes privileged women from caring about other women, because, hard core sex is messy, complicated, and Real Housewives offers some of the best available porn for women, second only to Martha Stewart.
That’s the kind of filth that no laundry machine can take of.
The smell is putrid and would be unforgivable, if change were not possible and necessary.
2 Replies to “Reality Bites, Part IV”
Beautifully written, poignant, brilliant social commentary. I concur that the metaphor of filth regarding our behavior is the way we treat our brothers and sisters, and I further agree that our social structure is completely lacking in its ability to cleanse the system it serves.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Guy. We don’t lack the ability, we just need powerful voices to exert social pressures. Today, the words Lenny used that were considered “obscene” are part and parcel of entertainment. As I’ve written in other venues, “Jesus may have died for your sins, but Lenny Bruce died for your right to say ‘fuck’ on social networks.” Or, as Lenny said, “Take away the right to say fuck, and you take away the right to say, ‘fuck the government.'” Thanks for your thoughtful response.