Return of the Thing

Return of the Thing

There''s nothing wrong with U-turning when hurtling towards a brick wall - even if the driver did deny the wall was there until the last tire-screeching moment. The question now is: which side of the r Judging by the already infamous opening scene of last week''s US box-office champ Forgetting Sarah Marshall - chump gets dumped while stark naked - and a couple of trouserless moments in next week''s likely chart-topper Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the American penis is finally making its big movie comeback.

It''s been away a long time, loathed and feared by otherwise sensible people, and kept hidden behind the zip-like cordon sanitaire of the NC-17 rating. For too long it has been like some ferociously malevolent and powerful totem, not fit to be gazed upon, like the face of a god-emperor or the Wizard of Oz. And when the curtain is finally ripped back and the long-feared horror behind it is revealed ... well, turns out it''s really not as bad as all that. A cowering little man behind the Wizard''s green curtain, or a shriveled little willy on a rather doughy, overweight 30-year-old. Really, what''s all the fuss about? We have for far too long been conceding far too much power to the mere, laughable phallus.

Sarah Marshall producer Judd Apatow has spoken of his keenness to see the taboos against penile visibility overthrown, and as a comic artist, who can really blame him? Penises are funny - ask any woman - and Apatow''s brand-name comedies have not been backwards in getting clockwise. Superbad concluded with a montage of cartoon penises - Statue of Liberty penis, Slim-Pickens-astride-the-Strange love-bomb penis, etc - and (note title) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story featured a mid-orgy faux-interview chocka with wizened penises strategically framed for maximum comic impact.

This suggests we may be on the cusp of throwing off the tyranny of the bluenoses of right and left. The sorry little object on display in Sarah Marshall is neither some figurative, uh, tent pole of the phallocratic conspiracy nor some irreligious incitement to mass licentiousness and unending sexual bacchanals. It''s just an absurd, shrimp-like appendage, perhaps inscribed with all its owner''s insecurities, and looking winded and powerless in the larger context of the ill-kept body it''s attached to.

This is in marked contrast to porn (a genre of movie that I suspect has never been viewed by the suburban-minded conferrers of the NC-17 rating), in which the penis is foregrounded and privileged to the exclusion of all other parts of its faceless owner, who is reduced to the status of invisible life-support system for a hard-on. Talk about the objectification of the male body!

A lot of this anxiety has its roots in America''s puritan heritage, that censorious and pleasure-hating thread that runs gleaming through the tapestry of its history, and which long ago granted America the gift of shame and of complicated, chastity-promoting religious undergarments. Another tributary is the decision of the uncomfortably assimilated Jewish founders of the movie studios to hand over the task of moral invigilation of its products to the most reactionary and censorious kind of mid-century Irish-American Catholics - giving us the Breen Office, which infantilised American cinema for decades after the other arts had grown up.

As a result, the penis became an outlaw presence in US cinema, more often glimpsed in radical and groundbreaking work - such as Medium Cool, which gave us all we ever needed to see of Robert Forster''s johnson - than in those that get nominated for best picture. Serious actors doffed their shreddies in search of kudos or notoriety, like Richard Gere in American Gigolo and Breathless, Harvey Keitel in The Piano, Kevin Bacon in Wild Things, Leonardo DiCaprio in Total Eclipse, or Michael Pitt in The Dreamers. It all comes with an atmosphere of worthy, aren''t-I-brave seriousness that completely misses the comic possibilities of the cock.

Which makes me glad that Apatow and his minions are hard at the work of restoring the penis to its rightful place in the repertoire of American bawdiness, another deep, ancient and honorable artistic tradition that deserves to be kept up.
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