Sean Ellis, 2004

Cashback is an Oscar-nominated short film (18 minutes long) about which I knew nothing when I watched it — I was just randomly surfing around and followed a "here, watch this" link to it on Google Video. It hooked me pretty quickly by drawing attention to the fundamental condition of modern life, so fundamental that people rarely question it: the fact that we have a limited number of hours to experience the universe, and yet we spend so many of them doing things we don't want to do, often quite inane things, in exchange for money. How do we cope? What should we be doing instead?

The movie centers on a British supermarket, Sainsbury's, and the people who work there. We meet Matt and Barry, two goons who deal with the situation by goofing off as much as possible, conducting scooter races through the aisles and suchlike. We meet Sharon, a cashier who goes to remarkable lengths to avoid seeing how slowly time is passing, putting tape over the face of her watch and shielding herself from the sight of the store clocks with cracker boxes. And then there's Ben, the narrator, whose coping mechanism is so unexpected that abruptly we are in a different movie altogether. (As I've mentioned in other articles, I love this sort of thing.) You see, it turns out that what Ben does to avoid being crushed by a life of shelving groceries is mentally freeze time and then walk around the store taking women's clothes off.

Holy crap, I thought. Someone made a movie version of The Fermata. And hey, I never actually did read that. I guess I'll do that now.

The Fermata
Nicholson Baker, 1994

Arno Strine, a 35-year-old temp, has the power to freeze time. Unlike the girl in Out of This World, he uses this power to take women's clothes off.

Evaluation and commentary
Around this time last year I praised Memoirs of an Invisible Man for thoroughly exploring every aspect of how a securities analyst in New York City circa 1987 would live from moment to moment were he to turn invisible. The Fermata takes almost the opposite approach. Here is what Strine does with his powers:

  • Take women's clothes off
  • Grope women
  • Take his own clothes off
  • Masturbate
  • Write obscene messages in books women are reading at a bookstore, and then if they don't buy the book, place the purchase price in a cash register with a note attached explaining what it's for
  • Write incredibly unappealing erotica and place it where women will find it

That's basically it. Strine lauds himself for his moral superiority to the common man, since he doesn't do violence to anyone and doesn't steal anything. Sure, he'll walk into a woman's apartment and come on her face, but then he wipes off and dries her face and leaves before starting time back up so she never knows anything happened. No suffering, so no problem, right?

Maybe so. Nevertheless, Arno Strine is one of the most contemptible characters I've ever encountered. It's interesting — for the second time in as many months I found myself thinking about Lolita in a new light. Here in The Fermata, I thought, we have a sex offender whose victims are basically unharmed by his deeds. In Lolita, by contrast, Humbert Humbert turns a pubescent girl into a sex slave and destroys her life. And yet I found Humbert less distasteful because at least he isn't a damn perv. Lolita's narrator wants to have sex with the human being he loves. The Fermata's narrator would rather go to the mall and dance around with his pants off, or spend eighteen hours writing a story in which the people are ciphers but the vibrators are described in exhaustive detail, or masturbate with a handful of orange marmalade while staring at a zebra's anus. He uses words like "peckerpaste" and "dildismic." I know that no rational system of ethics can say that this is worse than making a concubine out of your stepdaughter, but brrr, he's just so skeevy.

So is Ben in Cashback more of the same? Yes and no. Ben works nights at the supermarket, but in the daytime he's an art student. When he freezes time and undresses the women around him, he gets out his sketchbook, draws them, and dresses them again. You can say that this isn't much different from what Arno Strine does, and I'd agree, but I think there's a key distinction — one that doesn't ethically rescue Ben, but which I nevertheless find interesting.

In grad school I took a class that touched upon Mikhail Bakhtin's distinction between the "classical body" and the "carnivalesque body." The Fermata is a novel of the carnivalesque body. Strine isn't interested in beauty. "The average woman, the unexceptional woman, the interesting ugly woman" are the ones that attract his attention, the chubby, hairy ones that he can more easily think of as collections of orifices. Because Strine is all about the orifices. He has pet names for all of them. Out of the "ane" comes shit (and I assume it comes as no surprise that Strine is a coprophile) and in goes okra for some reason; out of the "richard" comes semen and in goes parsley (don't ask) — plus c'est dégueulasse, plus il aime, as Céline might say. Possibly the most emblematic part of The Fermata isn't even sexual at all. It's one of the many passages in which he goes into minute detail about one of the bullshit contraptions that allow him to stop time. In this case it involves climbing a rope until he has calluses on his hands, then running a needle and thread through them. Think about that. First of all, it's another example of Baker's trademark attention to minutiae — yes, people do poke at their calluses, just as they worry their scabs, pick their noses and so forth, but we rarely encounter this sort of thing in literature, because who wants to read about it? But to Arno Strine, sex belongs to this class of activity. And look at what's happened here: The Fermata has taken the hand, widely considered one of the noblest parts of the body and one which in vanishingly few cultures need be clothed, and filled it with orifices. In this book, even the hand is carnivalesque.

By contrast, Cashback is about the classical body. The classical body is smooth and sculpted, with perfect curves and exquisite lines, and is not vulnerable even when it is naked, for it is clothed in dignity and beauty. Strine is disappointed when he breaks into a woman's bathroom only to find her about to bathe rather than, say, on the toilet, for "before a woman takes a bath, as the water is running, her nudity suddenly releases all of its charged ions of lewdness and becomes wholly artistique," which Strine, being Strine, doesn't like. Ben does. He is fascinated not by lewdness but by beauty.

A few months back in one of my minutiae posts I mentioned that I'd been wondering why it would come about that we (or at least I) should find achingly beautiful things that there was no evolutionary reason to find beautiful. In that case I believe it was pictures of the planet Saturn. What advantage is there in being dazzled by the majesty of a ring system? It's not like being dazzled by a lovely young lass, which is completely explicable: obviously the laws of math will select for the tendency to find other humans beautiful, because those who are repulsed by the human body tend not to mate and pass on the genes that cause that repulsion. But upon further reflection I realized that this is nonsense! There's no necessary link between aesthetic appreciation and sexual reproduction; sex could be merely a drive, an imperative like the need to scratch itches or evacuate wastes. That's how it is for Arno Strine, after all. Now, yes, I suppose you have to take into account the advantage of selecting a healthy mate and that therefore things like youth and symmetry and robustness will inevitably evoke positive responses in most organisms. But still, there's some cross-wiring going on. I know that nature likes to reuse existing architecture whenever possible, but it is still fascinating to me that, for instance, in the flashback scene in Cashback in which Ben, at age seven, sees the 19-year-old exchange student walking naked from the downstairs bathroom to her upstairs bedroom, his response — much like mine — is the same type of aesthetic awe produced by gorgeous sunsets and magnificent nebulae, one quite divorced from any notions of fuckability.

For they are divorced. Experiment: first, get sexually involved with someone beautiful. (I'll wait here.) Prior to a sexual encounter with your paramour, you may find that aesthetic appreciation and lust are all tangled together. But afterwards — at least if you're male, thirty-three years old, and have developed an actual refractory period — you will find that although your sexual desire has dropped to zero, you still find her (or him, if you swing that way) exactly as beautiful as before. Therefore, I am willing to accept that unlike Strine's, Ben's undressing of women is about beauty and not about sex. And that fits with the general theme of the film. We only have a limited number of hours to experience the universe; what is the best way to fill them, since stocking shelves and ringing up groceries are obviously not it? Cashback argues that the answer is the apprehension of beauty. Which, in a sense, is what all art is. Beauty can be a chord sequence, an elegant plot, a delicious meal. And in the realm of the visual, nothing can surpass the exquisite feminine geometry in which some of us have been incarnated. Galatea is hardly the only creature who can say, "I'm art."

And upon reading that, the proper reaction should probably be something along these lines: "Excuse me, but I don't want to be art. Being an artistic object as in Cashback is not actually any better than being a sex object as in The Fermata." Ultimately, Cashback was too creepy for me to accept. It's trying for the classical body, with extremely beautiful young women artfully posed, but the classical body doesn't have pants around its knees and tanktops around its shoulders. The classical body is unclothed because its owner is unashamed — it hasn't been deprived of the clothing its owner put on and never willingly chose to take off. I would even go so far as to say that to the extent that Cashback is an argument in favor of the pursuit of beauty, it is counterproductive — the cinematic equivalent of the guy who takes your side in an argument and is such a buffoon about it that you end up snapping, "Shut up! You're not helping!"

See, if you take any film class ever you will have to read Laura Mulvey's mid-70s article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." It is founded on psychoanalytic criticism, which automatically means that it is worthless, for psychoanalytic criticism is a branch of literary theory in which people sit in armchairs and make shit up. For instance, psychoanalytic critics are fond of declaring, as Mulvey does, that to men the female form "speaks castration and nothing else," that they can only comprehend women as "bearers of the bleeding wound." Proof? None. Oh, some practitioners may offer the occasional anecdote, as if someone's hour-long therapy session in 1907 is sufficient to ground a sweeping generalization about three and a half billion people a century later. Mulvey doesn't even offer this much; usually she just argues by assertion, but occasionally she cites Freud and Lacan, as if a medieval recitation of the names of previous generations of bullshit artists constituted proof. Anyway, Mulvey argues that narrative cinema is all about men looking at women. Men are so consumed by castration anxiety, she contends, that when they look at women, their gaze is either a sadistic power trip — watching over them, investigating them, judging them — or else objectifying, "turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous." Meanwhile, strategies of camera placement and film editing techniques encourage the viewer to identify with the men and share in the pleasure of rendering women as powerless objects to be surveilled and ogled. What men call beauty, according to Mulvey, is actually misogyny, and therefore destroying it "is the intention of this article."

Since psychoanalytic criticism proceeds from anecdote, I feel compelled to note that when I was five I announced that I wanted to be a girl, since having seen both boys and girls on the playground it was obvious that the latter were a superior order of creature. I'm sure Mulvey would have some explanation of how this represented my deep-seated terror of castration. But putting the castration idiocy aside, I've found it a fairly widespread idea that appreciating a woman's beauty automatically means disrespecting her. This, and not the patriarch's compulsion to hide his goods, is frequently trotted out as the reason behind the advent of uglifying devices such as headscarves. In a culture without female beauty, the argument goes, men will treat women more equally. Sorry, but that's preposterous. Find me a man who says, "Yes, I consider plain women to be equal to men in every respect — but if yer hawt, then get me some coffee, baby!" On the flip side, yes, there are men who only treat women nicely if they're pretty. But these men don't respect pretty women and disrespect plain ones; manifestly, they disrespect all women. Either you respect women, regardless of their appearance, or you don't. Beauty exists on an orthogonal axis, and eradicating it as Mulvey and the burqa brigade would like to do is like trying to get people to eat healthier food by eliminating everything that tastes good. It wouldn't work and it'd make the world a much crappier place.

I would further argue that the gaze is not inherently objectifying. I'm involved in a movie project right now. If it comes to fruition, you're going to look at some girls — you're going to spend a lot of time looking at these girls — and you're going to wonder to yourself how they see the world, what drives them, what their hopes and fears are, what tragedies they've suffered, what triumphs they've experienced.

And then along comes a film like Cashback with its all-powerful male literally turning women into objects to which he can do whatever he likes, completely validating all of Mulvey's histrionics. Bah!

Incidentally, given that Mulvey is on record saying that she wants to destroy narrative film and its evocation of beauty, you might well ask what she'd like to see in its place. She calls for a completely different form of cinema — what value would her replacement offer? "The alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind [...] or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations." So apparently for Mulvey art is all about how kewl it is to be a rebel. You would be forgiven for guessing that she wrote this when she was fourteen, but no.

I later found out that Cashback was expanded in 2006 into a feature film. I watched it. It is terrible! Ellis basically took the short and added fart jokes, one of those awful trying-on-hats montages, an interminable soccer game, and floating digital pubic hair. Arno Strine would probably still complain that he left out the okra.

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