Lynn Shelton, 2009
#17, 2009 Skandies

So I watched this one four months ago — let's see whether I remember it. It's basically a dramedic take on Old Joy, with Andrew, an aging bohemian guy, coming back into the life of Ben, an old friend who got a 9-to-5 and settled down. Dragged by Andrew to a party full of "all these very open-minded people," Ben finds himself compelled to prove he's not a square by suggesting that the two of them make a gay porn film together. Andrew, equally determined to prove his counterculture credentials — to himself as much as anyone else — says he's all in. What ensues, says Mike D'Angelo, "perfectly captures a very particular, uniquely male brand of well-intentioned idiocy," adding that it is "also funny as hell." I have to disagree with the "funny" part, but the other half is worth a look.

If you take Humpday's subject matter at face value, there doesn't seem to be anything especially gender-specific about the phenomenon it dissects, i.e., passing yourself off as, or simply yearning to be, less conventional than you actually are. Specifically where sexuality is concerned, there are circles in which vanilla tastes are considered a character defect and heterosexuals feel compelled to specify that they're "straight but not narrow," whatever that means. But I don't think that this is what D'Angelo is talking about. I assume he's referring to when Ben and Andrew are coming down with serious cases of cold feet and try to psych themselves up into going ahead with it:

We're pussing out. Are we pussing out?

We're doing this because... it scares us more than anything else. [...]

That is a really good point. There is nothing in this world that I want to do less than what we're talking about doing. I mean, that's something. That's something.

And this — the notion that you can't be scared of anything, can't have an aversion to anything, have to be able to withstand anything, have to be "hard" — does seem like the sort of thing that skews male. Matthew Amster-Burton once told me about this guy, Jeffrey Steingarten, who decided that his food preferences amounted to "the most serious of personal limitations" and forced himself to eat copious quantities of everything he hated. It's the same logic that leads Ben to freak out his wife by announcing his intention to overcome his personal limitations by fucking his heavily bearded buddy in the ass — except the guys in Humpday eventually tumble to the realization that "this whole fucking idea is built from the planet Moron," while Steingarten was sufficiently proud of himself to write a book about his exploits. So what exactly are the intentions behind this brand of idiocy?

Steingarten tries to justify his stunt as a quest to become a "perfect omnivore," for "by design and by destiny, humans are omnivores." This is bullshit; humans were not "designed" by anyone but are the products of atelic processes playing themselves out. He declaims about the "purpose" of our teeth and digestive systems, but that's the wrong word, for it too suggests a designer with an intention in mind for these parts. Steingarten's rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of those who argue that the penis and vagina were clearly "designed" to fit together for the "purpose" of procreation and that therefore homosexuality is "unnatural." But let's put that aside for now. It quickly becomes clear that when Steingarten speaks of becoming a "perfect omnivore," what he really means is a "perfect hedonist": his contempt is palpable for those, including his past self, who deprive themselves of pleasure by disliking something. This is an interesting issue for someone like me who doesn't really like a lot of stuff (and in fact one of my earliest Calendar articles was about this very issue). It also dovetails with a story I read a couple of days ago, "Reasons to Be Cheerful" by Greg Egan, which Elizabeth brought me four months ago but which I didn't get a chance to look at until just this week for reasons I've discussed. It deals with a guy who has the pleasure receptors in his brain burnt out by a virus and then receives an experimental treatment that amounts to receiving grafts of pleasure pathways from four thousand people. The problem is that initially they're all operating at once and so if even one person in four thousand liked something then he likes it too. In short, he now has "the widest possible taste," exactly the condition to which Steingarten aspires — but he's not happy about it. "Should I still be like this?" he asks his doctors in a panic. "Omnivorous?"

Before long he decides that if he's ever going to develop a sense of identity he somehow needs "to break the symmetry, to make some things a greater source of pleasure than others." Now, I can certainly see a case against this view: developing an even more refined sense of identity might be counterproductive if the self is mostly illusory, and developing a list of likes and dislikes might be counterproductive if true happiness comes from escaping craving and aversion. But this isn't the reasoning offered by the Humpday guys or Steingarten. Why is Ben so fixated on making his gay porn flick? Because he feels he's "all fucking locked up ball-and-chain domestic style," and complains that "I don't want to be a pussy." And Steingarten clearly fancies himself quite the badass motherfucker, hectoring the "debilitated neurotics" who actually dislike certain foods and then patting himself on the back for his effort because "it is the height of compassion and generosity to practice this brand of tough love." I'm all for self-improvement, but being an obnoxious asshole is actually not an improvement over being a debilitated neurotic pussy. And the need to be all "alpha" is far more of a "personal limitation" than lacking a taste for cucumber or sodomy.