Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Leader of the Plaque (Little Shop of Horrors)


So, I’m a masochist. I’ve always liked pain to some degree. The surrounding culture says that pain is always a bad thing, though, and I found my own experiences to be detached from what is common knowledge, which has led me to at certain times in my life disregard my personal perception of pain. The first time I ever heard of masochism was from watching the 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors, which features a sadistic dentist and his masochistic patient. I initially thought the idea was weird and it took quite a while before I began to associate it with myself, but this was a significant moment as it was my first introduction to the idea that there were other people out there who felt the way I did. At this point in my life I’m more knowledgeable, I’ve seen Secretary, and I can look at Little Shop of Horrors’ depiction of the sadomasochism from an analytical perspective. I have to say that Little Shop of Horrors’ portrayal of sexual sadism is negative and is associated it with psychopathy, but that the portrayal of masochism isn’t that bad considering the masochist is Bill Murray being silly.
The original 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors was far more farcical than its 1986 remake. While the remake generally uses dark humor in odd places for there to be humor, the original featured several characters whose purpose was simply to act silly, such as the man who eats flowers, Seymour’s hypochondriac mother, and then there’s the sadist and the masochist. The sadistic dentist is really just a parody of people not wanting to go to the dentist because it’s painful, and there isn’t all that much to him. The masochist (played by Jack Nicholson) is just a guy who likes pain – Hey, isn’t that weird? Haha! – and he gets excited from reading about a guy dying from several horrible illnesses. When Seymour, pretending to be the dentist after accidentally killing him, starts drilling the guy squeals with joy and then convinces Seymour to remove some of his teeth. Given that movies were heavily censored back then, I can understand them not having the best portrayal of a quote unquote deviant sexuality. It’s useful to have the background information, though.
The 1986 remake cuts the cast down to a few main characters, including the sadistic dentist, who is now Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, named Orin Scrivello. Here Orin is given much more of a character than the dentist of the original film, and that character is a sexually sadistic psychopath. In his song “Dentist!” he relays how his mother caught him killing animals and recommended that he become a dentist because people would “pay [him] to be inhumane”, still humorously playing off of the fear of dentists and also tying it to a somewhat realistic character background based off of psychopathy. His sadism is explicitly described as sexual with a line stating he gets off on the pain he inflicts. Besides his over the top sadism, he is also shown keeping a shrine to his mother in the closet. In the Broadway play on which the 1986 film is based, Orin’s “Dentist!” song is blatantly sexual from the tone of voice in which parts of it are sung. His relationship with Audrey is abusive in a traditional misogynist manner, and his abusiveness is linked with his sexual sadism. He insists that she call him Doctor the way other dominants would insist on Sir or whatnot, and there are repeated references to Audrey being put in handcuffs.
“I think I need a root canal. I’m sure I need a long, slow root canal…”
–Arthur Denton
Arthur Denton, the masochist (played by Bill Murray), is this excited gay man who actually gets the sadistic dentist he came to see. His masochism is more realistic than Jack Nicholson’s character, though of course over the top given that it’s really an excuse for Bill Murray to goof around. Arthur clearly gets off from obeying Orin’s orders, and he sighs a “Yes, Doctor” to drive home the significance of that title to any who might have missed it. When Orin starts working on his mouth in an unnecessarily painful manner, Arthur loves it and starts screaming “Thank you!” and other vocalizations as he seems to orgasm from the attention. Orin, whose goal was to make people intensely uncomfortable, is outraged by the masochist and he chases him out, but not before Orin catches him trying to smuggle out one of his torture instruments. Orin slams the door in his face, muttering “Goddamned sicko…”
So, I don’t find the masochist really offensive at all. It’s over the top and unrealistic, but it is a comedy and Bill Murray is really funny. The character’s masochism ends up working for him, and he manages to severely annoy one of the antagonists because of it. Like with Gonzo in Muppet Treasure Island, his ability to enjoy pain subverts what is otherwise an act of evil. While his masochism is portrayed as weird, Orin’s “Goddamned sicko” comment is ironic considering he’s one to talk. In contrast, Arthur seems like basically an okay guy, if naïve and a little strange, masochism notwithstanding.
The sadist on the other hand is just a wicked antagonist that sure looks like plant food to me. That is, he exists as an obstacle between Seymour and Audrey, and his death at the hands of Seymour doesn’t seem that immoral because Orin is a sadistic creep, which opens the door for escalating sacrifices to feed Audrey II. In order to cement the image of Orin as a sadist they associate him with various aspects of BDSM, even though the sadist is a psychopath unconcerned with the wellbeing of his girlfriend (or his patients). BDSM isn’t well understood, and audiences may be quick to associate it with abuse.
In conclusion, the portrayal of sadomasochism in Little Shop of Horrors could be better. I have to give the film some slack because it is a comedy, but even then their portrayal of sadism in relation to a BDSM-ish atmosphere is unduly associated with abuse and misogyny. Arthur, on the other hand, is a fairly decent portrayal of masochism even as he is humorously over the top. Little Shop of Horrors isn’t the best, but I do give it some credit in that it managed a basically decent portrayal of a masochist, which helped me come to accept myself and my quirks.

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