Monday, October 16, 2006

134. Halloween Roundup (5):
Brain Dead


Those closest to me are sometimes fond of pointing out that I tend to be anal-retentive. This is something I must admit--at least privately (give no quarter in the family feud!); after all, why else do I find it difficult to relax and watch a movie until the room is picked up? As though a half-glass of juice and some socks on the floor are going to matter as I sit there in the dark watching Will Ferrell yell at Ben Stiller. In my cloudier moods I fear my old friend AR may actually be OCD--and then I really am in trouble: Imagine trying to pay attention to a film while chanting "bring in the milk, bring in the milk, bring in the milk." And as far as the cause of this thing goes, I continue to hope I can blame all my problems on my parents. Botched toilet-training has a dark and terrible poetry to it; the imagery alone is desperately intimate. But consider the biochemical explanation, one that fingers low levels of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine or serotonin as the culprit. Feh; where is the delirious, festering beauty in that? I will not expend all this energy being crazy simply to fill the coffers of Lilly and Pfizer; and while receiving a Positron Emission Tomography scan seems fraught with Asimovian frigidity, accompanied by the wire-sharp whiff of ozone and the impassive ratchet of spiking readouts, nothing beats the blind and lumbering approach of The Past, a neurotic puppeteer insisting that you better stack those dishes just so, or else.

Or else what? Freud tellingly defines the desire for "order" as a "compulsion to repeat," a deflection from the fundamental discomfort with facing life's messes, a basic sense of disgust. This feeling is of course universal: all peoples in all cultures at all times have their gross-out lists. On the home front, back in 1994 the researcher Jonathan Haidt developed a series of "disgust scales" to test the American gag reflex.

Here are a few of the statements the scale asks you to mark true/false (and by the way, I admit I may be nuts, but if none of the following "bothers" you at all, I'd suggest immediate attention):

It bothers me to see someone in a restaurant eating messy food with his fingers.
It bothers me to hear someone clear a throat full of mucus.
It would bother me to be in a science class, and to see a human hand preserved in a jar.
It would bother me to see a rat run across my path in a park.
If I see someone vomit, it makes me sick to my stomach.
It would not upset me at all to watch a person with a glass eye take the eye out of the socket.
It would bother me tremendously to touch a dead body.
I probably would not go to my favorite restaurant if I found out that the cook had a cold.
It would bother me to sleep in a nice hotel room if I knew that a man had died of a heart attack in that room the night before.

Others are statements you rate from "not disgusting at all" to "slightly disgusting" to "very disgusting":

You see someone put ketchup on vanilla ice cream, and eat it.
You see maggots on a piece of meat in an outdoor garbage pail.
You see someone accidentally stick a fishing hook through his finger.
Your friend's pet cat dies, and you have to pick up the dead body with your bare hands.
A friend offers you a piece of chocolate shaped like dog doo.
You are about to drink a glass of milk when you smell that it is spoiled.
You are walking barefoot on concrete, and you step on an earthworm.
You see a bowel movement left unflushed in a public toilet.
You see a man with his intestines exposed after an accident.
You accidentally touch the ashes of a person who has been cremated.

I left out some of the "morally disgusting" ones dealing with same-gender or varied-age/species sex; I'll leave those hangups to you and your dank little doubts and anxieties. I must admit, though, that the ones I have mentioned squat within a personal padded room of my own, daring me to keep looking and to quell the rising gorge as I deal with the untidy aspects of the body, especially the wetter, looser ones--in particular the idea of severed or damaged parts, or exposed innards. (I'll ignore the food and poop items for now.) Which brings me to The Brain (sometimes Head) That Wouldn't Die (1962), one I'm almost sure I saw sometime soon after its original release. And checking it out on the IMDb, I read a "user comment" from someone who saw it when he/she was five years old (a year younger than I would've been in 1962) and it was amusing to see all the capital letters and exclamation points used to indicate how CREEPY! and VERY SCARY! it was back then. Well, maybe not "amusing"; more like "revealing." I, too, remember being afraid--but more than that, disgusted. A woman is decapitated in a car accident, and her husband/researcher bundles it up in his jacket and puts it in a shallow pan filled with Some Liquid and sticks tubes into it. So there it/she sat, bandaged and bound, voice raspy, asking to be allowed to die more times than I wanted to hear. And the end of the movie also slopped over the rim of the disgust pan, as the mad doctor's previous experiment--a misshapen creature with the requisite googly eye--tears off the assistant's arm, with all kinds of attendant wetness and black smears. (And speaking of doubts and anxieties, I had forgotten that the doctor, in his search for a suitable replacement body, visits a burly-q joint and also cruises town, adding all kinds of discomfort to the already-troubling voyeurism at the heart of the nervous, the lonely, and the involuntarily disgusted. You know, watching horror films really isn't the best coping strategy for adolescence. But I digress--or do I? Hmm.)

This most recent viewing of The Brain That Wouldn't die, though, came, to my relief, as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 entry--I believe Mike Nelson's first appearance--and, bless him and the 'bots, they dis-disgusted the movie for me almost all the way. Except: Their own disgust, albeit less visceral, was more Freudian, and I was able to examine the wet end, so to speak, with some dispassion, while laughing at what is even more deeply unsettling about this movie, and that is one odd, repeated shot: closeups on the scientist--"from another dimension!" the 'bots scream every time--as he ogles the strippers or salivates over his wife's head (sorry). So one kind of body-disgust is replaced by puerile sniggering over another. This does not seem the most salutary turn; still, it's better than the last nauseous dregs of childhood, and the thought of severed limbs and all the gooey business of life literally cut off and turned inside-out. No wonder as an adult I found myself drawn to David Cronenberg. He understood that, while it may indeed all come down to The Body, it can still remain something that stirs in The Head, and, wisecracks aside, it dies hard.

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