Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Heading off Satisfaction in Tough Guys Don't Dance

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Heading off Satisfaction in Tough Guys Don't Dance

Article excerpt

L'ennui n'est pas loin de la jouissance: il est la jouissance vue des rives du plaisir.

Boredom is not far from bliss; it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.--Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

In a mainstream hollywood film, much of the appeal is based upon the prohibition of excessive enjoyment--a condition of too much attainment--so that the audience is delivered its pleasure piecemeal, in fits and starts. Within individual scenes and sequences, as well as over the course of whole films, various goals are established and their arrival is carefully managed so that the best is saved for last and we never get too much of what we think we want. As film theorist Todd McGowan explains, in cinema as in everyday life, the object of desire "remains pleasurable only insofar as it remains absent and impossible":

Films provide a hint of enjoyment through the fantasy scenarios they deploy, but not too much. They remain pleasurable rather than becoming authentically enjoyable and thus threatening. The pleasure depends on an abbreviated deployment of fantasy, one that ends before it reaches its traumatic point. (Lynch '05)

By meting out pleasure in this way, mainstream cinema guarantees the audience's engagement, but at the cost of enforcing a certain regularity and normalization. Other options do exist, of course--a traumatic excess of on-screen pleasure can be approached and even sustained--but profit-driven Hollywood does not usually consider such tactics viable. Imagine, for instance, a Die Hard-style action adventure film that delivers all the spectacular car chases and explosions we expect, but then at some point in the narrative fails to cease to deliver them, so that we get a twenty-minute sequence of pyrotechnic mayhem, with orange balls of fire repeatedly filling the screen, rocking the theater's sound system. We got what we wanted, didn't we? Of course not, because, as McGowan suggests, the object of desire in cinema must always remain fantasmatic--partly denied, temporarily suspended, or veiled halfway out-of-fram--in order to continually fuel our attraction. In other words, our (partial) enjoy-ment cannot be permitted to lapse into (permanent) enjoy-ance. Directed by Norman Mailer in 1987, with a screenplay adapted by the author from his 1984 novel, Tough Guys Don't Dance flaunts the rules of attraction I have just outlined, and thus constitutes an impossible production, (1) a mainstream Hollywood film that refuses to prohibit enjoyment or modulate satisfaction, and instead delivers a full-on excess of attainment, resulting in a kind of sublime pleasure-in-pain.

From the time of its theatrical release, and in numerous DVD reviews since, the relative merits of Tough Guys Don't Dance (hereafter TGDD) have been playfully adjudicated in the popular press and on the web, with many critics deriding the film as a pointless vanity project, a self-satisfied exercise in overindulgence. To such critiques, fans of the film respond: yes, exactly, don't you just love it?! In an effort to challenge this binarism, and as a means of theorizing a particular mode of cinematic enjoyment, I want to argue that Mailer's predominant tactic in the film, more achievable in temporally-regulated cinema than in literary fiction, is suffusion--a rejection of cinema's conventional gaps and deferrals in favor of a relentless delivery of the object of desire. Such excessive, suffocating fulfillment, I argue, transports viewers to the forbidden zone beyond pleasure that Jacques Lacan designates "jouissance." Lacanian theorist Bruce Fink glosses this crucial term as follows:

   The subject comes into being as a form of attraction toward and
   defense against a primordial, overwhelming experience of what the
   French call jouissance: a pleasure that is excessive, leading to a
   sense of being overwhelmed or disgusted, yet simultaneously
   providing a sense of fascination. (xii)

Here, jouissance figures as a third term in which pleasure and pain coincide; it is simultaneously a transgression of homeostasis and a prolonged orgasmic bliss that cannot be tolerated. …

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