Tuesday, February 12th, 2013
19

Three Handjobs Is A Trend

We are now deep into the season in which our cultural critics, like a gaggle of drunk uncles, kick off their shoes, retire to the den, and proceed to discuss, long past the point at which the rest of us would like to go to sleep, what it's all about.

You see, these shows we've been DVR-ing, these Oscar contenders we've been risking bedbugs for: they don't all just happen to have been released recently. No, they, like the birthmarks in Cloud Atlas, have messages for us; they link up. We're obsessed with the Civil War. We long for superheroes. We are, as ever, deeply confused about race.

To these grand and worthy reflections, I hereby nervously contribute one of my own: We're preoccupied with awkward handjobs. These manual acts, by turns aggressive, incestuous, and unsolicited, have lately been crowding our screens like pop-up ads. (Very much, in fact, like the pop-up ads that appear on a guy's computer when all he's trying to do is research an essay on handjobs.) If our writers and directors don't get ahold of themselves soon, not even ABC Family will be safe.

With no further ado, a guided tour through our recent epidemic of heavy petting.


THE MASTER

Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) approaches her husband, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while he washes up in the bathroom. She's fed up with his womanizing and paint-thinner drinking, and she knows just what to do about it. In the course of masturbating him into the sink, she forcefully explains to him what is and isn't allowed, behavior-wise, while he grunts and miserably assents.

Notable Characteristics: Punitive, tense, fluorescent-lit

Sample dialog: "Put it back in its pants."- Amy Adams


HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

FDR (Bill Murray) drives his cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) out into the middle of a field. He places her hand on his leg, and she, after giving him a questioning look, takes the hint. The camera cuts to a shot of his burning cigarette, and then pulls back to show his inexplicably bobbing head.

Notable Characteristics: Incestuous, bouncy, outdoors

Sample dialog: "We've never been here before." – Laura Linney
"No. I have been saving this." – Bill Murray


"HOUSE OF CARDS"

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), wife of venal congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), goes to visit her former bodyguard, Steve (Chance Kelly), now dying of prostate cancer. Steve, on his literal deathbed, confesses that he always hated Frank, and secretly loved Claire. This, naturally, inspires Claire to reach under Steve's sheets, wearing an expression of Terminator-like iciness, while he uses the last of his strength to beg her to stop.

Notable Characteristics: Cruel, unwelcome, medically inadvisable

Sample dialog: "Is this what you wanted? Is that the way you wanted it?" – Robin Wright

There's more—the pilots of both "Homeland" and "Breaking Bad" involve scenes of sad manual sex—but I figure I've made my point: there's something about an awkward hand-job that's as distinctly of-this-moment as bands that dress up like carnies. But what is it?

There are, I think, two explanations for the handjobs' present vogue: there's the zeitgeist explanation, that it simply matches the current fashions, and there's the artistic explanation, that it actually represents something of a technical breakthrough, like Renaissance painters figuring out perspective.

First, the zeitgeist. The awkward handjob is a mumblecore sex act, the erotic corollary of a restaurant with mismatched tableware. It's like the pop and hiss on a vinyl record—a bit of actual grass under feet that have spent too much time on AstroTurf. Nature has provided no lubricant. The recipient's sensation is, at best, ashamed relief. These are sex scenes that have spent some time alone in the woods, reflecting.

But the awkward handjob is not merely fashionable—it's also, for our film and TV-makers, a significant discovery. It extracts the maximum transgressive-ness from the minimum of actual graphic material. Without showing anything more than a forearm and a pant leg, you can have moviegoers wincing as if they'd stumbled into Ken Park.

And the handjob, unlike a great many other sex acts, can arrive at least somewhat reasonably out of the blue. No need for a warm-up of passionate kisses or involved undressings and beholdings. Instead—and this allows the filmmaker to retain the great narrative advantage of surprise—the handjob, thanks to anatomical mechanics and the relative perma-readiness of the male sex, can arrive at a moment when you might expect nothing more than a bit of tense argument, or pleasant scenery-watching, or sincere conversation.

Finally, and most importantly, the handjob leaves both actors' faces visible and available for all manner of stage business. There's none of that sloppy-interlude feeling, in which the audience squirmingly accepts that for the next forty-five seconds they're going to have nothing to watch but Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas (or their body doubles) breathing heavily and bucking sweatily in dim light. Instead Amy Adams can, coterminously, administer her handjob and deliver a monologue about Philip Seymour Hoffman's perfidy. Robin Wright can reach under her poor dying Secret Service Agent's sheets without so much as breaking eye contact. These are sex scenes that have been mined for efficiencies as ruthlessly as any Six Sigma corporation.

This last artistic virtue, incidentally, become clearer when you consider the relative paucity of cinematic acts of male-on-female digital dealings. The only instance that comes to mind (and, for a certain generation of teenager, this instance spent a great deal of 1996-97 coming to mind) is Marky Mark and Reese Witherspoon on the rollercoaster in Fear. The emotional voltage of that scene—tender, ecstatic, full of oceanic universe-merging and wild horse crooning—helps to clarify, I think, why our screens have to this point been so full of women reaching into men's pants, rather than the reverse. Cultural conventions (or male insecurities) dictate that Reese Witherspoon must not just welcome Marky Mark's attentions but ride them into nirvana. There's no room for character development when you're busy levitating. It will be up to the filmmakers of the future to right this wrong—to give us the fingering scene in which the woman's eyes, rather than rolling back in her head, remain moodily fixed on the middle distance. Happily, Lena Dunham seems with Sunday's highly digital episode to be heading in that direction.

So: we're in a handjobby moment. But cultural moments, like exotic birds, have a way of disappearing as soon as you point at them. Surprise is a quickly diminishing resource, and I have a feeling that we may, with "House of Cards," be approaching the end of this particular line. Just as novelists, ninety years after Ulysses, can no longer count on muddled grammar to make their characters' minds seem authentically busy, filmmakers won't be able for much longer to depend for their frisson on the discretely pulsating shoulder.

Maybe as a culture we, like Benjamin Button (and what a different movie that would have been, had Cate Blanchett reached into old-man/baby Brad Pitt's wheelchair!), are destined to age in reverse. From Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger emptying the fridge onto each other in 9 1/2 Weeks to Chloë Sevigny kneeling before Vincent Gallo in Brown Bunny to our current spate of handjobs… and onward, perhaps, to a 2014 in which our best actors will be reduced to feeling each other up. There is no manual.


Ben Dolnick does not usually write about this sort of thing, honestly. He's the author, most recently, of Shelf-Love, a Kindle Single about Alice Munro.

19 Comments / Post A Comment

Dave Bry (#422)

Also is a sophomore-year weekend.

freetzy (#7,018)

Rushmore is the ur-text of handjob movies.

"I'll just be out back, getting handjobs from the woman you love."

frontsidebus (#5,387)

Jesse Eisenberg gets a handjob in Squid & the Whale.

I think the guy from House of Cards had pancreatic cancer and not prostate cancer, but I could be wrong

offthewawl (#8,258)

"There is no manual." – Clearly, there is.

Smitros (#5,315)

@offthewawl And a stick.

John Kinsella (#6,039)

I thought about this when I watched the House of Cards ep. I like the power play motive for these examples. Reminds me of Don Draper reaching up a woman's skirt in an early episode of Mad Men (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGba82WPY8Q). That was pretty rough.

joshc (#442)

Although you cite "the relative paucity of cinematic acts of male-on-female digital dealings", I feel like this whole era could easily be attributable to Don Draper.

That particular torch was picked up during a certain afternoon matinee by Peggy Olsen to set fire across the rest of the cinema landscape in the last year.

John Kinsella (#6,039)

@joshc Yes. Forgot about Peggy's contribution. Typical.

joshc (#442)

@John Kinsella on the road to becoming master of her domain.

emberglance (#7,305)

I would like to furtively nominate Scarlett Johnansson in A Love Song For Bobby Long for some top notch "male-on-female digital dealings." Recommended viewing for anyone interested in this sensitive area.

http://www.metacafe.com/watch/2664288/scarlett_johansson_scene_from_love_song_for_bobby_long/

laurel (#4,035)

Are we having fun yet?

After reading this, I'm not sure how to characterize the scene in "Shame" when Michael Fassbender goes to the bar and touches a woman he's just met. Does that fit into the trend, somehow?

Bostonienne (#240,125)

There was an especially hilariously terrible hand job in the most recent Anna Karenina. I whispered to the friend I was with, "I don't remember Tolstoy describing any hand jobs," and then we giggled uncontrollably because we are grown-up ladies.

petuniadarling (#10,782)

The German Franka Potente vehicle The Princess and the Warrior had probably the first handjob I'd seen ever (unfortunately, along with Spider). This was probably not good for my perspective on the act.

fusionkitty (#245,644)

Was "Animal House" first? "Is it supposed to be this soft?" I guess it was unsuccessful, so maybe it doesn't count.

P42 (#246,059)

As a Dutchman I have to say the request the author is making has already been fulfilled. By "New Kids Turbo" a comedy series about Dutch rednecks. And it is indeed the saddest and most disgusting sex scene imaginable… without technically showing anything.

What's that old movie where there's an uptight rich-girl whose sexual activity is limited to giving hand-shandies while wearing a latex glove – was that in Grease?

Post a Comment