Observe and Report What?
Peter Lehman / Arizona State University & Susan Hunt / Santa Monica College
Jody Hill represents an important aspect of the current television flow – the flow between film and television. His HBO series Eastbound and Down (2009) and his film, Observe and Report, also 2009, have both been critically acclaimed. Given the timeliness of the film to our series of Flow columns on masculinity and the mind-body dichotomy, we devote this column to it. Observe and Report is an extraordinary examination of American masculinity and the interrelationship between notions of proper and ideal masculinity, the male body, and the penis. The film is literally about the alleged awesome spectacle of the penis, and indeed, the first shot of the film and the entire opening scene centers on a man who approaches several unsuspecting women in a mall parking lot and opens his trench coat to flash them, the camera always carefully placed behind him (figure 1). We are denied the spectacle of the penis, however, and only see its shocking impact on the shrieking women. The next day the same man enters the mall and flashes Brandi (Anna Farris), a beautiful but vacuous and materialistic blonde mall clerk. Hysteria ensues (figure 2).
Enter mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen). Ronnie is grimly serious about the “pervert” and the threat he poses to Brandi, a woman who has contemptuously dismissed Ronnie but with whom he is clearly infatuated. When he asks the sobbing Brandi if she is all right, she responds that she doesn’t know. Clearly the sight of the penis has shaken her to her core. As others gather around, including an equally serious mall manager (figure 3), Ronnie declares that he will protect Brandi from the “pervert” as if he was protecting the United States from nuclear attack by terrorists. Ronnie’s masculinity is comically noble as he vows to rescue femininity imperiled. Everyone from Ronnie the guard to the mall manager who supports his mission to the victim all seem to agree on one thing: the power of this rogue penis must be brought under control so that… So that what? So that everyone can go back to shopping?
But it seems that the security guard and the manager are not the true masculine force after all. Enter Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta). Ronnie, it turns out, is just a mall cop, not the real thing. Hill treats Liotta’s masculinity with the same ironic high seriousness with which he earlier treated the spectacle of the penis and its threat to women and shopping, and then with which he treated Ronnie’s vows to make everyone safe, which is to say, they are all ridiculous. (figure 4) Harrison, far from being a true embodiment of masculinity, reveals that the ideal is the problem not the solution. Ronnie’s problem is not that he fails to be a real man but that the model of such masculinity is itself a pathetic failure – a hollow ideal and value for which he strives. Now we have three levels of pathetic failed masculinity on the loose as it were: a “pervert” flasher, a mall cop who couldn’t be a real cop, and a real cop that makes you wonder why anyone would want to be one.
Hill’s touch of genius is to represent the literal penis in this quagmire of failed masculinity. After carefully misleading us to believe we will never see the awesome spectacle itself by always placing the camera behind the flasher, he slowly and then shockingly erodes that expectation. We see a profile sketch of the infamous offending organ and then a Polaroid picture found in the garbage of a penis presumed to be that of the flasher. Ronnie becomes obsessed with the Polaroid, repeatedly holding it up to his forehead as he proclaims his quest to find the “pervert.” In his review of the film, J. Hoberman1 notes, “The two men have a certain physical similarity, and Observe and Report’s most relentless riff is the blatant equation of the flasher’s oft-seen and pointedly unprepossessing dick with the castrated mall cop’s attempt to possess what a Lacanian would call the phallic function.” But the film is infinitely more sophisticated than Hoberman who simply reinforces the cultural assumption that a small penis represents a failure of the “phallic function.”
When we least expect it, Hill directly shows the film spectator the flasher’s penis. Near the end of the film, the flasher runs up to patrons at a public dining table in the mall. Standing perfectly still, he pulls open his trench coat, fully revealing himself and then begins running exposed through the mall. Those applying Hoberman’s characterization of his penis as “pointedly unprepossessing” in the previously viewed Polaroid would have trouble characterizing what they see now: his flaccid penis reveals the head resting above his scrotum with little or no shaft exposed. This contrasts with the normative representation of the 4-inch penis dangling down in front of the scrotum to the bottom or below. In our forthcoming book, Body Guys in the Movies: Unmaking Love and Remaking Your Life, we argue that such penises as the flasher’s have rigorously been excluded from representation precisely because of the assumption that they cannot bear the representation of normative masculinity and male sexuality as Hoberman suggests. That assumption, however, is ludicrous and we argue that such penises speak to a fundamental truth about masculinity that needs to be repressed in order to maintain the desired awe and mystique of the penis. Just when women have made major social, political, and economic inroads within our society, a newly intensified discourse around the importance of a big penis seems to tell them that this is the one thing they need to be complete, but they don’t have and can never have one, except of course by getting the right guy.
The flasher “pointedly”, in Hoberman’s terms, is not the right guy! As the flasher runs around the mall, his penis never approaches the normative spectacle of the large flopping penis we have come to expect in representation. Significantly, however, the flasher’s rarely represented penis type is not a sign of phallic failure. The audience identifies with the flasher who now resembles a streaker as he runs through the mall, gleefully exposing himself to the bland shoppers who seem to be on remote control in comparison to his energetic, fun-loving spree. In the midst of this delightful romp through the temple of capitalist consumerism, Ronnie brutally and unexpectedly shoots the flasher, apparently killing him; a shock to the mall patrons and the film spectators as well. But our streaker is not dead. Instead of getting him medical aid, however, Ronnie carries him like a trophy to police headquarters to show off his prize, and the film ends by mocking him as he poses triumphantly for a television reporter as a hero who has deluded himself and attempts to delude the public into thinking he has indeed fulfilled the “phallic function”.
The streaking and shooting scene makes clear that it is not the flasher’s perversion or small penis that is pathetic but, rather, it is the ideal normative masculinity by which he is measured and judged that is pathetic. It may be true that he has a “pointedly unprepossessing dick” but the point (pun intended) of the film is that the “phallic function” by which we judge such a lack is preposterous and ultimately scary. Ronnie, with the symbolically unprepossessing penis, in a desperate effort to assert his manhood, pulls his gun and brutally shoots the unarmed, nearly naked man—his brutal act of violence directly linked to the very phallic function that judges a man like the flasher as inadequately small! This offensive spectacle of the normative masculinity so many men strive towards recalls an earlier scene where Ronnie makes love to Brandi. Again, he strives to perform as a man “should,” admirably thrusting away. But in contrast to the standard Hollywood lovemaking scene where this style is enthroned, here we see Brandi lying unconscious with her head next to her own vomit. The moment Ronnie stops this pathetic spectacle, Brandi momentarily comes to life and asks him why he stopped. The comedy arises from us wondering, why would anyone want to continue such a joyless activity?
Ronnie and nearly everyone else in the film is quite literally asked to observe the penis and the “pervert” and report on it. As we observe them in their duty to uphold normative masculinity and the security of shopping mall consumerism, we never identify with any of the “normal” people: the mall cop and his alcoholic mother, his mall guard partners, the mall manager, the real cop, or the girlfriend. But we end up identifying with and caring about the allegedly perverted man who is the cause of all the problems. We are happy to observe that his body and his behavior are both affronts to the cherished norms of masculinity and consumerism, and we are happy to report that Hill perversely celebrates this — in the best sense of that word — with all trace of normalcy revealed as pathetic and violent.
1. Figure 1: Author Screen Shot from IMDB.com
2. Figure 2: Author Screen Shot from IMDB.com
3. Figure 3: Author Screen Shot from IMDB.com
4. Figure 4: Author Screen Shot from IMDB.com
Please feel free to comment.
- Hoberman, J. 2009. “Seth Rogen Wanders Another Shopper’s Paradise in Observe and Report.” villagevoice.com, April 7. [↩]
The authors’ discussion of Ronnie’s “pathetic spectacle” of lovemaking misses the point that this is, in fact, not a scene of love making at all. Rather, it is a scene depicting rape (since she is unconscious — thanks to a combination of drugs and alcohol — she is clearly unable to consent to sex). What does that say about ideals of normative masculinity? Particularly when many reviewers, audience members, and film critics fail to recognize it as rape. As you write, Ronnie “strives to perform as a man ‘should,’ admirably thrusting away.” How admirable is it to enact a violent crime on an unconscious person who is transformed into an object for a cheap laugh? And how admirable is it for the rest of society to turn a blind eye, or worse yet, laugh at this spectacle?
It’d be interesting to explore how this genre of film (clearly marketed to young men and boys) seeks laughs at the expense of women and people of color. And, by extension, how those jokes seek to prop up “normative” masculinity in our society.
Just to be clear, we are of course using the word “admirable” ironically. Indeed, the previous sentence compares this scene with a different type of “offensive spectacle of the normative masculinity so many men strive towards” in another scene. Our point is precisely that there is nothing admirable about it and that it is offensive. In Body Guys in the Movies we argue that under any circumstances, let alone ones like those in this scene, what we call “pound, pound, pound” sex is anything but admirable and using it as a norm sadly limits sexual pleasure and eroticism. Also, we are calling this “lovemaking” only with reference to the “lovemaking” scene in countless movies like it. No one in their right mind would mistake what they are watching as truly making love. We didn’t think it necessary to put these terms in quotation marks but maybe we should have, Where we disagree, however, is in how the comedy works. We do not think this style of comedy should be characterized as cheap laughs or turning a blind eye. Manhola Dargis however agrees with you and gave the film an extremely negative review in The New York Times. We, however, see the comedy as very knowing and like much great comedy as offering a profound critique of very serious matters that drama seldom engages.
Correction. There is a typo in my above comment: it should be “Manohla”