by Christopher Campbell
Andrew Sarris may be one of the most influential American film critics, but here’s a claim, located within his recent review of In Search of a Midnight Kiss, that may not hold up to some of his better-remembered theories: “Even when we confront 40-year-old virgins of either gender, movies refuse to show them compensating for the lack of a sexual partner. There is lasting shame involved in this spectacle.”
Not to ever, ever profess superiority over Sarris, but I’ve nonetheless compiled today’s list as a way of proving the man wrong. There are actually tons and tons of masturbation scenes found in non-porn movies, from the low brow to the high brow, from as indirect as the boy wizard playing with his wand under the covers in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanto as direct as the non-simulated masturbation in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs and John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus(which would probably feature my #1 pick, from the sound of it, if I ever bothered to see it).
The following 10 films are some of the most memorable masturbation scenes, excluding any movies that might be considered examples of, in Sarris’ words, “the fringe exploitation genres” (I’ve even gone so far as to leave out mainstream horror like The Exorcist, considering it’s crucifix masturbation is far from the self-pleasuring moments Sarris is clearly interested in). Oh, and I’ve attempted to chart these films artistically from lowbrow to high.
10. Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Everybody remembers this scene because of the fantasy: Phoebe Cates emerges from a swimming pool in slow motion and removes her bikini top. And then Cates’ character walks in on the fantasizer, Judge Reinhold, for one of the most awkward moments in the history of awkward comedy. There’s been plenty of uncomfortable scenes of guys being caught in the act, including those moments in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children and the most obvious masturbation movie,American Pie.
9. Léolo – Speaking of masturbating with food, not even pie-fucking beats the scene in this French-Canadian gem in which our young titular hero decides that his real father is a man who jerked off with a tomato, which later impregnated Léolo’s mother when she fell onto it. There are other less memorable masturbation scenes involving liver and chicken, too. Yum!
8. Spanking the Monkey – I always found the masturbation scenes in this movie so interesting because of how clean a “job” Ray Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) does with his personal business. I guess when you’re probably fantasizing about your mother, your mind is dirty enough, and so (seemingly) uncomfortably jacking off while sitting on a toilet is the best way to go. But couldn’t he just do it in the shower, like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty? I’m surprised that Sarris forgot about this one, since the title alone refers to the act.
7. The Squid and the Whale – If I have to select one movie involving a little kid masturbating (and writing this sentence has already got me feeling immensely ashamed), I pick this one over Todd Solondz’ Happiness (”I came!”), because while both scenes in question are quite disturbing, the one featuring the real-life son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates jerking off in a library and then wiping his hands off on some books is at least a little amusing. A lot amusing if you take into account his mother’s appearance in movie #10 above. And if you need another little kid masturbating movie to choose from (I’m not judging), Babel.
6. But I’m a CheerleaderSlums of Beverly Hills. The reason that this movie is the more significant of the two is because the masturbation scene is very tastefully done, and yet in its original form, it controversially garnered the film an NC-17 rating, only because, as argued in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, it deals with both homosexual desire and female sexuality. The main evidence: American Pie was released in the same year with an R rating.
5. Mulholland Drive – A less beautiful yet no less exploitive depiction of female masturbation occurs in David Lynch’s enigmatic film. Despite the fact that guys tend to enjoy watching a girl pleasure herself, only the most sadistic of men could be turned on by Naomi Watts crying and painfully attempting to get off.
4. Bad Lieutenant – When I first heard about the scene in which Harvey Keitel’s corrupt cop masturbates in front of two teens in a car he pulls over, I thought it had to be the most debauched scene in film history. Of course, I was only 15 when it came out and wasn’t yet familiar with a lot of cinema. By the time I actually bothered to watch the scene many years later, it was less shocking than I expected. Still, as far as depraved things a character can do in a movie — at least in theory — it’s up there, and it’s certainly one of the first scenes that comes to mind when I think of movie masturbation.
3. Amarcord – Oh, right, here’s another movie with little kids masturbating. But it’s a Fellini movie, so obviously it’s incomparable to the three referenced earlier. Although an amusing scene, featuring a bunch of kids masturbating in unison in a car, it’s much less disturbing, as it simply displays the act as a part of growing up.
2. Being There – “I like to watch.” Hopefully you’ve seen this wonderful film, and that’s all I need to say. But just in case you’re not familiar, here’s the scene: Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) attempts to seduce the rather simple Chauncey Gardner (Peter Sellers), who responds by saying, “I like to watch.” Of course, he means the television, but Eve takes the statement to mean he wants to watch her pleasure herself. And so she proceeds to humiliate herself on the floor while Chauncey hilariously takes enjoys an exercise show on the TV.
1. Adaptation – Really, the whole movie is one big masturbation scene. There is a literal masturbation scene, though, in which Charlie (Nicolas Cage) fantasizes about Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and it’s pretty good on its own. But it takes the top spot for affirming that screenwriter Charlie Kauffman created the literary equivalent of beating off.