[TW: Sexual Assault]
No one likes to be in strange places, except the folks who do. No one likes to be in familiar places, either (except, of course, the ones who do). Gilderoy, a renowned British sound engineer, least of all. He’s been hired by Santini(!), a rather infamous Italian director whose gruesome celluloid experiments are definitely not horror films.
Especially not his newest film, The Equestrian Vortex, for which Gilderoy has been contracted, which centers around a group of vengeful witches stalking the Italian countryside, dishing Out just desserts on good people whose forebears had mutilated their bodies in some inquisitional spree.
Gilderoy signed on with the impression that it was a film about horses. And it is a film about horses. Santini’s protagonist is a professional horse trainer, or horse rider, or horse-something. Or, was. She begins her investigations into witchery and the equestrian themes that brought Gilderoy on board are drowned out by the sounds of burning sears and bloodied flesh.
“You call that a scream?” Santini chides one of his actresses. “If the priest forces a hot poker into your flesh, is that the sound you would make? It has to be real!” Gilderoy cringes. “Of course I take no joy in these images,” Santini explains. “A director must tell the truth. And these things truly happened. I must tell these women’s stories.”
Not all of their stories, of course. His leading lady, Sylvia, has a story he’d rather not tell. Tearfully, she confesses to Gilderoy that she has abused – specifically, by Santini.
Throughout, the lines between the film itself and the film-within-the-film begin to blur. The plot of The Equestrian vortex spills out into the drama playing out in the sound studio. Gilderoy feels as though he’s being watched. And he is. But he also becomes ‘the watcher’. He is a spectator, of course, as we all are, and a player on the stage – as, again, we all are.
When Abram heads out from his land, he takes his household. That would be his wife, kids, servants, and dependents. So there was a multitude, and they traveled en masse. Among them was Lot, Abrams nephew, whose biographer, Moses, is complimentary and contemptuous towards his subject. Among Abram’s household is Lot’s household – a lesser group, in both quantity and character.
Abram’s men and Lot’s men cannot get along, so they compromise: Abram accepts the short end of the stick, and gives Lot the privilege of choosing first which section of the land on which to to settle his household so that Abram can take the leftovers. Lot chooses the wilderness outside Sodom, which turns out to be a bad idea. Moses hints that Lot bloody well ought to have known.
In any case, laying down roots near such a wretched hive of scum and villainy ends in tears, as Lot and his men are taken prisoner by scallywags. When word reaches Abram, he becomes an action hero, almost out of nowhere, and rescues him by repurposing those military-aged men connected to his household into a guerilla combat unit.
Teamed up with a number of other clans, they manage to spring Lot and his household out of captivity, and there is a short reprieve. But it’s short-lived, and Lot decides to move further into hostile territory – this time immigrating into Sodom itself.
Sodom has a remarkably American immigration policy, and his clan does not fare well within the city-gates either. Nor does he assimilate particularly well into the culture of the city. Moses writes that he is perpetually troubled by the sin and sorrow around him. The Good Lord hears about Sodom’s moral and political bankruptcy and entertains the notion of lighting them on fire from the skies above. He sends in two angels in human suits, and they lodge with Lot during their stay. Word spreads throughout the streets of Sodom that there are resident aliens among them, so, naturally, they form a drunken mob and demand that Lot send his guests outside so they can have an immigrant-sex-party; The mob does not seem troubled that his guests do not, themselves, want to have an immigrant-sex-party.
Lot, being a good host, refuses to hand over his guests to be violated by the men of the city and offers instead to send out his virgin daughters. Moses hints that he is not impressed with Abram’s lesser nephew. The angels suggest a happier alternative: Opening the door, they blind the drunken mob and lead Lot, his wife, and his daughters, out of the city. The Good Lord decides to move ahead with “Operation Light Sodom On Fire.” (One will, I assume, notice that, despite what you may have heard in Sunday School, “the sin of Sodom,” at least as narrated by Moses, is chiefly depredation, not same-sex love).
Several centuries later, a priest from the hill country of Ephraim marries a woman from Bethlehem in Judah. The arrangement is not a happy one, however, and she runs away to her father’s house to breathe. After a while, the priest makes his way to Bethlehem to talk her into renewing their vows, to “give it the old college try,” and she agrees.
This arrangement proves not to be a happy one either. On the way back to Ephraim, their servants suggest they lodge overnight at a nearby Jebusite city. Good theologian that he is, the priest remembers the story of Lot and the drunken mob in Sodom, and refuses on principle to lodge in a foreign city where there are no Israelites. They continue on into Israelite Gibeah, near Benjamin, and stay with a kindly old man instead.
Alas, a mob of drunken Benjaminites shows up at his door, demanding that he hand over the priest so they can have a clerical-sex-party. Horrified the thought of allowing his male guest to be violated, the man suggests that they settle for his daughter and the priest’s wife. The priest agrees, and sends her out in his stead. The Benjaminites accept the offering, drag her into town, and do precisely what the men of Sodom would have done if given the chance. History is repetitive, and nauseating, and mostly without protagonists.
These two stories have most of the same narrative beats, which has led some scholars to suggest that they were originally the same story, simply repurposed by the authoritative storytellers-in-residence at different points in Israel’s history. But even if that is the case, to stop there and ask no further questions is to miss the point of the respective stories.
Even if the two sordid tales began as one sordid tale, they were both included in the Hebrew canon, on purpose, to illustrate a larger theme that recurred throughout their history. Namely: In the story of Lot, the villains were pagan, the victims were Hebrew. But in the story of the nameless priest and his nameless wife, the villains were Hebrew, and the victims were Hebrew.
That the two stories are nearly identical draws attention rather acutely to the fact that horrendous evil is not the sole property of pagans, and the “moral high ground” is not the sole property of God’s people. There is not a “moral us” and an “immoral them.” You either die the nameless priest’s nameless wife or you live long enough to see yourself become the “drunken Benjaminites,” or their forerunners from Sodom. The “sin of Sodom” is ubiquitous. We are all participants therein.
As the lines between The Equestrian Vortex and reality blur, so do the lines between Gilderoy and Santini. Sylvia finally works up the courage to walk off the set – she escapes her abuser. All of her scenes have been filmed, but she has not recorded her lines, so they bring in a voice actress to replace her. She does not fare any better than Sylvia, however, because Santini’s expectations carry over from one leading lady to the next.
Gilderoy, no longer in the dark about his employer’s eroticoterroristic proclivities, watches from afar, disapproves, and neglects to intervene. But, as I mentioned before, he is not simply a spectator. Sylvia’s replacement is not, it turns out, “Scream Queen” material, much to the chagrin of Santini’s producer, who suggests that Gilderoy do “whatever is necessary” to evoke in her the appropriate sense of unbridled terror. Gilderoy complies, albeit reluctantly, trapping her in the sound booth and terrorizing her from the outside while the tape deck rolls.
Eventually, she storms out, in tears. Gilderoy reclines, his eyes glued to the projector screen on which the film plays, and thinks about what he’s become.
Or, he doesn’t. One wonders, perhaps, whether he’s become anything at all. There is an old saying, “A cup can only spill what it contains,” and everything, so far, that has “spilled forth” from Gilderoy has been resolutely damning. Is Gilderoy our protagonist? Formally speaking, yes. He is positioned in the narrative as such. But not in any meaningful sense. We have identified with him throughout because the camera has instructed us to. But between the victims of power and the victimizers he has, consistently, chosen sides. And it has never been the right side.
I adore the Netflix program Master of None. It was created by and stars Aziz Ansari, formerly of Parks and Recreation fame. Several days ago, a woman wrote an op-ed describing a particularly disastrous date in which Ansari consistently ignored her verbal and nonverbal cues and coerced her, rather jockishly, into sleeping with him.
By her account, he did not force her, or make threats. That hardly constitutes an absolution: When she tried to leave, he “playfully” blocked the door, and each time she turn down his advances, he would disingenuously back down, offer her more alcohol, and, after a brief interlude, resume pressuring her into a variety of sexual activities. Eventually she gave in. On the cab ride home, she cried.
Reading the comments section on the op-ed that busted Ansari, it would seem that quite a lot of men make precisely the same coercive moves with their significant others and find the suggestion that their habits are predatory to be flatly offensive. Very few men would dispute that the allegations against, say, Harvey Weinstein constitute sexual abuse. But considerably less would say the same about Ansari. I suspect it’s because so very many of us have done quite nearly the same things. Yes, I’m going there.
Because we are born as ourselves, and then follow ourselves through the “narrative” of life, and see things through our own eyes, and not the eyes of others, or through some “bird’s eye” view, we inevitably assume ourselves to be protagonists. We take a “partisan tack” in favor of ourselves when we are accused of wrongs – even when our accusers are the ones whom we have wronged.
As a result, so few of us ever take responsibility. Ansari certainly hasn’t. Or if we do, we assume that we’re entitled to some measure of forgiveness from the people we’ve wronged. Repentance is a rarity; Almost no one does it.
Because “repenting’ kneecaps you. It requires you to give away whatever power you have over whomever you’ve wronged, to turn the keys over to them. Even more difficult, it requires you to change.
Gilderoy is a stone’s throw from Santini, even if they are not the “same.” Ansari is a stone’s throw from Weinstein. And quite a lot of men who tweeted angrily about Weinstein, and will now boycott Master of None, are, if they examine their habits – if, for example, they see “prudishness,” or “frigidness,” as a “fun challenge” to be “overcome” through pressure or persuasion – are a stone’s throw from Ansari. It does not matter if you’ve never “blocked any doors,” or used alcohol to “conjure up compliance.” If you have to pressure your partner into sex, it isn’t consensual. Full stop.
So the Ansari allegations are not a sign, as some boneheaded journalists have declared, that the #MeToo movement has “gone off the rails.” It should not be surprising, given the sheer depths of sexual brokenness and human depravity, that even so-called “mundane” sexual norms that we’ve nearly all sleptwalked into will be unmasked as predatory, misogynistic, cruel. If your sexual relationships are characterized by subtle coercion, by “uneven power dynamics,” as some have called it, then theres a #MeToo story where you’re the villain. You can repent, turn the keys over to the ones you’ve wronged, and change your ways, or you can live out the rest of your life as a scourge upon the earth. Don’t do the “scourge upon the earth” thing.
We live in a Giallo, in other words. There’s a gloved assailant, stalking the city streets and countryside alike, preying upon each woman that he finds. And he is efficient, because he is all of us. Repentance means taking our gloves off, setting our weapons down, choosing sides against our former selves, in solidarity with those we’ve wronged, however possible, and inviting them to speak their piece. Mostly it means listening.