Fordian economy is legendary. John Ford: in the cinema of this master filmmaker, a rustic doorway becomes an aperture onto eternity, a rowdy barn dance bears scars from Copernican epicycles, Monument Valley melts into night, a final burial ground for stars. (Yes, Bela Tarr’s sloshy cosmic swirls begin in Ford, just as Fassbinder’s Whity is a rethink of Sergeant Rutledge.) Ford knew from simple. He invented simple, put a shine on it, parked it on the corner and leaned against it all afternoon, occasionally polishing a spot with his spotless hankie. So simple he saw worlds that might have escaped us had he not composed them for us, using but a single eye.
This is Sex Hygiene from 1941, one of the master’s most sublime and disturbing works: his very own instantiation of Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes. Produced by Daryl Zanuck, the first in a series of films DZ made at Fox for inductees after the establishment of the Selective Service Act, Sex Hygiene concerns penises and the pernicious sores that sometimes appear on them. Oozing, nasty, pus-y sores, on johnsons long and small. There is nothing sexual, erotogenic, or uplifting about Sex Hygiene: it is austere, didactic, and wholly mortifying – and yet this single shot from the film’s first five minutes is as compact and robust, as specific and metaphysical, as satisfying as any Ford would ever make.
What are we looking at? A cigar smolders on a balustrade alongside blackened scars from previous ‘gars. Behind the banister, an apparently gilded statue of a dewy nude rises. She carries her skimpiest garment, draping it across some priapic shape unknown; she is relaxed, one knee forward, ready to move toward you, to comply. Economy is what we’re looking at, in registers both thematic and aesthetic. This, clearly, is a whorehouse, and we are, in particular, outside one apparently quite popular courtesan’s room: hence the numerous notches burned into the wood. She’s just inside, concluding another deal, quick business at that: her current trick has left his butt burning the latest notch while he’s busying himself. (Her we never see.) As the shot unfurls, he returns for the cigar, wipes his lips with a sneer, clamps the smoke between gritted teeth, buckles the belt around his uniform, and bolts. The camera barely moves, the frame edges essentially static. The quick entry and quick exit of the sated soldier are all we get, come and gone. But for him, there’s more, much more. Flank after flank of bloodthirsty germ warriors will be burrowing deep into his wilted valor before he can hail a cab. His dick is on the death march to Bataan, it just doesn’t know it yet. This is how the war comes home.
Chuck Stephens is a noted film critic, whose work can normally be enjoyed in Film Comment & online at Cinema Scope.