***This morning's article, on Punch-Drunk Love, is a brand new one from Green Rays and Holy Whores author Rob Dennis. I discovered Rob's insightful work through his contributions to a book I am also featured in, Intellect's Directory of World Cinema: American Independent. This piece is a good example of how extremely creative Rob's writing is and I am really glad to add his name to our blogathon's list of terrific contributors.***
Knuckle Love: Some Notes on Punch-Drunk Love
Barry Egan, having just found out that he will be unable to redeem the air miles he has collected in time to visit a girl he has just met in Hawaii, punches a map of the U.S that hangs on his office wall. He lays his hands out, stroking the keys on the adopted organ that sits on his desk. We briefly see the word L O V E crudely drawn into his knuckles, in what looks like a rudimentary homage to Robert Mitchum’s similar markings in The Night of the Hunter.
The provisional title for Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to the widely admired Magnolia was Punch Drunk Knuckle Love. Somewhere along the line the third word was dropped, in all likelihood due to its inelegant strangeness in what was already a very strange (but elegant) film.
Yet although knuckles were removed from the title, they remain a fundamental component of the finished work. Barry, despite being a business man, is very manually focused. His most significant actions are hand related: punching things, playing with his organ (pun intended). When Barry and Lena have their sex talk confessional his deepest desires are revealed thus: ”I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it”. Whereas Lena professes to crave more oral activity: “I want to chew your face off and scoop out your eyes and eat them, and chew them, and suck on them.” It is Barry’s hands that first get him into trouble. At home and lonely, he dials a sex chat line and gives his name as Jack (“Are you Jacking off yet, Jack?) At first he talks apprehensively with the girl, as he paces between his living room and kitchen, grasping his cordless phone. She tries her playfully seductive shtick “Do you like peaches, Jack? I’m a Georgia Peach”, before moving on to more direct imagery “I’m looking at my shaved pussy in the mirror”, but it is only when the subject changes to business that Barry succumbs to his onanistic drive, sitting down at his desk to perform the five knuckle shuffle.
I have often been struck by just how upright (or should that be uptight?) a filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is. Boogie Nights, with all its porno-chic and genital flashing, is, at heart, a hymn to monogamous relationships and the family unit. In that film no transgression goes unpunished, and the same is the case with Punch Drunk Love. Barry’s moment of loveless self pleasure has severe consequences, and the resulting blackmail storyline serves as both a moral lesson and, perhaps, as a manifestation of Barry’s own guilt: “You thought you could be a pervert and not pay for it?”
Barry Egan is, I think it is fair to say, not very well developed sexually. Pointedly, his company manufactures toilet plungers (‘Fungers’) whereas his nemesis, Dean Trumbell, is a ‘mattress man’. Barry’s realm is the bathroom, whilst Dean’s is the bedroom. Perhaps we can choose to see this as evidence of Barry being marked by the anal stage of psychosexual development (which would probably account for the stockpiling of pudding).
Barry’s masturbation shame is contrasted by Dean’s revulsion at the very suggestion that he should do the same. The final showdown between Barry and Dean is instigated by Barry’s forceful suggestion that that Dean should “go fuck [himself]”. To Dean, this is evidently the highest possible insult, provoking something of an over exaggeration (“That wasn’t good. You’re dead.”) For Dean the act of fucking oneself is clearly the height of degradation. Indeed maybe we could see his whole criminal organization as structured around his punishing of the ‘perverted’ that masturbate to phone sex lines rather than pursuing their carnal interests in the sanctified space of the bed. Dean Trumbell is the Old Testament God, punishing Onan (Egan, Onan….hmmm) for spilling his seed. Perhaps.