A few weeks ago I discussed the definition of raunch and touched on its evolution in film. The idea of raunch, generally considered anything vulgar or obscene, has gone from one of insult to one of achievement. Over the years directors have developed entire genres of innocent raunch comedy, while still retaining the ability to shock and offend. Meanwhile dramas and horror continue to “fancy” raunch for its ability to reach our darkest thoughts or turn our stomachs.
Raunch isn’t something to shy away from, despite the dirty feeling you may get after viewing films like Pink Flamingos or Anatomy of Hell. If anything, it can be argued for that very reason you should watch crude films. Art should both stir discomfort and activate brain juices, and as much as some would like to dispute raunch as art, when done right it reflects current culture and the people watching.
Now, we can go back in time to films like Freaks to explore the origins of raunch (which if this subject interests you, I highly recommend visiting), however I’d really like to skip ahead to 1972 with the release of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos. Waters’s entire career has been one giant balancing act managing offensive subjects in an original and delightful way. He is now known more as an icon of kitsch, but when Pink Flamingos premiered he was considered film’s enemy number one. He presented these unattractive, weird characters as beautiful, challenging audiences to face their own prejudices.
The film follows Devine “Babs Johnson” (Devine), a Baltimore transvestite living in a trailer park with her son Crackers (Danny Mills) and her mother Edie (Edith Massey). She has been hiding away, focused on retaining her title as “Filthiest Person Alive” until she learns competition is brewing in the form of rich couple Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary). The Marbles run an abortion clinic that is in reality a black market baby factory. They forcibly impregnate young women to keep their supply fresh, while selling heroin in elementary schools to keep the operation funded. Basically, this couple wins “Worlds Worst Person” award, let alone being top contenders for Devine’s title. To snuff out their competition, the couple sends a willingly horny spy named Cookie (Cookie Mueller) to seduce Crackers. In a disturbing scenes, and absolutely pitch-perfect example of cinematic raunch, the two youngins get to making it with a dying chicken between the two of them. Crackers is incredibly proud, while Cookie is the opposite of disgusted.
Later when Devine is informed the Marbles know her true identity (via a box full of shit with a sweet note, no less), she and her two partners in crime declare war. While they meant to just sneak into the house to defile their home, Devine and Crackers actually get so turned on spreading their filthy mouths and bodily fluids around that they orally pleasure each other. Yes, mother and son get it on. And it is as revolting as it is amazing.
This moment works so well in its natural flow from revenge to disgust. If you’ve already been along for the Pink Flamingos ride up until this point, you are of course going to expect (maybe even want) the mother and son are going to fuck. Yes, that says something about you, but don’t despair. If anything it means you and I should hang out.
No one does raunch like Waters, and honestly no one should. He know what he is making is gross and is proud of that. His ability to straddle both the vulgar and know his limits is what makes him the master. Waters may feature degenerative people in his art, but he’s also asking us to remain open-minded and judge the actions not the person. His later films continue this request, and his provocative focus makes the most fun raunch.
Raunch for Laugh’s Sake
Thanks to Waters, over time raunch has ceased to be solely about the disgusting and has branched out into making us laugh. We can handle accidental consumption of gross bodily fluids on screen when those fluids came from a dog or end up in someone’s hair. Directors like Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the Farrelly Brothers and innovators like Sacha Baron Cohen have carved out their own raunch niche and dedicate themselves to creating gross-out comedy that forces us to use our brain.
The way to make raunch appear edible is to wrap it in safe shell of innocence. Puppets, cartoons, bright colors, non-Americans, these are all devices perfectly suited for self-reflexive raunch. We feel okay laughing at something disgusting if that something disgusting isn’t a feces-eating drag queen. For example, Van Wilder involves two equally offensive sexual scenes—one involving a selfish boyfriend and the other involving a sexed-up bulldog. Both end in disappointment and giggles (and neither end with a naked Ryan Reynolds—cue sad trombone).
Richard Bagg (Daniel Cosgrove) requires his patient girlfriend Gwen (Tara Reid) to bone him before every major pre-law exam. She all but lays there and counts the tiles while he plows away, uttering to himself encouragements and dirty words. He is not physically a gross character, but in the way he treats people, especially the girl under him. Richard’s sweat glosses over Gwen, and the moment he’s ready to expel he chooses to do so on his girlfriend, without permission. Richard’s climatic moment of raunchy good fun is not to be overshadowed by what comes later.
In a few scenes, Van Wilder (Reynolds) gets his revenge on Richard for being a buzz-kill and a tattletale by sending over a care package full of éclairs. These éclairs are not just any pastry, they are full of a little extra something-something. While preparing the gift, Van uses his dog’s superfluous amount of man-juice to “season” the éclair cream. As Richard and his fraternity brothers lose their minds over the delights, they soon eat their way to the bottom of the box where a picture of the dog’s testicles resides. Really, this is why you should never eat a pastries you didn’t order…or even make.
Raunch here is about consumption of the disgusting and the resulting hilarity. If this happened in real life, it would be utterly revolting, but in a comedy this punishment is justly deserved. And, puts you off éclairs for about ten years.
See also: Team America: World Police, Borat, Sex Drive, Porky’s, Animal House
And then there is the truly despicable cinema. While still bordering on art, Salo: Or 120 Days of Sodom is probably the most offensive film I have ever seen. It shames modern torture porn, laughs at many horror films, and nearly 40 years later even remains one of the most controversial films ever made. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s story “120 Days of Sodom” tells the story of four French Fascists choosing to avoid World War II by escaping to the French countryside and creating their own paradise. Now, that sounds darling and sweet, but trust the only thing sweet about this film is returning it to Netflix.
During their 120-day occupation of the French manor, the four men partake in more sexual deviance than one could imagine. Ranging from sex enslavement to anal rape of the 18 male and female teens forced to inhabit the manor, Salo does not hold anything back. In this example, raunch is not for laughs, but rather sticks strictly to its original definition of obscene.
Despite its disgusting subject matter and execution, Salo actually uses obscenity to explore modern society. These men represent more than just insatiable sex fiends. They are actually the people they most want to escape from in their previous lives. They oppresses because they were oppressed. The film could have been made to just show teen rape, but it actually clearly depicts madness from the power hungry. As the film progresses it becomes clear that without society’s restrictions, these men can and will do what they want. And they will never get punished for it.
Raunch will always have a place in art as long as real life continues to offer motivation. What are some of the raunchiest films you’ve seen?