Teeth, Dir: Mitchell Lichtenstein, Now Playing
Teeth might have been a barren intellectual exercise. It was envisioned as a prism through which to explore the baffling continued existence of myth in a post-modern, post-Jungian world, and specifically the reemergence of the vagina dentata myth (now posing as metaphor) in a post-Camille Paglia Sexual Persona world.
The film receives its bonafides as cultural commentary by the writer/director Mitchell (son of Pop artist Roy) Lichtenstein’s close reading of Paglia’s interpretation of the phenomenon. Lichtenstein first heard of the myth while an undergraduate at Bennington. When Dawn, his heroine, goes online to research whatever is “going on down there,” she exposes us all to Paglia’s take on the violence inherent to penetrative sex.
But Teeth refuses to be academic. A fairly straightforward revenge-driven horror film, it’s somehow witty, human, and smart. Lichtenstein left Bennington a long time ago and with Teeth he delivers a powerful corrective against the film world’s embrace of precocious wunderkinds. The succinct story moves along consistently, but it rarely makes jarring or underdeveloped jumps. The plot stays coherent without relying on exposition. At the climax of the film, Dawn begins to talk about the monster inside her, only to be interrupted by her new beau saying “I know what that is.”
He both exposes the danger of hubris, and rescues us from the plodding insight of adolescence. It’s a line that bespeaks the careful attention put into distilling the screenplay so that it adheres to the kinetic pace of good horror while exiling all traces of the storyboard. Lichtenstein’s cultivated middle-aged male vision provides a more valuable commentary on the condition of high schoolers in the heartland than anything Diablo Cody could invent. In its first 90 seconds Teeth makes every point Juno labors over for its entire 90 minutes:
1—The periphery of American society is fossilizing dangerously.
2—Biology is destiny.
3—Bereft of sage advice from adults until far too late, sex is becoming monstrous for the younger generation.
After summarily addressing these points, the film picks up a story that makes broad points succinctly and develops characters who act like humans, and talk about themselves mercifully little. It does this all while riffing successfully on all of the mutilated women conventions of horror and pornography.
Satires succeed and fail on the wealth of the material they satirize. So visually, the film is an ugly mess. Adhering shot-to-shot to the conventions of low budget, high gore blood-fests, the film is inexcusably stale looking. If Lichtenstein shows no evidence of visual imagination, he cannot mute the power of the visual gag the film relies on. We’re immune to most images nowadays, but still shocked by the sight of a severed penis lying about like an old sock. And though Teeth may show one too many member, each of them moves the bildungsroman along.
When we first meet Dawn she is a child, unaware that she is different, powerful, or even particularly female. When confronted with her childish sexuality, she and her parents turn away from it. They ignore her, in the way most parents do, and she yields to the only narrative that addresses her terror of womanhood—the Christian right. She sublimates her sexuality by becoming an idol for fetishization. Her desperately horny religious peers constantly praise her, and the rabidly horny secular kids constantly defile her.
She responds equally magnanimously to both forms of worship, and encourages everyone she encounters to view her as an object. By the logic of the film, the males who froth about her are no more in control of their assumptions than she is in control of her anatomy. The limits of our cultural vision have turned them into rapists. As a spokeswoman for virginity, Dawn declaims a natural modesty and purity belonging to women. When she finally dares face her own anatomy, and soaks off the sticker covering a sex-ed textbook diagram of the vagina, she is awed with terror. But the diagram of the penis was never hidden, and the men she encounters can sense her ravenous sexuality long before she can. These characters run a small gamut from mysogonist to molester, and while they seem at first to have a more primal view of sex, they are all fogged in by the same insane stories that kept Dawn in the dark.
They all expect Dawn to share their narrative of sex, though that narrative only serves men. Her first boyfriend believes himself when he argues that only he will be the sinner if Dawn doesn’t move while they have sex. All the non-believers she meets believe that she’s dreaming of them fucking the Jesus out of her (when in fact she’s dreaming, in hilarious fashion, of her wedding day). The Madonna/whore myths men fall back on turn them into gleeful sadists. The myth Dawn embodies will turn her into one as well.
Indiscriminate bloodlust shelters Dawn from recognizing the truth that, inevitably, before she can kill, she must be penetrated. As such, the pleasure of baring her teeth is shown as distinct from orgasm, but equally carnal. As all heroes do, Dawn has to give up the pleasures of companionship to fulfill her destiny. Companionship she can do without, but she refuses to give up pleasure. This defiance stops Teeth from dissolving into a rape/revenge exploitation or a wages-of-sin morality tale. The film neither absolves nor punishes Dawn. More importantly, it is careful not to give too much credence or blame to the prudish teachings of the Christian right. While religion is a true-to-life spectre for much of the film, when Dawn casts it off, the world remains bereft of opportunity and meaning. Thus, Dawn becomes a hammer, and, in the way these things happen, everywhere she turns is a man waiting to nail her.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.