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In his landmark text Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel argued that movies had the unique power to normalize taboo subject matter. They did this in two significant ways: one, by transforming "untouchable" ideas into controllable sounds and images; and two, by forcing them into the public sphere as represented by the movie theater. Vogel championed many explicitly confrontational filmmakers, particularly in the avant-garde, yet he also voiced admiration for certain films by Charlie Chaplin and Luis Buñuel, which wielded this subversive power more benignly. One enjoyed these movies without thinking of them as provocations, laughing at things like murder and heresy as if they were simple pratfalls.
The sodomy jokes of recent studio comedies feel more brazen than Buñuel's allusions to perversion, though less radical than the pansexual eruptions of Jack Smith's work (and less insightful than the sodomy jokes of Russ Meyer's Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, which may represent the cinematic gold standard). To take a positive attitude, these jokes imply that lots of people, both gay and straight, have practiced or at least experimented with anal sex—we're better off laughing about the act than feigning ignorance about it or vilifying it the way antigay bigots do.
At the same time, I'm skeptical that a movie as inept as We're the Millers is truly concerned with our culture's evolution. The references to sodomy feel little different than the clips of popular viral videos that open the movie—both suggest that the filmmakers are flailing at cultural currency and aiming for the easy laughter of recognition. It's true that anal sex is all over the Internet, though I'm not sure if that's especially funny. Hardly enlightened, much straight pornography associates sodomy with sexual degradation—a subject that We're the Millers feels unhealthily preoccupied with. Perhaps the filmmakers regard sodomy merely as the degrading practice du jour; if so, they're just advancing the same old puritanical disgust with sex under the guise of libertinism. (By contrast, the final scene of The To Do List is genuinely progressive in that the heroine has anal sex consensually and appears to enjoy it.)
And yet I think these sodomy jokes mark a positive development on the whole, despite the attitudes of individual films. For ages sodomy was a criminal offense in this country, and the ban on sodomy was often used as a pretext for persecuting homosexuals. I remembered this on Friday night when I heard local artist and musician Travis speak at the South Side Projections screening of documentaries about black Vietnam War veterans. Travis shared a harrowing experience of his time in the navy. On his 19th birthday, he said, several superiors locked him in a room for a full day and interrogated him about whether he'd ever engaged in sodomy. He was tortured, essentially. When Travis recounted his interrogation—which took place not even 50 years ago—you could hear the violence with which his superiors deployed the word "sodomy." Imagining that scene, I thought that even a sophomoric joke was more enlightened than the behavior exhibited there. I think any humane person would.