Coinciding with the UK release of Robert Eggers’ second feature film, The Lighthouse, George Nash lets rip on why cinema’s most dismissed trope, the fart gag, deserves more love…
On a small, remote island, two gruff-looking figures, as if frozen in time, stand hauntingly at the door of a rickety wooden shack staring out silently towards the sea as a distant ship slowly disappears on the horizon. In the grainy monochrome, an aura of disquieting dread blows in just as quickly and as tangibly as the salt air that rushes through their untamed hair. The men, both bearded, both clad in dishevelled wool and both shooting looks of stern distrust at one another, quietly stagger up the creaking steps of their decrepit abode to the cramped bed chamber. Then, one of them farts.
Amidst the ambiguity of The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ brooding, briny maritime sophomore tale of madness, toxic masculinity and sinister sea gulls, the flatulence is fierce. The mere whiff of a gaseous gag might at first seem strange in Eggers’ claustrophobic nightmare: the horror genre is about the last place you’d expect to find a fart. And yet, courtesy of Willem Dafoe’s quasi-Ahab, wailing ‘wickie’ Thomas Wake, The Lighthouse is full of them.
But rarely does wind pass as cheap, easy toilet humour in Eggers’ film. While it might elicit a few uneasy chuckles, Wake’s flatulence is at once surprising and disconcerting: a tool that Eggers uses to heighten the film’s unsettling tonal fluctuations rather brilliantly. But in occupying the space between humour and horror, the use of the fart gag here—a trope almost immediately taken to be the tackiest of them all, and one reserved for only the grossest of gross-out comedies—represents something of an anomaly in cinema. Maligned by many, but so often misunderstood, in much the same way that the horror genre’s most distinguishable feature, the jump scare, can produce devilishly delightful results when crafted with care, there’s art to a great fart.
Flatulence is nothing novel in the arts, of course. While in contemporary pop-culture they might be largely synonymous with a pair of curly haired, middle-aged step brothers or Mike Myers in a prosthetic fat suit, fart gags, however pungent, bring with them a rich literary heritage which can be traced all the way back to the tales of Arabian Nights, the works of John Aubrey and the 5th Century plays of Aristophanes.
Given their inclusion in the publications of old, and an excessive overuse of them on the cinema screen during the wave of teen comedies that arrived in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it’s easy to forget that, for many years, Hollywood had to hold them in. Under restrictions of The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (The Hays Code, as it was otherwise known), farting on film was effectively outlawed in American cinema until the 1970s—a fact made a lot less surprising when one considers it took until the early ’60s, and Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slasher Psycho, for a mainstream American audience to first witness a toilet being captured on celluloid.
But while the West was confined by legislation, and film flatulence silent and considered deadly, in the East, a whole year before Hitchcock was shocking movie-goers with oedipal terror and flushing loos, Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu was weaving farts into the very thematic fabric of his work.
In Good Morning, Ozu’s light-hearted coming-of-age comedy of 1959 set in colourful, suburban Tokyo, passing wind occupies a central motif in the film’s exploration of language. In trying to emulate the talents of one of their fathers, the incessant attempts to fart on queue by the young boys at the film’s centre—who loathe the discursive niceties of adult interactions and vow an oath of silence until their parents buy a television—transcend the banal, benign banter of the time between childhood and adulthood. Before the weight of responsibility begins to fall heavy on their shoulders, it’s the universal simplicity of the boys’ flatulence that speaks volumes for Ozu’s endearing portrait of youthful innocence, in which exists a naïve desire to grow up all too quickly. Sixty years on, Good Morning continues to remind us that, while a lazy, poorly executed fart can render a bad film altogether irredeemable, a well timed toot, on the other hand, has the power to elevate a movie to charming new heights.
Then Mel Brooks changed the game. In his searing slice of Western satire, 1974’s Blazing Saddles, Brooks put farts firmly in their place as a tool used solely for comedic purposes. In the film’s most iconic scene—a gaggle of rootin’, tootin’ cowboys doing just that around a campfire as they not so much spill their beans as feel the gaseous effects of eating them—Brooks’ use of wind carries no such whiffs of allegory or poignant subtext, but a simple, brash reminder that a fart is, first and foremost, funny.
With unapologetic simplicity, Blazing Saddles‘ audible audacity set the standard for what was to follow: a flurry of film flatulence that would ultimately waft into popular culture with the success of crowd pleasing films like Caddyshack, Dumb and Dumber, Austin Powers and Step Brothers.
But as Ozu proved, farting has functions that extend far beyond simply being humorous. In something of a gloriously foul-mouthed iteration of the children in Good Morning, the impressionable boys at the centre of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 1999 feature length South Park movie try to emulate the toilet humour they see on screen. Galvanized by a blend of flatulence and f-words used by a Canadian comedy duo in the aptly titled ‘Asses of Fire’, when one of the boys tries to recreate a moment from the film by lighting a fart on fire, he quickly and painfully burns to death. The event sparks a revolt from the boys’ parents which, spearheaded by the fierce impulses of one mother in particular, leads to an all-out war between the US and Canada, and, in turn, the return of both Saddam Hussein and Satan to earth.
Parker and Stone have made careers from pushing the boundaries of controversy with their distinctive brand of socio-political satire by means of outlandish storylines and contentious characters. But here it’s something as simple as a fart that’s deployed to be the catalyst for not only laughter, but, more sharply, a playful jab at a multitude of issues pertinent to contemporary society, including violence, censorship, the impact of popular culture and extreme parenting methods.
In recent years, the fart gag appears to be making a valiant resurgence. In Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s 2016 offbeat flick Swiss Army Man, it isn’t some divine epiphany or existential realisation that brings Paul Dano’s Hank Thompson back from the brink of suicide, but the decaying, tooting carcass of Daniel Radcliffe whose body he uses, quite literally, to ride off towards freedom. Farts aren’t the only things that hang in the air, however, as, in a film about a corpse that also becomes an infinite source of drinking water and whose penis doubles-up as a compass, allegory is irrefutably rife, with explorations into themes of loneliness and companionship as pervasive as any pungent bodily gas.
Elsewhere, flatulence has wafted its way into the vastly unfamiliar territory of perceived high-brow cinema, as observed, albeit briefly, in the work of Oscar-winning auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and his 2012 meditation on organised religion, The Master. And, thanks to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s iconic 2004 zom-com Shaun of the Dead, the fart gag has even achieved cult status, inasmuch as it’s a single, silent fart that brings about the film’s most emotionally charged moment—bringing a tear to the eye for all the right reasons.
By cropping up in increasingly peculiar places, flatulence in film has the power to transcend vital, complex themes with both beautiful simplicity and an air of gentle mischief. Of course, farting is still funny; but it would be naïve to think that evoking giggles remains its sole function. Rather, passing wind can be poignant, meaningful, heart-breaking, and is, as crude as it might sound, about as universal as it gets. After being silenced for so long, when the fart gag hits like a breath of (not so) fresh air, it should be something to bask in. Something to cherish. Something to celebrate. Loud and proud.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.