Good movies are good; shitty movies are shitty; most of us have preferences, but we agree in our hearts on which is which; the fundamental interesting opinion about a movie, then, is “disappointing” — it shows promise but falls short. Mitchell Lichtenstein’s TEETH is a particularly enraging example of “disappointing.”
There is probably philosophy worth doing about how a movie has to fall short to qualify as disappointing. Notably excepting Jess Weixler, the lead, the acting in TEETH wasn’t great, but I wasn’t especially bothered by that, possibly because it’s a movie about a teenage girl discovering something dark about herself; it’s an inherently narcissistic premise in forgivable, possibly essential ways, and so I’m willing to let the lead carry it. Alternatively, I’m almost as insensitive to acting as I am to things like soundtrack and camera work (although the shots slamming in on holes in trees and stalactites weren’t wildly original visual jokes). And where the story fails, it’s not in the hilariously schematic treatment of how Dawn’s body count is dealt with, or of her feelings about her stapled-together family or her terminally ill mother — and here commence the spoilers, so maybe a precis of the setup is in order.
Dawn has teeth in her vagina. GOOD PREMISE. Seriously. But the problems start almost immediately thereafter.
Dawn is a high-schooler living with her mom, stepdad, and stepbrother; the family’s been this way since Dawn was very small. In the first minutes of the movie, a one-sided game of doctor with her stepbrother culminates in a minor injury, providing convenient foreshadowing and immediately setting off the first plot issue: Dawn has gone through a decade and a half or so of life without knowing that there are teeth in her vagina. Therefore, Dawn must be sexually retiring — as a necessity, not of ideology (for once), but of plot. So Dawn is an abstinence freak.
This isn’t so bad, inherently. The minor reason it is bad, in TEETH, is that the abstinence-freak community is satirized in sometimes mean and dismissive ways (not unlike my designation of “-freak,” foolish consistency being the hobgoblin etc.); there’s some truly bizarre chanting that happens at one of Dawn’s speeches, and she and the other abstainers are generally portrayed as a bit subhuman (excessively earnest, jargon-driven, unwitty), though it is emphasized that they’re unfairly reviled. I mention this stuff because I noticed it and didn’t like it, but the real issue is much more nuts-and-bolts logistics:
For the movie to work, Dawn — a girl who has spent her entire life successfully avoiding sexual contact, in conformity with a strongly held ideology that dictates she do so — has to have sexual contact five times in as many days.* In particular, she has to get sexually assaulted twice in twenty-four hours. And, for reasons passing understanding, each of those contacts must be with a person deserving of mutilation. It’s how we get here that really runs things off the rails: After Tobey’s assault brings the problem to Dawn’s awareness, she has to run into the world’s most awful gynecologist and fall into bed at a cursory show of affection from a near-total stranger, while her heretofore stable family suddenly unravels to such an extent that her stepbrother must be castrated and his penis eaten by his dog.
No amount of acting or writing can save you if you’ve got to drape it on a plot scaffold this rickety. And the pressure to get as many penises in and bloodily out of Dawn as possible forces the movie to scant the matters that this again I say REALLY GOOD PREMISE brings up, like: How does this affect how I feel about sex? (Dawn throws away her promise ring after she’s assaulted, a weird gesture that’s not well motivated or followed up on.) Can I have normal, or at least satisfying, sex? (Answer: The teeth seem to activate involuntarily in cases of unwanted sex and voluntarily whenever Dawn wants them to — i.e. they seem to be propelled by a morality very similar to that currently enshrined in law and taught in ninety-minute seminars at college orientations.) What is this condition doing to me, psychologically? (Answer: Promoting vigilante justice via sexual mutilation, which seems to be viewed as an unexamined good.) How might these acts of violence I’ve involuntarily committed affect my family or friends, especially my terminally ill mother — to say nothing of the family or friends of my victims, who might not be loathsome? (Answer: She runs away before the family gets any inkling of what’s going on, except for her stepbrother; her friends leave the picture after castration #1, which by the way isn’t even mentioned in her school, despite police activity around the discovery of the victim; her mother’s terminal illness appears to be a device whose purpose is purely to demonstrate how big an asshole the stepbrother is; her victims, again excepting her stepbrother, have neither friends nor family in evidence.) To put it starkly: This movie, which is obviously coming out against sexual exploitation of women, is itself in fact incredibly exploitative of its lead in that it subordinates every fictional consideration to the demand that the penises of horrible people be severed in her vagina. She’s made an involuntary instrument of sexual justice, regardless of the psychological cost, a bit of which Weixler manages to convey in the few blinks and stutters she’s allowed in lieu of honest examination.
I am, of course, a man; I react in certain visceral ways to the severing of penises, and it would be poor form to insist that had nothing to do with my reaction to the movie, although I can’t pinpoint its influence. If someone wanted to play a quid-pro-quo game with sexual violence against women in horror movies, I would not be able to say that the violence against men in TEETH is worse. The issue, though is that that’s a losing game, because you lead by example; “let’s see how you like it” gets us blood feuds, not progress. I suppose that’s easy for me to say; I still believe it’s true. You can, of course, argue that it’s thought-provoking, but the sexual politics of mainstream horror movies has already provoked a lot of thought, and no one seems disposed to vindicate them for that. (I do think TEETH is better than a mainstream horror movie.) But I’m most interested in TEETH because it seems like a case of form corrupting content, or maybe more broadly of morally neutral plotting decisions (e.g. showing Dawn’s teeth early in her life) having a bad impact on morally weighted decisions (e.g. making Dawn an abstinence freak and then jettisoning that constraint where it was necessary to get a few more dicks in her). Which is another way of emphasizing the burden of care on the artist: Not care to make the politics conform to a certain framework, but care to respect the humanity of the characters. That sounds pretty wishy-washy, but to a psychologist, who studies human behavior, it isn’t, and I think to a writer it isn’t either. One of the many offices of fantasy is to show us how we are in situations we cannot now imagine. When we strip characters of their human traits — their introspection, their remorse at violence, their attachment to belief — we vitiate that office, and we court harm to the readers who may view themselves as represented by those characters.
The moral responsibility of storytellers is a preoccupation of mine, but I don’t have any really well-tempered thoughts about it, so I should have shut up a few sentences ago and will do so now. Anyway, for all this, I would see TEETH, at least on your Netflix watch-instantly system. I think it’s a useful failure; I think it makes you a kind of mad worth getting, even if it isn’t what the film was going for.
* In the unlikely event that I get called on this, my count: Tobey, the OB/GYN, the gambling man, Brad, the old man in the car.