By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.
“Recently my dull life seems to have no meaning
I am stuck with someone
We’re not communicating
I want to buy
Have you been affected
I need consoling
You could be addicted”
(“Spend, Spend, Spend,” The Slits )
Consumption. Excess. Gluttony. Hoarding. Waste. Massive debt. The pathologies of capitalism are our greatest export. Endless examples of unproductive expenditure only add to our credibility as gluttons with little or no use-value. Americans consume recklessly in order to convince ourselves that we are not alienated, and that late-stage capitalism will provide for us, and fulfill our emotional needs. TV and media reflect and take part in insatiable hoarding, gluttonous consumption, and excessive production and dissemination of images that reify the very same pathologies and deadly sins they purport to expose – in a cyclical loop that I call “capitalism eating itself.”
The US has a long history of excessive gluttony and hoarding, starting with people, as one prime example. Human beings, slaves were hoarded and gluttonously exchanged for their value in capital and manufacture of products. Our historical pathology of gluttony is easily demonstrated by our origins; we are a stolen nation; a huge gobbled up land mass birthed from colonial theft, gluttony, and hoarding. America’s bloody legacy of greed, theft, and violence is one we obsessively and compulsively deny. By replacing our primal beginnings with a narrative of so-called patriotic struggle for freedom, we deny, (like hoarders deny their compulsions), our long complex history of thievery of capital, bodies, countries, vast amounts of land, commodities and wealth.
We are the United States of hoarding; our policy of national security is a policy of further unimpeded gluttony, at every sociopolitical level including seemingly endless oil wars in the Middle East, for example. We celebrate our “freedom” with a holiday of excess, waste, and gluttony in which we give thanks to our initial victims, Native Americans, with a celebration of “Thanksgiving,” ironically in the form of sanctioned gluttony. But what America best excels at is producing, consuming, and exporting televisual waste and images of excremental value.
We have thousands of TV channels available, and yet, TV programming is mostly formulaic, interchangeable, disposable, exploitative and coprophagic. We feast at the table of emotionally charged incidents and regurgitated images, for example. Think of the endlessly formulaic reenactment videos of the killing of Bin Laden or the myriad images reveling in the death of Saddam Hussein that we are forced to endure over and over, especially around the date of September 11, or virtually any date that infotainment producers can use as an excuse to drag out and “monetize” this imagery again and again. We are forced, often against our will, to watch CGI reenactments of these events.
Our emotional hoarding and gluttony extends to our televisual “family.” Like it or not, we are all subject to the endless cycle of the excessive copro-images of the saga of the death of Michael Jackson, for example, which dominated media on all visual platforms for a length of time that made even the death of Whitney Houston seem brief in terms of media saturation. These images are resurrected and regurgitated for Jackson and Houston birthdays, and again, any days, that can be hooked up to the reiteration of the pain of these victims of media saturated death. We are addicted and insatiable; and we hoard the pain of others. Like it or not, we are forced to hear about these images on chat shows endlessly, as they loop out on infotainment or news channels. We excessively consume images of dead celebrities when they were once living.
We are forcibly reminded of the birthdays of the dead, in the way we relive the painful images of 9/11, and it never goes away. We know no sense of closure. We download images or watch on TV as Michael and Whitney sing and dance for us and there is something not only exploitative, but necrophiliac in this systematic excessive exploitation of merchandised communal grief. We don’t ask for it, producers foist the consensus upon us that this programming and these images are important to repetitively consume.
Presciently, Pier Paolo Pasolini warned that television generated both demand and need, and existed primarily to create visual excrement. Specifically, Pasolini noted that globalized economic power and cultural domination were the products of televisual culture. He recognized that the culture industry, the image industry, follows a logic of what he termed as “irreason.” Writing on his last film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which he described as “Dantesque,” Pasolini wrote in his essay “A Mad Dream” that “the message [of the film] belongs in part – that of logic – to ideology, and in another part – that of irreason – to meaning. The logical message is almost always evil, lying, hypocritical, even when sincere” (Pasolini 1974).
In describing the excessive stylistic elements of Salò, Pasolini could be describing an episode of Hoarders (2009-) or any number of similar programs such as Man vs. Food (2008-), or Paula Deen’s cooking show, Paula’s Home Cooking (2002-09), or even Freaky Eaters (2010-11) and similar shows that depend upon the exploitation of excess gluttony. The experience of watching Salò mirrors the simultaneous disgust and pleasure in watching Hoarders or its spinoffs such as Hoarding: Buried Alive (2010-), and Confessions: Animal Hoarding (2010-), to say nothing of the astonishingly exploitational Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (2012-), which chronicles the misadventures of a family of “hillbillies,” complete with many shots of human and animal feces, who reside in the American South in lovingly documented squalor (the show itself being a spinoff from the equally repellent Toddlers & Tiaras (2009-), which documents the exploitational world of child beauty pageants).
Each of these television shows represents a direct assault on the spectator, and derives its motivational force from the supposed superiority the viewer feels towards the subjects being presented. This echoes Pasolini’s strategy in constructing Salò, of which he wrote that “in every shot it can be said I set myself the problem of driving the spectator to feeling intolerant and immediately afterwards relieving him of that feeling” (Pasolini 1974). One witnesses a scene in intimate detail, and yet is ultimately, and almost immediately, removed from it.
As Christopher Sharrett notes, “Pasolini’s idea of coprophagia (his metaphor for capitalist consumption) pointed to the idea that coprophagia is basic (and catastrophic) to life under capital,” a concept these television programs hungrily embrace and exploit (Sharrett 2012).
Popular TV is indeed coprophagic and cannibalistic in this way; TV is largely feces, our own regurgitated feces, which we ultimately pay to eat. While Pasolini worked to radically expose this phenomenon, shows such as Hoarders exploit and engage in coprophagia for better ratings, ultimately supporting gluttonous capitalism.
The TV series Hoarders emphasizes that hoarding is a mental illness supposedly suffered by only a small percentage of Americans. Also frequently espoused is the notion that hoarding can be “cured” by TV psychologists. These TV shows depend upon the exploitation of hoarders and their excessively filthy over-stuffed homes. Notably, however is the fact that the TV “psychiatrists and clutter experts” usually fail to cure anyone in the allotted TV timeslot, or the series.
Thus, as numerous bloggers and critics suggest, mental illness is invoked not only in order to pathologize the disgusting hoarder, but more importantly, it is used to affirm the normalcy of bourgeois gluttony and consumption. By insisting that hoarding is a psychological problem of a few freaks that can be fixed, specifically using strategies borrowed from the TV show Intervention (2005-), Hoarders insists that viewers feel morally superior in their spending and living habits.
Hoarding programs formulaically depend upon shocking and repetitive “reveals” of coprophagia (fecal matter) found in the wreckage of hoarder’s homes. Fecal matter is very important as an Othering device in these films. As Sharrett writes, “the notion of feces as a major signifier of capital, from industrial food to the degradation of the subject, has been recognized by mass culture” (Sharrett 2012). In Hoarders, we are repeatedly subjected to images of cat feces, rat feces, human feces, skeletons of dead cats, and even the tears on the faces of broken family members, underscored by downbeat and frightening music leitmotifs borrowed from horror films.
But the pathologization of hoarders and their feces-laden homes is deeply suspect, especially given the fact that hoarders are in a way, really, really good at being capitalist subjects. They cannot control their consumption. They are so good at purchasing things that it has taken over their lives. But in another way they disrupt capitalism, in that they usually do not appear to produce anything. Most of them do not appear to hold jobs.
In this area, they do not perform capitalism properly as workers who report to bosses and help produce product, with the notable exception of the product of the exploitation TV that their lives provide. While they do not “work” for wages, however, they spend their days “working” at the job of hoarding, a job that commits them to hours of compulsive spending, moving and hauling and stacking goods, and maintaining their environs of excess. They do not normally produce, but the TV shows turn them into both producers and product, in an instance of capitalism essentially eating itself.
But these shows are not about exploring the widespread American economy of gluttonous consumption and the resulting ecological disaster of over-expenditure and waste. Instead, the emphasis is always on the most exploitative: fecal shots, dead animal carcasses, and other exploitative gross-out shots. Gross-out shots include images of the hoarders, often morbidly obese, scantily clad, immobile, toothless, unclean, distressed, uncared for, alone, and in tremendous psychological and physical pain, deeply shamed and saddened, wandering hopelessly around their homes of mise-en-merde.
While hoarding programs purport to be about helping the mentally ill; turn the sound off and these shows reveal themselves to be mean-spirited intervention and harassment of severely depressed people in excessive pain who are subject to the scrutiny of perky clutter experts and intrusive camera crews, not to mention the scrutiny and scathing critiques of a mass audience of TV viewers who feel themselves to be morally, psychologically, and physically superior to the exploited hoarders.
I find it telling, however, that a significant and time-consuming aspect of the life of the gluttonous hoarder is carefully excised from these narratives. Absent is the most crushing and significant “work” of the consumer, that of gleaning, collecting, and hoarding. Off-screen and denarrated, oddly, are any shots of the hoarders actually shopping and spending or actively taking part in consumption. Buying. Purchasing. Walking around in malls. Parking in the football field sized paved lots that surround the shopping centers.
Where are the shots of compulsive hoarders driving around in personal carts meant for the handicapped? (So burdened by excessive weight or other health problems, many hoarders are limited in their ability to move.) Where are the shots of these consumers in a spending haze, their eyes aglow as they take part in the supposed dream of freedom under capitalism; freedom of choice to spend, and being met with perhaps too many choices? Where are the televised sequences of shots of the compulsive spenders in their motorized carts, crowding the aisles of Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, or other retail stores? Odd then, that the consumption aspect of capitalist gluttony (purchasing and shopping) is specifically and purposefully made absent and only the results of over expenditure visually assault the viewer.
But think about it. If ten or fifteen trucks are needed to typically “empty” these homes of their material goods and garbage, where did this “stuff” come from? There is always a formulaic sequence of a “shocking” procession of trucks departing from the homes of the hoarders, supposedly full of their accumulated detritus. The narrator repeatedly emphasizes the alarmingly high, often unbelievable, number of trucks it takes to clean out the cluttered home and make it habitable. We take it on faith that the trucks are actually filled with waste from the homes of the subjects. They may well be empty vehicles playing the role of a formulaic trope common to any hoarding or decluttering “intervention” program.
Thus the pleasure of spending remains unquestioned and replaced by the vision of a platoon of leaving trucks and their crew, who have seemingly come to the rescue of the depraved and pathetic, filthy Other. In reality, most Americans who over-consume are left with shattered families, crushing debt, and foreclosure: no Disney-like procession of declutter experts with an icy, almost militarist methodology of waste removal, will save them in reality. No procession of magical removal trucks or clutter experts can save those who are underwater, no easy solution exists to waive away their credit card debt and the disastrous results of their wasteful spending habits.
But Hoarders is specifically designed to escape thinking about reality and replace our problems with the voyeuristic pleasures of feeling temporarily secure; secure in our knowledge that we are not ill, not hyper-consumers, and somehow not responsible for our excessive spending. It is crucial that we feel superior to the out-of-control hoarder who is repeatedly mired in fecal matter to the point that they are metaphorically fecal and they live in toilets. No matter how bad off we are, no matter how bad our credit, our compulsive spending, our fiscal status, above all Hoarders makes the viewer secure in the knowledge that they are most assuredly not fecal matter and not living in toilets.
The denarration of compulsive consumption and excess shopping forces us to feel as if we are not looking at a mirror, but I suggest that we are. We are, like spectators of Pasolini’s Salò, both “feeling intolerant” and “immediately afterwards relieved of that feeling.” We are forced to think that that person onscreen cannot possibly be just like us. By specifically excluding shopping behavior, the producers are far more effective at exploiting and Othering the hoarder as freak.
It is extremely important to exclude shots of hyper-consumption, as these might be construed as a critique of capitalism; but more importantly, such shots would allow us to identify with the hoarders. Every capitalist subject consumes. That is one of our jobs, shopping is a “full time job,” as recently pointed out by humorist Louis C.K. If we identified with freaky hoarders, we would not be able to take part in their exploitation and feel superior as human beings and superior as consumers.
Identification with the subject would undermine both the motives of the TV producers behind these shows and potentially also the high viewer ratings. Hoarders does well in the ratings not just in the premiere screenings episodes, but especially in perpetual reruns; and this is where the real money is in television. The producers have a significant fiscal reason to force us into a submissive posture of “not being able to look away.” We must take part in, and by extension enjoy, the exploitation of the hoarders. We must stick around and consume the advertisements, or we would risk breaking the cycle of capitalist-fascist self-exploitation.
Think of the expression, “must see TV,” which implies an order, or command. TV programming is not offered up as optional freely chosen escapist fare. It is served up as must eat TV, must consume TV, must not look away TV, don’t change that channel TV, you-can’t-look-away TV. Thus TV is coprophagic, forced down our throats in a way again captured presciently in Pasolini’s work. There is an unspoken fascist aesthetic and motive behind this sort of programming.
Countless viewers attest to the fact that they feel forced to watch shows such as Hoarders, usually comparing the show to a horrible car crash; “you can’t look away.” You want to turn the channel, but feel you cannot. Just in case you may turn the channel, the ads are interspersed with shockingly exploitative bumpers and teasers that implore you, indeed command you to “stay tuned,” for more shocking moments promised as a reward for sticking around during commercial breaks.
In Hoarders, the bumpers and teasers for the program include materials of the most exploitative nature; hoarders weeping and shocked by the seemingly sudden discovery that they live in mounds of their own waste, tight close-ups on the faces of family members who act shocked upon first glimpsing bathrooms filled with years of excrement, close-ups of animal carcasses found in the rubble that are accented by music cues reminiscent of the music used by Bernard Herrmann in Psycho (1960).
The editing moves between emotionally heart-tugging pathos for the hoarder, who formulaically conveys a story of significant suffering or personal loss that led directly to their hoarding behavior, and punches to the stomach, excessive and repetitive shock-cuts to feces or other bodily waste as it is uncovered under massive piles of consumer goods and garbage throughout the homes of hoarders. But look closely and look against the grain and one can find a buried critique of consumption in Hoarders, one that can easily be missed. In the hoarders’ homes, emphatically, all is waste. Amidst the rubble, excrement and garbage strewn about, everything is reduced to garbage, even unopened merchandise with tags still unremoved and perfectly “good” or recycleable consumer goods of all types. If all is waste, then the absent scenes of shopping are actually absent because they betray the fact that we buy waste, and shopping is yet another act of coprophagia. Yes, it stands to reason that if all is waste, we as a nation are compulsive coprophagic spenders, addicted to purchasing unnecessary waste.
It seems as if some who watch Hoarders do recognize the program’s accidental critique of consumption. Many blogs and comments about the show include testimonials from people who, after watching the show, immediately scrutinize their own homes, and, recognizing their own over-consumption, give away unused material goods, hold massive yard sales, or begin to more carefully scrutinize their spending habits. Personally, I can attest to the fact that the program always makes me go on a cleaning spree. What can I give to the Goodwill? Do I really need these things, I ask?
But it remains to be seen whether we are reacting to the disgust we have towards the crowded filthy homes and their psychologically ill inhabitants, or if our behavior is the unconscious result of the program’s accidental critique of consumption? Probably, for most it is the result of the latter. There is also a formulaic off-screen olfactory trope of disgust, as workers and family members describe the stench of the rubble while they clamber around in piles of waste holding their noses. Often workers and family members throw up because of the smell. These images of nausea are “gets” that are frequently used and reused in bumpers and shock edits.
Read against the grain and consumed analytically, I suggest that these images are possibly understood as reflections of our gluttonous collective unconscious as late-capitalist American consumers. After all, are not most Americans just as addicted to consumption as the typical hoarder? We are conditioned to believe subconsciously that consumption replaces human relationships and fulfills our needs.
Televisual images and programming reinforce patriotic shibboleths such as “freedom isn’t free,” and we send our youth to die in wars largely so that we are free to purchase products and free to excessively consume. We hoard and consume at a pace that is nearly incalculable, yet most of the country is poor, hopelessly in debt, morbidly obese, and ill. Non-hoarders simply differ in their ability to dispose of things, simply adding to the pollution of the planet in a further example of eco-gluttony and waste.
Recession TV programming works hard at holding onto and affirming long lost American dreams of middle-class existence. It is important to the capitalist mindset to maintain the myth that Americans are ruled by an elected government rather than multinational corporations, and most importantly, the notion that we can spend our way out of the current economic recession, or meet our emotional needs by overindulging ourselves with yet more purchasing. Always ahead of his time, Pasolini described the coprophagia scenes in Salò as a critique of the processed food industry. One of the strangest phenomena I can think of during this deep economic recession is the rise of the food-porn industry, dominated by, but not limited to, the Food Network.
In the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when the media wasn’t yet completely corporate controlled, Americans got a glimpse of reality, especially in newsreels that featured scenes of poverty-stricken Americans standing on bread lines. Now, deep in the throes of a Great Recession, Americans are subjected to the excessive imagery of unhealthy food in programs presided over by “celebrity chefs” such as Paula Deen, who specializes in the most calorie-laden “comfort foods.” Affecting a “down home” faux Southern accent, Paula Deen is famous for deep frying and licking her fingers. She flirts with the audience like an extra from a cartoon of Dante’s Third Circle of Hell in Divine Comedy: “Gluttony.”
No overindulgence is too much for the kitchen of Paula Deen. Probably her most famous recipe is for a deep fried hamburger on a bun made of doughnuts. Yet perhaps Paula Deen offers us another tiny glimpse of our collective unconscious, which whispers to us that we can eat endlessly without repercussions, and even aspire to be super wealthy like Paula, who works very hard to establish that she is just like all of us.
In Dante’s Third Circle, Deen would be “forced to lie in a vile slush produced by ceaselessly foul icy rain,” not too far from the wealthy and corporate hoarders, who are sitting on vast amounts of capital and end up in Dante’s Fourth Circle of the Inferno: “Greed.” In a passage that captures the essence of corporate greed and the 1% of Americans who own far more capital than 99% of us, Virgil describes the greedy rich as “those who raise the nations to greatness, and later plunges them into poverty, as [they] shift empty goods from nation unto nation.”
If indeed “corporations are people too,” Paula Deen is certainly wealthy enough to be considered a corporation. Indeed, as an entity she is branded and incorporated, but she is also a public role model and an obese celebrity who recently announced that she has known for years that she has diabetes. In a perfect example of capitalism eating itself, with her announcement of her diabetes diagnosis, came the news that she and her son are paid spokespersons for a new diabetes drug.
Diabetes can be viewed as a metaphor for late-stage capitalism. In diabetics, the body gets so much sugar that insulin can no longer be produced effectively and eventually, if not treated, the organs and even the vision of the diabetic is shut down. Similarly, many, many Americans are overweight, underwater in their mortgages, out of control in their spending; and debt and capitalism would appear to be currently imploding, as the economy remains unable to balance itself. With jobs scarce, the excessive televisual display of lavish food, homes, and other basics that are denied to most, seems particularly sadistic, yet it is wildly popular and remains mostly unexamined.
Capitalism came to its knees in the recent recession as a result of capitalism eating itself in a manner not unlike the way the body shuts down from diabetes. The economy simply could no longer ingest any more bad debt, credit default swaps, undercapitalized loans, mortgages, and a myriad of specious fiscal trading activities. Even after some of the corporate banking scandals were exposed, many of these bad debt swaps and specious corporate trades still remain in practice; repacked mortgage derivatives are still sold, and like the early video game Pac-Man, gluttonous corporations exist to eat one another; capitalism eating itself.
As American consumers we care little about the working conditions in Chinese factories, for example. Marxist ideas such as workers uniting and uprising are dismissed as anti-American and equated with the so-called evils of socialism. Additionally, we are conditioned to hate the working class, and aspire to the greed and gluttony of the much-celebrated Donald Trump and other mega-capitalist tycoons.
Naturally, patriotism is aligned with gluttony. In 2011, the producers of Captain America: The First Avenger (itself a blatant recruitment tool for the military) were looking for a fresh ad campaign, because audiences were fatigued by a surplus of superhero films. How to sell regurgitated patriotism back to Americans? Comfort food! The studio set up corporate tie-ins with Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and other fast-food franchises. And it worked! Apparently, “America [does] run on Dunkin,” or as Pasolini might say, capitalism “is almost always lying, hypocritical even when sincere.” A Marxist televisual project might include TV shows about corporate greed and the pathologies of the wealthy 1%. But we generally don’t humiliate the rich, nor do we pathologize them as “mentally ill.”
Corporations and wealthy individuals are currently hoarding the greatest amount of cash ever recorded, but they simply don’t make good exploitation TV. They are not easily exhibited in houses full of excrement, trash, and emotional pain. Indeed, it is interesting that Two and a Half Men, one of the top-rated sitcoms on television, features Ashton Kutcher as a billionaire (one of the 1%) living and closely bonding like family with a homeless father, Jon Cryer (representative of the 99%). This highly unrealistic scenario is a perfect tool of capitalist media; in fact, I’d argue that Two and a Half Men is perhaps even more coprophilic than Hoarders. It is an excellent example of Pasolini’s “irreason,” in that it reifies the myth that the wealthy love the poor and routinely take care of the homeless.
As consumers in the system of capitalism, we are conditioned to love our oppressor, and to take on more debt. Perhaps we are subject to Pasolini’s notion of “irreason” most aggressively during the “Christmas season,” which now extends from late summer until late January. During this season, “the most wonderful time in of the year,” corporations use TV to exploit our most basic emotional need: to be loved. Kay Jewelers, for example, co-opts romance and insists that we buy their diamonds with the slogan, “every kiss begins with Kay.” I don’t think so. Endless Christmas advertisements insist that we aspire to a happy, loving, wealthy nuclear family that simply does not exist for many, or most people.
We Americans are constantly reminded in the news that the patriotic, good thing to do during the Christmas season is spend as much as possible to help the bottom line of the economy (i.e. giant multinational corporations). Despite crushing personal debt, we are just as addicted to spending as hoarders; we simply deny the reality of our gluttony. It’s called shopping. We break down the doors on “Black Friday” to purchase flat screen televisions, and if someone gets trampled to death in the process, it’s just too bad. We want what we want when we want it, and we want it now. It is our job, our patriotic duty, and yet after Christmas, so many feel empty, devoid, the dream unfulfilled, our emotional needs unmet.
Take the case of a television program called My 600-lb Life (2012), in which we are introduced to a woman who is so obese that she can barely move. The camera objectifies her morbidly obese body from every angle. In some ways this show is like Hoarders; it provides intervention in the form of weight-reduction surgery. At the beginning of the show, we are subject to a panoply of repellent “reveal” shots of fat spilling into endless folds of her body, followed by repugnant close-ups of bloody fat tissue and skin being removed from her body. Here, fat is seen as a visual form of excrement. There are many shots of the subject excessively eating unhealthy portions of unhealthy food complete with rapid-edit extreme close-ups of food going into her mouth as she eats her way towards certain death.
Midway into the show, at 220 pounds, she repeatedly calls herself “thin,” even as she still appears morbidly obese, just more mobile than she was at 600 pounds. Inexplicably, she becomes obsessed with becoming pregnant, and after a miscarriage, she finally gives birth. “This child will grow up fat,” she says; “she has the genes for it,” effectively damning the child to a family pathology of obesity before she can even speak. Unable to face her own gluttony, the 600-pound woman blames genetics, demonstrating the cyclical and depraved nature of another pathology of excessive consumption, and passes this pathology on to her offspring.
Thus, this woman, like our society, continues to devour herself onscreen; a hoarder not only of food, but also of her own excess weight, and of her pathological desire to consume. Thus capitalism, in the final analysis, does eat itself; and it becomes bigger, and bigger, until it finally explodes in a hail of excrement, fat, and hyperconsumption, leaving the detritus of excess all over our living room TV screens.
Television that depends upon the exploitation of gluttony brings to mind not just Salò, but perhaps even more interestingly, a film about a group of friends who inexplicably eat themselves to death, a 1973 French–Italian film directed by Marco Ferreri, La grande abbuffata, known more popularly under its French title La Grande Bouffe. Perhaps no film better conveys the depravity of consumption than La Grande Bouffe in which four upper middle class men, played by Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret retreat to a country house and begin gorging themselves on carefully prepared food.
Their wretched excess knows no boundaries, and many critics thought the film was meant as a black comedy in which the men constantly and disgustingly over-eat to the point that they begin belching, farting and uncontrollably defecating on themselves. Many insisted that it was a black comedy, missing the whole point of the film, which is an indictment of excess and consumption and equates capitalism with coprophagia.
La Grande Bouffeis no comedy, even if the walls are running with excrement, the toilet explodes as a result of the men’s gluttony, two men are hung like dead animals to be eaten in the freezer, a pâté of excrement and meat is prepared and eaten, and one man, a diabetic, is masturbated by a woman while he is being fed a disgusting meal of pâté excrement (?) in an effort to bring him death. In the beginning of the film, as we enter into the realm of the utterly claustrophobic and surreal nightmare of gluttony, we are tempted to chuckle as endless disgusting and expensive animal carcasses and gourmet foodstuffs are delivered to the chateau to be prepared and eaten, not knowing precisely yet what Ferreri has in store for us.
When the eating begins we wonder, “are these men just having fun, or are they committing suicide?” But Ferreri insisted that it’s not suicide. Our only reference point might be a Buñuel film, but such a reading would be a mistake. There is no easy answer, because the film operates more like a Marxist tract of experimentation and inquiry than a narrative fiction film, or even a surrealist or symbolist film. Perhaps a key scene is one in which the bloated men all fall in to a bed together, belching and defecating and eating, a tableau vivant of the vestiges of endless consumption and coprophagia.
The men invite some hookers over, and there is consumption of sex combined with even more nonstop eating, but even the hookers quickly become disgusted by the defecation, regurgitation, belching and incessant eating on the part of the men and quickly leave the premises. Ferreri offers no explanation, but obviously, these men are products of late-stage capitalism, and they can no longer enjoy the pleasures of sex, even if provided willingly by women. They are preoccupied with legs of lamb when real pleasure, even if it is commodified by prostitution, is available to them in the form of willing carnal women who desire sex, not food. But the men can only eat and prepare food and eat more and stuff food down one another’s throats.
Soon the visions of the men eating are so repellent that we begin to see that Ferreri is using gluttony as a metaphor for capitalism: specifically it is used in the film as a metaphor for capitalism eating itself, the men are devouring themselves as we devoir ourselves in a meaningless society of consumption and gluttony. Midway through the film, the men invite a schoolteacher, Andrea (Andréa Ferréol) to join them in their gastronomic orgy, and unlike the prostitutes who vanished early on, Andrea stays to the bitter end of the film, and is the only one who survives this fatal feast.
One of the ways Ferreri codes these men as embodiments of something larger and more ominous than ordinary men just recklessly eating, is the décor of the house to which they retreat. It is overstuffed with Orientalist carpets, tapestries, ornaments and over-consumption that represents European colonialist junkets that themselves represent gluttony, coprophagia, and the utter contempt the director has for colonial gluttony.
This chateau of ceaseless consumption represents the hundreds of years of colonial greed and theft of wealth from other nations that itself supported European economies, and this colonialist greed is Europe’s legacy to America, once it’s own set of colonies. Ferreri uses coprophagia as a metaphor for late-stage capitalism in a similar manner to that of Pasolini, but Pasolini’s films, such as Salò are far more direct in their critique of fascism and capitalism. Ferreri, however, makes it clear that in buying into the gluttony of capitalism, we are murdering ourselves. It is not outside sources of fascism that are out to destroy us, it is our own fascist gluttony; capitalism eating itself is here a metaphor for self destruction that is neither suicidal, nor homicidal.
For the most part, however, the film was too difficult and prescient for the contemporary critics, although as Maurizio Viano notes, some “leftist critics saw La Grande Bouffe as the horrendous metaphor of bourgeois accumulation and entropy” (Viano 2004: 196), a reading that Ferreri encouraged by being as curt and dismissive of alternative readings of the film as possible, responding sarcastically to questions he deemed unworthy of response. He was a difficult man as obsessed with food as Pasolini was obsessed with sex. Indeed, Umberto Eco went so far as to call Ferreri a “madman” (as qtd. in Viano 2004: 196), but to me, his commentary on the excesses of civilization and capitalism seem entirely on the mark, and as clear as one can possibly imagine.
The brutal consumption on display in La Grande Bouffe is a result of never questioning the viability or value of a system designed around greed, gluttony, and the exploitation of the Other, even if that Other is ourself. Nothing could make that metaphor more clear than Hoarders or the sad, depraved, excessive gluttony of La Grande Bouffe. Capitalists eat themselves to death or consume themselves to death, and consuming such programming is itself a coprophagic act. Thus, they enact the late stages of the passing of a society based upon endless wastage, consumption, and unfulfilled desire, a society that embraces its own alienation, a society based only upon the demand for more, more, more, no matter what the consequences might be.
I wish to thank Christopher Sharrett for encouraging me to write about Hoarders, and also for our illuminating and informative discussions centering around the relationship between capitalism and coprophagia.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an Editor of the journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her books include A Short History of Film (2008, with Wheeler Winston Dixon), Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Performing Whiteness (2003), Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader (2002), and Captive Bodies: Postcolonial Subjectivity in the Cinema (1999).
Alighieri, Dante (1308-1321), Divine Comedy.
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Sharrett, Christopher (2012), “Pasolini’s Legacy: The Human Centipede and European Extreme Horror,” paper presented at the Popular Conference Association, Boston, Mass., April 22.
Slits, The (1979), “Spend, Spend, Spend” from the album Cut, Island Records, London and Jamaica.
Viano, Maurizio (2004), “La Grande Abbuffata (La Grande Bouffe),” The Cinema of Italy, Giorgio Bertellini, ed., London: Wallflower, pp. 193-201.