This post is basically a written version of a talk that I gave at the British Film Institute last night (Thursday 22 November 2018), as part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series, and where This is Spinal Tap played as part of their Comedy Genius season.
Other speakers at the event were Lucy Bolton of QMUL and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Some of the below feeds a bit on what they said, and I hope here to acknowledge as much.
Now, to offer up an analysis of a comedy naturally lends itself to immediate charges of spoiling the humour and not allowing audiences simply to enjoy the film. But there we go. Hopefully what follows is a fairly cogent reading of the movie.
And this reading relates to the film’s treatment of hardness and softness, as well as to the relationship between 1 and 0, or the line and the hole, the phallic and the vaginal, the solid and the void – with my argument being that comedy can put us in touch with the void, making it a transformative experience.
For, transformative human experiences all necessarily involve an openness to the outside. Without such an openness, we would be closed off and we would not change. When we are open to the outside, we change, we learn, we become.
We can think of this quite easily in relation to our mouths. Not just in the sense of opening our mouths to live by eating, drinking and breathing. But we also open our mouths when we experience orgasm, when we die, and when we experience something new. Along the lines of the jaw dropping open and we say to ourselves ‘oh yeah,’ as we realise something for the first time.
Each of these experiences involves contact with the outside, with the new, and each involves us learning, developing, changing, becoming.
The same applies, then, to laughter: when we laugh, we experience an openness to the outside. And as much can be understood by the word comedy itself – since the term implies withness (co-) and contact (media), or commedia as they say in Italian. Contact with otherness, with the outside, it tickles us, our mouths open, and we develop as human beings.
And yet we live in a world in which we try to close ourselves off from and to avoid contact with the outside: erecting walls, creating borders and boundaries, hiding in cars, behind screens, not talking to strangers, putting concrete over nature, living indoors and so on. Individualism, too, would suggest the desire to close oneself off from others.
And to build walls, etc, is to create a hard world with hard edges and clear definitions, rather than a soft world of overlaps, contact, vagueness (as per the waves/vagues of the sea) and more. Comedy is a soft form, while seriousness is hard.
Music, meanwhile, can a bit of both of these things. Music can bring people together, but it can also be a hard, aggressive and scary medium. Think of how drums have been used by many peoples to demarcate their territory, and think of how loud music is often defined as a ‘wall of sound.’ Indeed, rock and metal music both suggest hardness.
And this hardness is typically male and phallic.
And so it is that This is Spinal Tap charts a tension between the hard and the soft. This is not simply a question of hard rock music. But it also can be seen in how the band plays around with hardness, aspiring to hardness and to a solid masculinity.
Examples abound in the film, but several include the cricket bat that band manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) carries around with him, the band’s famous Stone Henge set, the album cover of Intravenus de Milo, the proposed Smell the Glove cover, and the tin foil-covered vegetable that bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) keeps down his trousers.
Repeatedly, the band strives for hardness – as also is made clear by the band’s name: Spinal Tap. For, the spine is itself a hard, vertical series of bones that keep the human upright.
And yet, every attempt that the band has at becoming hard/male/phallic/vertical is somehow thwarted. Ian doesn’t really use the cricket bat; the Stone Henge set is comically small; Intravenus de Milo is derided (as is Shark Sandwich, which in being described as ‘shit sandwich’ conveys a softness that the band otherwise tries to escape); Smell the Glove is temporarily shelved as a result of the proposed cover; Derek is humiliated by an airport security staff member when he tries to pass through a metal detector with his would-be massive cock. As Alice Pember also pointed out after the film, when they first arrive in New York, the band is greeted by their driver (Bruno Kirby) with a sign saying ‘Spinal Pap.’
Perhaps an exemplary image of this desire for solidity comes early in the film at the band’s tour launch party, where a mime (Dana Carvey) offers food to guests. Berated later by Billy Crystal (‘mime is money’), the mime signals the round 0 of his mouth and feigns the gesture of eating.
Where the mime tries to pretend that there is something solid where in fact there is only empty space, so does this mime gesture to the hole, to the 0 while seeming to signal a 1. This Crystal image, then, is a crystallisation in some senses of This is Spinal Tap itself: mime, like the band, wants to be money/capital/solid, but in fact it is an empty hole.
We can even return to the name of the band itself: while the spine might keep the human upright and hard, a tap is a vent hole. In other words, while tap also makes us think of drums (the tapping of the drum), it equally is an open hole, an orifice that makes the spine porous rather than solid and upright.
Perhaps the exploding drummers in the band also suggest a porous humanity, with drumming itself punching holes in a wall of sound that otherwise aspires to be solid.
That solidity is to do with modernity and in particular the sound that is afforded by electricity and the electric guitar – even as that sound is also punctured by the radio signals that are picked up by the wireless set on the lead guitar of Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest).
It perhaps also is to do with a nascent digital age, as we see keys player Viv Savage (David Kaff) playing a computer game on the band’s tour bus.
And yet, what is the digital? The digital is defined by binary code – that is, by 1s and 0s. By a combination of the phallic (1) and the vaginal (0).
And yet, as the band aspires towards being hard, it aspires only towards being phallic – and so instead of playing at 10, the band instead wants to replace the 0 and, as Nigel so famously explains, play at 11. In other words, the band wants to play only the phallic (11) and not the phallic and the vaginal (10).
The two-fingered horn gesture so beloved of rock fans (🤟) also suggests an exclusive masculinity: men only (1–1) – as is made clear by the band and their rejection of women (or at least Nigel’s rejection of Jeanine, played by June Chadwick, who is the partner of lead singer David St Hubbins, played by Michael McKean).
This all-male phallic club is also suggested as somehow demonic, perhaps even satanic when we link the horn gesture to the devil, whose horned head also functions as a backdrop to many of the band’s gigs.
It is not that rock music is literally the work of the devil. More, in its desire to be hard, all male, phallic and solid, it excludes the soft and so is a perversion of nature. It is patriarchal. It is patriarchy.
If modernity is the era of 1 (individuality, walls, exclusivity, masculinity, patriarchy), then the digital era involves something different – the advent of a 0, the advent of death, the advent of enlightenment, the becoming that is part of the 0 of the open mouth as it comes into contact with the outside.
(Perhaps it is for this reason that musicians like Lars Ulrich of Metallica were so against digital-era technologies like Napster: their patriarchal masculinity was threatened by the advent of the 0, the desire to make money over the desire to share.)
And This is Spinal Tap may be a film that comes out ahead of the digital era in its fullest manifestation (although as mentioned, the presence of the computer game, notably played by Viv, the weirdest and perhaps softest of the band members), but it is a film that itself is in touch with 0, hence functioning as a comedy.
(Notably, the film is not a nasty comedy, either. It is not phallic and mean towards its would-be phallic characters. Instead we have a lot of time for David, Nigel, Derek and the others – because the film in fact shows their softness even as they aspire to be hard. They want to be phallic spines, but we see also their invertebrate, fearful side – much as Derek at one point gets trapped inside a vaginal pod on stage that otherwise he wishes to escape.)
It was the philosopher Duns Scotus who first wrote of haecceity as a form of ‘thisness.’ That is, haecceity refers to uniqueness and the individuality of things. In some senses, then, haecceity relates to defining things and separating them off from the rest of the world. Or giving to things the form of a 1.
To announce ‘this is Spinal Tap,’ then, is to announce the ‘thisness’ of the band, or their aspirations towards being a 1. And yet what really is ‘this’ when we look at Spinal Tap?
The band may aspire to create a wall of sound as they take us on a jazz odyssey, but really they made their name with their flower power hits from the 1960s (when the band was known as the Thamesmen).
That is, their softer numbers were what made them famous… and as the band tries to cling to fame, so they become harder and harder, undergoing a sclerosis that does not go with the flow (as all flow-ers otherwise do). Or rather, they seek not to go with the flow and instead to be in control… but like all human lives, theirs, too, is a catalogue of errors, a series of failures to escape time, change, becoming, 0 and flow. And in recognising their failed attempts to escape time, we can perhaps recognise our own hubristic desire not to die – and so we laugh, since in the comic moment we do indeed come into contact with a little bit of death.
The clown is a twisted clone. That is, in the pursuit of cloning, humans attempt to live forever and to defeat time, since we will be able to repeat our lives over and over and never die. This is the phallic, patriarchal and planet-destroying quest to become what Noah Yuval Harari might term homo deus.
The clown, meanwhile, is a bit like the clone – but also different, in the sense that the clown like the mime mimics/clones reality, but in such a way that reality is presented to us as if new. That is, reality itself becomes new, soft and a force of becoming/change/time (0), rather than something hardened and never-changing and which, petrified, escapes the ravages of time (1).
The clown – who always speaks truth to power (itself a system of 1) – thus presents us not with reality as we want it to be (under control) but as it is (out of our control, changing us). The clown gives us comedy and a little bit of death (which is why people can also often be afraid of clowns, and why the clown has indeed become something to fear in our era of never wanting to die and seeking permanent life).
Cinema itself might be a tool for presenting idealised versions of ourselves back to us – a tool for escaping the ravages of time as we become permanent in images, or, to take Roy Scranton‘s twist on Harari’s homo deus, to become light, or homo lux.
But if much cinema wants to do this – to show us as permanent and never-changing, halting change – cinema can also show to us change itself, as well as being a force of change. Cinema, then, can be a clone of reality, a virtual world in which we hide from time, death and becoming (1). Or it can be a clown that reminds us that we are all going to die (0) and that our efforts to escape death (1) indeed constitute the human comedy.
Indeed, in the language of Henri Bergson, comedy is essentially the exposition of le mécanique plaqué sur du vivant, or the mechanical mask that we aspire to put on living flesh, the hardness that we use to cover our softness, which, in being exposed as precisely a mask shows us our inner softness.
With This is Spinal Tap, cinema is thus a indeed clown – and this is part of the film’s power.
If the statuesque and petrified Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims in his movies that he’ll ‘be back,’ what he suggests is a desire to become rock solid, hard bodied, permanent and never-changing. To seek always to be back – i.e. to have a spine – is to seek always to return, to control time, not to die.
This is Spinal Tap, though, taps/puts a hole (0) in that spine (1) and takes us into a less vertebrate realm. The film passingly references The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978), thus situating itself knowingly in the genre of the concert film, the music documentary, or what director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) calls the rockumentary. By extension, the film is also a backstage musical, i.e. showing us behind the scenes of the spectacles that we otherwise see on stage.
One of the great music documentaries is D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (USA, 1967), a film that takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s controversial tour to the UK in 1965 (and during which he also tried to solidify his music style by playing electric guitar).
Backness – or the spine – is key to music and films about it. In asking us not to look back, Pennebaker suggests how it is perhaps best not to peer too hard into the life of Dylan, or else we might discover that the legend is just a man – and one who quite deliberately seeks to erect his phallic identity (the would-be 1 of Bob Dylan as opposed to Robert Allen Zimmerman, the musician’s birth name).
Pennebaker’s film opens with a tracking shot of Dylan walking from his dressing room and on to the stage, thus announcing that his film has access to Dylan backstage, as well as access to how he constructs his onstage front. This is Spinal Tap, meanwhile, follows the band around backstage – only for them never to find the stage and thus not to get to the front.
While the film does allow Nigel and the band a final Japanese comeback (Spinal Tap are back!), in showing that they are only back (only backstage?), This is Spinal Tap deconstructs their spinal/solid/phallic aspirations, their thisness, their haecceity, their addiction to the spine – as expressed in David’s lyric in the typically puerile ‘Big Bottom’: ‘how can I leave this behind?’
Although there were numerous mockumentaries prior to Spinal Tap, with Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (Spain, 1933) being perhaps one of the earliest and best known, This is Spinal Tap nonetheless remains perhaps the landmark mockumentary, the film that defines the genre.
In this way, the film is an event, perhaps unique, and in this it is arguably itself a 1. However, in being a film that softens the distinctions between fiction and documentary, it is also a soft film, a film that has a 0 in addition to its 1, and which thus constitutes an openness to the outside.
It is this openness to the outside, its own open-mouthed 0, that makes the film new, and thus a landmark film, even if it is not the first of its kind. As all 1s must be born from 0s (vaginas), then so do we see that 0 is (without wishing to be too heteronormative) the defining feature of human life. The film is a 0, or a cipher, that allows us to deconstruct the 1 of phallic, patriarchal society.
What is more, the film would seem to allow Nigel to come to understand this, as he progresses from wearing his skeleton t-shirt that depicts his hard, vertebrate self to professing that he likes tinned tuna because it has no bones.
No bones about it: This is Spinal Tap is a great film, and it is so because of its softness, including both the softness of and the film’s softness towards its character, as well as the softness of the film’s structure as we do not phallically/linearly progress along a solid line, but instead meander about, get lost, find new things, have chance encounters, and in the process open our mouths, laugh, let the outside in, die a little (oh/0 to die laughing!), and become new, wiser people as a result of our encounter with the clown.
The digital era may yet be the era of comedy, where we learn to live with our planet rather than destroy it, and to live with each other rather than to humiliate and exploit each other (Nigel and David deny but cannot but subtly express their latent misogyny and racism as the film progresses).
It is an era in which we learn to let in and to remember that we come from (and may well return to) the 0. The spine will be tapped and the phallus will fall – and we will move from a hard ‘boner’/boney culture to one of flaccidity, softness, touch and kindness. An era of comedy, where we laugh and in the process love. Let This is Spinal Tap be remembered for tapping early on into the societal changes that are taking place.