Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

I finally caught up with Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, several months after it played in theaters, but still a few weeks before the official DVD release. I wasn’t disappointed; I adored it, and I certainly think it stands comparison with the first movie in the series. Part of what is great about the Harold and Kumar movies is that they are not serious political critiques in the guise of dumb hetero-boy stoner comedies. They really are dumb hetero-boy stoner comedies, and their politics has to be placed and understood in that context. This has a way of completely disarming the sort of ideology-critique that is the usual approach of cultural-studies types like myself when we discuss pop culture material of this sort. As with sophisticated television advertising, but perhaps even more so, it becomes pointless to “decode” ideological messages that in fact aren’t hidden or unconscious at all, but are calculatedly placed in the film (or ad) by the filmmakers (or ad-makers) themselves for well-understood stimulus-response reasons. A film like Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay has already done its own decoding of its messages, and its own desublimation of social reality — precisely because it is so overtly crass and commercial, in a way that, say, Brokeback Mountain is not.

[WARNING: LOADS OF SPOILERS IN WHAT FOLLOWS]

In other words, we need, not to ignore, but actually to focus on, the stupid frat-boy dick and pussy jokes. Harold and Kumar’s fear, not just of being penetrated by, but even so much as touching, another man’s dick is the main focus of anxiety throughout the movie — and this, of course, is a normative part of American culture. It’s only within this premise that the film’s exposure of racism and latent fascism takes place. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle already anatomized the racial hierarchy of America today; Guantanamo Bay rings changes on this, with specific reference to 9/11 and the “war on terror.” The uptight white folks on the plane take Kumar for an “Arab”; the Ku Klux Klansmen with whom Harold and Kumar have a close encounter take them for “Mexicans.” The over-the-top Home Security official who chases Harold and Kumar for the entire film (Rob Corddry) is particularly delirious when it comes to racial profiling. But all these incidents are framed by the basic trope of het boys’ fear of Another Cock — whether it’s that of the (also non-white) friend who helps them escape, and who has “Osama bin Laden” pubic hair, or that of “Big Bob,” the sadistic guard at Guantanamo Bay, who wants to force them to eat his “cockmeat sandwich” – a US government torture which is apparently far more terrifying than, say, waterboarding or forcing somebody to stand nude while being jolted with electricity like a human christmas tree. (Not to mention — speaking of penis jokes — the scene where Harold and Kumar are inadvertently peed upon by a drunken Ku Klux Klansman).

The payoff for all these dumb jokes comes toward the end of the film, when Harold and Kumar, having jumped out of the plane that was bringing them back to Guantanamo, are clinging together in midair (since they need to share a single parachute) and realize (to their horror but also acceptance) that their dicks are touching. (Recalling the opening scene of the movie, when Kumar took a dump while Harold was masturbating in the shower; this shows how the problem of male bodies, and the fear of Another Cock, is right at the heart of the het boy’s friendship. For that matter, the dick-touching-while-skydiving scene is shortly after the scene where Kumar finally shows enough “sensitivity” to apologize to Harold for landing them in such a big mess — this sign of non-macho yielding is necessary, if they are to continue their friendship). A few scenes after the skydiving scene, and after Harold and Kumar have landed in George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch, Dubya is regaling them with joints laced with blow, while granting them Presidential pardons. Kumar asks Dubya why, if he likes to smoke weed so much, he sends people who smoke or possess pot to jail — doesn’t that make him a hypocrite? Dubya responds by telling Kumar that, if he likes getting hand jobs but doesn’t like giving them, he’s a hypocrite too. So what seems to matter is, not the acts themselves, but who’s zooming who, and who’s on top. This resonates with the Guantanamo scene in which Big Bob told Harold and Kumar that, in forcing them to suck his cock, they were being gay but he wasn’t. Of course, Dubya indicates, chuckling, that the Guantanamo “handmeat sandwich” is just about his favorite wild ‘n’ crazy thing of the entire War on Terror.

Indeed, I think the entire portrayal of Dubya as just another pothead slacker who feels oppressed by his father (just as Kumar does) is brilliant. [As Gordon mentions in his comment below]. The movie makes Dubya sort of sympathetic, while maintaining how clueless, and yet categorically sure of himself, he actually is. Dubya’s logic is, on the one hand (as I’ve already said) to say that pot smoking is ok for me and my friends, but not for the people I throw in jail — this is reminiscent of, for instance, Dick Cheney’s super-entitled sense that his own daughter should have complete freedom as a lesbian who is having a child, but it is ok to discriminate in all sorts of ways against lesbians who are not his daughter and her partner, or not members of the ruling class. In other words, by being hypocritical and possessing an overweening sense of entitlement, Dubya escapes being a moralist — which, in Harold and Kumar’s terms, would be much worse. At the same time, and on the other hand, Dubya tells Harold and Kumar, in effect, you should blame the things you don’t like — such as being tortured in Guantanamo — on the government, not on me. As if all the horrific thing our government is doing were not on Dubya’s own direct orders.

From a direct political point of view, this is no doubt reprehensible. But in terms of the film’s own crass logic, it is brilliant — in Bataillean terms, 1)it sets up Dubya as a figure of heterogeneity, a figure of exception rather than a representative of “normality”; while at the same time 2)it converts heterogenenous-Dubya from a figure of “sovereign” heterogeneity (which is how Bataille characterizes the fascist dictator) into one of “base” heterogeneity. (Cf. also in this respect Kim’s comment about how “James Admonian’s portrayal of Bush… is a monstrous and creepy thing. He looks like his skin is rotting off, and his eyes look like lizard eyes. So while he may seem funny smoking a joint and laughing with the boys, ultimately he is scary and somewhat demonic”). I mean it when I say that the film “converts” the figure of Bush: it doesn’t give a proper representation of him, but transforms him into something other, something phantasmatic. The idea that Harold and Kumar, once identified as “terrorists,” could ever escape the machinery of Homeland Security is of course a utopian one; it requires a utopian revisioning of Dubya as well. And this revisioning comes, not by turning Dubya into a “benevolent” despot, but by infantilizing and debasing him to the point where despotism becomes impossible. (Indeed, this is the same utopianism which finally leads the guy from the National Security Council, whom Mr. Homeland Security has been condescendingly insulting for the whole movie, to stop Mr. Homeland Security’s abuses, precisely because “It’s people like you who make the rest of the world think Americans are stupid.” It’s a matter of rescuing America’s image, which means both undoing its idiotic racial hierarchies and undoing its sense of sovereignty and self-entitlement).

Getting back to the homo/hetero divide as a structuring principle for the movie, one can perhaps see it at work, as well, in the way that Neil Patrick Harris, who has come out of the closet as gay in real life, portrays himself here as poontang-crazed (as well as blissed-out on mushrooms). It is noteworthy that, where Harris’ role in White Castle entirely referenced his iconic status as Doogie Hawser, here the Homeland Security fascist tells Harris that he worships him for his role in Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven’s tongue-in-cheek (?) homage to American xenophobia, militarism, and genocide. [Harris is of course wonderful, and it is worth sitting through the movie's credits to see his last-second resurrection].

Not to mention the film’s epilogue, where, having finally made it to pot-friendly Amsterdam, Harold sees the girl of his dreams kissing another guy — he runs over to confronther, only to discover that the other guy is (like his girlfriend) a model, that the kiss is only staged for a fashion shoot for High Times (of course), and that the male model is in any case totally gay. (Gayness, like pot smoking, is one of those things that is OK in Amsterdam, even though it is not legitimate in the USA).

All this is systematic, and interrelated. My point is not to try to suggest that homophobia and disavowed homosocial love are the subtexts of the movie; but rather, precisely, to show how they have been deliberately made the focus of a well-constructed screenplay. There is no point in trying to disconnect all this frat-boy, heterosexist humor from the fact that the smug, blond, WASP, politically well-connected, ruling-class Texan frat boy who Vanessa (Danneel Harris), Kumar’s ex-girlfriend (and, as we learn in a flashback, the person who first initiated him into pot smoking) is rescued from marrying at the last moment, is revealed to be the most vile and despicable character in the movie — even more evil than the crazed Homeland Security guy who literally wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights, since the ruling-class Texan’s class and racial privilege is what the Homeland Security guy is really protecting. [The WASP fiance here plays the same role that the WASP brokers at Harold's firm played in the first movie; dudes whose sense of entitlement is absolute, and who get their comeuppance for this from Harold and Kumar]. And this in turn cannot be disentangled from the corny moral, enunciated by Dubya but agreed to by Harold and Kumar, that to be patriotic you don’t need to love the government, you just need to love the country. As Harold and Kumar, and their immigrant parents — and apparently Dubya as well — quite emphatically do. Patriotism is the keynote of this film, just as consumerism was of White Castle.

I should also mention — since this is something that truly startled me — how little pot, and how little pot humor, there actually is in this movie. [In this respect, Guantanamo Bay is radically different from White Castle, not to mention from a film like Gregg Araki's wonderful Smiley Face]. Our boys get in trouble at the very start of the movie as a result of sneaking pot onto an airplane; and they share joints with Dubya near the end; but for most of the narrative they do without, and there’s very little stoned humor anywhere in the film. Instead, we get scenes like that of Kumar’s masturbatory fantasy of a three-way with his former/future girlfriend and an enormous bag of weed (a scene of bargain-basement surrealism, or lumbering alienation-effect, that works in the film precisely because it is too clumsily done to be plausible as a het-boy sex fantasy). Pot’s sort of charming/blank dissociation and floating quality is suitable as an analogue for consumerism, but much less so for national-security hysteria, unless you want to go the route of pot-fueled paranoia, which would have extinguished the film’s humor pretty quickly). [Neil Patrick Harris' mushroom hallucinations of a phallic unicorn are an entirely different matter; it's significant that the boys turn down his invitation to them to partake].

Jokes stop being funny when you explain them, and I fear that my making these connections in Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay risk obscuring the fact that the movie works — and, it really does work — affectively rather than cognitively. I am basically in agreement with Kim’s point that the movie’s humor works because it “propels us into the Zone of Discomfort which is maintained throughout the movie”; nearly every scene “ram[s] prejudices down our throats while forcing us to laugh and squirm.” What Kim is getting at, I think, is that the movie’s critique of racism, as well as its non-critique of homophobia and sexism, is something that comes from the inside, rather than from a critical distance; it is intensely embodied, rather than being analytically distanced. And this is precisely its value. It presents a matrix in which racism (which the film explicitly criticizes) and experiences of sexism and homophobia (which the film fails to criticize, or in relation to which it merely recapitulates dominant prejudices for their humor) are both lived experiences. And in which patriotism, and the exploitation of patriotic feelings for the purposes of fascist repression, are lived experiences as well. There are few recent films that delve as deeply as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay does, into what it is really like, and what it really means, to live in America today — and this is not in spite of, but precisely because of, the film’s lack of a coherent political message, or of any aspirations to be Art.

3 Responses to “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”

  1. Gordon Potter says:

    Steven, agreed it was a great movie. And your analysis makes sense to me in that it disarms by being so overt in its cliches.

    Maybe this betrays a cultural ignorance on my part, but can you explain the grape soda reference when they are in Alabama? When Rob Corddry pours out the can of grape soda it seemed to imply some insult or reference to a cultural stereotype. But it was was totally swoosh, and beyond me. This stuck out to me. I just didn’t “get it” at all. Which may be more due to the fact that I am a white boy who grew up in Oregon than anything else.

    Also, I loved the way the movie dealt with radical “Otherness” in the form of the one eyed monster child. The scene where the the child is lying in bed next to Harold and lets out the haunting screech noise was so fantastically funny to me. It really made the movie for me.

    I also thought how the movie seemed to humanize George Bush made it the most damaging critique of all. The thought that the president is just some maladjusted man child who has an authority complex with his father is probably more cutting than anything else you can say about George Bush.

  2. Adam says:

    I think Bush calling Kumar a “hypocrticizer” was one of the best one-touch paintstrokes for a character (Bush, not Kumar) that I’ve ever seen.

Leave a Reply