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All You Need Is Lav: A Brief History of the Toilet in Cinema

Ah, the humble toilet. An essential mainstay of any standard household, yet often grossly underappreciated on the silver screen. For too long the proverbial privy has remained in the background in favour of its human users. So, to honour the noble loo, here are six of its most notable appearances.

Psycho (1960)

The toilet flushes and takes with it the anxiously-written sums of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. It’s a shot that only takes up a few seconds of screen time before the camera pans to the now more famous shower, and with it the jarring violins of Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack that accompany the heroine’s shocking demise. Considering the fixtures and fittings of the bathroom at the Bates’ Motel almost 70 years later, there’s no doubt that the shower is seen as more shocking than the loo, but at the time, both were horrific. Psycho was the first film in cinematic history to show a flushing toilet – in fact the first American picture even to include a toilet on screen. Hitchcock’s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, made the controversial decision to break the cinematic loo taboo, citing the toilet as an integral motif leading up to the pivotal gruesome scene. He boldly stated at the time: “We’re going to start by showing you the toilet and it’s only going to get worse.” A new benchmark in horror had been set, and the WC had played its part.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

A similar sense of the mundane preceding tension and sudden violence can also be seen in Tarantino’s famous second commercial offering. This time, however, the toilet – or primarily its flush – contributes to a character’s death. Butch’s sighting of the gun on the kitchen surface when he returns to his house for his gold watch indicates the presence of a nearby foe, but the silence is destroyed by the flush, and a moment after Vincent and Butch’s knowing eye contact, the former’s corpse is splayed in blood on the latrine. Tarantino, much like Kubrick, is a fine appreciator of the bathroom area, and revels in its potential as a seemingly banal area that can nonetheless result in danger and violence. Just as Vincent gives away the final part of the game with the flush, so too does Alex DeLarge as he jovially chirrups Singin’ In the Rain in the bath within earshot of the now unstable and vengeful Mr. Alexander. Indeed, the toilet plays a much more integral part in Pulp Fiction as a symbol of dark, ironic chance, as Vincent – as if in an adult fairy tale – visits it three times, with the final instance proving particularly unlucky. He first exits the bathroom to witness Mia’s near-fatal drug overdose and returns from the toilet to the tense restaurant stand-off between Jules and “Pumpkin”. Although we view Vincent’s death on the privy, thanks to Tarantino’s non-linear narrative, he survives his last on-screen visit to the little boys’ room. The character may die, but the toilet weathers the turmoil.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Vincent’s death on the can is a reflection of the chaos, unpredictability and blackly comic nature of Tarantino’s worldview, albeit with a certain amount of karma for his previous successful assassinations. But the Dude? He didn’t deserve to have his head pushed down a toilet four times by two unknown assailants. Being the Dude, however, he seeks to make light of the situation, answering the attacker’s repeated request for the unknown money’s location with the wisecrack: “It’s down there somewhere, let me take another look”. Upon their angry mention of his wife, the Dude indignantly points out to his mistaken attackers that the upward position of the toilet seat represents his proud single status, and so they are assaulting the wrong Lebowski. But they don’t leave before delivering the final insult, as one of the attackers relieves himself on the rug rather than the facility only a few feet away. The film’s cult following has naturally produced a large amount of merchandise, but one of the highlights came in the form of custom-designed Big Lebowski toilet seats. You too can have your very own throne to sit upon, albeit without angry henchman shoving your head down it. The Dude abides, and so should you.

The character may die, but the toilet weathers the turmoil…

Trainspotting (1996)

If the Dude’s head-first forays into a toilet are insanitary enough, then prepare to be plunged into even more unpleasantness with the self-titled ‘Worst Toilet In Scotland’. Despite the attempts of Renton (Ewan McGregor) to fight his heroin withdrawal with the use of opium suppositories, a dramatic end to his constipation results in a quick journey to this less than appealing lavatory. His subsequent plunge through the same toilet for the released suppositories makes for a sickening, albeit very memorable spectacle. At least there’s a satisfying dream sequence as Renton arrives to retrieve the suppositories in a clean water ocean of some kind, swimming to the tune of Brian Eno’s beautiful ambient tune ‘Deep Blue Day’ before we’re brought back to the grim reality of the situation. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Danny Boyle stated that the actual set was in fact “meticulously clean”, and that the apparent pieces of excrement were just a variety of different chocolate. Good to know. Speaking of his choice to include the ocean sequence, Boyle stated that “When you come up against something really ugly, you want to turn it into something beautiful straight away”. Despite the insanitary situation, there’s sunshine beneath the shit. If only for a moment.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Now we witness the toilet in its exterior form of the outhouse, and see Danny Boyle’s enduring obsession with the facility in its various environments. While McGregor’s Renton has the determination to push his body into the U-bend of the toilet to retrieve his suppositories, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar’s younger version of Jamal throws his body through the outhouse hole to achieve his goal. Hearing the arrival of Indian movie star Amitabh Bachchan via helicopter while he sits on the toilet, and locked in by older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), Jamal holds his nose and a picture of Bachchan as he jumps into the faeces below him. He then runs through the disgusted crowd towards his idol and achieves the deserved autograph. However, the ‘faeces’ in question had now evolved from Trainspotting’s chocolate to a combination of peanut butter and chocolate sauce. Boyle initially considered cutting the scene due to its similarities to his nineties movie, but ultimately decided to keep it because of the ingenuity of the setup. And, if you need any more evidence of Boyle’s toilet obsession, look no further than a brilliant, tense nightclub scene in the recently released T2.

Headhunters (2011)

You probably thought that the outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire couldn’t be outgrossed, right? Wrong. The last entry on this toilet compilation is by no means the least impressive. Based on Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s thriller of the same name, Headhunters follows Aksel Hennie’s prominent headhunter and art thief Roger Brown as he is led into a violent game of cat-and-mouse with Nikolai Coster-Waldau’s Clas Greve. As the petrified Roger realises that Greve is fast approaching with a trained dog, he seeks sanctuary in the nearby outhouse. Once the dog begins to smell Roger’s scent and the trackers hidden in his hair, however, he makes the last-minute decision to immerse himself in the sewage below him, which also conveniently stops the tracker signal. And the breathing apparatus used to survive during the tense period as Greve stalks his quarry? A toilet roll he picked up on the side. The gleeful ludicrousness of the situation is nonetheless supremely effective with the growing suspense, and Roger eventually exits the outhouse intact, albeit covered in a pile of human excrement. Not ideal, but it’s preferable to a gunshot in the head.

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