Swamp Thing 3.31: A Tale of Two Kisses

At this point in the movie, we know that eccentric millionaire Arcane wants three things: the girl, the notebook and the creature. His current high score is one out of three, and she’s probably not thrilled about being called “the girl” as often as she has, so far.

Agent Alice Cable is currently involved in a high-stakes game of keep-away involving the notebook, which is full of important secrets. The notebook is now in the care of the creature, who should be but is not currently destroying it by chucking it into the swamp water. I mean, if it’s vital for the world that Arcane doesn’t get his hands on the notebook — and I am not entirely convinced that it is — then why don’t they tear it up, dunk it in the water, and let the tannic acid take it from there?

But we rejoin the action today on what I assume is the same lake near Los Angeles where they shot the stupid boat fight, as part of their desperate post-swamp reshoot.

Cable the hostage is loaded onto what they laughably imply is Arcane’s private yacht, which is clearly a little ferry that they borrowed from somebody. Once they’re aboard, Ferret asks, “Where’s Arcane?” and his fellow henchman Bruno says “Below”, as if it’s possible to be on this boat and not immediately see everyone else on the boat. Below, indeed.

Ferret has been nothing but repellent so far, and here’s where he achieves peak repellence. Ogling Cable, he helps himself to some brown liquid and sneers, “What I couldn’t do for you.” It’s only going to get worse from here.

Looming over her, he puts a finger under her chin and tilts her head up to look at him, which I was not previously aware of as a way to be terrible to women. Ferret is an innovator.

“Tell you what,” he oozes. “Tell me where the notebook is, and I’ll get you out of the swamps. Deal?”

She matches his gaze, unimpressed. “I don’t mind the swamps,” she says. “It’s the slime that crawls out from under the rocks that turns my stomach.”

“Nasty mouth,” he counters. “But a pretty one.”

And then he just goes and sticks himself onto the lower part of her face, despite her obvious strong preference otherwise. He grabs her and pulls her forward, and she doesn’t struggle because she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

He releases her, and smiles like he’s done something clever. “And what do you say to that?” he smirks.

Naturally, she knees him in the groin, spits “Not much,” and then pushes him backwards over the railing and into the water, which means that sexism is over, hooray.

The interesting thing about this moment is that this little dream date with Ferret is actually the second unasked-for kiss that Cable is confronted with during the movie. The first time was back in the laboratory, when Alec got very excited about his magic potion and impulsively kissed Cable on the mouth, without first establishing her consent.

Back in that part of the movie, I wrote a post about this kissing scene, where I discussed it as a rom-com moment in a movie that had to sprint from meet-cute to first kiss in record time, because the male lead was about to be set on fire and thrown into the swamp.

But in the comments, regular commenter Acilius pointed out:

“Can’t go along with you on this one, chief. Cable is friendly and might be showing some signs of attraction to Alec, but she gives him zero invitation for overheated sex talk and the kiss is out and out assault. She laughs it off, and since she’s the lead and he’s a dopey guy who is about to disappear from the movie into a fireball, we can frame this whole disgusting interaction as an older girl telling an awkward preteen boy to knock it off.”

Another commenter, Goddessoftransitory, replied:

“I think some of that interaction can be blamed on 1) the massive amounts of cocaine deciding what was a good idea, and 2) the fact that this was shot in the eighties, which had truly disturbing levels of not understanding what is a meet-cute and what is an assault.”

And Acilius continued:

“It is pretty bad. If the movie were in any way serious, you’d have to spend the rest of it thinking about situations like Alice’s, where you’re the victim of a crime that you didn’t, for whatever reason, find particularly upsetting, but that you really ought to report to the authorities.”

This is an excellent point, which I have to admit did not occur to me at the time, because I am clearly not as evolved of a person as I sometimes like to believe that I am.

This is a specific trope that’s fairly common in the history of unevolved media: the “surprising but not-unwelcome kiss”, which is used as a way of expressing a character’s pent-up romantic attraction through a moment of criminal exuberance, which can work as appealing visual shorthand in a movie, but would obviously not work at all in the real world. When I wrote that piece, I was taking this trope for granted as morally neutral, and I appreciate Acilius and Goddessoftransitory’s reminder that it’s not 1982 anymore, and it’s a good idea for me to question these tropes, and do my part to move civilization forward a step.

So I think that this is an opportune time to dig into this a bit, because we’re now getting the flip side of that trope: a non-consensual kiss administered by a disgusting misogynist who’s not even vaguely reading the room. Looking at these two incidents as a pair, we can identify the cues that the filmmakers are using to indicate to the audience how they think we should feel about these events: approval in the first case, and outrage in the second.

The key to the “surprising but not-unwelcome kiss” trope is the second look, which is absolutely de rigeur for anybody who wants to make this look like a love story and not a crime scene. There’s the first kiss on the mouth, which is fairly brief, and then a moment of separation, so that the initiator can check on how this is going so far.

That break only lasts a moment, and is inevitably followed by the second, more passionate kiss, with the recipient making some kind of physical movement which indicates to the audience that they’ve decided that they retroactively consent to this, and they’re into it.

That movement could be leaning in to the kiss a bit more, or wrapping their arms around the initiator, or making pleasurable noises. In Cable’s case, it’s a very subtle posture change that indicates submissive approval.

I’m using the words “initiator” and “recipient” here, instead of “man” and “woman”, because the same thing happens with same-sex kisses as well. It’s very common for first kisses in romantic comedy or comedy-drama to be sudden and impulsive, and it’s rare for anybody to explicitly ask for consent first, because we’re burning daylight and who’s got the time.

The unasked-for kiss is basically filmmaker code for “I am expressing that I have a previously unspoken romantic interest in you, are you cool with that?” and the recipient’s immediate second-kiss posture is code for “Yeah, that’s great news; let’s see how this develops.” Strangely, a kiss is the only acceptable way to do this: if the initiator grabbed the recipient’s breasts, for example, it would be instantly horrifying to all audiences, unless it’s an explicitly pornographic film.

We don’t get to see much of Cable’s magical consent-conferring posture change, because the film gives the audience a further cue for how to view the scene, courtesy of Alec’s sister Linda, who’s an eyewitness on the scene. Linda walks up to them, sees that Alec is kissing Cable, vocalizes a moment of surprise — “Oh!” — and then smiles a little. This is another signal that the behavior is supposed to be viewed positively, as a harmless moment that expresses a more-or-less mutual romantic intent.

And then, as the kiss breaks off and Alec starts talking about chemistry again, Cable smiles, and then stares at Alec for a full four seconds, in what appears to be open-mouthed astonishment and appreciation. This is not particularly skillful, and the more times that I look at it, the weirder it seems, but that’s how it looks to me.

The one thing that I disagree with about Acilius’ comment is that I don’t see Cable “laughing it off”, or indicating that she wishes Alec would stop. The four seconds of stunned staring leaves some amount of room for alternate interpretations, but I don’t see a clear rejection here.

The contrast with Ferret’s kiss is pretty clear. For one thing, the camera is positioned a lot farther away, and the entire scene is a single take from this perspective — from stepping onto the boat to Cable’s knee to the groin, it’s 49 seconds of static and dispassionate observation from afar. The camera angle in the kiss with Alec is designed to draw the spectator into the moment; for the Ferret kiss, we’re instructed to draw back in disgust.

This time, Cable is very explicitly not giving any of the posture signals that indicate growing appreciation: she’s got her hands down at her sides, because she’s a federal agent being held hostage by dangerous criminals, and she needs to be ready for action. Ferret grabs her by the shoulders and pulls her forward for the kiss, and then returns her to her original position. She stares directly at him throughout the encounter, entirely unmoved.

Ferret’s behavior is explicitly motivated by the entirely false idea that a strong, aggressive man can conquer a woman’s emotions by treating her as a sexual object. After the kiss, he releases Cable and says, “And what do you say to that?” in the clear expectation that a single kiss will overcome her resistance, and turn her into a compliant partner. This is clearly wrong, but one reason why people actually think that’s possible is because we’ve spent a lot of time looking at that romantic “surprised but not-unwelcome kiss” trope that these filmmakers used unironically, earlier in the movie.

In real life, you don’t get the benefit of a camera angle to let you know when kissing someone is a good idea or a bad one, and you don’t have a billing order that indicates whether you’re the hero or the villain of the particular story that you’re in. It’s probably best to err on the side of caution, and ask first.

It’s a farewell to arms
3.32: Mostly Armless


— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.31: A Tale of Two Kisses

  1. Good points there from Acilius and Goddessoftransitory. It’s always good to look at a scene like this in the context of the times, and then ask what it looks like today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “The notebook is now in the care of the creature, who should be but is not currently destroying it by chucking it into the swamp water.”

    “Please, please don’t be a litterbug ’cause every litter bit hurts.”
    Swamp Thing is an environmentalist.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Tannic acid water is the duct tape of the “destroy the McGuffin” field.

    I enjoyed this post very much and squeed aloud at being quoted (I maintain my dignity at all times.) It’s a really good, thoughtful analysis of the parallel track between what is a culturally understood shorthand for “I have romantic feelings that need a cinematic, charismatic way of being expressed” and how that translates into said culture at large, where unfortunately far too many people think of themselves as being the stars of their own movie at all times.

    The “smooch; okay? Great! SMOOCH” setup has been around about as long as movies have been, because it’s the quickest way to indicate a romantic go-ahead; the dazed look Alice has is very, very familiar to any female viewer, because it’s telling us that your proper reaction isn’t either repulsion or openly enthusiastic launching of a return smooch–you’re supposed to be shocked, surprised, dazzled and delighted, in that order. The guy’s still “in charge” of the encounter and it’s your job to be thrilled and reassure him his advances were retroactively welcomed.

    Contrast this to the oral assault by Ferret (also, unfortunately familiar) and you can see that while the woman is supposed to be attacked (to establish that the guy’s a bona-fide baddie) it’s now okay for her, again retroactively, to express displeasure and disgust. In both setups, the job of the female character is to absorb, then reflect, the emotions required by the scene.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Very good observations about these kisses and the issue of consent. Even if the scene with Alec kissing her implies possible retroactive consent via her posture, it still strikes me as wildly inappropriate. He just met her a few minutes ago! Way too soon, dude.

    I’m also interested in Alice’s knee to Ferret’s groin. It seems pop culture usually depicts a deliberate kick or knee to the groin as something that only women or “unmanly” men do. I’m fortunate enough to never have been in a fight, but if I were being attacked by other men I’d go right for that vulnerable point. But I can’t think of any cinematic/televisual fights that include this. Intimidating a guy by threatening to shoot him there, yes. But not any direct physical contact done deliberately. I’m sure there must be examples, but I’m not coming up with any.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. >>but if I were being attacked by other men I’d go right for that vulnerable point. But I can’t think of any cinematic/televisual fights that include this.

      That’s how Paul Newman outfights Ted Cassidy in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ I believe it happens in ‘Blazing Saddles,’ too.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. One of the scenes that shocked me the most as a kid was when Charles Bronson in “The Evil That Men Do” walks up to a guy who’s been annoying a woman in a bar and suddenly grabs him by the balls, brutally squeezing and twisting them until he passes out. I’d never seen a male action hero do anything like that before so I was pretty impressed. It also gave me ideas for the next time some guy bothered me, though I never did get up the nerve to try it. lol

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Agent Alice Cable is currently involved in a high-stakes game of keep-away involving the notebook, which is full of important secrets. The notebook is now in the care of the creature, who should be but is not currently destroying it by chucking it into the swamp water. I mean, if it’s vital for the world that Arcane doesn’t get his hands on the notebook — and I am not entirely convinced that it is — then why don’t they tear it up, dunk it in the water, and let the tannic acid take it from there?

    Besides being a McGuffin? Doesn’t Alex want to use the notes to cure himself?

    Liked by 1 person

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