a course in plumbing

In a recent entry, I told you how to write a speech the Palinode way. I reread it and found that I had promised to follow it up with a guide to Plumbing the Palinode Way. I should not make promises that I have no clear plan for keeping.

All I really know about plumbing I learned from movies. So I may not have a how-to handy, but I have discerned the basic principles of movie plumbing for you. This will come in handy if you discover that your life is a work of fiction – just like Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, or Will Ferrell in real life.

We Demean Plumbers Because They Are Masters of Our Fate

For some reason plumbers are the never-ending butt (hyuk, hyphen, hyuk) of jokes in movies or television. Think of a film with the plumber as the hero. Super Mario Brothers? Floor Flusher? It becomes pretty clear that movies cannot treat plumbers straight, and instead must make them zany, buffoonish or sinister.

This is because we fear plumbers. When we excrete waste, it is flushed away into another world, an abject universe of decay and shit that we’d rather not think about. Plumbing systems are an extension of our intestinal tract, and the space between our bodies and the toilet bowl is an unaccountable hole in the otherwise seamless tube that takes our waste out into that unthinkable alternate world.

Plumbers are the dark masters of that abject otherverse, that horrific extension of our intestines looping away into the primordial depths. So we make fun of them.

The Health Of Our Plumbing System Depends Upon A Single Twist of a Wrench

But we need plumbers. In movies, we know so little about plumbing that we generally make a greater mess of things when we try to fix them. In fact, we are so inept that we usually pick the single point in the system most likely to cause a catastrophic failure. So a twist of the wrench causes water to erupt from every available seam and joint. Usually this eruption is violent, which suggests that all water pumped into our houses is under extreme pressure.

When the plumber comes, though, he or she knows the exact point in the system that will restore order, which can be fixed with a single quarter-turn of a wrench.

Plumbers Will Break Your Will

The plumber will not restore your system until you have agreed to any one of a number of unappealing options. Most often this involves a complete replacement of your pipes. Often the plumber will inspect your plumbing gamely and, with a sigh, pronounce that a complete retrofit with copper pipes is necessary. "Yup, copper pipes," he'll say.

If I were writing a screenplay, I'd invent a more dramatic predicament. Like, you have to kill a guy to get your toilet working again. I'd call it Plumber of Blood. Tagline: Tastes Like Copper.

Plumbing Is Deliberate

No physical object in a movie exists by accident; it's there because someone made a conscious decision to put it there or include it in a shot. The use of plumbing in a movie is usually a good indicator of genre.

Science fiction - Most people who adventure in space or the future don't go to the bathroom. That's all there is to it. They hold it in for entire spaceflights, because the future has a dearth of toilets. There may be sinks or showers, but toilets are prized pieces of infrastructure. When they do appear, they're usually discreet aluminum pans that retreat into the wall after use. They're like Murphy beds.

The truth is that spaceships and plumbing make terrible bedfellows because so much science fiction is grounded in the notion of escape from the body, and plumbing reminds us of our corporeal ties like nothing else. What else is The Matrix, with all its images of sewer tunnels and slimy canals, but a really trippy gloss on getting out of the womb? So you can beat the crap out of Hugo Weaving? The Wachowski brothers believe that kicking Hugo Weaving in the head is a key ritual of masculinity that our modern industrial society has lost.

Horror - Plumbing in horror serves two functions. The first is to gross you out via the yuck factor of the abject coming back to visit you, whether it's a freaky sewer monster or a big old geyser of stuff coming out of every orifice in your home. The second function appears in relation to women taking off their clothes, so you can see them naked before somebody shows up to mutilate them. In the most efficient horror scenario, a woman would have her clothes soiled by an eruption of effluent from a sink, which would get her to the shower, where she would take her clothes off, and then the freaky sewer monster would come along to satisfy the sadistic violation portion of the entertainment. Then Jeff Fahey or Michael Biehn would blow up the monster with a small thermonuclear warhead, and all would be made right again.

Comedy - Whatever else may be true, the introduction of plumbing, plumbers, toilets, showers, showering means that you're going to see somebody's butt. At the very least, there is prime butt-display opportunity, and that's enough to get most people into the theatre on cheap night.

Mainstream - If a movie or television show involves plumbing in any way beyond a sight gag, then you're watching a domestic drama, or comedy, or dramedy, or maybe tragidramedy. Let's take a look at bathrooms in this year's Best Picture nominees:

Juno - 2007's pluckiest indie film features two bathrooms. The first one shows up in a convenience store where Juno is taking one of them pregnancy tests. Given the nature of home pregnancy tests, it could be said that the first bathroom performs an instrumental function. The second bathroom belongs to the yuppie couple looking to adopt a baby, and its sole purpose is to move Juno upstairs for an encounter with another character. I think it's fair to say that Juno is the rare movie in which the hero's bladder serves as a plot point.

Atonement - I haven't watched Atonement, but since it stars Keira Knightley, who does not eat human food, there would be no real need for a bathroom. It's possible that one day Ms. Knightley will accept a dried tuber or gruel for nourishment, but so little is understood of her physiognomy, or the strange cocoon she weaves about herself each evening. Does she even sleep in that silky bower? That chittering noise, is it the expression of her alien dreamlife? Scientists are uncertain.

Michael Clayton - The abject pours forth in a foul stream in this movie, where bathrooms are the private chambers of anxiety and murder. Big business and corporate law are the intestines of our culture, and our lives are their toilets. Welcome to the land of No Oscar For You.

No Country For Old Men - There's a lot of plumbing in this film. I counted at least six bathrooms, almost all of which are used for medical purposes. Wounds are patched up and blood swirls away down the drains, carried safely out of sight of polite society. The only instance in which bathrooms involve death - and not the cleansing away of death - comes when two nameless Mexicans get shot. The chief purpose of Mexican people in No Country is to run around with machine guns and dogs and die horribly.

There Will Be Blood - Yes, there will be blood. But there will be no plumbing. There will be holes. There will be men who dig those holes and draw out the oil. There will be wells and pipelines, but not for human beings. Instead, there will be infrastructure for the charged waste of the earth's body. There will be money, greed, power, religion, betrayal and two hypothetical milkshakes. There will even be bowling. But plumbing? There will be none.