' ' Cinema Romantico: A Brief Tour of Middle Fingers at the Movies [R-rated]

Thursday, July 28, 2022

A Brief Tour of Middle Fingers at the Movies [R-rated]

Pride weekend in Chicago is a festive, happy occasion, but then, this is 2022 and everything is on fire, literally and figuratively. That includes the CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority, which has been having a rough go of it lately, in a lot of different ways, the worst of which I won’t get into and just say that wait times for buses and trains, here, in the third largest city in America, have been less than ideal. To wit, the Sunday of Pride, at the corner of North and Halsted, I saw myriad Pride-goers across the street at a bus stop. They had been waiting a long time. I knew this because I recognized their airs, their postures, the disinterested, disappointed way in which they were all looking at their phones to pass the time. Finally, a bus approached…except it wasn’t in service. One of the men at the bus stop, he’d had enough, raising both his middle fingers to the useless bus as it rolled by. Who could relate.

Those middle fingers epitomized what the gesture has come to mean, in one way or another, down through the years – that is, Fuck you. When German tribesmen supposedly gave the one-finger salute to advancing Roman soldiers, they were saying Fuck you, just as the possibly apocryphal story of French soldiers cutting off the middle fingers of British soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt denotes Fuck you in a whole other way. Indeed, a YouTube supercut of middle fingers in the movies is scored to Lily Allen’s 2009 song “Fuck You.” Of course, the playful, singsongy nature of Allen’s tune goes to show that while each middle finger is essentially saying the same thing, the tone of how you say it can oscillate, revealed in some of the montage’s most choice cuts. Jennifer Aniston’s Great Resignation by way of flipping her boss in the bird in “Office Space” is freeing and exhilarating; Bill Murray’s “counting down” to his middle finger in “Groundhog Day” fuses irritation and humor; Eliza Dushku turning her middle finger into a metaphorical cigarette in “Bring it On” demonstrates how the crude gesture can, in fact, be made with some measure of artistry.

Then again, if the supercut is chock full, it is not necessarily complete, with a few notable omissions. Molly Ringwald’s middle finger in “The Breakfast Club” is nowhere to be seen, hers less joyful than Aniston’s, less comical than Murray’s, less creative than Dushku’s, just the palpable exhaustion of a teenage girl forced to endure a dumb, stupid, disgusting, hopeless teenage boy. The montage is also improbably missing the immortal Stephanie (Winifred Freeman) of “The Naked Gun” following the comprehensive directives of her driver’s ed instructor to deal with an unruly driver by extending her middle finger, hysterically evoking her transition from fearful driver to Steve freaking McQueen.

Jennifer Lawrence’s double birds from “Silver Linings Playbook” are there, but then, her flipping off some member of the crowd backstage at the 2013 Oscars upon winning Best Actress for the same movie was far more memorable. If it was a cheeky illustration of her refusal to put on airs at the stuffiest event in the world, I also like thinking of it as a cosmic pre-kiss off to a world that would turn on her the next awards cycle. Fuck you to the max. Same goes for Brittany Murphy’s Jersey salute in Eminem’s “8 Mile.” True, the middle fingers their characters trade throughout are born of love, like Celine flipping off Jesse with a smile on her face in “Before Sunset.” But as someone whose talent was too frequently, maddeningly wasted in her too short life, I imagine Murphy’s middle fingers as an in-advance elegy to unthinking Hollywood imbeciles that never knew near well enough what it had in her.

Those birds also epitomize the frequent emblematic underpinnings of our most foul gesticulation. Why look no further than “Top Gun,” though not Goose thoughtlessly saluting Charlie so much as Maverick saluting the enemy pilot while inverted. Oh, the recipient of Maverick’s middle finger might have been a bad guy but c’mon, pausing in a life & death dogfight to give someone the bird was the height of 80s American arrogance. Yet, in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” released the same year, it was a villain, not a hero, who said up yours, the punk on the San Francisco bus listening to his music too loud and prompting Spock to knock him out with the Vulcan death grip, an extra-terrestrial from a more enlightened future telling boorish 80s USA to stuff it. 

In “Almost Famous,” her character watching a group of schoolgirls run alongside the road from the tour bus, Kate Hudson turns an initial polite wave into a judgmental middle finger; like Ferris Bueller, she’s not playing by the rules. Neither was Dennis Hopper’s countercultural biker in “Easy Rider,” of course, though it didn’t end so well for him. Him flipping off those rednecks in the truck, the ones that do him in, isn’t so much a defiant message to the Establishment as annoyed, almost distracted, mocking it as an effectively empty gesture. 

Rose DeWitt Bukater’s April 1912 bird aboard the RMS Titanic wasn’t just telling off her fiancĂ©’s humorless valet, it was a message to the whole damn patriarchy, and, as I recently noted, my second favorite middle finger of all-time. My favorite? You know the answer to that one, reader. It’s Alicia Silverstone’s at the end of Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” video, which isn’t a movie, I suppose, but a music video, so close enough, and too vital to ignore. Her middle finger was aimed not just at Stephen Dorff but at everyone and everything, the Gen X insignia, from us to all y’all, especially the ones who always wanted to ask why we were so angry: Fuck you. I see some echoes of Alicia’s gesture in the ones of the heroines of my beloved 2011 Norwegian indie “Turn Me On, Dammit!” Each time 15-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and her friends pass their small town’s welcome sign aboard the bus, they flip it off. These Skoddeheimen salutes, they are not angry, or defiant, more jaded, but also mechanical. Eh, Fuck you. 

Lately, I have been thinking of those middle fingers a lot, with every climate change denier, with every craven, lily-livered Senator who sees the near toppling of American democracy as something merely to move on from, with every missile Putin fires into a baby food factory after promising a half-truce. It’s like, these days something happens, virtually anything happens, and you want to flip off the heavens the all-encompassing fury of Alicia’s middle finger giving way to all-encompassing enervation of Alma’s middle finger, Fuck you remodeled for our brave new world as Fuck everything.

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