Beyonce, The Pleasure Principle (h2so4 18)
Vicarious Identification in Austin Powers’ Goldmember

What’s so shagadelic about gold-plating your father’s penis? Matt George tells us how Austin Powers really lost his mojo—and his female audience—by finding brotherly love with Dr. Evil.

In the outdoor portapotty at San Francisco’s most fabulous beer garden, The Zeitgeist, someone scrawled above the graffiti, Dem jokes is tired. This flat summation came back to me recently—like another interminable peeing joke—after seeing Austin Powers’ Goldmember, the third in a series of Austin Powers movies. A huge fan of International Man of Mystery, an amused consumer of The Spy Who Shagged Me, and someone who has always been smack in the middle of the series’ demographic (not to mention, erm, gender…), Goldmember saddened and sickened me in the predictable way that third helpings of rich delights often do. The problem happens right after I turn into Austin Powers. In Goldmember, after I walk a vicarious mile in his shoes, I seem to step in some plot poop I just can’t scrape off.

There’s nothing like the power of an established product line, however, and if the film had taken its frame story seriously enough to have made Austin Powers over as something like The Truman Show—with celebrity cameos dwarfing the meager, oh so meager energy between Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) and Beyonce Knowles (Destiny’s Child), I would have been thrilled. Money can buy a lot of things, even great pop art. I mean, really, nothing is better than Gwyneth Paltrow, Stephen Spielberg and Tom Cruise admitting that they haven’t got enough mojo—except for the absolutely exhilarating thrill of seeing Britney Spears cast as an expendable and moronic sexdroid… mmm, but shucks, that’s about it in this xanax-addled sleeper of shucked gags and burnt-out comic riffs.

The real missing mojo, of course, is the radical chic impulse that once energized the aristo-populist cultural politics of the late 60s British Invasion. Where the New Left’s “new male” replaced the original geek-chic of a bespectacled and drab old left, another masculine variety emerged in reaction to these wan alternatives. While the Jackson Brownes, John Lennons and James Taylors of the world honed the “mellow man” as an accommodation to feminism along traditional gender lines (a kinder gentler masculinity), Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were advancing a post-pop/mod assault upon gender itself (a brighter, more female masculinity). Their ethos was “in the face” of an increasingly PC (“cultural”) feminism that defended rather than deconstructed the gendered meaning of sex. The day came, of course, when glam was redeemed by punk and postmodernism. In the 80s, the New Left mellow man became the anachronism he more or less remains today (give or take a Beck or two). Take a look at the J Crew catalog for the past two years. The women’s fashions are all retro late-60s—but nary a bellbottom, nor macrame belt, nor bright- colored shoe can be found for men. This would come as no surprise for someone like Paula Kamen, who argues in Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution that the 70s turned out to be more about asserting women’s sexual privilege and not so much about male heterosexual liberty. Masculine style today is often no more than techno re-stylizations of the early pre-hippy 60s mixed with the multi-culti sublime of hi-tech athletic gear. Frankly, only a kangaroo could find deconstruction of gender in a cargo pant. But Austin, he comes from the time before our time.

Yet not everyone gets to franchise the specific humor that surrounds a declining (and formerly ascendant) masculine style. The Big Lebowski definitely gets it right, but only by portraying a defeated loser. Austin Powers, on the other hand, is the randy effervescent soul of stateside adolescent British Invasion fans everywhere. Everything in Goldmember about Austin’s relationship to his father, Michael Caine notwithstanding, is a dull bore—except for the wonderful prep school scene which reveals that Dr. Evil and Austin were once competitive dorm-mates. Seeing this entire comedic farce played by “serious” dramatic actors in the opening sequence and witnessing this same story cast as a prep school drama has some seriously interesting reflexive potential. But of course nothing is ever made of it in the plot. Instead we get oh so much dawdling around the hack doldrums needed to justify the obligatory one-liner in the name of the film.

Speaking of great reflexive moments, what about when the Japanese street revelers remind the audience that the mocked-up giant lizard looks like Godzilla, but isn’t Godzilla (because of international copyright law, they tell us). This is a much better joke than the title, Goldmember, could ever be. And what was that joke again? I have to ask myself. Oh, yeah, it’s that a finger is a member, and thus Goldfinger could be taken to mean Goldpenis, especially if you figure that when you have a lot of money like the James Bond organization, then you get a lot of babes like James Bond. …Or if you have the job of creating a boring and literal rationalization for a strained allusion to another movie’s name… uh huh, rrrright. Lessee: Goldmember (the character) is the victim of an unfortunate gold smelting accident that scorched his genitalia. And is the joke here that grunion smelt from the groin, or what?1 Oh, I suppose it’s that now after having molten gold poured on his crotch, Goldmember has a shiny 24-karat cock. Check.

There is a big gender gap in Goldmember that simply wasn’t as prominent in the first two films, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and The Spy Who Shagged Me. The first film, International Man of Mystery (the true reason for all this commotion in the first place), was great because the core love story had what romance requires: an engaging but surmountable emotional conflict. How was the bad-toothed aging British 60s guy going to get it on with a hot and young 90s babe like Elizabeth Hurley? On top of that, the particular conflict between Vanessa (Hurley) and Austin expressed exactly—and thus perfectly translated into perceptible drama—the entire premise of the series. This premise spells out for us what it takes for a late 60s/70s (middle-aged) man to relate to a late 90s/early millennial (young) woman. It’s a theme that, as International Man of Mystery established, can be fascinating to both middle aged men and young women… if it’s done correctly. When it works, the middle aged men get “the girl” and young women get to believe they have something to teach the lecherous dinosaur. It’s a Jurassic High-Five Grecian formula for success that will, no doubt, play again and again—a viagra of a rhetorical situation, if you will.

But let’s admit that it’s a stretch. Forty-year-old men and eighteen-year-old women (like Knowles) probably have little to bond about. The other secret of International Man of Mystery was its apt timing in the middle of the seventies boom in pre-millennial fashion. But you could see the faultline cracks of Goldmember’s dismal romantic failure begin to fissure in The Spy Who Shagged Me, where Heather Graham falls far too quickly for Austin, bypassing the sustained and highly topical romance of Man of Mystery. In Goldmember, Beyonce Knowles as Foxxy Cleopatra is simply stunning—so extremely a white man’s fantasy of what perky could mean in a mocha woman—but who is she? Does Austin have even one private moment with her? Does she have any backstory—at all? Why does she like him? Is she even black? What is the secret of her amazingly mascara’d emotions?

Austin and Dr. Evil have such complex infantile history and I could care less. I just wanted more Beyonce! I wanted to know the reasons why she would fall for me, I mean, for Austin. On that score, after repeated viewings of The International Man of Mystery, I am still quite confident that Elizabeth Hurley would find me exceptionally agreeable company. As a matter of fact, I still engage in Austin/Vanessa roleplay with cute British friends whenever possible. But shit, as anybody’s toilet oracle would put it, here I sit all broken hearted, tried to get Beyonce, but only heard Fat Bastard say he farted.

It comes as no surprise to see a thin Fat Bastard with too much skin everywhere and a throat that, as he says at the close of the film, “looks like a vagina”—one feels that this is the only vagina one is going to see through Austin’s eyes after the fatal banality of his family reunion in Goldmember. Oddly enough, the whole film will come to be remembered by the image of its flaccid namesake rather than as the ultimate Austin Powers finale. Remember Goldmember’s knockout move that keeps Foxxy Cleopatra in check during nearly every action endeavor attempted by Austin and his oh-so-fine sidekick? Remember? It’s the ultra-dorky yoga move, the maximum anal spread, disco asana that drop-kicks Foxxy every time—like so much gay porno Muppet-fu. Please.

Ugh. OK. In bad bikini underwear, I’m sure a lot of hetero guys in their forties probably look like either Goldmember, Dr. Evil, or even Fat Bastard—but as a comic character Goldmember is even more boring than the entire film turned out to be. I can’t even remember what it was that he wanted. Whose side was he on and why? It doesn’t matter, because there is no strong development anywhere near this whining dutch cat, there is just this oh so LITE spoof on family values drama that hinges on, well, if we really want to get all thematic and make this threadbare travesty hold water (and thus to mix metaphors worse than Goldmember), we could say the plot boils down to Goldmember’s eventual desire to force Austin’s father to have the same unfortunate smelting accident that happened to him. That said, don’t even try to connect this golden castration of father and nemesis to the penis shaped golden key that operates Preparation H (the “hilarious” name of Goldmember’s plot—or was it Dr. Evil’s… who cares by this point?—to flood the earth). Don’t even try. Because, gilded gelded golden showers aside, the connection between penis, phallus and gold is way lost here… due, no doubt, to an unfortunate smelting accident somewhere in the Mike Myers franchise.

You gotta get me in perspective. I was exactly the age of young William Miller in Almost Famous during the era the film represents. These are my fantasies. That was me, I read Rolling Stone religiously at that age. I knew beautiful hippy and groupie girls. I danced around with them in underwear and listened to them plot the demise of my virginity. I was Almost Famous. I even walked home from school once, when one of these knowledgeable types informed me that I had seriously misspoken when I said some girl had fucked some guy. She looked at me all incredulous, with a Foxxy Cleopatra-like horizontal slide of her neck on its axis, and set me straight: “Don’t you know? Boys fuck girls, not the other way around!” These are the moments that make a young man look at Robert Plant and wonder what’s he on about! Such moments also made Ziggy Stardust—and even Devo for that matter—seem to offer a much more plausible way around the ugly gender impasse we young Americans seem to have inherited.

But that was what the early 70s was like. I was always trying to catch up with the sexual knowledge everyone else seemed to have, and I suspect that this is what makes Austin such a fantasy when you get all up-in-his-face vicarious about it. It’s nice to imagine that Goldie Hawn’s daughter at seventeen wants to fuck you when you are forty just like you wanted to fuck her mom when you were thirteen. I get a Bicentennial Man sex rush just thinking about it. But in Goldmember why in hell would I care about Austin’s freakin’ dad and lack thereof? This was as bad as psychoanalyzing a crimefighting millionaire in tights, wearing a cape, imitating a bat, in Batman Forever—Nicole Kidman notwithstanding—but Goldmember would have been seriously improved if Beyonce had played some kind of therapist to Austin’s inveterate pottymouth.…

But no, Goldmember is toilet humor for boys all the way through. Austin Powers has always been about the radical geek behind the radical chic, but with Goldmember, we lose sight of what the sexual revolution did for women—all the while having our noses rubbed doubly in the poo-poo/pee-pee excess of its masculine caricature. Don’t forget that somewhere off the Isle of Wight, the sexual progressive purity of the line that runs from Donovan to Gary Glitter to David Bowie popped its ugly turtlehead up in the States as Gene Simmons and Kiss. You just have hear the live version of Kiss’ classic ballad, “Beth,” when the crowd cheers as the singer announces that although he knows Beth is lonely he and the boys will be playing all night. Goldmember reminds me of so much 70s Americanized post-glam rock in this respect. “It’s, it’s, a ballroom blitz,” alright. “Smoking in the boy’s room” all the way. “The Boys are Back” or even “Killer Queen” … “and she thinks she’s the sensitive one” … (and the Beastie Boy generation is not excepted from this fey hair club for men here—just look at how Scott, the character played by Seth Green, ends up in Goldmember! Balding, with a scraggly comb-over!) But old new males need loving too, and Goldmember is so full of the horror of young Britney-tits gunning you down, replete with male pregnancies and man-to-man bonding with a phat-zilch quotient of genuine romance that it leaves you, well… uh, wondering, um, who was Destiny’s Child again? And how do you get to know one—or even have one?

Austin, you once had the secret code—the right way to acknowledge the fashion of your era passing away with a dignity and aplomb that retained what was fresh and charming about 70s youth subculture… and that’s exactly what Vanessa loved you for, fool. But now you are just another soft and privileged bloke—obsessed with his father and fighting against his brother—with increasingly very little to say about how the 70s tried to help men get past all that, in order to learn to speak to women in their own language. And that was groovy, baby. •

NOTES:

1. There seems to be homonymic pun here, intended to be “hilarious”—gold gets smelted when melted, but there are these fish that come ashore to mate, and there were these 50s necking/make-out rituals (like “sparking” in the 70s) where teenagers would claim to be out gathering grunion, but instead smelting themselves a bit... here grunion “smelt” refers to the fish sperm, but metonymically also for the whole event, “going to a grunion smelt.”